Sunday, December 27, 2009

Advances in robotics

Robotics can be defined as the integration of sensors, computation, and machine systems to manipulate matter. Some of the most important current applications are in military use, factory automation, telepresence, entertainment, and human interaction. Some contemporary trends include bipedal robots, autonomous robotics, and swarm computing. Walking, instead of navigating around on wheeled or multi-legged bases, could open up a variety of new applications for robotics. Similarly, autonomous robotics could handle tasks at a higher level of abstraction with less of a control burden. Swarm computing could allow the efforts of multiple robots to be coordinated, for example in warehouse automation or RoboCup soccer.

Military robotics
The U.S. military’s current deployment of robots includes 7,000 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as the Predator drone and 12,000 unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) such as the PackBot (P.W. Singer, Wired for War). Boston Dynamics has developed several interesting robots for military use. One is the BigDog, a quadruped robot that can walk, run and climb on rough terrain and carry heavy loads. More recently, the company has been working on the PEDMAN bipedal robot which balances dynamically using a human-like walking motion and is to be used initially for testing chemical protection clothing by walking and climbing like a human. Another example of military robotics is the DARPA Grand Challenge, where there have been three rounds of competition for unmanned navigation vehicles, lastly in an urban environment.

Industrial robotics
A second important area is industrial robotics, extending automated machines by making them mobile. One leader in mobile robotic solutions for warehouse automation is Kiva Systems who uses robots to organize, manage and move inventory. The robots cooperate using swarm behavior by reading barcodes on the floor and other messaging systems. There are other examples of robots for potential use in corporate or health care environments. Willow Garage’s PR2 (Personal Robot 2) can autonomously open doors and locate and plug itself in to power outlets. AnyBots offers a corporate telepresence robot and a bipedal robot under development.

Personal robotics
There is also a research focus on creating robots with emotional intelligence for human interaction. Two notable examples are MIT’s Personal Robots Group and Hanson Robotics. MIT has robots such as Leonardo which has 50 independently controlled servo motors creating a full range of facial expressions. Hanson Robotics’ Zeno and other robots which have life-like skin created from frubber, a nanoporous materials advance in elastic polymers. For consumer use, robots are starting as small appliances such as the Roomba and Neato Robotics unit for home vacuuming and the Rovio for home security, and toys such as the Furby, Aibo, and Kondo.

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