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SRI shows the benefits of shrinking tech

Road Trip at Home: The technology R&D institution is applying Moore's Law to robots that disarm bombs remotely and tiny satellites that create a mesh network in the sky.

This is SRIs Taurus, a small robot that can be remotely-controlled to allow a bomb dismantler to do his or her job without risk of death or injury. SRI International

MENLO PARK, Calif.--If you've seen the Oscar-winning film "The Hurt Locker," you know how dangerous bomb dismantling can be. But researchers have developed a system that they say can allow military and police to disarm explosives without risking anyone's life.

The system, developed by scientists at SRI International, is known as Taurus, and it is a miniature robot that can allow a trained dismantler to remotely do the work that used to require getting up close and personal, often too close for comfort, to a bomb.

According to Tom Low, SRI's director of medical systems and telerobotics, Taurus will be in field trials this summer and is expected to be commercially available by early 2012. While he would not say specifically what the 14-inch wide robot would cost, SRI's goal is to sell it for "less than the price of a squad car," meaning that many police departments, as well as military agencies, could conceivably buy it.

I got a presentation on Taurus from Low yesterday during a visit to SRI as part of my Road Trip at Home series. I've been to SRI before and seen things like wall-climbing robots, but seeing the way that Taurus could potentially help save lives was a much starker reminder of the ways that robots can make a real difference.

Taurus is a cousin of some of SRI's previous efforts into remote-controlled telemanipulation robotics. For years, the institution has worked on systems designed to allow remote surgical procedures, such as a military doctor being able to operate from afar on a wounded soldier. Low explained that this work began in the mid-to-late 1980s, and was intended to allow highly-trained surgeons to work on such soldiers within minutes of them sustaining injuries.

Over the years, this technology led to the creation of more general-purpose robots, such as the M7 system, which could allow security personnel to remotely explore, say, an abandoned bag at an airport. Low explained that it was crucial that the system be easy to use and quick to learn.

More recently, the technology has been applied to things like eye surgery, or even to allow NASA to remotely perform small procedures on astronauts, such as inserting needles to reduce the pressure of something like a gallstone.

But now, by virtue of Moore's Law and the miniaturization of technology, the system has an even more urgent calling. And if trials are successful, it could result in a much safer workday for people like the character played by Jeremy Renner in "The Hurt Locker."

Another area where miniaturization is being leveraged at SRI is in space satellites.

In the public imagination, satellites are large, bulky machines hurtling through space, but today, it is possible to put sensors, communications equipment, and even propulsion systems inside very small enclosures.

That's where CubeSat comes into play. This is a type of satellite that is just 10 centimeters cubed, and which can be jammed full of sensors and other technology and put into space for a fraction of the cost of traditional satellites.

This is CubeSat, a 10 centimeter cubed satellite that can be launched into space for a fraction of the cost of a traditional satellite. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SRI doesn't make the small CubeSat boxes, but it does specialize in the networking technology that can make the tiny satellite valuable in space, said Victor Aguero, the senior program development manager in SRI's Space Technology Integration Program.

One of the ideas with CubeSat, Aguero told me, is that the tiny satellites can be ganged-up, so to speak, for missions like collecting radio signals, and can be made to behave like much larger satellites. They can be spread out widely in space around the globe, or can be flown around in clusters of 20 or so. And rather than rely on one geosynchronous satellite, an organization, be it governmental or commercial, could instead turn to a group of CubeSats flying in low-Earth orbit, he said.

One major advantage of this system, Aguero said, is that those on the ground can be communicating with something just hundreds of kilometers above the Earth rather than something tens of thousands of kilometers away. On the other hand, the challenge is that the CubeSats are not stationary, and move fast. But Aguero said the closer proximity of the devices can offset their mobility in terms of picking up signals.

CubeSats are designed to be launched into space from a small deployer enclosure that can hold up to three of the devices. And because this box is very compact, it can be easily bolted onto a launch vehicle--becoming, in effect, a secondary payload that is much cheaper to send into orbit than more traditional equipment, Aguero said. As well, it is designed to protect other equipment onboard a launch vehicle by ensuring that the CubeSats stay inside the box until they are put into space.

And CubeSat, because it can be outfitted with any number of different types of sensors and communications gear, has a wide variety of applications, he said. These can range from scientific missions to commercial communications to space awareness efforts for NASA, or even to support military operations on the ground.

And while traditional satellites might cost millions of dollars to put into space, a CubeSat mission can run just tens of thousands, Aguero argued. At the same time, these types of missions can be extremely efficient. He explained that a traditional government mission can take five years or more from conception to launch, while a commercial CubeSat mission could be completed in 18 months or less.

One project SRI recently completed was its Radio Explorer CubeSat, a project the institution worked on for the National Science Foundation. This was a mission designed to studying space weather and the atmosphere, in particular the causes of turbulence in our atmosphere.

But Aguero said that there are countless other potential applications, as well. Those include the ability to track the global movement of cargo ships, or to give the Army the ability to get satellites back in space for the first time in 50 years. Plus, universities should be able to afford to put CubeSats in space, what with their small price tag, allowing all kinds of educational research.

And while CubeSats are just 10 centimeters cubed, that doesn't mean they can't have independent propulsion systems. Aguero said that SRI has developed such systems that are capable of allowing each CubeSat to be moved around in space individually.

Iris on the Move
SRI, of course, works in a wide variety of fields, from robotics to medicine to satellites to education. Another area is security, and that's where the company's Iris on the Move system fits in.

I got a demonstration of this system from Bobby Varma, director of business development in SRI's products and services division. The idea here is to build a system that can scan people's eyes as they pass through a gate and match their irises against a database of known persons. According to Ray Kolczynski, a program manager in SRI's products and services division, iris matching is more accurate than fingerprint matching given that there are 1,024 sample points in a person's iris, making an invalid match a one in a million possibility.

This is a screen shot showing the iris-scanning technology of SRI's Iris on the Move system. SRI International

The main Iris on the Move system is known as Passport, and is designed to be installed inside buildings and handle a flow of as many as 30 people a minute. Each person must already be in the system's database, and as they walk through, it scans their eyes and does a quick verification that the person is recognized. If the person's iris doesn't match, an alert pops up. The system can even make a match if someone is wearing glasses.

There are two other Iris on the Move products, Varma said. One is called Glance, and it can be installed on, say, the outside of an entryway, or at a turnstile. It performs the same iris-matching as the main system, but at a rate of up to 12 people a minute. A third system is called Outdoor Glance, and does the same kind of verification, but is designed to be set up in outdoor situations, like at events.

The Iris on the Move Passport system costs between $75,000 and $90,000 Kolczynski said, while the Glance system runs $7,000 to $10,000 and the Outdoor Glance goes for about $35,000.

Ultimately, the idea here is that companies or, say, airports, that are intent on quickly verifying that everyone who enters is meant to be there, can feel confident of the reliability of a system, yet can handle large numbers of people coming through. Each individual, of course, must first "enroll" in the system--meaning having his or her iris scanned and that data template added to a database. But once there, he or she should be able to quickly and easily enter without even having to stop to have their ID checked.