Robots to the rescue

A team of University of New Brunswick researchers – and their robots – are leading the way in the field of unmanned vehicles.

In the spring, the team of engineering students and faculty, known as COBRA (COllaboration Based Robotics and Automation) won first prize in a national robotics competition.

The Unmanned Systems Canada 2011 Student Competition was held in Valcartier, Que., last May.

Participating teams in the contest had to create a ground robot that could navigate through a maze while detecting targets along the way. 

“It was rewarding to see our hard work be recognized on a national level,” said Dr. Howard Li, the UNB faculty member in charge of COBRA.

Smart Robots

Six UNB students who are a part of COBRA traveled to Quebec for the competition: Liam Paull, PhD candidate; Sajad Saeedi, PhD candidate; Carl Thibault, PhD candidate; Arnaldo Sepulveda, Master’s candidate; Mostafa Shad, PhD candidate; and Tyler Edwards, Master’s candidate.

Robots for everyday life

  • aerial photography using flying robots
  • agriculture, by using UAVs to spray crops
  • using UAVs to improve lifeguard and coastguard operations
  • customs and border security
  • conservation by using robots to monitor animals, birds, and forests
  • electricity companies, who can inspect power lines, nuclear power plants, wind turbines, and other facilities using robots
  • fire services
  • fisheries surveillance and protection
  • gas and oil supply companies, who can use robots to inspect, maintain, and guard pipelines
  • information services, who can use UAVs to relay signals when cell phone towers are not available
  • meteorological services, who can use UAVs to carry weather stations
  • police authorities, who can use robots to monitor public events and riot control
  • landmine detection and destruction

Li said that the team put their hearts and souls into the competition, where they successfully competed against larger universities. 

“We’re a small team from a small university, but because we have the passion we put our name out there, we were successful.” 

 The competition consisted of two parts: a written proposal that was judged on the quality of presentation and originality of the idea and then the implementation of the design on a robot, shown through the demonstration.  UNB’s COBRA won first place in both categories. 

The team put sensors into their robot and used a computer-mapping program to build a map of the environment that the robot then had to navigate in the real world.

Edwards said that seeing the results of his work is the most rewarding part of the job for him.

“Having a robot do something completely on its own while I just sit back, relax, and watch is so fascinating,” he said. 

Life-changing technology

Both Li and Edwards said that robots are going to become a lot more common in the future, and humans will eventually become even more reliant on them.

“Technology is constantly being developed and our world is moving forward,” Li said.  “In 20 to 30 years, we’ll have cars that will drive themselves and eventually we won’t need drivers.

“In 50 to 100 years, we will totally rely on robots and without a robot, we will probably not be able to do house chores on our own,” he joked.

But robots, Li said, are about more than vacuuming floors in homes. 

Li used forest fires as an example of how a robot will save lives. 

“As we know, firefighting is a dangerous task.  We need to use robots to monitor the fire and we also want the robots to serve as firefighters instead of risking the lives of people,” he said.  “And also, it is cheaper to use robots – they don’t ask for a raise and they don’t ask for a promotion.” 

Edwards added that unmanned air vehicles (UAV) would also be beneficial to develop for this task. 

“In forest fires, we can send out a UAV to survey the area and send supplies to anyone who is trapped,” he said. 

The team is currently researching and developing ground, air, and underwater unmanned vehicles.  Their research has already gotten attention from many sources, including Defense Research and Development Canada, with whom they are currently working on a project with, and Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. 

Li said that the projects that the group is working on are one way that UNB is moving into the future.

“I am extremely excited about the research that we are doing here,” he said.  “When I was a kid, it was my dream to build a robot that can move by itself.”  

Li has done just that, and his work may help to save the planet: the robots that COBRA is developing are green.  Robots require less energy than aircrafts and vehicles that are manually controlled.

“If we have to send pilots into the air, we will have to build them seats, cockpits, storage rooms and washrooms for them,” Li explained.  “The majority of the fuel is used to lift the supplies for human beings.  A flying robot doesn’t need any of those things and will produce less waste.

“We need to go green.  That is why we need robots.” 

He added that the possibilities for the group are endless, but wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work from the group.

“When I joined UNB, I started looking for talented people who were interested in robotics,” he said. 

“I was lucky to find such a dedicated and passionate team.  Everyone has talent in different areas, so we have key factors to make us successful and that makes us able to achieve what we want.”  

Contributed by Alanah Duffy, UNB Communications & Marketing. This story made possible thanks to the support of the UNB Associated Alumni.