Machinations

The sun will explode in 5 billion years, and robots are humanity's best hope to escape. Three guys are working on a plan. In a garage. In Heath, Texas.

Other robots, like John Drummond's Blip, are wall followers that use sonar to navigate. Drummond sets Blip down and turns it on. Like a toaster on wheels, Blip begins slowly rolling, guided by a series of bleeps that bounce off the wall and ricochet back to another set of sensors, which calculate the time lag and thus enable it to measure its distance from the wall. When Blip approaches the rear wall, its sensor will tell it to turn, allowing it to stay parallel to the wall without hitting it.

The more sensors a robot has, the smarter the robot is, explains David Anderson, creator of SR04, the undisputed smartest robot in the group and the reigning "can can" champion. In this challenge, six soda cans are placed on the course. The robots get points for locating and retrieving the cans.

Today SRO4 has one new opponent, a duo of LEGO robots that look like miniature forklifts. They are connected by wooden slabs, designed to sweep the cans off the course. Unfortunately, a faulty steering mechanism sends the contraption rolling into a wall, causing it to fall to pieces.

Top: A contestant stalls during the Dallas Personal Robotics Group's line-following contest, while other contestants, below, queue up. Contest master of ceremonies Kip Moravec interviews Harrison Massey about his robot, "Sugar Eater 2."
Peter Calvin
Top: A contestant stalls during the Dallas Personal Robotics Group's line-following contest, while other contestants, below, queue up. Contest master of ceremonies Kip Moravec interviews Harrison Massey about his robot, "Sugar Eater 2."
Top: Robot-builders gather in a suburban garage for a night of construction. Barry Jordan leans on the 2,000-pound German gear cutting machine he recently purchased and installed in his garage, scene of another Robot Builder's Night Out. Eric Yundt, bottom, rewrites the computer code he uses to make bot bones.
Peter Calvin
Top: Robot-builders gather in a suburban garage for a night of construction. Barry Jordan leans on the 2,000-pound German gear cutting machine he recently purchased and installed in his garage, scene of another Robot Builder's Night Out. Eric Yundt, bottom, rewrites the computer code he uses to make bot bones.

It didn't have much chance against SR04, anyway.

The product of several years of labor, SRO4 sits on two bagel-sized wheels protected by a piece of clear plastic that works like a bumper. Its "brains" sit like a glob of noodles atop an electronic board. Its showstopping technology includes an "infrared collision avoidance" system, a shaft-encoder odometer and a rarely seen motion detector. SRO4 also has two sonar "eyes," made out of the auto-focusing mechanisms that Anderson pried off a Polaroid camera.

Stepping onto the mat, Anderson turns SRO4 on with a laser gun. It promptly beeps and begins scanning the course, turning left and right. A red light soon pops on, indicating that its infrared sensors have "seen" the cans. Using its sonar eyes, which emit a series of clicks, SRO4 closes in on the nearest can. Once in range, it clasps the can with a pair of grippers installed beneath the bumper. Then it whirs around and heads back to the starting line, where it sets the can down and promptly begins the process anew.

Around the race course, jaws collectively drop.

James whispers, "We're, like, all jealous."


A week after the contest, Anderson talks about robotics from his office at Southern Methodist University. A self-described "systems philosopher," Anderson's position is funded under the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty. His job is to monitor the planet for atomic blasts, using a laboratory filled with computers linked to seismographs, which are buried in the earth at various remote locations.

To Anderson, a true test of a robot's design is not a race course or a well-lit arena surrounded by top-heavy cheerleaders, but inside a room in an ordinary home. Or, in the present case, an office.

"From the very beginning, we decided we wanted the robots to survive on their own without us watching 'em all the time, which is a huge challenge," Anderson says. "At a minimum, it should be able to survive in your own home. Every time I have to get up and save SR04 from ripping itself apart, that's a failure."

To demonstrate his point, Anderson plants SR04 on the floor and sets him free, letting him rely on his sensors to navigate the office.

"It'll turn toward the bright light," Anderson predicts. "It turns out that is a great way to navigate in a lot of human spaces because we tend to light passages."

Anderson programmed SRO4 to seek out open spaces using a combination of "path seeking" and "obstacle avoiding" sensors. After rolling about the room, carefully checking out the dark spaces beneath several chairs and a desk, SRO4 comes to a halt next to Anderson's chair. Like a dog pricking its ears up to detect the arrival of its master, SRO4 raises its motion detectors into the air and silently waits for a disturbance.

"Ooh," Anderson says, "I like the fact that it came and sat by me."

Anderson, like most robot enthusiasts, is driven by a powerful desire to tinker with electronics. His hobby presents a unique challenge because it requires a blending of three disciplines. They are mechanical engineering, needed to build frames; electronic engineering, for wiring the brains; and computer programming, for programming the brains.

Many robot enthusiasts, visions of Rosie from The Jetsonsplanted squarely in their heads, have a habit of predicting, falsely, that robots will soon be serving people cocktails and sweeping their floors. Others, namely the "transhumanists," believe robots will ultimately surpass humans and replace them as the most intelligent creatures on earth. Anderson prefers to think of robots as "smart tools," similar to the robots already deployed in the nation's automotive industry. To him, the Jetsons are still a long way off.

To give an idea where modern robot technology is, Anderson uses the following analogy: Imagine a football coach trying to communicate a play to a team of robots. To do so, he would have to write a computer program that would give step-by-step directions to every muscle in the bodies of every player for the entire play.

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