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Net-controlled robot "born"

Students from Harvey Mudd College unveil a six-legged, Web-based controlled robot whose "heart" is the same operating system as NASA's Mars Pathfinder.

Imagine logging on to the Net before you leave work and commanding a personal robot to water the plants, flip on the lights, and defrost a pot roast for dinner.

It may sound like a TV commercial about the future of consumer technology, but a group of Harvey Mudd College students from Southern California are demonstrating the concept today at Northern Illinois University during a competition sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Starting with the same computer operating system that powered NASA's Mars Pathfinder, the Harvey Mudd engineering and computer science students built a six-legged, Web-based controlled robot that will be put to the test today by climbing over obstacles and touching set objects, for example.

While the students are in Illinois, however, the robot is back in their California lab. Aaron Hegeman and Max Robinson will send simple commands to the bot via a Java-enabled Net site.

"The control consul provides feedback to the user. There is a map [that shows where the] robot is, and a window where images can be passed from the robot to the user," Hegeman said.

"With this you could do home security, have robots managing factories, or dispose of hazardous waste," he added. "It gives you the ability to control the physical world without being there--the possibilities are endless."

Robinson, who labored over the robot's programming code, noted that the global marketability of such a product relies on the availability of strong data protection products, such as encryption, to prevent a personal robot from being manipulated by an unauthorized user. The government now restricts the exportation of strong encryption.

"We have a password system, and we don't allow two control panels to connect to the robot at the same time," he said. "But it's sort of the same problem we see with the Net as a whole--we need to get good encryption."

Wind River Systems, which developed the real-time VxWorks operating system used in the Mars Pathfinder, and its partners already market robots for factories. The Mars Pathfinder was Netcast, and even the exploration of the Titanic's remains was led by robots and underwater cameras.

Russ Eigle of Wind River advised the Harvey Mudd students, and said their Net-based control panel has commercial potential.

"They are using standard Internet products to communicate with the robot. The robot is autonomous in that it's going to take care of itself--they are just making simple requests," Eigle said. "And the robot could be something in your house that lets you go in and control the heating system or turn everything on when you're ready to come home."

If the Harvey Mudd team wins the $5,000 contest prize, that could only be the beginning, Eigle added. High-tech companies use schools such as Harvey Mudd as breeding grounds for new ideas and talent.

"It's possible that the students could start a company," Eigle said. "Sometimes we look at incorporating the technologies created by our [education] partnerships into our standard products."

The students hope the program's combined three years of work pay off.

"A lot of people are interested in what we've come up with," Hegeman said. "This is incredibly new, and the Web-based control is something we for one have never seen."