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West Virginia U Gathering 'Swarm' of Undergrads for Collaborative Robotics Research

"Swarm" is the theme of a new initiative at West Virginia University, which will run a robotics research experience for undergraduates in the region. Each summer for the next three years, eight undergraduate students — mostly from Appalachia — will be selected to participate in robotics research using real-world problems. Participants will receive training, mentoring and support to help them become independent researchers. They'll also receive a stipend, lodging and coverage for meal and travel expenses.

The project itself will use the "spirit of swarm intelligence," as a National Science Foundation grant abstract explained, encouraging the students to have frequent interactions among themselves, "to achieve something that might not otherwise be achievable by the individuals alone."

The research itself also follows the swarm theme; it will focus on allowing a single individual to manage a "large robot swarm" for achieving a specific goal, such as search and rescue, monitoring of the environment or robotic mining or construction.

Under the guidance of Yu Gu, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the university, students will pursue research in three areas:

  • First, they'll develop a "swarm testing environment" with "50 custom-designed robots";
  • Next, they'll investigate interaction rules among the robots that result in "the emergence of desirable robot swarm behaviors"; and
  • Finally, they'll invent and demonstrate "human-swarm interaction modes" in which the robot swarm self-organizes without direct commands or controls.

"Through these efforts, the students will have the opportunity to work as a team in performing both fundamental research and hands-on experiments," Gu said, in a university article.

The program is being funded by a $287,000 NSF award under the "Research Experiences for Undergraduates" program. The purpose of REU is to give undergrads meaningful roles in ongoing research.

Gu and his team have been laying the groundwork for the effort for a while. Last summer, they ran a pilot project funded by the university's Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, in which they reached out to community colleges and other institutions in the region to elicit contacts in the area of robotics and to share their plans for setting up an REU site.

The team is hoping to recruit students from numerous regional institutions, including Fairmont State University, Waynesburg University and West Virginia Wesleyan College. Applicants will have to submit statements of interest, relevant extracurricular activities and faculty recommendation letters. An applicant review panel, with faculty and graduate students as well as a telepresence robot, will conduct short interviews to gauge students' fit for the program.

Applications are due April 12.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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