George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Professor researches swarm-robotics field

October 16, 2019   /   by Nanci Hellmich

“Robots are cool, but what is even more awesome is the math behind the robots. Robots are very good at following instructions, but the caveat is they only understand math.”

— Cameron Nowzari, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Cameron Nowzari served as the faculty advisor for several senior design teams doing swarm-robotics projects.

When Mason Engineering professor Cameron Nowzari was an undergraduate, all he wanted to do was design and build robots.

He was especially interested in the idea of swarm robotics, in which large teams of robots are designed to cooperatively complete tasks that a single device might not be able to do alone.

“At first, I was mostly interested in physically building the robots and getting them to work,” says Nowzari, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “But after countless frustrating nights spent alone tinkering with robots that didn’t work nine times out of 10, I discovered the beauty of mathematical control theory.”

Nowzari has been the faculty advisor for several senior design teams doing swarm-robotics projects, in which students learn that building a group of robots to perform specific tasks requires setting up and solving the correct math problems, he says.

“Robots are cool, but what is even more awesome is the math behind the robots. Robots are very good at following instructions, but the caveat is they only understand math.”

Nowzari’s research is focused on the design of efficient, distributed coordination strategies for complex network systems. “My work has applications in mobile sensors, autonomous robots, allocation of distributed resources, public health and epidemiology, network protection/security, marketing, and the internet of things.”

And as part of his research, Nowzari is working on deploying a swarm of 100-plus robotic blimps that can cooperatively complete tasks that would be difficult or impossible for a single agent. He recently received a grant from the U.S. Navy for his project, “Enabling Emergent Behaviors in Unmanned Robotic Swarm Systems.”

“Coordinating large numbers of autonomous agents to act as a cohesive swarm is challenging because each autonomous agent has a different view of the world,” he says. “There is no centralized computer or brain telling each agent what to do. Each individual robot must figure out for themselves exactly how they can contribute to the goal of the overall swarm.”

His research group develops and solves general classes of math problems that can be applied to many real-world issues.

“The robots are a sexy application that bring control theory to life,” he says. “The main challenge is figuring out precisely what math problems need to be solved to get the robots to act in the intended way.”

This story appeared in the fall issue of ECE News.

“Coordinating large numbers of autonomous agents to act as a cohesive swarm is challenging because each autonomous agent has a different view of the world."

— Cameron Nowzari, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

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