Giving Robots Better Vision

Click here to see more photosRobotics technology has seen some impressive improvements in recent years, whether it was in cars that (sort of) drive themselves or in advanced remote-controlled robots deployed in military and emergency situations. But whether it was an advanced AI-controlled vehicle moving through the desert in the DARPA Challenge or a bomb detection robot remote-controlled by a specialist, all of these robots have one common weakness: They can't see very well. Typically these robots use a combination of technologies to try to figure out where they are going. These include standard video cameras, object detection systems and laser radar, or LADAR, systems. LADAR technology has typically been used in military guidance systems and simpler mechanical LADAR has also been used in some robots (for example some that competed in the DARPA Challenge). But for the most part these technologies have come up short, leading to problems on both the serious side (such as a remote operator not being able to tell true distance or see through obstacles) and the comical side (such as a robotic hummer stopped in its tracks by a small bush).

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Robot vision

Robotics technology has seen some impressive improvements in recent years, whether it was in cars that (sort of) drive themselves or in advanced remote-controlled robots deployed in military and emergency situations.

But whether it was an advanced AI-controlled vehicle moving through the desert in the DARPA Challenge or a bomb detection robot remote-controlled by a specialist, all of these robots have one common weakness: They can't see very well.

Typically these robots use a combination of technologies to try to figure out where they are going. These include standard video cameras, object detection systems and laser radar, or LADAR, systems.

LADAR technology has typically been used in military guidance systems and simpler mechanical LADAR has also been used in some robots (for example some that competed in the DARPA Challenge).

But for the most part these technologies have come up short, leading to problems on both the serious side (such as a remote operator not being able to tell true distance or see through obstacles) and the comical side (such as a robotic hummer stopped in its tracks by a small bush).

This is why this week one of the leaders in robotics, iRobot(maker of everything from military bots to the popular Roomba vacuum cleaner), announced that it would be partnering with Advanced Scientific Concepts to use its advanced 3-D Flash LADAR systems in future iRobot systems.

The key advantage of the Advanced Scientific Concepts Flash LADAR system is essentially its ability to see in 3-D. The system uses a large pulse of laser light (what one engineer called a photon torpedo) that can cover an entire field of vision and provide detailed information on distance and type of objects in the field of vision.

The Flash LADAR also has the impressive ability to see through obstacles that would blind many other systems, in tests being able to see people through windows with mostly closed Venetian blinds, or see through dense smoke and fog.

Another interesting capability was the ability to see from a single vantage point but then move around in that image to create a full 3-D image, essentially by taking into account the distance and shape of everything in the field of vision. One demo was a shot of a California courthouse where they could move around within the image and also know the size of the internal courtyard from shots taken from a single vantage point.

Along with the improved vision capabilities the Advanced Scientific Concepts Flash LADAR system is attractive to iRobot because of its design and durability. With no moving parts (it uses much of the same technology found in typical digital cameras) the Flash LADAR can be easily deployed in robots used in hostile environments.

While this technology is interesting, don't expect to see it in iRobot systems any time soon. Executives of iRobot said that it will probably be mid-2009 before it is seen in early iRobot systems (most likely those used by the military).