Soon, flying robots and ancient Roman farms will be part of the latest Penn research projects to receive funding from the National Science Foundation.

On Aug. 31, Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) announced that the NSF was awarding five grants totaling $1,907,120 to fund three research projects at Penn and two at Drexel University.

Among the grant recipients is Penn Engineering professor Vijay Kumar, who was awarded $600,000 for his project titled “Partnership for Innovation: Autonomous Robotic Rotorcraft for Exploration, Surveillance and Transportation (ARREST).” Kumar explained that his goal is to design and create “robots that can fly, observe and reason about the world, and then take action.”

For example, Kumar hopes to design search and rescue robots that can be sent into nuclear reactor buildings, like the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, to gather radiation information without human intervention or command. The rotorcraft robots could also be used to patrol buildings in hostage situations by surrounding the building, communicating with each other and then re-deploying based on where the robots think “the bad guys are hiding,” Kumar explained.

Kumar and his team have worked on designing autonomous robots before. However, the new applications he hopes to develop require new algorithmic and computational capabilities, which is what he will use the NSF funding to research.

Classical Studies professor Kimberley Bowes is another grant recipient. She was awarded $191,018 for her project, “The Archaeology of Rural Rome.”

“It’s an enormous honor: the NSF rarely funds projects in Roman archaeology,” Bowes wrote in an email.

For her project, Bowes and her team of archaeologists aim to study the lives of the Roman poor by excavating their houses in western Tuscany. “When you think of ancient Rome, you probably think of rich old men in togas, great temples or monuments like the Colosseum,” wrote Bowes. Yet those elite members only made up 10 percent of the population, she explained. Little is known about the poor rural farmers who made up the rest.

One of the unique aspects of the project is the wide range of evidence they can use to uncover clues about the past. For example, animal bones are keys to understanding the diet of Roman rural farmers, while ancient pollen explains what types of crops they grew. With the grant from NSF, Bowes can add scientists to her team, who help with interpreting these types of materials. Bowes and her team began their dig three years ago, and the NSF grant will allow her to continue for another three years.

Other grant recipients include: Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics professor Pedro Ponte Castañeda, who received $109,780 for his study, “Pattern-Changing Instabilities and Giant Magnetostriction in Periodic Magnetoelastic Composites;” Simon Foucart, an assistant professor of Mathematics at Drexel, who was awarded $666,322 for “ATD: Improving Analysis of Microbial Mixtures through Sparse Reconstruction Algorithms and Statistical Inference;” and Drexel assistant professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Kapil Dandekar, who received $340,000 for “Reconfiguarble Antenna-based Enhancement of Dynamic Spectrum Access Algorithms.”

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