By Carl Weiss
In a take right out of one of those late night sci-fi movies the race is currently on to determine who is going to conquer the world first: autonomous robots or cybernetically enhanced humans. If you have been paying any attention to the newsfeeds recently, there have been a number of articles and videos that have clearly demonstrated that a major shift in the way we look at and deal with technology is now under way.
When most people think about robots today, they either get a picture in their heads of the industrial automatons that now assemble things like cars and vacuum cleaners, or they think of mama’s little helper the Roomba. But what most folks don’t appreciate is that everyone from Google to the Dept. of Defense is on the verge of creating robotic systems that are capable of doing everything from fighting fires to driving on California’s interstates with little or no input or oversight from anyone.
Robots to the Rescue
While most firefighting is still done the old fashioned way, at least one manufacturer, Howe and Howe Technologies, have introduced firefighting robots that are designed to be used in places too hazardous for humans. However, don’t expect these droids to break down the door and carry you to safety. The Thermite Firefighting Robot more closely resembles a tank to 3CPO. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other more ambitious designs on the drawing board or in prototype. In fact DARPA has created a contest replete with a $2 million prize for a more ambulatory robot that can be sent into harm’s way, such as the recent Fukushima reactor accident.
Robotics Challenge Teams Announced By DARPA
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced on Wednesday some of the top teams that will compete in its $2million contest to create robots that can be used to assist in natural disasters and other emergencies.
What’s even stranger is that there are a number of developers, universities and entrepreneurs who are creating robots that walk on 2, 4 or even 6 legs. These includes the Army’s BigDog Robot, which resembles a metal Rottweiler that is designed to carry heavy loads over rough terrain, the Cheetah, currently the world’s fastest quadruped robot and another called the Mule.
It looks like a bull, trots at the speed of a wolf and carries equipment like a pack mule, but does it have a place on the battlefield of the future? Researchers are conducting a two-year study of a robot that promises to lighten the load that soldiers must carry and they gave it a high-profile demonstration in September.
The four-legged robot, developed by the U.S. government-funded Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Boston Dynamics, is part of DARPA's Legged Squad Support System (LS3) program, and is packed with technology. It's a development on Big Dog, a robot platform developed by Boston Dynamics several years ago.
The new robot walks on four legs and has a fast-reacting balance system that means it won't fall over if shoved from one side -- something that most robots can't handle. If it does somehow fall, it's capable of righting itself. There are also "eyes" at the front, actually electronic sensors that constantly scan the surroundings.
But wait, there’s more…
There are also robots that are currently in use that can swim or even fly. While most people are familiar with some of the DoD’s autonomous drone aircraft, such as the Global Hawk, what many have not heard about are autonomous aerial bots that are the size of bats or even bugs. While these micro air vehicles (MAVs) are ostensibly designed to be used to for such things as searching for survivors in the wake of a disaster or even pollinating plants, it’s all too easy to see that these bugbots could all too easily be converted into flying listening devices which would give the term “bugging” a whole new meaning.
Scientists hope to put artificial bee brains in flying robots
Scientists from the Universities of Sheffield and Sussex hope to build a computer model of the honey bee’s brain, with the ultimate hope of using it to control tiny autonomous flying robots.
The project is called Green Brain – a tip of the hat to IBM’s Blue Brain Project, the aim of which is to create a computer model of the human brain. The Green Brain team, however, aren’t actually trying to recreate all of a bee’s mental processes. Instead, they’re focusing on the systems that control its vision and sense of smell.
Also, unlike the Blue Brain scientists, they’re not using supercomputers to create their model. In order to get the performance they’ll need out of desktop PCs, they are using high-performance GPU (graphics processing unit) accelerators. Donated by the NVIDIA Corporation, these GPUs are typically used to rapidly generate 3D graphics on home computers and gaming systems. For the Green Brain project, they will instead be used to quickly perform complex calculations.
What’s worse is that once these some of these bots are out of the bottle, it is not going to be easy to put them back in. Especially since at least one lab in England has developed a way to power these critters on biomass. That’s right, these robots eat bugs. Eww!
Bug-Eating Robots Use Flies for Fuel
At the Bristol Robotics Laboratory in England, researchers are designing their newest bug-eating robot—Ecobot III.
The device is the latest in a series of small robots to emerge from the lab that are powered by a diet of insects. Most robots today draw that energy from electrical cords, solar panels, or batteries. But Chris Melhuish and his colleagues think such release-and-forget robots can satisfy their energy needs the same way wild animals do—by foraging for food.
"Animals are the proof that this is possible," he said.
Over the last decade, Melhuish's team has produced a string of bots powered by sugar, rotten apples, or dead flies.
There’s Something Fishy Going on Here
But the friendly skies are not the only realm into which autonomous robots have started to roam. There are also a number of inventors who have created robots that can swim the seven seas.
Autonomous swimming robot inspired by the sea turtle
Well, we shouldn’t be surprised. Scientists have created swimming robotic versions of the cow-nosed ray, the jellyfish, the sunfish, the tuna, and just the generic “fish,” so why not the sea turtle? That’s what a group of scientists from the ETH Zurich research group are in the process of doing, and they’ve named it naro - tartaruga (the original naro was another robotic tuna). As it turns out, a couple of the sea turtle’s natural features make for a pretty good robot.
Although it is possible to operate the current prototype by remote control, naro - tartaruga is being created first and foremost as an exercise in autonomous underwater navigation. The research team is also interested in seeing just how energy-efficient its flapping-fin propulsion system will be.
