April 10, 2007 12:56 PM PDT
Baby steps for Dexter the robot
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Anybots aren't designed to be witty sidekicks, like the robot in Lost in Space. Instead, Blackwell envisions that they will perform dirty or dangerous jobs that are unattractive or too risky for humans, like working in environments with hazardous chemicals, moving boxes of papers into storage and helping in situations where one person has to be in several places at the same time. Essentially, market demands will help shape the company's labors.
"We want people to tell us what the robot should be used for," said Blackwell.
Still, the company is focusing on building robots that can work in places originally designed for people.
"People don't want to redesign their homes or offices around robots," Blackwell said. "Humanlike robots are made to fit the environment, rather than (people) having to change the environment to fit the robot."
Futurists, screenwriters and scientists for years have dreamed about wisecracking robots that can perform household tasks, but so far such machines haven't taken the world by storm. Legs, arms and artificial intelligence, it turns out, are tough to replicate. A first generation of functional robots has emerged in recent years, but they get around on wheels (as does Roomba or Mitsubishi's Wakamaru) or tracks (for instance, iRobot's Packbot). Robots shaped more like animals and people have largely been relegated to entertainment novelties, the most famous being Sony's Aibo.
James Kuffner, a professor at the Robotics Institute at the School of Computer Science of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, is interested in humanoid robots' motion planning capabilities. He sees a future for humanoids both on wheels and then later on legs. They'll likely be a reality, he says, in 20 to 30 years.
"A lot of people ask: why would you want anthropomorphic robots? The practical answer is that a human-shaped robot is ideally suited for human environments," said Kuffner. He points out, for instance, their potential ability to use door handles, chairs, cockpits, machines and hand tools.
But that's no easy task. Kara of Robotics Trends says legs add a great deal of complexity to the robot, and it takes a lot of energy and advanced software to make a legged robot work. But as challenging as it is to build a walking robot, legs would have certain advantages in human environments--they could climb stairs, clamber over things or drive cars. It's all part of the dream of a general-purpose robot that can learn to do anything and could accomplish any task a human being can do.
"Having legs is part of that. It would be able to navigate in spaces that a wheeled robot would have trouble with," said Kuffner.
Anybots' Dexter started walking in February. One crucial improvement was to reduce the weight on its lower legs. Dexter weighs between 150 and 160 pounds with its arms attached, and 135 pounds without them. When Dexter falls, it tries to get back on track again.
"Most human-size robots powered by electric motors would never have survived the physical injuries Dexter has," said Blackwell. He says pneumatics handle impacts and falls much better than electric drives, which matters because in order to learn to walk, robots--like children--have to fall hundreds of times. In six months Blackwell thinks Dexter will run, and then eventually walk over more difficult terrain.
Eventually, Dexter will be merged with Monty, which has arms and stands on a wheeled Segway base. One arm has a gripper that can lift up to 35 pounds. The other arm has a hand with soft rubber touch pads on each finger that it can use to grab things. Monty also has 12 cameras in its head that monitor the action around it.
"We'd like to see a robot that can do a few things and become more like a personal computer. We think that people can teach it to do different things in different areas," said Miller. The robot should also be controllable over the Internet, the company says.
Kara paid Anybots a visit recently and thought it was enlightening to see a robot company focusing on software. "They seem to be moving progressively, and I have never seen a robot jump before."
Still, for all the positive signs, many uncertainties remain.
"It's difficult to say where Anybots is heading. They have got to get a number of prototypes working," said Kara.
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