NIMBUS receives $2 million to advance the role of robotics in climate change research

LINCOLN, Neb.Nebraska today) – The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Nebraska Intelligent Unmanned Systems Laboratory, known as NIMBUS, has received nearly $2 million in funding to advance its work on an integrated suite of robotics and drone technologies that will advance research in and around the state. the world

Two grants — one from the National Science Foundation and the other from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture — will allow NIMBUS researchers to push the boundaries of what robots can do and improve human understanding of how climate change affects agriculture. , aquatic and wildlife systems. Both projects offer graduate and undergraduate students the opportunity to study at the forefront of robotics research.

Brittany Duncan, the Ross McCollum Professor of Computing, is leading the three-year NSF project, a collaboration with Ken Tapp of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. A team that includes Husker researchers Justin Bradley and Carrick Detweiler is developing an integrated robotic system to collect ecosystem data in the Arctic tundra.

Over the past 20 years, climate change has made the Arctic more hospitable to North American bees. Their colonization has changed the environment and topography of the region—most importantly, their behavior is melting permafrost, which releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These changes have an important impact on the environment, but due to the remote terrain, the need for underwater measurements, and the mixed aquatic-terrestrial habitat of the crayfish, it is difficult to study.

To overcome these obstacles, the NIMBUS team is developing a system that uses drones, boats and underwater sensors to reach these hard-to-reach betting pools. Researchers have worked on all three types of drones before, but this is the first time they have been combined in this way.

“This environment is very difficult to pass. It is confusing. It’s very difficult for scientists to move from one sheep pool to another now,” Duncan said. “This will allow them to get to certain places that they can’t observe now and collect more information that they wouldn’t be able to get otherwise.”

Detweiler, Professor Susan J. Rosowski, a professor of computer science, is leading the mechanical design of the machines and will design them so that the drones will be able to hover over boats that fit about the size of a suitcase and will be equipped with surface and underwater cameras.

The ships, in turn, drop and pick up underwater sensors that can measure water features and take pictures of the rocks and their environment.

“We’re adapting the systems we have so they work together in a way we haven’t thought about before,” Duncan said. “They nest robot bowls.”

Bradley is developing an innovative approach to give robots the ability to make flexible and quick decisions. Based on the scientists’ input on what information and efficiency they seek from robots, he will create blueprints for robotic systems that will be updated as the situation changes on the ground.

“The main innovation is to be able to do this because the vehicle is in air or water,” said Bradley, an associate professor of computing. “The reason for this is that if the environment changes – and it changes all the time – then you want to adapt to it. This allows for a level of adaptability that we don’t generally see in robotic systems.”

Duncan’s interest is in better understanding how users learn and acquire knowledge about controlling robots, especially boats and underwater sensors. This helps him to develop better teaching and learning methods.

The team will test the system in increasingly challenging environments, starting with ponds and ponds in Nebraska, then outdoor environments with variable winds and temperatures before deploying the system in Alaska’s wooded ponds.

The three-year USDA project, led by Bradley, aims to unlock the potential of carbon sequestration, an approach to combating climate change that compensates farmers for staying on the land. Because they are stored in the part of the decomposed plant matter, the upper layers of the soil, or sequester, carbon. When farmers cultivate their land – breaking up the soil to produce new crops and control weeds – this carbon, a major greenhouse gas, is released into the environment.

To prevent this carbon cycle, there are programs to compensate farmers for agricultural waste. Individuals and companies that want to offset their carbon footprint can purchase carbon credits that benefit farmers who practice climate-smart agriculture.

But the main obstacle is the difficulty of determining the amount of carbon actually in the soil. In carbon markets, this process is called monitoring, reporting and verification, or MRV, and is currently done by dividing a plot of land into squares and sending a person to dig a hole in each square to collect a sample.

“It’s very laborious, time-consuming, expensive and potentially dangerous,” Bradley said. “It’s going to be a big deal to be able to reduce those gaps.”

The team, which includes Detweiler and Hasker scientists Trenton Franz and Francisco Munoz-Arriola, aims to automate the process using a three-pronged approach. First, they will use an unmanned aerial vehicle with sensors placed along the rope to measure the amount of air in the field, including measuring temperature, carbon dioxide, wind and other atmospheric characteristics. They will also develop an integrated drone system capable of collecting soil samples and deploying water sensors.

Then, combining data from connected drones and sampling drones, the team develops an intelligent sampling strategy that identifies locations that provide the most important data for MRV, which is key to scaling up the process and reducing unnecessary work. These algorithms are included in the widely used USDA software.

The main innovation is the ability to compare data from connected drones with data from sampling drones: If the two match, it indicates that the atmospheric measurements accurately reflect the water and organic carbon content of the soil.

“If you could connect data from the atmosphere with data about carbon in the soil, you could really improve the ability to take samples significantly, much easier than sending a human or even a drone into the field,” Bradley said. .

Atmospheric monitoring can be a valuable tool beyond agriculture and farming. It enables carbon monitoring in places where soil is inaccessible to researchers—for example, in the rainforests of Costa Rica, where NIMBUS is an NSF project with Texas A&M University and Iowa State University on carbon and water monitoring in natural environment funds. . It can also play a role in carbon monitoring in carbon monoculture farms where questions about carbon levels have been raised.

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