There is currently everything from robo-tuna, to automated jellyfish, to robotic eels that are designed to sniff out underwater mines. While many of these cutting edge robots are tethered to their human operators, there are a number that are being endowed with artificial intelligence.
SUNNYVALE, CA and KAMUELA, HI, Oct 25, 2012 -- Liquid Robotics(R), an ocean data service provider and developer of the Wave Glider(R), the first wave powered autonomous marine robot, the world's first wave powered, autonomous marine robot.
Wave powered robots? You heard it here first. Just like the computer revolution of the 1980’s, the next few years are going to see the emergence of robotics as an everyday event. For instance, California has just passed legislature that makes it legal for “Autonomous Vehicles” to share the road with humanity.
With the increasing development of autonomousvehicles, and even some states issuing licenses for self-driving cars, the decided it was high time to lay out a set of rules for these advanced vehicles. According to a report, NHTSA is embarking on a research project that could take two to three years, at the conclusion of which, the administration will write rules to govern driverless cars.
According to the report NHSTA administrator says the technology could possibly save "thousands of lives." It was also reported that NHTSA has been in talks with a number of companies, including , regarding the implementation and development of this technology. Google has been testing its own fleet of driverless cars, logging over 300,000 miles on American roads. The tech company says autonomous vehicles could be made available to the public in the next ten years.
What’s even scarier is the fact that recent developments have made it not only possible, but probable that computer and robotic technology is going to be available that is wearable or even implantable. Most people have heard about Google Glass, which is a voice actuated computer that is worn like a pair of spectacles. What hasn’t been as widely promoted is the fact that there are other companies developing similar technology.
You remember how we saw the unveiling of Google’s Project Glass earlier this year and how it was amazing that we could have a computer that fit into a pair of stylish eyeglasses? Well, it looks like Motorola has beaten Google Glass to the punch with the launch of the Motorola HC1 Headset Computer. This is a wearable computer that runs on Windows.
Yes, this is nowhere near as sleek as the Google Glass concept, but the HC1 is not being targeted at the stylish consumer market. Instead, this is geared more toward industry, military, aerospace, aviation, utilities and other similar commercial applications in the field. And when I said it runs on Windows, you’re not going to get the tiled interface of Windows 8; instead, this is running on Windows CE 6.0 Professional with a custom speech recognition engine.
Robotic Exoskeleton Has Potential For Space And Earth Applications
But these systems are only the tip of the iceberg for wearable hardware. One of the most intriguing would have to be NASA’s X1 Robotic Exoskeleton.
NASA has teamed up with The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) and Oceaneering Space Systems to develop a robotic exoskeleton called X1. X1 is a 57 pound device that a human could wear over his or her body to assist or inhibit leg movements.In space, the inhibit mode would be used as an in-space exercise machine to supply resistance against leg movement. Here on Earth, the assist mode could potentially help individuals walk for the first time.
Some people have described this technology as being “halfway to the IronMan,” which is apropos for a robotic suit that looks like a cross between a storm trooper and a Transformer. But the fact of the matter is that not only is hardware wearable, in some cases it has become implantable.
As shocking as the concept of implantable computers may be to the average American, this technology is hardly new. For years such things as pacemakers and implantable defibrillators have been available to the public. Not only are these devices computer controlled, but industry experts recently issued a report that warned that these devices are susceptible to malware. That’s right, if you are a pacemaker user, your device could get hacked. While other implantable medical electronics such as cochlear implants designed to allow the deaf to hear and ocular technology designed to let the blind see could also be hacked, the results of a computer virus in these systems would in all likelihood not prove fatal.
Computers and smartphones aren’t the only technology susceptible to malware. Experts are saying computerize medical equipment is being targeted through systems connected to the Internet as well — and the effect could have deadly consequences.
Technology Review reported Kevin Fu, a medical-device security and a computer scientist at the University of Michigan and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, saying that infecting medical equipment have been reported yet, they are beginning to hamper patient-monitoring equipment.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology Information Security & Privacy Advisory Board panel discussed the potential consequences this malware could have on patients, how it is getting into the system and what can be done about it.
As electronics get smaller and cheaper it is only a matter of time before many of these systems will become implantable. As farfetched as it sounds, much of the technology that we all watched on Star Trek is extremely close to becoming an everyday reality. Remember the communicator? Today we call this device a cell phone. Remember the Enterprise’s talking computer? Can anybody say Siri? How about cloaking devices? The military calls it Stealth Technology. Replicators that produce food out of thin air? The latest generation of 3-D printer has been designed by Cornell's Creative Machines to print your next takeout order. And of course who could forget the Borg.
Star Trek technology: how 21st century scientists are making it so
Since its inception in 1966, Star Trek has familiarized us with the lingo and applications of science. At least, that was the case for me. I felt pretty disenfranchised from science at school: it wasn't until I discovered science fiction that I realized I could understand "difficult" technical concepts.
Since the show began, many of us have become more tech-savvy than we could possibly have imagined at school. More than that, we're now seeing emergent technology here on Earth that was once little more than a Star Trek scriptwriter's dream. To get you in the mood for this weekend's festivities, here's a roundup of some of the best Star Trek-inspired technology.
As time goes on it’s inevitable that cybernetic systems, robotics and even more Star Trek technology will become not only available but as commonplace as the computer is today. Whether for good or bad, the only question that remains to be answered is, “Do you think we’ll be able to use malware to stop them from taking over the world?”