Ramezani Receives NSF CAREER Award To Design Robots To Navigate Crawlspaces

Alireza Ramezani

ECE Assistant Professor Alireza Ramezani was awarded a $681,000 NSF CAREER Award for “Dynamic Locomotion with Plasticity for Remote Sensing in Crawlspaces.” The research will focus on developing an autonomous robotic device that mimics bird and bat movement to effectively move through tight crawl spaces while gathering data through sensors.

Alireza Ramezani, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, received a $681,000 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation for “Dynamic Locomotion with Plasticity for Remote Sensing in Crawlspaces,” research intended to advance robot movement in small spaces.

The goal is to develop a one-foot-tall autonomous robot weighing about two pounds that mimics movements of bats and birds and can traverse confined crawlspaces, adjusting its movement from walking to jumping or flying as needed, while gathering data through sensing equipment. Crawlspaces can include caves, shafts, ducts, ballast tanks, pipes, and grain elevators.

“You can think of it like when a bird sees an obstacle and jumps over it,” Ramezani says. “People don’t pay attention to how birds navigate and interact with the ground, but they are amazing.”

Ramezani anticipates the device will be used in a variety of circumstances, including biodiversity and geological processes, environmental explorations for natural resources and mineral deposits, and exploration of archaeological or cultural artifacts.

Current robotic technology designed for crawlspaces—typically a snake- or insect-styled device—can work in tight spaces, but they are not fast and cannot autonomously accomplish tasks, says Ramezani. The new robot technology will rely on AI algorithms that will deploy real-time decision making to change locomotion modes, resulting in a faster and more agile device.

“We want to encode the ability to perceive the environmental information so it can make a high- level decision,” Ramezani adds.

As part of the research to design small robots for crawlspaces, three key challenges will be addressed: movement, stability, and modes of locomotion.

Movement. By introducing new actuation design paradigms specifically for small robots, the research will enable motion control performance comparable to large robots, which is critical for fast and precise foot placement.

Stability. Instability can occur from multi-rotor air jets near crawlspace surfaces. By developing underlying models and nonlinear controllers based on the integration of both posture manipulation and thrust vectoring, which manipulates the direction of the thrust, flight immobilization will be prevented.

Modes of locomotion. To support several modes of locomotion in crawlspaces, the research will co-design robots and controls through generative design methods to accommodate conflicting requirements imposed by many locomotion modes.

Ramezani’s proposed design has garnered support from various entities, including the Northeastern STEM Office, Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things, LEOPOLD Art Gallery, German Space Agency (DLR), Ford Motors, DHL, Mass Robotics, and Amazon Robotics. These organizations are involved in shaping a project advisory board that spans activities ranging from STEM education to commercialization.

His work draws from examples in nature as his past robotics breakthroughs have done. His previous research on autonomous flying robots and drones that mimic the properties of bat and bird locomotion has been featured twice as cover articles in Science Robotics in 2017 and 2021. In 2022, Ramezani received a $1 million NSF (Foundational Research in Robotics) grant in collaboration with Lawson Wong, assistant professor at Khoury College, and the University of California-Berkeley for a morphing arial robotic device to be used in sewer systems.

Last year, Ramezani and his team of researchers debuted the multi-modal mobility morphobot (M4), a shape-shifting robot with eight modes of mobility. It has the capability of seamlessly transitioning between many movements like crawling, flying, walking, and rolling. The robot is designed for multiple applications, from space exploration to package delivery. The design led to a $3M global strategic partnership between Northeastern, Caltech, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs, and Technology Innovation Institute in Abu Dhabi.

Additionally, the work was published in Nature Communications and ranked in 99th percentile (ranked 842nd) among 192,311 tracked articles of a similar age in all journals and 98th percentile (ranked 23rd) among 1,142 tracked articles of a similar age in Nature. This work was featured in over 60 news outlets including IEEE Spectrum, Independent, Verge, ABC News, and Space.com.

Ramezani has also committed to help increase the representation of women in robotics through this most recent grant ensure by a woman student from the College of Engineering’s Research Engineering for Undergraduates (REU)-Pathways program is placed in his robotics lab each summer. He also plans to help raise awareness of STEM and engineering among students in Grade 6 at schools in the Greater Boston by offering engaging activities and competitions focusing on kinetic sculptures. By fostering a fun and artistic environment, Ramezani hopes to increase the likelihood that young female students will pursue a STEM path.


Abstract Source: NSF


Related Faculty: Alireza Ramezani

Related Departments:Electrical & Computer Engineering