May 30, 2024

Autonomy Mission Modes: Waypoint vs Exploration

Often when we're talking about autonomous robots or SLAM technology it can sound like some futuristic sci-fi jargon, but actually the technology is analogous to the same chips and code that's in your smartphone or advanced driver's assistance in your car. Basically, the technology behind the scenes can be incredibly complex, but as the user, it works seamlessly to help you achieve your goals. 

Robotics for mapping and surveying are similar. The technology can seem complex but the goal is to provide you with the safest and most cost-effective method to map an area with extreme precision.

That's why when using a Nexys platform for the first time, it could be confusing to know which kind of mission to choose for your robotic platform. On the surface, a waypoint-based or exploration-based mission might feel similar, but it changes how the robot "thinks" about its mission and will help the operator know which mission mode to deploy for the most complete, and accurate 3D model

To get you started, we're going to dive into each one in this guide to robotic navigation.  

Waypoint-based Autonomy

If you've ever used the renowned robot Spot from Boston Dynamics you might be familiar with the concept of a waypoint. But you can essentially think of it as a point in 3D space, a mission objective, that we're asking the robot to navigate towards. These waypoints are entered by a pilot or surveyor before the mapping begins. 

To understand waypoints, imagine the area you need to map is like a chessboard. Each square on the chessboard represents a possible waypoint for the robot to move to. To set your route for the robot, you select the squares or waypoints that provide the most efficient path for the robot to take. The same way you would plan a route for a chess piece to safely move across the board. However, after you press play for your autonomous mission, the Nexys will intelligently pilot the robot around any obstacles in its way. 

waypoint-autonomyVisualization of a waypoint-based autonomous mission in an underground mining environment. 

With aerial robots, these waypoints exist in 3-dimensions, but the concept is the same as the chessboard. However now the robot can process in three dimensions to find creative ways around obstacles. The autonomy engine that's built into the Nexys, ExynAI, is relentless in it's pursuit of mission objectives and will try to reach its waypoint multiple times before determining it's unreachable and returning home. 

Waypoint-based autonomy missions are great tools for survey teams where they have an understanding of the environment they'd like to explore. Or if they wanted to send the robot closer to an area of interest for an inspection mission, for example. 

However, there are times when you may not be able to create waypoints or the area to be mapped has unknown features well beyond visual line of sight. For this, we pioneered a higher level of autonomy for our robots to intelligently explore a large volume of interest and select their own waypoints. 

Autonomous Exploration and Navigation

Autonomous exploration doesn’t use predetermined routes like waypoint navigation. Instead, the robot builds a real-time map of an unexplored area and determines its own route in real time to fully survey the given area.

Our Nexys system uses autonomous exploration and achieves this through a technology known as SLAM (Simultaneous Localization & Mapping). That may sound complicated, but the technology simply mimics what humans do automatically when navigating the world around them.

autonomy-setting-missions-AL411-optimizedDefining an area of interest for an autonomous robot to explore using AL4.

Imagine you walk into a new building that you’ve never been in before. The first thing you do (without even thinking about it) is determine where you are when you first walk in. For example, you may walk into the main entrance and see the front reception desk. This is the “Localization” part of SLAM. The robot determines where it is in relation to the rest of the area.

Next, as you walk you through a building, you start making mental notes of relationships between different features. You might notice there is a stairway to the right of the front desk or a long hallway to the left. For our Nexys system, this action is the “Mapping” part of SLAM. Finally, these two actions are performed simultaneously (the “S” in SLAM) to create a precise map of unexplored areas.

With exploration autonomy, our Nexys system essentially uses the same technique as you would when entering an unexplored area. Our system is constantly creating and updating a map to build a precise 3D rendition of any unexplored space. Instead of using vision like humans do, our robot uses lasers through a LiDAR sensor to “see” in any condition, including zero-light areas. 

Autonomous exploration works for mapping areas in unsafe conditions or when you can’t use waypoints due to unknowns or lack of navigation signals. For example, after blasting a new mining cavity, an autonomous exploration robot equipped with our Nexys system can completely map the interior without any user input or control.

Our Nexys system comes out-of-the-box with both waypoint and exploration autonomy modes so your survey teams can the right level of autonomy for the right job, maximizing the quality of data capture while minimizing the time needed to work on site.

How Do You Measure Robotic Autonomy?

When you read about autonomous robots, you may wonder how it is that we even evaluate the differing levels of autonomy. Different people likely have different notions when it comes to real-world autonomous performance.

For some people, a Roomba may seem fully autonomous as it navigates around their living room. For others, when they think of an autonomous robot they imagine something from science fiction—for example, C3PO from the popular Star Wars movie franchise.

To help standardize the definitions of robotic autonomy across industries, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) created an autonomy scale specifically for driverless vehicles. The levels range from 0 through 5 and each ascending level defines a higher level of autonomy.

Exyn - Levels of Aerial Autonomy Graphic - 1.0Levels of Aerial Autonomy as defined by Exyn

When we released our exploration mission mode, we knew we'd need to help classify new levels of autonomy for aerial robots. Our Nexys system is classified as level 4 autonomy which is the highest level of autonomy commercially available. An autonomous robot using waypoint-based autonomy would be classified as a level 3 autonomy. And the cruise control and advanced driverless features you use in your car are commonly defined as level 2 autonomy.  

Level 5 represents the ultimate goal of robotics and defines complete and extended autonomy in any situation. Using our previous example, the C3PO character from Star Wars would be classified as level 5 using the SAE scale. As of today, level 5 autonomy is not yet available for any commercial application.

We hope this guide helped you better understand how waypoint and autonomous expiration work in the real world. Our Nexys system offers both methods of navigation so you have the flexibility to approach any mapping situation.

Contact us today to book a demo of our Nexys system and experience the speed, safety, and cost savings that our advanced mapping technology can bring to your organization.

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