Sci-Fi Robots Edge Closer To Reality

June 30, 2005
Robots are already performing real work, but look for more new technologies to add more robustness. Robots conjure up images of science-fiction wonders and horrors. Though they have yet to reach the pinnacle of self-awareness and understanding, robots

Robots are already performing real work, but look for more new technologies to add more robustness.

Robots conjure up images of science-fiction wonders and horrors. Though they have yet to reach the pinnacle of self-awareness and understanding, robots have been performing tasks for many years, from moving products around warehouses to vacuuming floors. Robots are practical tools today, though emerging technologies likely will move them from the backroom to the forefront. Problems more commonly read in sci-fi stories may emerge, but that's for another time.

It seems appropriate to start with one of the foremost robotics competitions, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), which hosts a range of events (Fig. 1). Team 67, "the HOT Team" of Huron Valley Schools in Milford, Mich., won the prestigious FIRST Robotics Competition Championship Chairman's Award this year. Science fairs and competitions like FIRST foster interest in engineering and science among students and give new developers a better understanding of technology.

ROBOTS AT WORK Few people would be concerned if they walked through the latest high-tech assembly lines and saw dozens of robotic arms moving, welding, and painting automobiles or other products destined for consumers. They also would be unlikely to spot the differences between today's assembly robots and those of a decade ago. Still, significant disparities exist under the metallic skin.

Designers have made significant strides in motor control and network capabilities. Accuracy, speed, and especially safety also have been increased through the use of faster processors, better programming, and the use of new hardware.

Egemin Automation has been selling mobile robots for a number of years, from specialized units that deliver mail within a large building to warehouse automation systems. The company's forklift robots can be dispatched as needed and automatically proceed to the designated site (Fig. 2). Dave Nobel indicates that robots in Egemin's latest system handle navigation autonomously. A Sick laser guidance system and built-in collision avoidance let robots and humans operate smoothly in the robot's environment. A handler with a wireless touchpad typically dispatches the robot.

Along with Egemin Automation, many companies are building forklift and towing robot vehicles. Many of the challenges in this genre concern hardware, such as keeping the batteries charged. Some sites have robots return to charging stations when they're a bit low, while others do complete battery-pack swaps each night.

Egemin's production robots are built from commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) components and software such as Microsoft Windows. All of the robots are part of a larger, coordinated system connected via COTS wireless links. Improving the automated management and coordination is where it's at now, enabling robots to change jobs in mid-stride. For example, after finishing one job, a robot may replace a sibling if it's closer to a pickup location.

MILITARY COOPERATION Mobile robots are moving outside the confines of buildings and into rugged terrain, as well as familiar environments like schools and city streets. Most are in rapid stages of development, but some are being put to practical use now.

Semi-autonomous units such as unmanned, remote-control vehicles like the Predator and Northrop Grumman's RQ-4A Global Hawk Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) are just the start. These high-altitude, long-endurance UAVs provide military field commanders with high-resolution imagery. They still need remote operators to control them, though. And with a 36-hour endurance, they may require more than a few operators for a long mission.

FrontLine Robotics' (Fig. 3) and PercepTek Robotics' (Fig. 4) units are designed for autonomous operation in coordinated missions that are too complex for a single unit. Many of these robots are slated for the U.S. Future Combat Systems program. Some may eventually have weapons mounted on them, but their initial use will likely involve surveillance.

FrontLine Robotics' system uses COTS components to keep prices low and stay abreast of technology. The rugged vehicles house PC/104 platforms running software company FSM Labs' RT Linux. Applications are written in C++. Right now, robot vehicles are deployed only in well-defined areas. Look for more dynamic environments to be addressed as software improves. Nonetheless, existing results are impressive. For instance, a group of cooperating robots can handle echelon formations. If the group loses a robot—even the team leader—the crew still will be able to complete its mission.

PercepTek Robotics' takes to the air with a mix of helicopter robots and ground vehicles. The idea is similar to FrontLine's work: deliver an autonomous set of robots that can pursue goals and coordinate with themselves and people who manage the system.

Steven Paulet, director of marketing and business development at PercepTek, notes that his company's expertise in perception helps fuse the results from an array of inputs, including devices ranging from radar to visual peripherals, into a world view shared among robots and a controller. The idea is to make the robots into a force multiplier, whereby a single person controls a collection of robots. People provide mission planning and goals, and the robots work to reach those goals.

Thomas Parrish IV of Openware Logistix notes that his company's ExplorBot is similar to these heavy-duty behemoths (Fig. 5). Yet the smaller and less expensive ExplorBot targets domestic concerns like rescue, monitoring, and bomb recovery. The ExplorBot is already available to fire departments, police, and rescue squads. Customization is common, but easy use is crucial. Thus, the robot must be more flexible when interfacing with a controller.

ExplorBots are even finding homes in schools. They can be used as a hall-monitoring tool with a camera that feeds video back to a central site. It's easy to explain to administrators and students that the robot is just an autonomous mobile monitoring camera. School administrators are already accustomed to cameras that tilt and pan: Now the cameras simply move.

SOFTWARE FRAMEWORKS Better software continues to simplify robotics. Assembly-line robots are relatively easy to program since they operate within a fixed, known environment. For safety's sake, they typically come to a grinding halt if something abnormal happens.

