Long-duration robot autonomy: From control algorithms to robot design
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The transition that robots are experiencing from controlled and often static working environments to unstructured and dynamic settings is unveiling the potential fragility of the design and control techniques employed to build and program them, respectively. A paramount of example of a discipline that, by construction, deals with robots operating under unknown and ever-changing conditions is long-duration robot autonomy. In fact, during long-term deployments, robots will find themselves in environmental scenarios which were not planned and accounted for during the design phase. These operating conditions offer a variety of challenges which are not encountered in any other discipline of robotics. This thesis presents control-theoretic techniques and mechanical design principles to be employed while conceiving, building, and programming robotic systems meant to remain operational over sustained amounts of time. Long-duration autonomy is studied and analyzed from two different, yet complementary, perspectives: control algorithms and robot design. In the context of the former, the persistification of robotic tasks is presented. This consists of an optimization-based control framework which allows robots to remain operational over time horizons that are much longer than the ones which would be allowed by the limited resources of energy with which they can ever be equipped. As regards the mechanical design aspect of long-duration robot autonomy, in the second part of this thesis, the SlothBot, a slow-paced solar-powered wire-traversing robot, is presented. This robot embodies the design principles required by an autonomous robotic system 1in order to remain functional for truly long periods of time, including energy efficiency, design simplicity, and fail-safeness. To conclude, the development of a robotic platform which stands at the intersection of design and control for long-duration autonomy is described. A class of vibration-driven robots, the brushbots, are analyzed both from a mechanical design perspective, and in terms of interaction control capabilities with the environment in which they are deployed.