Abstractions, Analysis Techniques, and Synthesis of Scalable Control Strategies for Robot Swarms

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Mechanical Engineering & Applied Mechanics
swarm robotics
multi-robot systems
decentralized control
distributed control
stochastic systems
Acoustics, Dynamics, and Controls
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Tasks that require parallelism, redundancy, and adaptation to dynamic, possibly hazardous environments can potentially be performed very efficiently and robustly by a swarm robotic system. Such a system would consist of hundreds or thousands of anonymous, resource-constrained robots that operate autonomously, with little to no direct human supervision. The massive parallelism of a swarm would allow it to perform effectively in the event of robot failures, and the simplicity of individual robots facilitates a low unit cost. Key challenges in the development of swarm robotic systems include the accurate prediction of swarm behavior and the design of robot controllers that can be proven to produce a desired macroscopic outcome. The controllers should be scalable, meaning that they ensure system operation regardless of the swarm size. This thesis presents a comprehensive approach to modeling a swarm robotic system, analyzing its performance, and synthesizing scalable control policies that cause the populations of different swarm elements to evolve in a specified way that obeys time and efficiency constraints. The control policies are decentralized, computed a priori, implementable on robots with limited sensing and communication capabilities, and have theoretical guarantees on performance. To facilitate this framework of abstraction and top-down controller synthesis, the swarm is designed to emulate a system of chemically reacting molecules. The majority of this work considers well-mixed systems when there are interaction-dependent task transitions, with some modeling and analysis extensions to spatially inhomogeneous systems. The methodology is applied to the design of a swarm task allocation approach that does not rely on inter-robot communication, a reconfigurable manufacturing system, and a cooperative transport strategy for groups of robots. The third application incorporates observations from a novel experimental study of the mechanics of cooperative retrieval in Aphaenogaster cockerelli ants. The correctness of the abstractions and the correspondence of the evolution of the controlled system to the target behavior are validated with computer simulations. The investigated applications form the building blocks for a versatile swarm system with integrated capabilities that have performance guarantees.

Vijay Kumar
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