Saturday, November 18, 2006


Just some really cool news from the world of science and technology:

Researchers at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., built a four-legged robot that can sense damage to its body and figure out how to adjust and keep going.

Still a long way from Stargate's Replicators, even a longer way from R2-D2, but getting where we need them to be.

Most robots are used in industrial applications where their environment never changes, explained Hod Lipson, a co-author of the paper. If they are to become useful outdoors or at home they need to be able to cope with changes, he said.

The robot has tilt sensors and angle sensors in each of its joints and uses the readings from these devices to create a computer model of its own structure and movement. When the sensors indicate a change, it can then alter the model to compensate.

While most robots operate using a computer model they have been programmed with, this one develops its own model by analyzing how its parts respond to commands to move.

That allows it to change its own program if something occurs that it didn't expect.

I suppose this will show up in my life as a lawn mowing robot that keeps going after it hits a rock, but I prefer to think of what it means for interplanetary exploration. There are two robots up on Mars right now who could use this technology.

Here's a question. Are the Martian rovers true robots or are they remote controlled devices with some robotic features?

If they are robots, is each one just one robot or is it a committee of task-designated robots?

Meanwhile, back on earth. The self-healing robots don't have a name yet.

"We never officially named it, but we usually refer to it as the Starfish robot, even though a real starfish has five rather than four legs," said lead researcher Josh Bongard, now at the University of Vermont. "Also, a real starfish is much better than our robot at recovering from injury, because it can actually regrow its legs."

I like it that Bongard felt he had to explain things about real starfish to the reporter. Never pass up an opportunity to teach.

Here's the link to the abstract of the research team's paper in Science. Unless you're a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, you have to pay extra to read the whole report.


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