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Robot Birds and Octoroaches On The Loose at UC Berkeley

We take a tour of UC Berkeley's Biomimetic Millisystems Lab, and just barely avoid getting hit in the face by a wayward ornithopter

1 min read
Robot Birds and Octoroaches On The Loose at UC Berkeley

No matter how fancy and complicated we make robots, nature always has us beat. Is there anything more capable, more efficient, and more utterly indestructible than a cockroach? Of course not. Not yet, anyway. UC Berkeley's Biomimetic Millisystems Lab is trying to harness all the cleverness of birds and insects to create an entirely new generation of little robots with insect-like capabilities, and one of their most recent creations is called "Octoroach." OCTOROACH!

Octoroach has eight compliant legs and is small enough and light enough to rest comfortably on your palm. Batteries, sensors, and navigation are all completely integrated. Eventually, Octoroach and robots like it are destined for the military, to provide that last 100 meters of vital close-up surveillance. And if 100 meters ends up being too far, you can just drop off your robo-roaches using robo-birds like this one:

This is BOLT, which stands for "Bipedal Ornithopter for Locomotion Transitioning." It's got a pair of little legs under its wings, and it can skitter around on the ground and over obstacles, saving energy by not having to fly unless it has to. Berkeley is also working on a second ornithopter called iBird, which is capable of flying towards a reflective target completely autonomously.

Check out all of these robots in action in the following demo, which was presented during a technical tour of UC Berkeley as part of this year's IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems:

[ UC Berkeley Biomimetic Millisystems Lab ]

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11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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