Robotics systems that 'sniff out' chemicals could lead to better Soldier, homeland defense protection

December 16, 2010

Dr. William Benard, clean room manager for the Army Research Laboratory, holding a microelectronic chip. Dr. William Benard, clean room manager for the Army Research Laboratory, holding a microelectronic chip.

Unprecedented research advances in robotic systems that can essentially sniff out chemical agents are underway as a result of collaborative research and funding from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.

ARL's robust, cross-directorate research effort with the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania is developing a portable micro gas chromatograph as a system on a chip no larger than a dime. The system, integrated onto a mobile robot capable of doing autonomous searches, acts like an "electronic nose" and is able to detect the presence of chemical agents, and specifically identify the threat.

This research, which involves expertise from ARL's weapons and materials engineers along with sensors and electronics experts, goes beyond conventional technologies that can detect chemical signatures associated with explosives, chemical and biological weapons.

Researchers hope that someday, technology developed from their research could become part of a system of very small robots designed to locate people, explosives, chemical/biological weapons and other things of interest to the military. It could also map a building or other structure like a cave, and communicate back to Soldiers before they enter a potential fatally hazardous environment.

Because the technology is so small, Army researchers say it could be integrated into Soldiers' uniforms or vehicles to advance the portable network of chemical and biological systems. It also has implications for early warning systems to support homeland defense by incorporating it into subways, commercial airlines, and buses.

ARL's work is focused on the Orion, the next-generation system that builds upon the gas chromatograph Mercury. The Mercury can provide the selectivity, sensitivity and rate of analysis at a small size, weight and low power, enabling tactical deployment. According to Army scientists, integrating this capability into a mobile, autonomous platform has never been done before.

"Gas sensing systems with this degree of sensitivity and specificity have typically been large, stationary monitoring devices," said William D. Nothwang, material scientist and ARL lead for the Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology-Microelectronics Center. "The chemical bouquet that the Soldier is exposed to is exceptionally crowded, and many of these chemical scents are potentially dangerous, toxic, or hazardous. Having the ability to detect these chemicals at very minute concentration amid a crowded background enables a new level of sensory awareness."

The gas chromatograph takes a gas sample, separates it into constituent components and identifies the chemicals present. The work is being directed as part of the University of Michigan's Microelectronics Center under ARL's Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology Collaborative Technology Agreement, which aims to perform enabling research and transition technology that will enhance the warfighter's tactical situational awareness in urban and complex terrain by enabling the autonomous operation of a collaborative ensemble of multifunctional, mobile microsystems.

The Mercury was developed by University of Michigan under the National Science Foundation Wireless Integrated Microsystems Engineering Research Center from 2000 to 2010. ARL is lending its expertise to the University of Michigan in the follow-on technology project, Orion, which is focused on taking the sensing capabilities of Mercury and scaling it to significantly smaller devices and applying the technology to Army-relevant applications.

Earlier this year, the collaborative team began prototyping an integration of the Mercury with the Scarab, which is a fully autonomous robot about the size of the Roomba, the iRobot vacuum cleaner. It was designed and developed by the University of Pennsylvania for use as a research tool investigating autonomous behavior.

"The University of Michigan integrated the Mercury gas sensing system onto a Scarab platform, and the University of Pennsylvania designed a series of autonomous behaviors to enable it to enter a room to search for explosives, identify its agent characteristics and communicate back the exact location and nature of the agent," explained Nothwang.

Nothwang added the Mercury and the Scarab are two incredibly complex systems. "Individually there were a number of technological obstacles that were overcome," he noted.

During the integration, challenges faced included the development of a common interface and communication protocols; designing an efficient search strategy based upon the sensor input; developing a control language and analysis software that could be completely autonomous from user inputs; and designing realistic bounds on the behavior that would result from the sensor output.


Last Update / Reviewed: December 16, 2010