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Frontiers
A Renaissance in Robotics: Engineers Abandon Human Models

March/April 1998

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 Hopkins University.

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.

BEYOND ASIMOV

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.
[July/August 1995]


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