Despite joining the Aerospace Department faculty as an Assistant Professor just two years ago, Dr. Dimitra Panagou has already made waves in the Michigan research community. Her work with autonomous, multi-robotic systems has garnered her selection into NASA’s prestigious Early Career Faculty Program. Through this program, she will be adding a new dimension to Michigan Aerospace’s space technology research by investigating space applications of control theory.
In the modern era of self-driving cars and unmanned aerial drones, autonomous systems have gained increasing public visibility and centrality to various industries. For Dr. Panagou, this diversity in possible applications spurred her initial involvement in the field:
“What I find fascinating about autonomous multi-agent (multi-vehicle, multi-robot) systems is that they are very challenging when it comes to the mathematical aspects of their design and analysis, while at the same time they find application in numerous fields, from aerospace and automotive, to robotics and networks.”
Indeed, Dr. Panagou’s guidance, control and navigation (GNC) research has broad reaches, spanning marine, ground and aerial systems. Now, she will be shifting her focus to a new environment: space. In response to a NASA Early Career Faculty solicitation, Dr. Panagou will develop algorithms to enable astronaut-robot collaboration. She notes:
“When I got [the NASA solicitation], my first thought was: ‘we know how to control robots down on Earth, why not try to control them up in space?’ The first place to try to implement these kinds of [algorithms] would be the International Space Station because small robot prototypes already exist up there. Our [AstroNet] proposal is to make these robots more efficient by designing their GNC software to assist astronauts during EVAs [extra-vehicular activities].”
Dr. Panagou will leverage the SPHERES science platform on the ISS to test-drive her control algorithms. SPHERES – which consists of a swarm three, volleyball-sized satellites – has enabled researchers to demonstrate experimental hardware and software in zero-G since its launch in 2006. On the right, Astronaut Scott Kelly is pictured interacting with these satellites aboard the ISS. Through her research, Dr. Panagou hopes to adapt the SPHERES robots to perceive and execute astronaut commands during space walks.
However, before her software can be implemented in space, it must be refined through terrestrial trials:
“Our first plan is to run simulations on space simulators that are at NASA. [At Michigan], we have a multi-unmanned aerial vehicle test bed [shown below] available. Using this test bed, we can use a fleet of 6-7 quad-rotors with on-board cameras to simulate autonomous detection of and response to human gestures. Though the flight conditions wouldn’t be the exact same as those in space, using quad-rotors would give us a good sense of our swarming motions and responsiveness.”
To Dr. Panagou, this investigation is not only a “very exciting” progression of her research; it is an invaluable opportunity for her students. Her group, the Distributed Aerospace Systems and Control Laboratory, is currently comprised of 3 Ph.D., 4 Masters and 2 undergraduate students. She reflects:
“I am really thrilled to give my students the opportunity to work with space applications of control theory. One of my [Ph.D.] students in particular has been passionate about space exploration for his entire life. I am so happy to be able to give him the chance to work on something that he has been dreaming of for so long.”