Bouncing robots could become cop's best friend

November 09, 1999

MINIATURE robots that can bounce up stairs and explore buildings have been developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. The robots could be used in urban warfare or help police to foil hostage-takers in a siege.

Nikos Papanikolopoulos and his colleagues have tested the ability of a series of robotic "scouts" to gather information. They envisage a group of scouts being lobbed by a grenade launcher into a building that is too dangerous for police officers, to explore and send back information via a radio link.

Each robot is roughly the size and shape of a roll of toilet paper, with a diameter of 4 centimetres. It moves around by rolling and hopping and stays in touch with other scouts by radio. "The jumping mechanism, along with the software that makes it jump, is the largest accomplishment," says Papanikolopoulos. "Hopping is done by a spring-loaded mechanism that winches in a leg. Then, suddenly, it is released."

The impact of the leg hitting the floor causes the robot to jump, "like kicking a leg". It can also climb stairs and hurdle small barriers. Two independent wheels at either end of the cylinder help the robot to roll into position.

Each scout has a tiny sensor. One has a video camera that pops out of its body, panning and tilting to capture images of the surrounding area. Other scouts have small vibration sensors and microphones.

A number of scouts would be deployed at once and controlled from a mobile "home base". The 50-kilogram base is in turn operated remotely and acts as a radio repeater, allowing a greater distance to be maintained between the scouts and the people digesting the images. The researchers hope that the people will be more than 400 metres away from the front line.

The concept of multiple robots working together is known as distributed robotics, explains Paul Schenker, supervisor of the Mechanics and Robotics Technology Group at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, California. "A number of groups are working on distributed robotics," he says. The idea is that multiple robots can provide diverse information about what is going on inside a building, for example by beaming back video pictures of an object from different angles.

Papanikolopoulos's research is being financed by the US military and is scheduled to be finished by 2002. So far his team has successfully tested the robot's locomotion system and the video camera's ability to pan and tilt.

The main application for the robots will be urban warfare or police rescue operations. But they could also be useful for civilian intelligence-gathering. "CNN would love something like this," says Papanikolopoulos.
Author: Yvonne Carts-Powell

New Scientist issue 13th November 99


New Scientist

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