"Shut me down! Machines making machines!" If only the loveable C3-PO didn't live in a galaxy so far, far away, he and R2-D2 might be able to see the important strides engineers involved in robotics are making today for us non-cyborgs. But future engineers won't be designing robots to deliver the blue prints for the imperial death star, they'll be researching how robots can be more productive in manufacturing cars, how they can better aid in medical treatment or creating robots that can drive over rugged terrain, seeking hard to find mineral samples.
Dr. Metin Sitti, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University says future robotic engineers should look forward to different areas of research in robotics. "The first is artificial intelligence, making them more intelligent, making them reason and process better," he says. "The others include making robots more mobile, making them work together, improving upon their human interaction and the development of bio-medical robotics."
Speaking of more mobile, Dr. Sitti and his colleagues modeled their own robot after nature's own specifications. The water strider robot is modeled after a species of real-life water strider bug that resembles a big mosquito that walks, yes, walks on water. In order to determine the physics of the creature, Dr. Sitti used micro-actuators to simulate the bug's movements. And with better use of materials, Dr. Sitti is able to help the strider robot float better on water. But why develop such a sophisticated robot? Sitti says the water strider robot will help in reaching hard-to-get to places on water with power and efficiency. Watch a video of the water strider robot.
Like the example above, you just can't get around the "cool factor" when it comes to robots. Researchers, companies and government agencies do come up with futuristic, but useful robots that just make you say "wow." But Bill Steele, communications editor at Cornell University says, it also takes a little work. "They [students] can't forget that they have to put in eighteen hour days sometimes to develop these robots."
However, Steele does have something to be proud of. In May of 2005, Cornell University announced that their researchers created a machine that can build copies of itself. These robots are actually made of a series of modular cubes called "molecubes." The faces of the cubes have electromagnetics on them, which allows them to attach to and detach from one another. The cubes are divided in half in a diagonal line, this allows the robot made of many cubes to bend, reconfigure and then manipulate.
Hod Lipson, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Cornell University, says that these robots currently provide no functional use, but says that making self-replicating robots out of self-contained modules would lead to the creation of working robots that could repair themselves and replace defective modules.
Replicating robots and floating arachnids are cool, but maybe you're not sure about the research side of robotics. Robots play a crucial role in the area of manufacturing, from construction equipment to office furniture. Companies like Kawasaki Robotics based in Wixom, Mich., develop a wide array of robotic needs for companies all over the world. Based upon their customers' needs, Kawasaki provides project management solutions from concept to implementation.
Kawasaki's F Series robots have seventeen different configurations and perform many different operations including material handling, arc welding and sealant dispensing. Kawasaki Robot's Web site describes the F Series robot as "capable of moving at high speeds, which significantly decreases cycle times and increases productivity...the extremely slim arm construction allows the F Series robot to operate in confined areas that would otherwise be inaccessible to more bulky robots."
Robots and robotic engineering have always been integral parts of the
United States' government. Working together, the Sandia National Laboratories
and the Department of Energy opened the Robotic Manufacturing Science
and Engineering Laboratory (RMSEL). According to the RMSEL's Web site,
the purpose of the collaboration is to "advance the evolution of
robotic and intelligent system technologies." This facility located
in Albuquerque, N.M., encourages collaborations between industry, government
and academic partners. Some of the features at the facility include labs
for assembly of Microsystems, a manufacturing prototype system for part
handling and assembly and an outdoor test area for mobile robotic experiments.
Learn more about this facility at www.sandia.gov.
For the adventurous type (or those looking to be transformed into a super-human) look no further than the research done by Dr. Homayoon Kazerooni, director of robotics and human engineering at the University of California-Berkeley. In March of 2004, Dr. Kazerooni announced the development of the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton, or BLEEX.
BLEEX is made up of mechanical metal leg braces connected to the user's feet, equipped with a power unit and frame used to carry large loads. In experiments, users were able to carry the 100-pound unit, a 70-pound backpack, but feel like they were only carrying five pounds! "This human robotic system is a combination of the human intellect working with a heavy payload," says Kazerooni. "Anyone, from firefighters to post-disaster workers are able to move heavy loads with little force."
Forty sensors and hydraulic actuators act like the human nervous system. The sensors provide the unit's computer brain with information, enabling the load to be adjusted based on what the user is doing.
But how will BLEEX be put to use? In the near future, army medics might carry off wounded soldiers from battle, aide workers might bring food and supplies to hard to reach areas and fire fighters might carry gear into dangerous situations.
Students considering robotics as part of their future plans have opportunities in the broad spectrum of sectors from government to manufacturing. Sitti says that many of his students at CMU minor in robotics. "Our students love the opportunity to take robotics as a minor. They are able to build working systems and learn so many different disciplines," says Sitti. "Students really get to see how their systems work, and they control it using many different applications."