Mobile robots, even robotic forklifts, must be more robust. And cooperating robots need to go one step further, leading to extremely complex systems with predictable operation.

A range of behavior-based systems, procedural reason systems, and other artificial-intelligence work are merging to create frameworks that developers can build on instead of starting from scratch, much like many past research projects. Remember expert systems? They weren't that far off.

One company at the forefront of robotic software frameworks is Evolution. Its ERSP (Evolution Robotics Software Platform) framework ties together a wide range of features, from the hardware interface to the reasoning system. ERSP also uses a sophisticated world modeling system built from visual information that can be provided from more than one camera. It can even handle different kinds of visual systems like infrared cameras.

A number of developers use ERSP because of its high quality and ease of integration. Openware Logistix, which uses ERSP on its ExplorBot, takes advantage of the ERSP architecture to add its own software technology.

Frontline Robotics takes the open-source route when it comes to the basic robot software framework. Its goal-seeking is based on OpenPRS (Open Procedural Reasoning System) from the Laboratory for Analysis and Architecture of Systems (LAAS). The LAAS is a research unit of the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, or National Center for Scientific Research) that reports to the STIC (Department of Science and Technology for Information and Communication). It's associated with three universities in Toulouse: UPS (Universite Paul Sabatier), INSA (Institut National des Sciences Appliqu`ees or National Institute of Applied Science), and INP (Institut National Polytechnique de Toulouse or Polytechnic National Institute of Toulouse).

OpenPRS consists of a kernel, a message passing system, a procedure editor, and a graphical user interface. An inference system uses procedures to analyze information in the database along with a set of tasks. It's up to the robot designer to fill in the database, procedures, and tasks. Of course, some information comes from a robot's sensors. Other information comes from the robot's controller, who specifies the tasks to be performed.

OpenPRS is only part of the puzzle. Not surprisingly, FrontLine adds its own proprietary secret sauce to OpenPRS. ERPS code is proprietary, but licensees have access to some source code. Vision and world-modeling source code is typically kept under wraps.

Frameworks run on operating systems, but the framework is likely to become the platform choice when it comes to robotics. There's simply too much interaction within the framework, and most applications will ride atop it.

Multiple processors are starting to become the norm in robots. In fact, some are dedicated to peripherals. More conventional applications run on one processor while the robot framework runs on another.

BALANCING ACT Hardware makes the robot work, and high-performance, low-power processors and systems allow these complex frameworks to run on these mobile marvels. Compact COTS motherboards and standard adapters make quick work of system design. Digital signal controllers are simplifying motor control, and cell-phone cameras are driving down the size and price of digital camera chips. Trying to get a pair of cameras for binocular vision used to be expensive. Now, ringing a robot with sensors is practical.

CTG's Odyssey shows off another robotic attribute that's appearing in more systems: balance (Fig. 6). What's making this possible are low-cost gyroscopes and accelerometers. This technology is also finding its way into nonrobotic products, such as Segway's Human Transporter. It's not surprising that Segway has a robot platform that runs on two wheels.

Robots like the Odyssey are actually more mobile and flexible than their multiwheel counterparts. A two-wheel robot can spin on its axis and navigate over rougher terrain because the robot maintains a sense of balance even when going uphill. Of course, all of this is harder than it looks. But low-cost, high-performance digital signal controllers let the motors do their magic.

Going the four-wheel route, Whitebox Robotics' 9 series robot has a modular design that makes it easier for developers to come up with new systems. A VIA Technologies Mini-ITX motherboard drives its software. Also, designers can pop more than storage devices into the 5.25-in. drive bays on the front and back. For instance, they can start with one camera and add more if needed. That's the great thing about the 9 series. It's inexpensive and expandable.

The Windows-based 9-series robot includes a GUI robot control center. Its camera support can handle object and facial recognition along with visual navigation. Microphones and speakers provide speech-recognition interfaces, and the software handles the recognition chores. It's the building-block approach—with some rather sophisticated blocks.

Improvements on existing robot technology continue to reduce costs and enhance performance. The popular iRobot Roomba now has a floor-washing cousin called the Scooba. The Scooba handles floors with smooth surfaces and incorporates its own washing fluid dispenser. The Roomba vacuum cleaners come in more colors than you can count, and the feature list keeps going up—not bad for a robot that started with an 8-bit microcontroller.

Likewise, robot animals, toys, and even alarm clocks are popping up on shelves around the country. This is possible because the software platforms make the job of creating a new robot significantly easier, even if they are designed to entertain instead of search and destroy.

Specialization remains the watchword for today's robots. While many can perform a range of duties, they are nowhere near as flexible as C-3PO or R2-D2—at least for now. But that's the bottom line when it comes to today's robots. Today's blocks are more standard, more sophisticated, and much less expensive than ever before.

Robots aren't just here to stay. They're getting smarter and faster, and they feature dramatically improved interaction among their peers and people. They can be used for practical applications now, and they will land in even more interesting applications in the future. Now where is that robot vacuum cleaner? My floor is dirty.


Egemin Automation

Evolution Robotics


FrontLine Robotics



PercepTek Robotics


VIA Technologies

Whitebox Robotics


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