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Mini-bots cooperate to map out building interiors

Robots being co-developed by Georgia Tech can scoot along the floor and map out the interior of a building by sharing data.

Henrik Christensen, director of Georgia Tech's Robotics and Intelligent Machines Center, is getting mapping robots to work together. Gary Meek/Georgia Tech

Remember that little robot that scoots along the corridors of the Death Star? These Georgia Tech machines remind me of that little guy. But they're designed to help people on Earth by mapping out building interiors.

The rolling droids are being developed by Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania, and the California Institute of Technology/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Equipped with two cameras and laser scanners, they can autonomously explore hallways in an unfamiliar building, detecting doors and windows, and create a map for users such as soldiers or firefighters.

The project is part of the Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology (MAST) program and is being sponsored by the Army Research Laboratory. The program is aimed at developing palm-size machines that can hover in place, enter buildings, and perform other insect-like stunts while gathering data and relaying it to human controllers.

The Georgia Tech robots in the vid below roll on treads and measure about a foot square, but researchers plan to shrink them. "Fully autonomous and collaborative, these tiny robots could swarm by the scores into hazardous situations," Georgia Tech said in a release.

Creepy? Definitely. The only thing worse than swarming robots are baby robots. But I digress.

The robots explore independently, using a technique known as simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM), to chart their environment and determine their position. SLAM can come in handy when GPS localization is unavailable.

"There is no lead robot, yet each unit is capable of recruiting other units to make sure the entire area is explored," Georgia Tech's Henrik Christensen said. "When the first robot comes to an intersection, it says to a second robot, 'I'm going to go to the left if you go to the right.'"

The researchers plan to pair the robots with an aerial platform that could locate a certain building, determine points of entry, and then summon the mapping machines to get in and explore it. That capability would help soldiers facing unfamiliar buildings where enemies could hide.

I just wonder what the map-bots would do if they rolled up to a Wookiee.

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