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Intel hammering out robot standards

The chipmaker is developing standards for building inexpensive robots that eventually could automatically inspect industrial equipment or take aerial photographs.

Intel is developing standards for building inexpensive robots that eventually could automatically inspect industrial equipment or take aerial photographs.

Under the Robotics Engineering Task Force, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker is devising reference designs for relatively small robots based around its silicon. The company's designs don't focus on the mechanical aspects of robots--such as the wheels and motors--but on the internal electronics, Jim Butler, director of the project at Intel Labs, said Wednesday during a press presentation on ongoing research efforts at the company.

Currently, these robots are mostly of interest to university researchers, but their commercial appeal is growing. Two robotic start-ups, Acroname and iRobot, are using some of Intel's technology in their products, while larger companies have started to look at the technology for robot projects. Acroname's Intel-based robots start at around $1,000, Butler said.

"We're in discussions with Honda," he said. "We're talking to Samsung," which has started a humanoid product group.

National scientific organizations also are promoting robotics. In early 2004, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) will hold the DARPA Grand Challenge, under which researchers will race robots from Los Angeles to Las Vegas on an off-road and on-road course. The winners get $1 million.

The thrust of the robotics effort is to reduce the cost and engineering required in building robots. By standardizing the internal electronics, researchers and private companies can cut costs and devote more time to developing mobility, visual recognition systems and artificial intelligence software. The Georgia Institute of Technology, for instance, is working on swarming robots that can mimic bees and other insects that work in concert, similar to a project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

From a silicon standpoint, the Intel-based robots resemble PDAs (personal digital assistants). The designs rely on XScale processors, flash memory and wireless networking.

The most pressing issue for the Robotics Engineering committee is devising standards for commanding and controlling moving robots, Butler said.

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Navigation is another issue. Right now, most robots guide themselves through infrared or radio. In the future, researchers want to use Bayesian networks, a form of artificial intelligence based on probability. Under a Bayesian navigation system, a robot would match data it gathers from a mounted camera to a map embedded in its memory and chart a course accordingly.

While the standards process is currently under Intel's control, the company is trying to move it to a third-party. Intel formed the group two years ago and started working on standards a year ago.

"We're trying to get DARPA to do the funding and take it out of the Intel umbrella," Butler said. DARPA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and others are already participating members in the group.

Several groups demonstrated technology at the presentation. Other highlights included:

• Intel software researchers have just recently released a test version of a technical library for building Bayesian networks, said Gary Bradski, a senior researcher in Intel's Microprocessor Research Labs. The library, similar in concept to the Open Computer Vision Library, contains foundational software tools and other technology for building applications. A final version of the library, called the Probability Network Library, will come out by the end of the year.

• Indian families cover their PCs in plastic wrap at home, according to Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist working with the company. The finding is part of a two-year study on how middle-class families in Asia use technology. Among other findings, Singapore has more cell phones than it has people, Bell said. Cell phones geared at Muslims, which notify the user five times a day when prayer times occur and can determine the direction of Mecca, have begun to appear in the Malaysian market.

• Work is continuing on delay-tolerant networks, or networks that can stretch across continents or planets. One of the first projects will involve setting up Internet nodes on Mars. "There is a whopping delay between here and Mars, let me tell you," said David Tennenhouse, director of research at Intel.