Intelligent design

Autonomous Robots Lab celebrates one year

In the Autonomous Robot Arena at the University of Nevada, Reno, graduate student Shehryar Khattak and Dr. Kostas Alexis conduct a test-flight with an aerial robot.

In the Autonomous Robot Arena at the University of Nevada, Reno, graduate student Shehryar Khattak and Dr. Kostas Alexis conduct a test-flight with an aerial robot.


For a schedule and more details on Robotics Day, visit:

In ancient Greece, a bronze giant named Talos, a gift from Zeus to Europa, is said to have kept watch over the island of Crete, traveling three times daily around its shores and hurling boulders at intruding ships. Talos, an early example of an automaton, or self-operating machine, bears little resemblance to the autonomous robots of today, which are more likely to take on the form of drones, self-driving cars or Roombas—but it does go to show that our desire for mechanized helpers is not so very new.

“It’s a very exciting field—people have envisioned these things for many, many years,” said Dr. Kostas Alexis, head of the Autonomous Robots Lab at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Alexis, who also hails from the Greek island of Crete, came to Reno in August of 2015 to work as an assistant professor for UNR’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering. Here, he began putting the pieces in place for the Autonomous Robots Lab, which is soon to celebrate a successful first year.

Robots at work

The lab, which is housed in UNR’s Applied Research Facility, consists of a large workspace with work tables and computers where students can construct and program robots, and an Autonomous Robots Arena where students can conduct test-flights. Here, Alexis and a team of eight post-docs, graduate students and undergraduate researchers are working to develop intelligent robotic systems that are capable of operating in unknown environments without direction from humans. For the most part, the lab members work with aerial robots, which they are programming to complete complex tasks such as 3-D mapping of unfamiliar areas under conditions of darkness.

Potential uses for this technology are many. Among other projects, the lab is working with researchers from the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University to develop robots that can be used to inspect nuclear facilities, such as those of the Manhattan Project, where radioactive waste would pose a threat to human inspectors.

“The nuclear project has insane challenges,” Alexis said. “The environments are completely unknown. We read documents of the 1960s to understand historically what we are expecting to see. It’s radioactive, so the robots are supposed to be affected also. We want to fuse robotic sensing with radiation sensing, which is the first time somebody is trying to do that.”

Members of the lab are also working to develop robots that can be used to map infrastructure such as tunnels and mines, detecting small changes—such as cracks in the walls—that might appear between visits.

An autonomous robot can be programmed to multiple levels of autonomy, Alexis explained. For a robot to complete advanced tasks like 3-D mapping, it first must be able to assess its surroundings—to determine where it is and what the environment looks like. Second, it must be able to navigate from one point to the next, controlling its own propellers and/or wheels without help from a human. Third, it must be able to make its own decisions about where to go and what to do in order to achieve a goal.

To map in conditions like mines and tunnels, robots must be able to operate in darkness, without the use of GPS technology for location (GPS is a satellite-based system, so not reliable in areas without a clear line-of-sight to the sky). Instead, the robots use a laser-based measurement system called Lidar and a set of two camera “eyes” to measure distances and capture images from the environment, creating detailed 3-D maps as they move.

As a robot explores a new environment, it selects its own path. But, how does the robot know where to begin?

“What we provide to the robot is a bounding box of the area we want it to explore,” Alexis said. “This bounding box becomes the mission of the robot. The robot knows that it has a certain workspace it’s supposed to operate in.”

Test flight

In the Autonomous Robots Arena, graduate student Shehryar Khattak removed his shoes, walked across a checkerboard floor of pink, gray and beige mattresses, and set a small UAV—a hexicopter, with six propellers—on top of a cardboard Home Depot box.

“He will fly it manually—this is a prototype,” said Alexis.

Stepping back, Khattak flicked a switch on his remote-control, and this not-so-autonomous robot whirred to life with a roaring buzz. It lifted into the air and flew toward a moveable cardboard wall of taped-together boxes, completing a wide circle before descending back down to the floor of mattresses.

The arena, Alexis explained, is used as a testing-ground for the lab’s aerial robots. Ten infrared cameras track the positions of the robots with sub-millimeter and sub-degree accuracy, allowing researchers to test the ability of each robot to self-locate. Moveable barriers, made up of cardboard boxes, can be rearranged to create new environments for the robots to explore.

All over the room, Star Wars and NASA posters hang on the walls.

“They’re part of the motivation,” said Alexis.

The posters also serve as landmarks for the robots as they explore the controlled environment of the arena. In later tests, they move on to more challenging environments, such as a concrete tunnel that runs under McCarran Boulevard.

“The arena environment is easier, for example, than the tunnel,” Alexis said. “The tunnel is without a lot of features. Here, it’s in a way much easier compared to real life. It’s good for initial testing, and then we go outside and do more fancy testing.”

The future of robots

There is some level of public distrust when it comes to robots, said Alexis.

“If you go to modern literature, people always have this question, are the robots going to destroy us, or are the robots going to help us?” he said. “Now that it’s evident that robots will become a reality, people ask, ’Are the robots going to get our positions? Are we going to still be employed?’ It’s a very exciting field, not only the technical aspects, but also the social implications.”

Alexis is interested in exploring new ways to use robots, including collaborations and partnerships with those in other fields. He has spoken at a search and rescue symposium about potential uses for UAVs in search and rescue operations and is working with UNR on an autonomous transportation initiative. Last year, his lab partnered with Dr. Sudeep Chandra from the Department of Biology to design a marine robot with an underwater camera, which they used to search for algae beds in Lake Tahoe.

When society is ready, Alexis hopes that all will benefit from the work of robots.

“Hopefully we’re going to work less, and have the robots do most of the work,” he said.

Open house

On March 31, the Autonomous Robots Lab will celebrate its successful first year with Robotics Day, an open house featuring presentations and live demos. Presentations are aimed at students and those with some robotics knowledge, but the public may enjoy seeing the live robot demo from noon-1:30pm in the Autonomous Robots Arena and a series of talks held in the Knowledge Center from 2-4 p.m.