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Intel taps student's robot for processor demo

University of Arizona engineering student creates a six-legged Atom-powered bot that can "learn" to walk on its own, and Intel brings it along on the company road show.

Matt Bunting
Electrical-engineering student Matt Bunting and his hexapod robot. Pete Brown/UA College of Engineering

While I've always been a little scared of spiders, watching student Matt Bunting's hexapod robot dancing has all but cured me. Maybe it's the combination of the folk guitar and little leg sways in the below video, but all of a sudden, spiders (at least the robotic kind) look so damn cute.

Cuteness aside, the hexapod bot has gotten some attention from high places. Two days after Bunting, a University of Arizona electrical-engineering senior, posted a YouTube video of his bot, Intel ordered two of them to promote its Atom processors at trade shows and engineering meetings. The robot uses Intel's 1.60GHz Atom Z530 and US15W chipset. It runs on the Ubuntu open-source operating system.

Hexapod Webcam
The hexapod robot uses a Logitech QuickCam Communicate Deluxe Webcam mounted on its front for vision. Matt Bunting

Bunting built the as-yet unnamed robot from spare parts as a final project for a UA class on cognitive robotics. A camera mounted on the front of the six-legged creature (each leg has three degrees of freedom) takes successive images, which are used to help Hex determine if it is moving forward, sideways, or backward or tilting.

By analyzing the visual feedback, the 14x17x8-inch robot adaptively "learns" how to most effectively achieve its forward-moving goal.

"One of the things I wanted to explore was the idea of reinforcement learning. What I wanted to do was not preprogram any of those walking algorithms, I wanted it to figure out how to walk straight forward on its own," Bunting said. "It has the ability to figure it out itself."

Bunting's professor Tony Lewis says the bot's learning algorithm can be applied to tasks other than walking. If a leg breaks or a motor gets damaged, for example, it can relearn how to walk. The robot even has foot contact sensors that can be used for terrain adaptation.

"I see that this device might be doing scientific work like autonomous navigation, mapping of different environments, moving over rough terrain and doing exploration, possibly planetary exploration," Lewis said. "I think Matt's robot has a lot of possibilities. It's really not so far-fetched that a robot like this could go to Mars."

Closer to home, Intel showed the robot off at a Society of Women Engineers conference in Phoenix last month, and plans to feature it at March events including Embedded World in Nuremberg, Germany, and Sigcse 2010 in Milwaukee, Wis.

"Being a nice slick device that walks around is so much better than a standard desktop demo," said Stewart Christie, product marketing engineer with Intel's Embedded and Communications Group.

Bunting didn't just capture Intel's eye, though. Gilbert, Ariz.-based CrustCrawler Robotics, which provided servo motors for Bunting's product, was so impressed by the hexapod's design and performance it asked him to develop software for several of its products, starting, appropriately, with code to get users up and running with a newly purchased hexapod kit.