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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Researchers Show Bomb Defusing Robot Controlled

A Soldier and his Packbot
Xbox 360 style controls not intuitive enough say researchers.
If you want to make a complex piece of machinery easy to control by a multitude of different people from different walks of life you have to use something that’s common to many different groups. The U.S. military has found this common thread for several of its military robots: console gamepads.

Some of the U.S. military’s robots are controlled by a gamepad that is very similar to the controller of an Xbox 360. As one of the most popular game consoles around, the Xbox controller is very familiar and easy to operate for a variety of users.

Researchers David Bruemmer and Douglas Few at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Lab have found a way to control robots that they feel is even more intuitive than the Xbox 360 style controller. The researchers took a Packbot made by iRobot that is used by the military to search out mines and diffuse bombs and modified it for a new control method.

The researchers say that the problem with using the gamepad is that it requires so much of a soldier’s attention to operate the robot that they can miss information sent from the robots sensors. To remedy this problem, Bruemmer and Few believe a more intuitive control method is needed to free up the solider to pay more attention to the sensor data.

The more intuitive control method the pair of researchers chose is the Nintendo Wiimote. The Wiimote from a typical Nintendo Wii game console was modified to control a Packbot. The researchers say that the motion sensitive Wiimote allows for far more intuitive control of the robot by directly translating hand movements into movements of the robot.

Few told New Scientists, “It’s Awesome [controlling the robot with the Wiimote].” Few also says that the control system could be modified to activate the Wiimote vibration feedback when the robot detects something.

The pair also plan to modify an iPhone to receive video streams directly from the robot's cameras eliminating the need for soldiers to carry a laptop. There is no word on if the researchers will modify the machine gun wielding variety of the Packbot for use with the Wiimote.

Packbot, made by iRobot in Burlington, Massachusetts, disposes of bombs, sniffs out explosives and checks for landmines for US soldiers. It is 70 centimetres long, and moves on wheels or tracks. Some even have machine guns attached, although these are yet to be used in battle (see "Make robots, not war").
Packbot is capable of some autonomous tasks, but is usually remote-controlled by a "joypad" similar to the controller used with most video games consoles, or a traditional joystick. The joypad consists of two groups of thumb-activated buttons, one for steering and the other for speed control. The problem with the joypad is that it takes a lot of concentration and can monopolise the attention of the soldier using it. Any information the robot gathers is beamed back and presented on a laptop display, but the soldier can be so occupied with the robot's controls that they can easily miss this, says Bruemmer. "Our tests show 90 per cent of the operator's workload goes into driving the robot rather than keeping an eye on the sensor data."
The Wiimote is far more intuitive because movements of the hand directly translate into movements of the robot. Bruemmer says it should allow soldiers to control the robots more instinctively, freeing them up to pay closer attention to the incoming sensor data. "It's awesome," Few says, although they have yet to ask the soldiers themselves what they think. Bruemmer and Few have also written software that sends a signal to the Wiimote when the robot has detected something of special interest - somebody trapped in a building, say - activating the Wiimote's built-in vibration feedback.
"Using the Wiimote to control various aspects of the robot makes a lot of sense," says Colin Angle of iRobot.
The pair also plan to harness the iPhone for military use. As an alternative to lugging a laptop around, Few and Bruemmer plan to modify the Packbot to transmit footage compatible with the palm-sized iPhone. Its touch screen should also allow soldiers to manipulate the video captured by the robot more intuitively.
The team will also be adding Wiimote control to the military Talon robots, made by Foster-Miller of Waltham, Massachusetts, but it could be applied to other types. "When trying to envision controlling a future domestic robot, I don't picture sitting down to my PC to instruct it to fetch me something," says Bruemmer.

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