Scooter Runs Into A Wall

April 23, 1997

EVANSTON, Ill. --- You can grasp the top of "Scooter," a sturdy, three-wheeled robot, and push it around as you wish --- that is, until you run into an invisible wall. At that moment Scooter turns sharply, and runs along the wall instead.

You have now felt what researchers call a "virtual surface." The robot, a prototype of a new class of collaborative robots called "cobots," is programmed to refuse to go past a virtual surface.

Researchers from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University demonstrated Scooter on Wednesday, April 23 at the 1997 International Conference on Robotics and Automation, at the Albuquerque Convention Center in Albuquerque, N.M. Also on Wednesday, Discover Magazine announced in Washington that the "cobot" invention was named a finalist in its annual Awards for Technological Innovation. The research team was to make a technical presentation about Scooter at the conference on Thursday, April 24.

"Cobots are safe because they don't have motive power of their own," said co-inventor J. Edward Colgate, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the McCormick school. "They are intended to work with people, instead of replacing them."

The researchers are working with General Motors on a cobot that would help assembly line workers install instrument panels, which barely fit through the door opening. "The virtual surfaces will extend out of the cab door like an invisible funnel," said Michael Peshkin, cobot co-inventor and also an associate professor of mechanical engineering.

"Workers can maneuver the instrument panel down the middle of the funnel if they wish," Peshkin said, "but more likely they will prefer to push it up against a virtual surface and just slide it along into the cab."

When Scooter, the prototype cobot, runs into a virtual wall it doesn't crash. The wheels, under the control of a computer, simply redirect Scooter and its payload in a direction parallel to the wall.

The researchers are also developing an arm-like version of a cobot for computer-assisted surgery, which also requires cooperation between a human and a machine.

"You can think of a cobot as a physical interface for a person to collaborate with a computer," Colgate said.

Scooter was named as one of five finalists in the annual Discover Magazine awards, in the category of computer hardware. Altogether the editors of Discover selected 35 finalists from over 4,000 nominations worldwide. The finalists were announced by Discover President and Editor in Chief Paul Hoffman at the Smithsonian Museum.


CONTACT: J.E Colgate at 847 491-4264 or by e-mail at

Northwestern University

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