UAVs and Satellites are the among the most natural applications for advanced autonomy, as the distance at which they operate from the control centers is such that the operators are often out of reach, optically and electronically. In space, the situation is further aggravated as the time required for signals to travel from transmitter to receiver can be many seconds, and for interplanetary missions, even minutes. Thus, decisions have to be made autonomously. One special research area is study of groups of satellites that perform a common function and need submillimeter accuracy, at distances of many kilometers.Aerial vehicles are perhaps the best known existing autonomous systems. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have been active in the Israeli military for the last 40 years, first as drones, but advancing to include a variety of defense, security, and environmental applications. Today's UAVs include giants that use solar energy to remain in the upper atmosphere for weeks on end, and micro-vehicles that weigh just several grams. Activities in this area include research and development of new types of micro-UAV configurations such as wing-flapping, birdlike forms, and cyclogyros, which can only work at small sizes, as well as interactions of swarms of flying vehicles.
The concept driving the Technion Autonomous Systems Program is to develop a research matrix with multidisciplinary teams that will define and develop principles and applications enabling autonomous solutions in various areas of human endeavor. The advantage of the Program framework is that individual scientists from the different disciplines will be able to participate in several teams, interacting with others in joint work, group meetings, and seminars, thus gaining effectiveness from a fully multidisciplinary endeavor. The first five major Divisions are the following:
For ground vehicles, terrain is everything-it is a resource that provides shelter and hiding spots, but it is also an obstacle course. Ground vehicles must take into account a three-dimensional environment, which adds a great deal of complexity to the mapping and path-planning programs needed to enable the vehicles to avoid hindrances such as buildings, trees, and hills. Autonomous ground vehicles depend on accurate knowledge such as maps and aerial photographs, in combination with new information collected by their sensors on the ground, in order to successfully carry out their missions.
Autonomous systems in medical applications are making fundamental changes in health care, and the Technion is the key contributor in this progress. For example, new technologies have enabled the development of tiny instruments which can be inserted into the body and either be guided by physicians or move on their own. Some of these instruments are able to reach areas in the body that were previously inaccessible by traditional endoscopes. The development of even smaller medical robots means that diagnoses and treatments could be made and applied using far smaller incisions and thus, recovery will be easier and quicker.
More and more applications are being developed to guide doctors’ hands and make surgeries and other treatments safer and more effective. Tele-surgery is already being performed with the help of monitors and equipment which can interact in real time. For example, over 60% of urological and gynecological operations are done by remote-mode-operated robots. Integrating a wide array of technologies and implementing them safely depends on researchers with extensive medical knowledge, in addition to researchers with first-rate computer and biomedical engineering skills. The Technion is uniquely capable to face this challenge due to the close ties between its Medical school, the Department of Biomedical Engineering and other researchers in science and engineering departments.
Quick and accurate diagnoses can make the difference between life and death, and improvements in medical imaging translate directly into lives saved and suffering eased. The more clearly physicians could see inside the body, the more accurate their diagnoses would be and the more effective their treatments. Medical imaging is improving rapidly, and new techniques and tools are being integrated with these images, so as to enable physicians to see and operate both on a micro level and from a distance. This requires overcoming interferences between medical instruments and imaging systems and integrating the many partial, and often distorted, images into a coherent picture. It is a significant data processing challenge which must be met, in order to create the next generation of medical robots.
Technion researchers are developing medical robots that can move independently within the patient’s body for diagnostic and treatment purposes. Tiny medical robots which move within the body must recognize and identify healthy or abnormal structures and decide on the relevant procedure, perhaps coordinating actions with each other. The challenges involved in designing and developing the cameras and other sensors for these instruments are monumental. Not only must the sensors be extremely small, they must be very accurate, able to withstand the particular conditions of their environment (the human body), to communicate with other instruments and with physicians and, sometimes, to make independent decisions on how to proceed. If multiple robots are used, they will need to have the ability to communicate with one another. The Technion's Autonomous System Program will put the necessary tools in the hands of those best suitable to advance this vital project, which will improve health care world-wide.
To address the challenges in medicine in the 21st century, we have defined three main research areas:
- Autonomous Surgical Intervention – to improve safety and enhance standard-of-care.
- Enhanced Autonomous Organs – to restore organs to full function
- Autonomous Health- Awareness Environments – to conceive, plan, design and test living environments which foster a healthier life style.
The Autonomous Medical Systems Division has the unique advantage of cooperating with a new effort by the Rambam Health Care Campus, the largest and most advanced hospital complex in northern Israel, which is promoting a future Robotics Operating Theater. The Autonomous Medical System Division will be cooperating with the Future Robotics Operating Theater (FROT).
Israel's long border on the Mediterranean Sea makes autonomous marine vehicles a necessity. The sea is a source of economic and research opportunities, but it is vital to guard against hostile intruders. Autonomous marine and submarine vehicles are already helping in tasks ranging from marine research and ecological monitoring to surveying and surveillance. These applications can be extended to actual interdiction missions, decoys against enemy missiles (remember, for example, that an Israeli vessel was almost sunk by an Iranian missile off the coast of Beirut in 2006).
Unmanned marine vehicles could be used to search for downed aircraft, sinking ships, and valuable minerals; to inspect underwater cables; and to monitor marine life, temperatures, salinity, and currents. Advanced autonomous deep sea vessels can enable search-and-rescue operations in deep waters without endangering additional personnel. They could also carry out mine sweeping operations and defense applications.
Marine vehicles face special navigation and communication challenges. Power sources, sensors, and data collection, storage, and transmission device must be sealed against water leakage, able to withstand deep sea pressure, and able to function for long periods underwater. Furthermore, groups of autonomous ground or marine vehicles must be able to operate as a team. Individual vehicles can be equipped with different capabilities and work together to complete the mission plan, each contributing according to its particular specifications. Because vehicles may periodically lose contact with one another in difficult conditions, it is necessary to develop robust communication and distributed systems applications.