by October 12, 2002 0 comments

Robot is the generic term used for a machine that can be operated remotely or programmed to perform tasks automatically that humans do. With the advances made in the robotic-control systems, artificial intelligence and neural networks, and the reduction in size of electronic chips, sensors, robots are fast gaining popularity in mining, defense and other areas. We look at some of its applications and how IT has been instrumental in its development. 

Robots having highly optimized microcomputers are widely being used by defense for applications like guided and anti-missile technology, detection systems, direction finding and vision-guided equipment. These robots are autonomous, meaning they are programmed to understand their environment and make decisions independent of human intervention. Robots have a controller, sensors, actuators, drive, body and a power supply. The sensors measure sound, motion, location (acoustic sensors), heat (infrared sensors), touch (contact sensors), temperature and pressure to provide them an understanding of the surrounding atmosphere. The controller then processes this information and sends signals to the actuators. The actuators and drive convert these signals into proper actions taken by the robot.

Robots used in detection systems deploy sonar and radar technology to determine how far the target is. Bomb-disposal units use them to find/defuse bombs. Such robots can also see through the walls of a nuclear reactor and perform decontamination.

Direction-finding robots are used in pilot less aircrafts and weapons like the Tomahawk cruise missiles. There are also vision-guided autonomous robot helicopters developed by The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. These are used for rescue operations, fire fighting, surveillance, aerial cinematography, etc in any weather conditions using only on-board intelligence and computing power. Its operation requires control algorithms, real-time vision algorithms for object detection and tracking, GPS, motion sensors, vision output for robust positioning, and high-speed real-time hardware.

The ultimate types of robots, called Smart Dust (since they’re that small), find extensive application in war as they are capable of detecting chemical or biological agents dumped into water supplies or the atmosphere. Each dust particle is an autonomous robot with sensors and communications gear. The dust can be used to study the inner workings of a tornado, monitor the battlefield for presence of chemical weapons, etc.

IT in robotics
Languages like RoboML (Robotic Markup Language), XRCL (Extensible Robot Control Language), ROSSUM, RobotScript are used extensively for programming robots. RoboML is an XML-based language for data representation and interchange in robotic applications. It provides a common interface for hardware and software robotic agents communicating via Internet networks. XRCL (pronounced zircle) is another XML-based language for programming and simulation of mobile robots. It uses a standard method of representing structures and is a cross between XML and C++, thereby looking very similar to HTML. It also provides many support tools like parsers and editors. XRCL has support for vision (motion detection), behavior-based fuzzy logic controller, 3D graphics, simulators, etc. The XRCL Compiler, xc, is responsible for turning the XML XRCL code into a machine loadable binary. 

Micro bugs
Sandia National Laboratories, California have developed mobile, electronic micro-bug sensor-equipped robots the size of a nickel. Only about 1/4 cubic inch in size, they are the tiniest of autonomous robots. They have a robust little chip (computer) in them whose onboard computing power is about equivalent to small desktop computers. Currently, the ‘minibot’ is only outfitted with temperature sensors, but researchers are developing a suite of microsensors that might be attached to its many computer data ports, starting with a miniature microphone, radio transmitter and a microcamera. Equipped with a computer microprocessor and about 8kB ROM, the minibots weigh less than an ounce. 

Another interesting software is RWI’s (iRobot’s Real World Interface Division) CORBA interface, which allows anyone to control robots over the Internet. These run an embedded Web server, which can be used to control any hardware on the robot. 

A Windows-based automation system called RobotScript has been developed by Robotic Workspace Technologies. Along with the Universal Robot Controller (URC), an open architecture PC control system for robots and RobotScript, all types and brands of robots can be programmed using a standard language and hardware platform. RobotScript is based on VBScript and is designed to control robot motion, coordinate inputs and outputs etc. With ActiveX technology, easy interfacing with other application software can be provided using RobotScript to automate data acquisition and distribution for monitoring, reporting and other tasks. 

From soldiers to supermen
Remember the Green Goblin in Spiderman? With his exoskeleton that gave him superhuman strength and his highly maneuverable air glider, it required all of good old Spidey’s sticky webstrands and gymnastics to subdue the evildoer. But the secret defense project in the movie is a take on a similar real-life defense project of the US military that aims to turn soldiers into supermen capable of carrying 200 kilos and walking steadily at 24 km/hr (the average human being cannot walk faster than 6 km/hr). The DARPA (US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) designed suits or exoskeltons with artificial muscles is also expected to allow users to jump up to 30 m in a single leap. All these artificial muscles will be controlled by ruggedized microprocessors, which will ‘sync’ the soldiers’ movement with the power produced by the artificial muscles.

Benoy George Thomas

RTLinux (Real-Time Linux), eCos (embedded Configurable operating system), RTEMS (GPL License) are commonly used real-time OSs in robotics. RTLinux is used for handling time-critical tasks and runs Linux as its lowest priority execution thread. eCos is used for deeply embedded applications, which are applications having extreme resource constraints. It’s suitable for robotics due to its highly configurable design and small memory footprint. For robotics simulation, a number of utilities and tools have been developed like ROBOOP (a robotics object oriented package in C++)[RTF bookmark start: h30385], CORBA, TANGO/TACO. CORBA is a real-time communications software package for embedding [RTF bookmark end: h30385]distributed software agents.

TANGO/TACO is used for controlling a robotics system with multiple devices and tools. TANGO is an object oriented control system based on CORBA. TACO is also object oriented and is portable, running on a large number of platforms. 

PCQ Labs

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