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Walking Small
By Robotics Trends Staff - Filed Dec 31, 2004
More Service and Healthcare stories
Spider-Man can go back to his web; Spider-Bot has arrived.

Researchers are developing a new breed of robot, one resembling an arachnid and far removed from the popular image of the metal, humanlike clunker or the six-wheeled rover. Spider-Bots are the latest innovation in small, mobile, high-tech gadgets designed for uses from studying polluted soil to spying on terrorists to exploring other planets.

What makes them stand out from other mobile robots is their mode of locomotion: legs rather than wheels.

robobusiness robot"Traditional rovers have very efficient wheels, but there are things we’d like to explore with legs that you can’t do with wheels,” says Robert Hogg, a robotics engineer with NASA. “Our aim is to make a small, capable robot that can explore terrain in different environments.”

Spider-Bots don’t just mimic the movements of their eight-legged counterparts; they gather information using feelers and antennae, and they employ tiny cameras that serve as multiple eyeballs. Depending on where they travel, the robots can be equipped with eight, a dozen or even 50 legs.

Current prototypes are small enough to hold in the palm of a hand, but researchers hope to make successors one-tenth that size.

The first Spider-Bot was designed and constructed in 2002 at the Mobility System Concept Development section of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. This is headquarters for the agency’s unmanned space program, which controls interplanetary robots and probes.

One goal of the program is to build and test small-scale robots on a shoestring budget within a fiscal year, rather than over successive years. To save time and money, engineers use off-the-shelf electronics systems, relatively simple software and open-source radio modems for digital communications. Robots are powered by batteries or solar cells.

The first functioning Spider-Bot, named Yosi, is packed with sensors for exploring deserts, caves and other remote places. Another model, known as Webcrawler, can walk upside down across meshlike structures - like a spider on its web.

Brachiation-Bot, a version of Webcrawler, is a prototype designed to work on meshlike structures in orbit, such as radar arrays. Its front legs are soon to be fitted with small tools. NASA engineers believe Spider-Bots will be useful on space missions, investigating nuclear waste sites or taking soil measurements on farms.

A colony of micro-bots could act as an entire communications network without the need of expensive infrastructure, such as a satellite. Each robot would continuously collect data, NASA officials say, and send the information short distances from one Spider-Bot to the next.

A mother robot could send signals to a colony, which would move or react in formation. A similar concept was fleshed out in Michael Crichton’s science-fiction novel Prey.

“One robot would be like a queen ant, and all the others, much cheaper and dumber, would get orders from the queen,” says Neville I. Marzwell, the manager of advanced concepts at JPL. “You don’t need each robot to be intelligent.”

If used in battle, an army of tiny robots would continue to function even after many in the group suffered “casualties.”

“In the old days, if one instrument failed, an entire mission might be at risk,” Marzwell says. “The new approach is to have structures or robots that are adjustable and flexible to stand on their own.”

Copyright 2004 Richmond Newspapers, Inc.

Copyright © 2002 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

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