Decentralised coordination of information gathering agents.
University of Southampton, School of Electronics and Computer Science,
Unmanned sensors are rapidly becoming the de facto means of achieving situational awareness — the ability to make sense of, and predict what is happening in an environment — in disaster management, military reconnaissance, space exploration, and climate research. In these domains, and many others besides, their use reduces the need for exposing humans to hostile, impassable or polluted environments. Whilst these sensors are currently often pre-programmed or remotely controlled by human operators, there is a clear trend toward making these sensors fully autonomous, thus enabling them to make decisions without human intervention.
Full autonomy has two clear benefits over pre-programming and human remote control. First, in contrast to sensors with pre-programmed motion paths, autonomous sensors are better able to adapt to their environment, and react to a priori unknown external events or hardware failure. Second, autonomous sensors can operate in large teams that would otherwise be too complex to control by human operators. The key benefit of this is that a team of cheap, small sensors can achieve through cooperation the same results as individual large, expensive sensors — with more flexibility and robustness.
In light of the importance of autonomy and cooperation, we adopt an agent-based perspective on the operation of the sensors. Within this view, each sensor becomes an information gathering agent. As a team, these agents can then direct their collective activity towards collecting information from their environment with the aim of providing
accurate and up-to-date situational awareness.
Against this background, the central problem we address in this thesis is that of achieving accurate situational awareness through the coordination of multiple information gathering agents. To achieve general and principled solutions to this problem, we formulate a generic problem definition, which captures the essential properties of dynamic environments. Specific instantiations of this generic problem span a broad spectrum of concrete application domains, of which we study three canonical examples: monitoring environmental phenomena, wide area surveillance, and search and patrol.
The main contributions of this thesis are decentralised coordination algorithms that solve this general problem with additional constraints and requirements, and can be grouped into two categories. The first category pertains to decentralised coordination of fixed information gathering agents. For these agents, we study the application of decentralised coordination during two distinct phases of the agents’ life cycle: deployment and operation. For the former, we develop an efficient algorithm for maximising the quality of situational awareness, while simultaneously constructing a reliable communication network between the agents. Specifically, we present a novel approach to the NP-hard problem of frequency allocation, which deactivates certain agents such that the problem can be provably solved in polynomial time. For the latter, we address the challenge of coordinating these agents under the additional assumption that their control parameters are continuous. In so doing, we develop two extensions to the max-sum message passing algorithm for decentralised welfare maximisation, which constitute the first two algorithms for distributed constraint optimisation problems (DCOPs) with continuous variables—CPLF-MS (for linear utility functions) and HCMS (for non-linear utility functions).
The second category relates to decentralised coordination of mobile information gathering agents whose motion is constrained by their environment. For these agents, we develop algorithms with a receding planning horizon, and a non-myopic planning horizon. The former is based on the max-sum algorithm, thus ensuring an efficient and scalable solution, and constitutes the first online agent-based algorithm for the domains of pursuit-evasion, patrolling and monitoring environmental phenomena. The second uses sequential decision making techniques for the offline computation of patrols — infinitely long paths designed to continuously monitor a dynamic environment — which are subsequently improved on at runtime through decentralised coordination.
For both topics, the algorithms are designed to satisfy our design requirements of quality of situational awareness, adaptiveness (the ability to respond to a priori unknown events), robustness (the ability to degrade gracefully), autonomy (the ability of agents to make decisions without the intervention of a centralised controller), modularity (the ability to support heterogeneous agents) and performance guarantees (the ability to give a lower bound on the quality of the achieved situational awareness). When taken together, the contributions presented in this thesis represent an advance in the state of the art of decentralised coordination of information gathering agents, and a step towards achieving autonomous control of unmanned sensors.
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