Thinking Tech

Fire-fighting, soccer-playing robots (and one that may be three-stories tall)

Fire-fighting, soccer-playing robots (and one that may be three-stories tall)

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Robots developed at Virginia Tech became world-class soccer champions this past summer. Now they are moving on to fire-fighting and other tasks proving too dangerous or dull for humans.

“If a robot cannot play a game of soccer, then it won’t be able to help humans,” said Dennis Hong, associate professor in mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, just before he boarded a plane to Korea. He is traveling to South Korea tonight to show president Lee Myung-bak their latest robot creations.

DARwIn and CHARLI L are not only robots but also champion soccer players. Both humanoids were developed by Hong and his team at the Virginia Tech Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa.) DARwIn performed recently at the Office of Naval Research as part of the 2011 Unmanned Vehicle Systems’ conference.

DARwIn is a family of autonomous robots capable of walking quickly on two legs and adeptly kicking a ball. This past July in Istanbul DARwIn-OP (Dynamic Anthropomorphic Robot with Intelligence, Open Platform) and CHARLI L (Cognitive Humanoid Autonomous Robot with Learning Intelligence, Lightweight) won RoboCup, the first U.S. winners since the annual competition began back in 1997. In addition to wining RoboCup, RoMeLa landed the Louis Vuitton Best Humanoid Award. This award, sponsored by the famous bag designer, is considered the top achievement in humanoid robotics. Japan took it home for seven consecutive years and then Germany had it for two years.

DARwIn-OPs are small, only 18-inches. CHARLI 2, a recently developed adult-sized humanoid, stands about 1.5 meters tall.

The next big move for RoMeLa is SAFFiR (Shipboard Autonomous Fire Fighting Robot), robots that will fight fires on U.S. navy ships. The engineers at Virginia Tech are also currently building a robot three-stories tall. Hong could not yet reveal for what purpose, but let's just hope it's something relatively innocuous.

Robotocists’ goals are to accomplish the so-called "3Ds," replacing humans in otherwise dull, dirty and dangerous tasks, explained Hong. Dull refers to any sort of repetitive work, dirty to tasks like the clean up of nuclear waste, and dangerous, referring to something like disarming bombs or fighting fires.

The idea of robots playing soccer first showed up in a 1992 academic paper called “On Seeing Robots” by computer scientist Alan Mackworth at the University of British Columbia. News spread and the first RoboCup was held in 1997 with 40 teams and over 5,000 spectators. The ultimate goal as stated by the RoboCup organizers: By mid-21st century, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players shall win the soccer game, comply with the official rule of the FIFA, against the winner of the most recent World Cup.

This “grand challenge” is meant to push and publicly promote the far reaches of artificial intelligence. “Yes it’s a very challenging goal that will push the envelope, but I believe we can do it,” said Hong.

The biggest challenges are building robots with better vision, better actuators and extended power.
"DARwIn currently operates for about 20 minutes on a single 1100mAh lithium polymer battery pack," wrote Bryce Lee, a mechanical engineering graduate student at RoMeLa, in an email. "CHARLI runs for a similar amount of time.  CHARLI's limiting factor are the legs, each of which runs off a 2250mAh pack."

Right now, with weight restrictions, lithium polymer packs are the best energy source for humanoid robots. "In the future, we would ideally like some power source that gets us a couple hours of run time. Long into the future, I would guess that we might achieve a full day of operation without needing to recharge.  This will require advances in power technology, possibly moving into energy harvesting and fuel cell," Lee said.

Weight is actually a serious problem. Currently a person could pick up CHARLI 2 with one hand. That’s better than having a 200-pound piece of machinery trip and fall on a structure or worse, a human.

And they need to get a lot better if they want to meet the 2050 goal. Just watch the video:

But scientists have nearly four decades. Should computer technology find a way to continue to increase nearly exponentially and with the latest open-source trend driving massive experimentation around the globe, looks like they could reach that goal.

And to see into a possible future it might be worth watching a clip from a short film by Neill Blomkamp, the maker of the Academy Award-nominated District 9:

And then there is the 2009 reality of a smooth-walking adult-sized robot from Boston Dynamics:

[Photo courtesy of RoMeLa.]

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure