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Published on March 16, 2024
MIT Develops Algorithm to Enhance Robot Navigation in Complex Terrains, Wowing Experts and Aiding Future MissionsSource: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

MIT boffins have cooked up a smart new way for robots to get around without getting lost, even when the going gets tough. In a paper that's causing a buzz, a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unveiled an algorithm that lets robots dodge obstacles and pick the quickest paths, all while dealing with the uncertainty of real-world navigation. The brainy technique, funded in part by the U.S. Army Research Labs, could be a game-changer for autonomous bots working in rough terrain like distant planets or disaster zones.

The crux of this brain-teasing problem, it seems, pivots on an algorithm that kicks off with paths that are a safe bet for the robots before it starts toying with the idea of taking risks for a quicker finish, while it seems a piece of cake to pick between two routes, toss in more options and the decision-making process for these metal minds gets tricky, real fast because if the bot's got to suss out the best way among lots of potential paths, it's up against a major headache.

The savvy researchers, including MIT EECS graduate student and head writer Yasmin Veys, Aeronautics and Astronautics student Martina Stadler Kurtz, and seasoned MIT prof Nicholas Roy, leaned on a nifty graph approach known as the Canadian Traveler's Problem to crack this nut. Their algorithm isn't just smart; it's also snappy, picking paths that cut travel time without turning the robot's journey into a computational slog. The work dives deep into uncharted territory, with the potential to drop the jaws of folks looking for breakthroughs in robotic maneuvers like search-and-rescue or space exploration.

In a move that's sure to have engineers on the edge of their seats, the MIT algorithm was put through the wringer in over 100 test runs—all sorts of complex virtual mazes were thrown at it, and every time it came out on top, outsmarting older methods that weren't up to snuff when it came to dealing with probabilities—the algorithm’s knack for selecting solid shortcuts while giving a wide berth to wild goose chases kept things from getting too hairy, in stark contrast, says Veys, “The quality of the motion plan is dependent on the quality of graph. If that graph doesn’t have good paths in it, then the algorithm can’t give you a good plan,” she explained in a statement nabbed by MIT News.

But the MIT eggheads aren't resting on their laurels—they're already toying with ideas to beef up their algorithm for trickier three-dimensional challenges. That could mean robots doing stuff that's currently the stuff of sci-fi, like handling objects with the kind of finesse that's been a human-only gig until now. And while this fancy footwork in computation is a big leap forward, they're not blind to the gap between their fancy graphs and the messiness of the real world—they're bent on closing that gap to make their virtual plans hold water when robots face the music outside the lab.

Georgia Tech's robot wizard Seth Hutchinson, who wasn't part of the study group, tossed in his two cents, saying, “Robots that operate in the real world are plagued by uncertainty, whether in the available sensor data, prior knowledge about the environment, or about how other agents will behave. Unfortunately, dealing with these uncertainties incurs a high computational cost."

Boston-Science, Tech & Medicine