Row, Row, Row Your

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2006-06-05 Print this article Print

Bot"> "We have taken off the shelf kayaks for 500 dollars from LL Bean and turned them into robots," Leonard said. "We now have about 12 kayaks." Leonard said that MIT had been testing the kayak-bots on a lake in Maine until the neighbors noticed the fleet of autonomous kayaks operating by themselves.
"They called the local news hotline," he said. MIT has since moved the kayaks to the Charles River near the school.
The research then led to a new use. "Were developing autonomous rescue kayaks," Leonard said. He said that these kayaks could also be used to provide communications in flooded areas. "We already have the technology to do this," he said. NASAs Vladimir Lumelsky said that the space agency was researching ways to use robots in space, but was finding it a very difficult problem. He said that plans to use robots to repair the Hubble Space Telescope had to be scrapped because NASA couldnt figure out how to make it work at an affordable price. Lumelsky said that while NASA was making great progress on manipulator arms, the problem was really sensors. There werent enough sensors available to provide adequate input to human operators, and the agency wasnt ready to let autonomous robots loose near people. Closing out the panel was Stephen Welby, director of DARPAs Tactical Technology Office, the organization thats supporting much of todays robotics research. He disagreed with Lumelsky that robotics was too hard to accomplish, saying that his agency had already funded and fielded a large number of successful robotics projects. To read more about the rise of nanorobots, click here. He disclosed, for example, that the third prototype of the GlobalHawk unmanned aerial reconnaissance vehicle was pressed into service in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by the time the agency got it back, it had racked up more hours aloft than any other aircraft in the Air Forces inventory. "It can do things people cant do," Welby said, "like staying at altitude for 35 hours straight." Welby also noted that his agency is making great strides in robotics by offering prizes to companies that can accomplish a task for the agency. Most recently competitors were asked to design a robot that could make its way through the Nevada dessert entirely on its own. The first time the contest was run, no robot succeeded, but in the contest last year, five vehicles made the whole trip. Next, Welby said, comes the tough test. DARPA will offer a prize for a robotic vehicle that can operate in traffic. Read more here about Wal-Marts use of Robots to help shoppers. That contest will take place in November 2007. For that task, some improvements are vital. Welby said that sensors are a key to success, another is learning. "They must be able to learn from the environment," he said. But he noted that robotics research is only at the very beginning. "Were at the Wright Brothers stage of robotics," Welby said. Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis in programming environments and developer tools.

Wayne Rash Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazineÔÇÖs Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.

He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.

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