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TECHNOLOGY UPDATE

Self-controlled robots fly, run and serve

Automation progresses in military and civil applications.




Robo-grunts

AlphaDog is a robot pack mule carrying up to 400 lbs to support an infantry squad. Stealthy it is not.

A whole menagerie of military ground robots is under development—an ostrich, a cheetah, a dog and even a worm. Two humanoid robots are also in the works.

The ostrich known formally as FastRunner is a DARPA-funded collaboration between MIT and the Florida Institute of Human and Machine Cognition. The robot, still in the design stage, is expected to run at 27 mph—some 10 times as fast as today's ground automatons. According to Russ Tedrake at MIT, future models should be able to top 50 mph.

The secret to this remarkable performance is a new leg modeled on that of the ostrich. With a lockable knee, a single motor, and springs that can store energy and release it as needed, the leg will be able to maintain a fast pace in rough terrain even while using less energy than a conventional design.

If FastRunner is the 'bot world's Usain Bolt, its closest competitor in the mechanized Olympics will probably be Cheetah, from Boston Dynamics. Also funded by DARPA, Cheetah incorporates a flexible spine, articulated head and, perhaps, a tail that should give it agility as well as speed. On a treadmill, it has reached 28.3 mph. Faster than that, it loses control and topples over.

Thus far, Cheetah is tethered to an external hydraulic pump and a boom that helps keep it upright. But that will not always be so. "Our real goal is to create a robot that moves freely outdoors while [running] fast," says Alfred Rizzi, technical director of the Cheetah program. "We're building an outdoor version that we call WildCat, that should be ready for testing early next year."

AlphaDog, also from Boston Dynamics, is officially the Legged Squad Support System (LS3). It is not a speed demon. It is an 800-lb pack mule capable of toting 400 lb of gear up to 20 miles on hills or in high brush. On rough ground, it slows to as little as 1 mph, accelerating to 7 mph on flat surfaces. Better yet, if it loses its footing, it can stand up again. It should keep up handily with a squad of foot soldiers.

The LS3 is almost as brainy as it is muscular. It can interpret verbal commands and hand signals, follow a human leader and track squad members through a forest. "The vision for LS3 is to combine the capabilities of a pack mule with the intelligence of a trained animal," says Lt Col Joe Hitt, DARPA program manager in charge of the project.

Cheetah, from Boston Dynamics, nears 30 mph on a treadmill but draws power from an external tether.

One thing AlphaDog will not do thus far is sneak into enemy territory. The constant bark of its engine has been liken­ed to the sound of a lawn mower. At that, it's an improvement. At least soldiers can carry on a conversation while standing next to this one—earlier models were 10 times louder.

Meshworm is a good deal sneakier. It is a soft, auto­nomous robot that moves by peristalsis, alternately stretching and squeezing muscles along its body with each series of contractions. This is how earthworms move, and how our own bodies push food through the gastrointestinal tract.

The finger-sized worm is soft, resilient, and honestly a bit repulsive to watch in action. (You can see it at youtube. com/watch?v=EXkf62qGFII.) Its muscles are nickel-titanium wires that expand and contract when heated by an electric current and then allowed to cool again. There are 2 sets of muscles—one lengthwise, the other circling the robot's plastic-mesh body. The worm crawls along thanks to an onboard microchip that coordinates their action.

Meshworm creeps along at a rate of only 1 inch every 5 min, and it will not carry a pack. Yet it is more than bait for robot fish. For one thing, it is tough. Bash it with a hammer, and it keeps going. MIT's Sangbae Kim, who built the device with colleagues at Harvard and Seoul National University, says the pliable robot may be good for navigating rough terrain or squeezing through tight crevices. Possible applications include new medical endoscopes and prosthetic devices.

Civilian robots

iRobot's RP-VITA—or "remote presence virtual and independent tele­medicine assistant"—is a telepresence robot that allows doctors to chat with patients, and even examine them, from miles away.

You will not find many mechanized hyenas or wombats in the privately funded world. Here, the clear trend is toward robots that ordinary people can get along with and use productively.

Witness Baxter, from Rethink Robotics in Boston, which is rapidly becoming the Silicon Valley of the robotics industry. Baxter is fire engine red, humanoid from the waist up, where he amounts to a table. His face is a tablet computer that displays 2 gentle, friendly, cartoonish eyes.

The effect is wholly unintimidating, as it is meant to be.

Baxter is designed for adaptive manufacturing, says Rethink CEO Rodney Brooks. Plunk him down into almost any factory, and he can be up and working in less than an hour. He doesn't need complex programming. Nontechnical employees can train Baxter just by showing him what to do.

Unlike previous factory robots, which move so fast that having people nearby invites painful accidents, Baxter makes a good co-worker. He moves relatively slowly, and if someone gets in the way of his arms he stops instantly.

He is uncommonly adaptable as well. For example, picture Baxter picking up a part from a table and placing it where a human colleague expects to find it. Most robots need to find that part in exactly the same position each time. Otherwise, they will either stop dead in terminal confusion or keep repeating their pick-and-place motion empty-handed. Baxter just keeps looking for the part until he finds it.

Baxter has another advantage. Where other industrial robots can cost well into 6 figures, Baxter is priced at just $22,000, plus the cost of the base and optional hand. A small factory can easily get him up and running for $30,000. Baxter can even be ordered from Rethink's website, just like buying a book from Amazon.

The company is even publishing specifications for other makers that would like to build specialized hands for Baxter's arms.

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