Researchers see robots’ future in smaller, wireless machines

by Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

University professor Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos is out to dispel popular robotic misconceptions, one tiny device at a time.

The robots created in the University’s Center for Distributed Robotics look like empty toilet paper tubes with wheels, and are a far cry from the Hollywood robotic standard made popular in films such as “Short Circuit,” “Terminator” and “Batteries Not Included.”

“You expect a bulky, fragile, expensive machine,” he said of society’s view toward what a robot should be. “If I throw this to you, you are going to have no idea what the heck this thing is.”

Papanikolopoulos is the head of the center, a combination of students and faculty from computer science, mechanical engineering and other fields.

Situated in a stuffy room in the basement of Smith Hall, the center designs robots that will soon serve many practical uses, he said.

Their pride is the toilet paper roll-sized Scout, a diminutive robot outfitted with wheels and a camera. Scouts can be customized to perform many tasks, Papanikolopoulos said.

“Imagine you have an earthquake, and you want to find human beings trapped under the rubble,” he said. “You could deploy a team of these robots to pinpoint the location of any people, when humans cannot get to them.”

Scouts could also be used to check suspicious packages, or firefighters could throw them into burning buildings to check for people.

“Let us say you take care of your elderly parents,” he said, again alluding to the possibilities inherent in Scouts. “You could dial the robot on your cell phone. You say to the robot, ‘Just take a pic of my folks to see how they are doing.’ “

The U.S. government has given grants to the center to explore Scouts’ potential for clearing mines or taking vital signs on a battlefield, Papanikolopoulos said. The University is also in the process of patenting some of the robots.

Scouts are the next generation of robotics, because they go against the grain of what people think robotics should entail, he said.

“They are small and wireless,” he said. “This is a new generation. Robotics used to be this big heavy thing.”

Scouts are inexpensive to produce, because they have mainly been constructed from off-the-shelf materials, he said.

“You can build these robots for a few thousand dollars and mass produce them probably for a few hundred dollars,” said.

The technology will make its way to the public and private sector in the coming months, but, he said, he cannot say too much at this time.

Papanikolopoulos’ proximal project

The next step is to figure out how to operate many Scouts at one time, Papanikolopoulos said.

“If you ask me right now what is the best way to control 100 robots, I would tell you I have no clue,” he said.

Currently, Scouts can perform simple tasks on their own, such as following body heat or hiding in the dark, he said. But for them to be really effective, they will have to work in teams.

Enter MegaScout, a larger robot currently being developed that would act as field commander for the smaller Scouts. Controlled by one human, MegaScout will have its own Pentium processor, and will be more advanced than the others.

“It is the brain of the team, and it will control the little guys,” he said.

The center does not have the same hierarchical structure as the MegaScout and the little Scouts. Each of the approximately 20 students who work in the center brings a meaningful contribution, Papanikolopoulos said.

“These kids are incredible designers,” he said. “They can build devices that can fly, that you can stick on the wall. They can do anything imaginable.”

Andrew Drenner, a third-year computer science doctoral student, said he loves writing and developing robotic software.

“Writing code is fun, but writing code and then seeing a robot move around because of that code is much more exciting,” he said.

Drenner said a significant challenge with Scouts is fitting sufficient movement and communications technology into such a small package.

For Scouts, Drenner said, locomotion matters.

“When you are as small as a Scout, everything in your environment is an obstacle,” he said.

Despite their size, Scouts are strong. One Scout has been repeatedly dropped off a Washington Avenue parking garage in the middle of winter with hardly a scratch to show for it.

Computer science and robotics graduate student Monica LaPoint said she sometimes spends 40 hours per week in the center.

LaPoint said the work is hard, but stimulating.

“You may go bald,” she said of the sometimes-stressful tasks, “but you will not go bored.”

Papanikolopoulos said the center provides students with the opportunity to learn in a practical, groundbreaking setting, where their input matters.

“We are a team,” he said. “We argue a lot, we agree sometimes. But out of this, you can really create state-of-the-art technology.”