Recent Exciting Advances in Robotics

By Roland Piquepaille

Robotics news are dominated these days by the $100 Robosapien toy or by the latest version of Honda's ASIMO, that you will never been able to buy, even if you put a cool US$1 million on the table. But other recent news are worth mentioning. In Florida, according to the Miami Herald (free subscription), a small company is developing a robotic arm for surgeons which could save the healthcare industry $15 billion a year. And did you know that solar-powered autonomous underwater robots are now monitoring the waters of Lake George, N.Y.? On the other coast, PARC's pliable 'polybots' will reconfigure themselves to act independently on earthquake scenes or in space. And in New Zealand, robot experts are creating servants of the future able to serve us the drink we want. Elsewhere, in Korea, the government wants to deploy two-legged networked robots in post offices later this year. In a long interview to the Korea Times, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) professor Raj Reddy says the network-based robot is a great idea. Read more...

Please read all the articles linked above for more informatio. Below are only essential excerpts and pictures.

Let's start with the robotic arm from Z-KAT.

The new firm is using technology licensed from Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Artificial Intelligence Lab. ''This is what they call haptic robotics,'' says Ferre. ''It is a human interactive tool,'' so that the surgeon holding the arm has the touch and feel just as if her own fingers were holding the instrument.
The key is that the small arm can do a knee replacement with an inch-long incision, compared with cuts of 7 to 12 inches for traditional surgery.
The arm, trademarked as Tactical Guidance System, must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, which Ferre expects to happen fairly quickly because the FDA has already given approval to a more basic version of the arm.
The robotic arm for surgeonsfrom Z-KAT The robotic arm, which is held by Z-KAT CEO, Maurice R. Ferre, should hit the market in early 2006 and be used first for knee and hip work. (Credit: J. Albert Diaz, Miami Herald)

Now, let's look at what Rensselaer researchers are doing with solar underwater robots.

A collaborative group of researchers are conducting experiments with underwater robots at Rensselaer's Darrin Fresh Water Institute (DFWI) on Lake George, N.Y., as part of the RiverNet project, an NSF-funded initiative. The group is working to develop a network of distributed sensing devices and water-monitoring robots, including solar-powered autonomous underwater vehicles (SAUVs), for detection of chemical and biological trends that may guide the management and improvement of water quality.
The Rensselaer's Institute solar underwater robot Here is a picture of this solar-powered robot (Credits: Art Sanderson, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and D. Richard Blidberg, Autonomous Undersea Systems Institute)

[Additional note: you'll find all the details about the experiments done between October 17 and 22, 2004 here.]

The Rensselaer's Institute solar underwater robot docking In particular, watch how an intrepid researcher was catching the robot at the end of its mission on October 20, 2004 (Credit: Autonomous Undersea Systems Institute)

PARC's modular reconfigurable robots, or polybots are an entirely different story. Sometimes, they're called morphing or mutating robots, but why would you use these reconfigurable robots?

"The problem with a conventional robot is you spend a lot of money building this one robot that does one task very well," says Craig Eldershaw, [a research engineer at PARC (Palo Alto Research Center).] "A modular robot can change its shape to adapt to a particular job. To wash dishes, it needs small delicate arms and fingers. For gardening, it could have a couple big strong arms to hold a shovel and big treads to move through mud."
That kind of robotic domestic help is as much as three decades away, he acknowledges. But experimental search-and-rescue bots could be deployed in earthquake- or bomb-racked buildings within the next few years, he says.

Morphing robots also could become space explorers.

PARC recently took on a long-term NASA contract to develop a robotic arm that could move around the outside of a next-generation space shuttle freely and convert itself into several arms or a claw if the need arises. "Think in-space construction or assembly," Mr. Eldershaw says. "Any time you can prevent someone having to go out into space in a suit you've won a lot of friends at NASA."
Mark Yim, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who set up the modular robotics research group at PARC after completing his doctorate at Stanford, is leading a team that has taken on a NASA contract to build a morphing Mars explorer. To demonstrate the robot's ability to assist with human life support, the experimental robot will be given the task of growing and nurturing a small plant inside a sealed environmental chamber.

It's time to move to another continent, and to robots willing to serve us our favorite cocktails -- maybe not this year -- but in a foreseenable future.

"(In) 15 years' time, I'd estimate something like this would serve drinks," says Australian Tribotix robotics and electronics company engineering manager Steve Mitchell, putting a humanoid-shaped robot through its paces, literally. They'll be that common."
He remote-controls the 30cm-tallrobot and fascinated conference-goers cluster, watching it walk, bend forward and backward and move its arms, legs, torso and head independently. It can also slide skiing-style and perform acrobatics such as headstands.
This Tribotix robot might serve you a drink one day Here, Tribotix engineering manager Steve Mitchell shows robots like this will be serving drinks in 30-years time. (Credit: Murrary Wilson, Manawatu Standard, New Zealand)

Meanwhile, Korea is introducing a competitor with Honda's Asimo. The 1.2-meter-tall KHR-3, which weighs roughly 55 kilograms, can walk by using 41 built-in motors and numerous joints and can also shake hands or lift objects with its five-fingered hands.

The 1.2-meter-tall KHR-3 The 1.2-meter-tall KHR-3 will soon welcome you at Korea post offices (Credit: The Korea Times)

Korea's officials also think they're fast catching Japanese in robotics.

"In order to understand the humanoid development, we must split two facets of the mechanics and intelligence. Mechanically, we lag behind Japan 2-3 years, but we are almost on par with the country in intelligence," a project manager said.

These robots will be introduced next year in five different projects, three for home usage and two for post offices.

To conclude this long post, I just want to say I was disappointed by the Korea Times's interview of Raj Reddy, a person I really respect. His interview looks like a press release, very different from what you can read in a recent effort he made for promoting $250 computing devices for developing countries.

Sources: John Dorschner, The Miami Herald, December 6, 2004; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, December 6, 2004; Janet Rae-Dupree, Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal, December 10, 2004; Lee Matthews, Manawatu Standard, New Zealand, December 10, 2004; Kim Tae-gyu, The Korea Times, November 23 and December 19, 2004; Byron Spice, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 20, 2004

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