Truly Autonomous Systems is Goal of $7.5 Million Project

Drastic wing failure, as shown in the above illustration, would probably result in irreparable damage to an unmanned aerial vehicle. Learning must start and finish within a single execution. But, the newly proposed vehicle would have more than just sparse data at its disposal. Physical information about its immediate environment could also be used as it learns “on the fly.” Photo courtesy of Cockrell School of Engineering.

Thanks to a $7.5 million Department of Defense grant, ICES researchers are planning for a future when unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have the ability to fly themselves in emergency situations.

An ICES research team of engineers and mathematicians has been selected by the DOD to lead a $7.5 million Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) project aimed at developing artificial intelligence for UAVs.

While almost all artificial intelligence, or AI, technology is reliant on the availability of massive amounts of data, the ICES team and collaborators at have been charged with the task of developing machines that can learn “on the fly” in situations where there is little data to inform them. The interdisciplinary team hopes their combined efforts will assist the Department of Defense in the development of truly autonomous systems that can not only operate in challenging environments but also survive disruptions or recognize when they are fatal.

When faced with a tough decision and lacking the requisite understanding or experience to make an informed choice, human beings often rely on intuition, gut feeling or even figuring things out in the moment. This decision-making trait does not smoothly exist in current machine learning technology.

The MURI research team, therefore, faces some big challenges. But if they can provide new insights and technology, the implications for machine learning could be wide-reaching, applicable to everything from driverless car safety to unmanned aerial vehicles in emergency situations.

Working with the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the team is being guided by ICES Professors Ufuk Topcu, an assistant professor in Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, and Rachel Ward, associate professor in mathematics. Arie Israel, an assistant professor of mathematics also serves as a principle investigator on the project. As a includes researchers from Northeastern University and Princeton University, such as pioneering mathematician Charles Fefferman.

“Our approach to this unprecedented challenge embraces the fact that developing truly autonomous systems — in particular, control-oriented learning on the fly — is beyond the reach of any single discipline,” Topcu said.

Topcu is bringing together engineers, scientists and mathematicians to tackle analysis, control theory, dynamical systems, learning theory, optimization, formal methods and other essential areas related to machine learning and AI.

Ward and Israel concur they have their work cut out for them.

“The problems I’ve studied in the past involve situations where you have very limited or sparse data — and a wide range of uncertainty. So, it’s about discovering that uncertainty and fully leveraging the data available in order to make as many deductions as possible,” Israel said. “But the algorithms I develop aren’t dynamic. They take a long time to process data and are inefficient. This is an exciting challenge.”

Ward, on the other hand, specializes in machine learning and optimization and currently works with Facebook in this area.

“In particular, I look at how to make very efficient, fast algorithms based on a lot of data,” she said. “I look forward to applying my experience to this project.”

The two will work together with the rest of the research team to develop efficient algorithms using limited data.

Topcu will incorporate his expertise in formal methods, learning and control of autonomous systems by providing insight into how a machine deciphers the physical environment around it.

“The algorithms we develop will obey and leverage the laws of physics and contextual knowledge, adapt to unforeseen changes in the system and its environment and establish verifiable guarantees with respect to high-level safety and performance specifications,” he said. “On-the-fly learning can be realized only by an integrative approach — precisely what we propose to develop.”

The team’s ultimate objective is to develop advanced autonomous systems that will help reduce the number of UAVs lost in emergency situations caused by unforeseen system failures or damage.

This UT-led project is one of 24 total MURI awards given by the Department of Defense in 2018. The grants, which total $169 million over the next five years, have been awarded to academic institutions to perform multidisciplinary basic research.

The Department of Defense will issue 24 awards totaling $169 million to academic institutions to perform multidisciplinary basic research, a six million dollar increase above last year’s total. The awards are for up to a five year period, subject to satisfactory research progress and the availability of funds.

The Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative program, or MURI, supports research by funding teams of investigators that include more than one traditional science and engineering discipline in order to accelerate the research progress,” said Dale Ormond, Principal Director for Research, in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. According to Ormond, most of the program’s efforts involve researchers from multiple academic institutions and academic departments. “MURI awards also support the education and training of graduate students in cutting-edge research areas, Ormond stated.

The highly competitive MURI program complements other DoD basic research initiatives that support traditional, three year, single-investigator university research grants. By supporting multidisciplinary teams with larger, longer awards in carefully chosen and relevant research topics, DoD and the Services enhance the potential for significant and sustained advancement of research in critical areas of importance to National Security and the DoD’s mission.

The Army Research Office, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the Office of Naval Research solicited proposals in 24 topic areas important to the DoD and the Services. In response to the initial solicitation the department received 436 white papers. After two rounds of merit-based reviews, a panel of DoD scientists and experts narrowed the proposals to 100 from which the 24 final awards were selected. Based on the proposals selected in the competition, 64 U.S. academic institutions are expected to participate in the 2018 MURI program. In addition, this year, for the first time, Australia has funded research teams to work together with two U.S. MURI teams. This cooperation is in line with the Secretary of Defense’s direction to strengthen our alliances, and collaborate whenever and wherever possible.

Over the past 30 years, DoD’s MURI program resulted in significant capabilities for our military forces and opened up entirely new lines of research. Notable examples include foundations in the fabrication of nanoscale and microscale structures by the processes of self-assembled materials (SAM) and microcontact printing, the integration of vision algorithms with sensors to create low-power, low-latency, compact adaptive vision systems, and advances in fully optical data control and switching. These and other important technological advances from the MURI program have impact on current and future military capabilities.

Posted: April 26, 2018