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Science Special Section Explores the Frontier of Robotic Research
Cockroaches and robots interacting for common shelter selection.
[Photos courtesy of ULB-EPFL]
While robots in classic cartoons appeared destined to keep house for futuristic families, research in a Science special section shows how these machines can be designed to do much more.
In the lead article, José Halloy, a social ecologist at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Brussels, Belgium, describes his team's research in which cockroach-like robots were able to influence the decision-making process of real roaches.
Halloy's team of European researchers built a handful of cockroach-like robots that were roughly the same as the insects and covered in a blend of chemical compounds mimicking the smell and texture of the insects.
When Halloy placed the cockroach-like robots in a community of cockroaches, the roach-bots were able to coax the group in unusual ways. For example, while cockroaches usually seek shelter in darkness, the roach-bots were able to convince the group to choose a shelter that had more light.
The scientists believe their research can show how robots can be designed to "cooperate with living individuals to solve problems." [Listen to an interview with Halloy as part of Science's weekly podcast.]
In a second study, James G. Bellingham and Kanna Rajan, researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, Calif., write that improved sensors and automated mission-planning software are providing a new generation of robots increased autonomy.
With these technologies, the authors believe that robots could be used to explore hostile environments such as ocean trenches, outer space, and other "regions where communication is ineffective or unviable."
"As robotics technology becomes simultaneously more capable and economically viable, individual robots operated at large expense by teams of experts [will be replaced by] teams of robots used cooperatively under minimal human supervision," the authors write. [Listen to an interview with Bellingham as part of Science's weekly podcast.]
In the special section's third and fourth articles, two groups of researchers describe how scientists are building robots based on designs found in nature.
Amphibious salamander-like robot
[Image courtesy of A. Ijspeert, EPFL Switzerland; © Science]
In his review, University of British Columbia research John D. Madden highlights the progress in developing artificial muscles that can compete with the properties of human muscle. Madden believes that advances in materials science will eventually allow untethered robots to perform running, leaping, jumping, or climbing tasks similar to humans.
"In the longer term, robots powered by atomically perfect fibers will outrun us all," Madden wrote.
Rolf Pfeifer, a researcher in the informatics department at the University of Switzerland in Zurich describes how scientists are developing robots that borrow body plans from biological organisms. For example, systems have been developed that can mimic the S-shaped body undulation pattern of a salamander, the wall-climbing ability of a gecko, or the wing movement of a housefly.
"Although many challenges remain, concepts from biologically inspired (bio-inspired) robotics will eventually enable researchers to engineer machines for... adaptivity, robustness, versatility, and agility," Pfeifer wrote.
Micro fly robot
[Photo courtesy of R. Wood, Harvard University, USA; © Science]
Moving from the robot body to the brain, Gerald M. Edelman describes a research program in which robots equipped with brain-like devices learn to carry out tasks using visual cues and other sensory feedback. In his Perspective, Edelman, a researcher at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, Calf., describes how his brain-like devices allow robots to use previous outcomes to affect future decisions.
Edelman writes that the brain-like devices "provide an initial basis for what a decade ago would have been considered science fiction."
Evelyn Brown and Benjamin Somers
16 November 2007