A Renaissance in Robotics: Engineers Abandon Human Models
Many robotics engineers have abandoned the human
model to work on simpler forms of mechanical "life." The switch comes
from a change in philosophy and advances in engineering, says Gregory
Chirikjian, Presidential Faculty Fellow and assistant professor at Johns
Minimalist robotics engineers use as little hardware and software as
possible, rely on high-end mathematics to find efficient patterns of motion,
and exploit low-tech mechanics such as pistons and spring latches. Resembling
snakes, amoebas, insects, rolling refrigerators and vises, these robots
are comparatively cheap and get their jobs done reliably.
After a dismal showing in the 1980s, when robots proved too finicky for
the rough-and-tumble world of factories, robot purchases were up 30 percent
in 1993 and another 25 percent in 1994, says NSF's Howard Moraff, who
directs the Robotics and Machine Intelligence Program in the Directorate
for Computer and Information Science and Engineering.
The key, according to Moraff and many NSF grant recipients, is to develop
robots that can manage a very broad group of tasks, do not break down
easily, do not need major adjustments for minor product changes and do
not cost a fortune.
THE ECONOMY MODEL
Cost is the driving force in this minimalist movement, says Chirikjian,
who has come up with some less expensive alternatives. In his laboratory,
next to a standard manufacturer's robotics arm and pedestal costing several
hundred thousand dollars, you will find his new thousand-dollar, snake-like
robotic arm. The eight-foot arm is made of 15 pneumatic pistons arranged
in groups of three, and it is the opening and closing of the pistons that
moves the arm. With someone at the controls, the snake-arm works like
a hesitant cobra, curling to one position, stretching to another, grabbing
paper with its gripper, and setting it down in a different place.
Freed from the necessity of mimicking the human image, and equipped with
efficient microchips that can control tiny robots, robotics engineers
may not stay in the minimalist realm. But they plan to keep building function-driven
machines that will push robotics out of the man-machine robotic image
of science fiction into practical realms.
One of Chirikjian's ongoing works is a "morphing" or shape-changing robot.
The robot will be a group of hexagons that use a spring latch to combine
and recombine-somewhat like computer-driven Legos. "Say there's an earthquake,
and a building is a little shaky. You get a truckload of these and they
reconfigure themselves to hold up the building," he explains.
Holding up buildings and bridges, reducing parts-feeding bottlenecks
in manufacturing, and cleaning up hazardous waste–this is the future
that Moraff also foresees for robots. He also tells about medical robots
that will clean out arteries, and robots for the elderly to lean on.