Robots designed to spare humans from danger zones

Craig Gustafson

Within a year, robots will serve as new recruits alongside military and law enforcement personnel.
Designed by members of the University’s computer science and engineering department on a military contract, the pint-size robots will let authorities explore and gather information in disaster areas or urban-warfare situations without risking human lives.
University computer scientist Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos demonstrated the capabilities of his tiny, nine-ounce robots during a Monday demonstration for his colleagues and the media.
The robots, or “scouts,” look like simple machines: a plain, metal tube with two plastic wheels, one on each end.
The insides, however, are a bit more complicated. Each robot has two motors, a miniature computer and an individual skill. Internal sensors can either relay video or audio data, or detect motion or dangerous chemicals and lethal gases.
The robots also each have a powerful single “leg” that, when extended rapidly, can fling the tubes up stairs or, if moved more slowly, reposition its on-board camera.
For the robot to jump, one of the motors reels in the leg and then snaps it outward, propelling the scout up to 10 inches off the ground. The unique jumping ability makes it easier for the tiny machines to hurdle small barriers and scale stairs.
Via a computer terminal, Papanikolopoulos and research assistant Paul Rybski drove the scouts around a classroom floor, jumping them over boards and climbing up ramps. Two wheels on each end of the cylindrical robot rolled independently to allow the operators control of directional movement.
On the insistence of the military, designers had to make their robots as small as possible so they could fit into tight spaces, be transported easily and operate undetected if necessary.
“The key was to design hardware to fit these dimensions,” Papanikolopoulos said. The tight quarters called for sophisticated construction, requiring 14 to 16 hours for assembly and a surgeon’s dexterity.
Next to size, durability was the second concern.
Papanikolopoulos said one U.S. Marine threw a scout 87 feet into a tree. The scout remained fully operational after impact, and there have been no complaints since.
To deploy the robots from a safe distance, physics faculty and students built a remote-controlled, spring-loaded launcher that simultaneously loads 10 scouts, then shoots them nearly 70 feet. To prove it, Papanikolopoulos flung a scout across a room and through a plate of glass. The robot survived the ordeal unharmed because of a protective coating of plastic and foam.
For the past 18 months, University researchers developed different aspects of the scout and its launcher in conjunction with three Twin Cities companies: MTS Systems, Architecture Technology and Honeywell.
“This is a tremendous example of the work between local companies and the University,” Papanikolopoulos said.
Although the robots might seem like perfect children’s toys, Papanikolopoulos said the devices were built for serious situations.
The recent earthquakes in Turkey and Greece are prime examples of how useful the miniature robots can be.
Papanikolopoulos said the robots could have navigated through rubble to find trapped survivors. A scout with a microphone could even provide a communication link.
Dan Krantz, an MTS Systems project engineer, said the scouts would have helped law enforcement officials at the Columbine High School shootings.
Officials waited outside the school several hours after the shootings began because they had no idea of what lay behind the front doors. Scouts could have been jettisoned into the school and authorities could have entered sooner to aid injured students within.
Krantz said nearly 70 percent of casualties in urban-warfare situations occur when law-enforcement officials go through the front door because they enter buildings blind as to what is going on inside.
But before robots can be used in those types of situations, they need more testing.
Researchers are in the middle of a three-year, $4.9 million contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the central research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense.
The contract established the Center for Distributed Robotics in the University’s computer science and engineering department and is one of the largest DARPA grants ever awarded to the University.

Craig Gustafson covers the Medical School and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3233.