Kostas Alexis, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, received the Nevada Regents’ Rising Researcher Award for 2020. The honor recognizes Kostas’ contributions to the field of autonomous robotics.
“I am grateful for this award because it is a reflection of the work of everyone in my lab,” Kostas said. “From my students and overall colleagues in the Autonomous Robots Lab to my international collaborators, they make our research possible. I owe everyone a nice dinner for their work.”
Supported by grants from DARPA, DOE, the USDA, the National Science Foundation, the State of Nevada, and the private sector, Kostas’s research includes autonomous navigation, solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicles, agile flight control and mapping. Applications include search and rescue, nuclear site inspections and subterranean exploration including mine characterization.
DARPA Subterranean Challenge: Team CERBERUS
The wide range of robotics applications that is at the heart of Kostas’s research interests is exemplified by one of his ongoing projects: Team CERBERUS. Team CERBERUS (CollaborativE walking & flying RoBots for autonomous ExploRation in Underground Settings) is based on the collaboration between a team of experts that are at the forefront of walking and flying robots research. This includes Professor Kostas Alexis; Professor Marco Hutter of the Robotic Systems Lab at ETH Zurich, Professor Roland Siegwart of the Autonomous Systems Lab at ETH Zurich, Professor Mark Mueller of the HiPeR Lab at U.C. Berkeley, Maurice Fallon of the Oxford Robotics Institute, Sierra Nevada Corporation based in Sparks, Nevada and Flyability based in Switzerland.
This international team brings together a set of autonomous robots designed for different tasks and terrains and combines advanced mapping and navigational techniques. Aerial and terrestrial robots make up the roster on Team CERBERUS, which has twice competed in the exclusive, ongoing, multi-year DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Subterranean Challenge. The competition pits teams’ ability to navigate human-made tunnel systems, urban underground settings and natural cave networks that are too dangerous, dark, deep and unknown to risk human lives.
“The DARPA Subterranean Challenge plays a major role in the research we are doing,” Alexis said. “Our activities are shaped around it. Because it incorporates so many different elements, it is a main pillar of our lab, and it requires most of the team’s efforts. It pushes our research forward.”
Responding to COVID-19
After returning from the most recent DARPA Subterranean Challenge in February, Alexis took an active role in helping the University—and the community at large—face the growing problems associated with COVID-19. While finishing out the semester remotely, Alexis has harnessed his skills and resources to 3D print personal protective equipment like face masks for distribution to local health care providers. Meanwhile, he and his lab, the Autonomous Robots Lab, are developing the Degerminator. An autonomous robot mounted with a germicidal UV light, the Degerminator promises to disinfect public spaces, including hospitals and medical facilities, to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“Those of us who know Dr. Alexis were unsurprised when he responded to the problems related to COVID-19 by finding ways to collaborate with his colleagues and the community to find practical solutions,” Department of Computer Science and Engineering Chair Eelke Folmer said. “His willingness to work with others who show a similar level of dedication not only make him a great colleague but it also supports his innovative research. For what he has already accomplished and for what he will do next, this award is well-deserved.”
Alexis is the author or co-author of more than 80 scientific publications and has received several best paper awards and distinctions, including the IET Control Theory & Applications Premium Award 2014. With his collaborators, he has achieved world records in the field of solar-powered flight endurance. The Rising Researcher Award was established by the Nevada System of Higher Education in 2008 to recognize the early-career accomplishments and potential for future advancement and recognition in research.
“The autonomous robotics program has been a major strategic area for the College of Engineering for the past ten years. With an unrelenting dedication to excellence, Kostas has helped bring this program to international prominence,” Dean of the College of Engineering Manos Maragakis said. “His work on Team CERBERUS as well as his contributions to the fight against COVID-19 illustrate his exceptional commitment to improving the world.”