Wednesday, November 19, 2008

NIST Robot Testing Methods

The robots at Disaster City® this week came to be tested – and tested they were. The following is a list of the testing the robots were subjected to. Some robots are specialized in function and do not perform all the tests.

The tests are all in various stages of being standardized and the test methods are being evaluated as much – if not more – than the robots themselves.

“We are getting robot data to standardize the tests,” said Adam Jacoff, National Institute of Standards and Technology Robotics Research Engineer. “We have to make sure the tests are fair, repeatable and easily reproduced to proliferate widely. The process involves building a consensus around the test methods with robot developers, emergency responders and test administrators.”

Communication testing

Communications? Think about it, if you can’t tell the robot what to do, how is it going to do it?

“Your system is only as good as your radio link,” said Patrick Goode with Remotec Northrup Grumman. “If you can only operate a 100 meters away, how much utility does that really give a first responder? It’s good to see that NIST is including these types of tests in this evaluation.”

The communication tests are designed to test radio signals and the ability to function at varying distances. It is divided into two parts: line-of-sight testing and non-line-of-sight testing.

Line-of-sight testing: Every 100 meters, operators must use the robot to read a visual chart and do a specific task. The longest distance on the course is 1,100 meters away from the operator.

This year, a new test was added to communication testing – Non-line-of-sight sight testing. At 500 meters from the operator, cargo containers are stacked three high by two wide. The idea is to determine if a robot can function when its radio signal does not have a direct line of sight. Once behind the containers, operators must get the robot to read a visual chart and do specific tasks.

“It is good to have a non-partial, third-party to allow us to test our radio equipment,” Goode said. “In the old days it was all fiber optic reels because there was no radio technology to reach more than 200 meters. The technology we have now is fairly recent – within the last couple of years. Being allowed to test out here lets the first responders know this technology is real and the capability is out there.”

Bottom line - the farther the responder can work from a hazardous situation the better.

Goode added, “Typically, in hazardous types of environments, you want as much distance between the user of the robot and the scenario as possible.”

Aquatic testing

This is the second year NIST has included underwater testing for submersible robots. These tiny submarines can be used in unsafe or unstable underwater environments to protect rescue and recovery workers.

The underwater robots are also equipped with lights and cameras, much like their on-land brothers and sisters. Check out the following video clip taken from a submersible robot.

Other test methods

These tests are all done remotely without being able to see the robot actually do the test. Operators must rely on the robots cameras and sensors to complete the operation.

Mobility: Tests the maneuverability of the robots. Robots must climb stairs and steep angles, traverse gaps and crawl through various obstacles.

Manipulation: Various test methods test how robots can perform tasks like picking up objects and other dexterity exercises.

Human/System Interactions: How easy are the robots to use to completely search an unknown environment? In this case, it’s a random maze with rolling and pitching floors.

Cache Packaging, Weight, Setup, Tools: Most basic test. Used to determine size, weight, packaging, tools needed, etc.

Endurance: Tests measure the operator and robots ability to negotiate various types of terrain within a fixed course. The more times the course can be negotiated in succession, the more endurance. There is even a robot with fuel cell technology currently being tested.

Visual Acuity: How well can the robot “see.” Tests measure field of view, pan, tilt, illumination, and clarity of robot cameras. On uneven terrain, can the robot point to the object in question.

Mapping: Lasers are mounted on robots to make 2-D and 3-D maps of search areas. Currently, experiments are ongoing to quantify the value of searching a mapped area versus searching an unknown environment. The photo to the left is an example of a map generated by a laser mounted on a robot.

Towing: Towing cargo by dragging and rolling. Examples: To haul lumber down range for shoring and hauling victims on litters or skids.

Decontamination: Robots must be able to be washed with a pressure washer. The robot is sprinkled with a specialized powder. After washing, a black light is passed over the robot to determine if it is truly clean.

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