Today’s robots can vacuum floors, build cars and even per­form surgery. While not quite on the intel­li­gence level of the Jet­sons’ robot maid, Rosie, they are rather smart. Nonethe­less, modern robots struggle to handle the common problem of uncer­tainty in the envi­ron­ment: Move a wrench from a Ford robot’s tool tray, for example, and you risk ruining the whole car. Get a new rug with tas­sels and your Roomba may as well go back in the closet with the broom.

Marsette Vona, an assis­tant pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence at North­eastern, wants to change all that. Backed by a five-​​year National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion (NSF) CAREER Award, Vona plans to merge the two areas of research he has pur­sued throughout his aca­d­emic career: 3-​​D per­cep­tion and com­pliant contact.

The goal, he said, is to develop soft­ware through which a robot can acquire 3-​​D infor­ma­tion about its sur­round­ings, process the data and then approach the envi­ron­ment with a cer­tain amount of “intelligence.”

As a grad­uate stu­dent at the MIT Media Lab, Vona designed a climbing robot that could grab onto uneven sur­faces and adjust its grip based on the dynamics of its ini­tial con­tact. “It’s helpful for a robot to be ‘soft’— to adjust appro­pri­ately based on response,” Vona explained. “Humans do it intrinsically.”

But Vona’s climbing robot and more recent com­pliant machines are “blind.” In another project, Vona uses cam­eras to give robots “sight.”

Ear­lier iter­a­tions of this tech­nique use 2-​​D cam­eras to extract infor­ma­tion about the sur­round­ings. Using the Microsoft Kin­nect 3-​​D camera, how­ever, Vona’s team can ana­lyze the geom­etry of an envi­ron­ment with the hope of one day cou­pling that infor­ma­tion with com­pliant con­tact. By rec­og­nizing uneven ter­rain, for example, robots may soon be able to make a deci­sion about how to approach and touch that surface.

Vona envi­sions robots that could help amputees tra­verse rocky trails, per­form haz­ardous tasks in a com­pro­mised nuclear reactor sur­rounded by debris, or move along the sea floor — or even the sur­face of another planet — with ease.

We need robots today that can work in haz­ardous loca­tions with very rough ter­rain,” Vona said. “In the future we may want robots that can walk with us over stairs, curbs and rocks.

Under­standing how to com­bine 3-​​D per­cep­tion with com­pliant con­tact,” he added, “will be a major step towards these goals.”

The research com­po­nent of Vona’s CAREER award will inter­sect with his teaching pro­gram. He cur­rently teaches Robotic Sci­ence and Sys­tems, in which both under­grad­uate and grad­uate stu­dents team up to write soft­ware for and build prac­tical robots that can lift objects off the floor. In the future, Vona hopes to intro­duce stu­dents to the problem of uncer­tainty in this class.