Safe and effective navigation of autonomous robots in hazardous environments

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The development of autonomous mobile machines to perform useful tasks in real work environments is currently being impeded by concerns over effectiveness, commercial viability and, above all, safety. This paper introduces a case study of a robotic excavator to explore a series of issues around system development, navigation in unstructured environments, autonomous decision making and changing the behaviour of autonomous machines to suit the prevailing demands of users. The adoption of the Real-Time Control Systems (RCS) architecture (Albus, 1991) is proposed as a universal framework for the development of intelligent systems. In addition it is explained how the use of Partially Observable Markov Decision Processes (POMDP) (Kaelbling et al., 1998) can form the basis of decision making in the face of uncertainty and how the technique can be effectively incorporated into the RCS architecture. Particular emphasis is placed on ensuring that the resulting behaviour is both task effective and adequately safe, and it is recognised that these two objectives may be in opposition and that the desired relative balance between them may change. The concept of an autonomous system having “values” is introduced through the use of utility theory. Limited simulation results of experiments are reported which demonstrate that these techniques can create intelligent systems capable of modifying their behaviour to exhibit either ‘psafety conscious’ or ‘task achieving’ personalities.

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