With Hurricane Sandy dissolving, it's not surprising that some are taking a look at uses of technology to aid in not only disaster prevention, but disaster recovery. Drexel University is one such group looking to create a line of robots that can respond to disasters, including those that involve conditions in which humans can't operate, like in areas that are highly toxic or radioactive.
Recently, they added Purdue University to the fold, and Purdue's looking to bring an advanced humanoid robot to the party.
Funded by DARPA – the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – the DARPA Robotics Challenge is bringing in plenty of scientific masterminds to research and design the advanced humanoid robots, and provide them with capabilities that normal humans would have.
For instance, the Challenge is looking for robots that can do things like drive vehicles, use power tools, close valves and the like.
Purdue – one of 10 universities working with Drexel – is focusing on getting robots to climb an industrial ladder, and use an industrial walkway – a process which requires some surprisingly powerful math to get accomplished. To help with that, Purdue got its hands on a HUBO II robot, a humanoid robot measuring in at four feet, 11 inches tall that can perform several key functions in its current state.
It's able to walk – even run at comparatively quicker speeds – as well as grasp and lift objects thanks to human-style hands, a Web camera, built-in gyros and a collection of 38 motors powering the range of articulation.
Progress is proceeding surprisingly well, as doctoral student Andy Park managed to get the robot to perform tai chi exercises thanks to a combination of a Microsoft Kinect camera – which captured him performing the exercises – then followed up with a data transfer to the robot, which allowed the machine to perform the same exercises Park did.
C.S. George Lee, who serves as a professor of electrical and computer engineering, as well as the leader of Purdue's part of the research, explained the DARPA project's eventual goals and motivations: "There is a concerted push to learn how to enable robots to respond to emergencies, to go into areas too dangerous for people, and that's the application behind the purpose of this challenge. However, there are numerous other potential applications for humanoid robots of the future, including space exploration, assisting the elderly and working side-by-side with people in various environments."
This, in turn, is an excellent summation of the role that humanoid robotics can play in the modern environment. It's important to have a way to address situations that are too hazardous for humans directly to get involved with, yet at the same time don't pose the risks to human livelihood that robots often do.
The use of robots in many situations can be hard to quantify; no one likes the thought of dozens of humans being put out of work because they've been replaced by a single tireless automaton. But then no one much cares for the thought of human beings trying to save us all from a nuclear apocalypse by walking into an irradiated, malfunctioning reactor environment either.
Getting humanoid robots in just the right place to do the most good is a welcome prospect indeed, and one we'd all likely hope to see happen soon.
Edited by Braden Becker