Robot talk turns practical at RoboBusiness 2007

The U.S. Army has a lot to learn from nature. Also: iRobot launches a contest for the next home robot.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
3 min read
BOSTON--Collaboration is key when it comes to developing robots and using them in the field.

Helen Greiner, co-founder and chairman of iRobot, and Claude Bolton, assistant secretary of the U.S. Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, both delivered that message Tuesday at the opening of RoboBusiness 2007, the international robotics conference running this week in Boston.

Greiner launched the iRobot Create Challenge, an open invitation for people to develop the robot they want to see around their home using iRobot's Create robot builder's kit. Entries for the contest, conducted in conjunction with Tom's Hardware, will be judged on autonomy, usefulness and entertainment value. The first-prize winner will earn the title "Creator Extraordinaire" and $5,000.

"The Create Challenge is for universities and students or people hacking robots in their garage," Greiner said. She emphasized that it's going to take multiple companies, academic institutions and individuals for robot development to excel.

Greiner's iRobot has a motto similar in quirkiness to Google's "don't be evil" mantra. It is: "Build cool stuff. Deliver great product. Have fun. Make money. Change the world."

But, Greiner said, it will take huge amounts of technology from multiple sources to achieve those things. As one example of iRobot's collaborative business model, she showed slides of a Packbot combined with ICx Nomadics' Fido, the bomb-sniffing robot.

The combined products were tested in the military to great effect, allowing soldiers and dogs to detect bombs while maintaining safe distances. The military has since put in an order for 101 of the products. Greiner also demonstrated several military robots with strength and arms, but pointed out that might does not necessarily mean more helpful.

"What's missing? Manipulation," she said. "What you're not getting is tactile feedback for particular material you want to manipulate. How can we do better? Robots with dexterous capabilities and tactile sensing. Think of the capabilities it would open up."

Bolton, who also talked at length about how collaboration is needed in order for robots to be part of a successful military team, said designers still have a lot to learn.

"In terms of evolution, we're hanging out with the spiders right now," said Bolton, demonstrating a chart on the evolution of robots as compared with the evolution of species.

Over the next few years, people are going to be extremely excited when we put together what's on the left (autonomy and cognition) with what's on the right (mobility) and use it together for a machine that will think and do things, Bolton said.

Military researchers still are looking to nature to figure out how to do some of these things, he added. "The bumblebee! We still have aero folks who still can't tell me how that thing flies. The hummingbird can hover for extended periods of time, and its body doesn't move. And what about fuel? In one day it can consume half its body weight in sugar," said Bolton, citing examples of where engineers might be able to learn from nature.

When asked about the concern over rules of engagement for armed robots, Bolton said that it still comes down to humans. All armed robots in the military are always "positively controlled" by a human being, and in the future when it comes to swarming robots, the U.S. Army has the same intent. As they develop swarming robots, they are concurrently developing the communications capability to retain this type of control, Bolton said.