Friday, September 4, 2009

Real Robot Facts (also fun)

Something like 50% of the people who come to this blog are searching for "robot facts" and getting a joke post from earlier. That's... kind of embarrassing, actually. Here's some more useful stuff if you want to learn about the state of robotics:

Fact #1: Japan has the coolest robots in the world. Dr. Hirose is the guy to look at, his lab produces robot snakes that are just awesome. I first came upon his work at a symposium for search and rescue robotics at NIST, where his students had a 3m-long remote-controlled robot snake for use in searching deep rubble piles. You could spend all day looking at the videos on his page and still not see it all -- if your time is a little more limited, at least watch the swimming snake bot video.

Fact #2: One of the smallest robots in the world was built by a classmate of mine at Dartmouth. They rely on having a specially-designed platform that delivers voltage levels that not only power but steer them using alternating strips of conductive material. By raising and lowering the relative voltages they can not only power one tiny little robot, they can cause its arm to stick to the surface, making it pivot (A high voltage causes it to snap downward, making use of physical forces normally too small to notice, then another reversed voltage snaps the arm back so that the robot can continue on)

Fact #3: People have more senses than they think. Proprioception in particular is interesting: it is basically the sense of where your body is with respect to yourself, and lets you do things like touch your nose with your eyes closed. Like your other senses, it can be dulled by alcohol, hence that legendary road-size sobriety test. This can be devilishly difficult for a robot -- the more limbs, the harder. Trying to calculate where the head of that snake robot is from the tail would be a formidable task if you're relying on its internal sensors alone! Sensors, like human senses, have errors that accumulate.
Related to that is the concept of dead reckoning. Try this experiment: stand with your toes to a wall, and shut your eyes. Take two steps backward, then two steps forward. You can probably manage to hot give yourself a bloody nose with two steps. Now try it with five steps (you might want a pillow in front of your face or a friend you can trust) This is a good example of the accumulation of error, and is why your Roomba vacuum cleaner can't just retrace its steps to get back to its base.

Fact #4: Because robots are being proposed for wide use in search & rescue, extraplanetary exploration, and simple patrols, there's a great deal of interest in a subject called SLAM: Simultaneous Localization and Mapping. Basically, this is the art of turning a robot into a cartographer. SLAM requires using all of a robot's sensors to figure out its pose as precisely as possible, "pose" meaning the location, orientation, and position of every part of a robot with respect to itself, to its surroundings, and (in a very interesting case) other robots on its "team". Sebastian Thrun wrote a lengthy survey paper on the subject that I still refer to from time to time.

I'd be happy to expand on these if there's interest.
(Edit: A recent post on the development of deceit in swarm robotics might be of interest.)

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