Potential of small robots explored

by Jake Kapsner

Roly-poly palm-sized robots could make military reconnaissance and police surveillance missions easier, if a joint project among the University and three local companies pans out.
The project could prove a pioneer in fields like wireless communication, while devices previously used for precision surgery and genetic testing are being re-honed as sensors in the tiny robots.
Funny then, that this broadly collaborative effort of technological expertise was inspired by insects and children’s toys.
Using funds from a three-year, $4.9 million grant from the federal government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a team of University professors and students started the Center for Distributed Robotics last spring in the Department of Computer Science.
The University team aims to create a small army of robots, called Scouts, which could be thrown or launched to a desired location and used to gather information using artificial intelligence and pass the data on along an advanced radio network.
In one scenario, the two tennis-ball-sized designs, the Rolling Ball and Grasshopper, could roll and hop behind enemy lines to detect and detonate mine fields.
The robots might also be used as informants, capable of creeping undetected into a hostage situation and relaying a first hand account, thereby limiting potential harm to rescuers.
“There are endless possibilities for some of this stuff,” said Nikolao Papanikolopoulos, principle investigator for the project and a computer science professor. “Personally I view these (robots) as toys that can make all of our lives easier.”
The scientists are gearing up to demonstrate their first working prototype of the Scout in March, when the University team hits the first-year mark of a contract slated to end in 2001, said Richard Voyles, a computer science professor.
The Scouts are designed to work in conjunction with larger robots that would transport, launch and communicate with the smaller devices.
A prototype of one such robot, a four-wheel-drive machine called the Ranger, arrived at the University from New Hampshire over break, Voyles said.
The Ranger still needs certain tools to function, like computer software and a radio communication system, but its larger size — 60 centimeters long — makes for a simpler design than the rodent sized Scout, Voyles said.
Still, designing the wireless radio communication, called nomadic routing, is no easy task.
This new cutting edge process of sending signals has applications for use in cellular phones and mobile computers, Voyles said, and is being developed by Architecture Technology Corporation, which is one of three subcontractors on the project.
Along with Honeywell and MTS Systems, these companies receive more than half the overall funding.
Meanwhile, scientists from varying disciplines are working to refine their ideas into a workable, integrated whole.
In a robotics lab of the Computer Science and Electrical Engineering building, Maria Gini has used Lego blocks as carriers for her computer programs for more than a decade.
As Gini and her robotics team now build 6-inch Lego prototypes of the Scout, they’re left with the challenge of building simple programs as well.
“The challenge is how to fit all of the instructions for all of the robot’s operations into a small amount of memory space,” she said.
But the space crunch isn’t limited to computer memory.
In a microtechnology laboratory, Professor Dennis Polla’s team of electrical and computer engineers strive to build better, smaller microsensors. For example, they’re working on tiny cameras that transmit live images to terrain sensors and chemical sniffers capable of detecting biological weapons.
Such microelectrical mechanical systems, as they’re called, were designed for medical use, and the adapted technology is still a year away from being tested in the field, Polla said.
Add other factors to the equation, like tiny batteries with limited lifespans and developing the “next generation” form of wireless communication and the tiny Scout robot has added technical challenges.
And integrating a bevy of cutting-edge technologies into one self-contained unit that works and communicates with other robots isn’t the only problem. Many of the devices are new and untested.
For instance, researchers don’t know if biosensors that can detect large amounts of anthrax can also sense small portions of the deadly nerve gas, Polla said.
“It’s high risk, high reward,” Polla said. “But the potential benefits are tremendous.”