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Robots for Real: The A-Team of Robots

University of Minnesota researchers have built robots of diverse sizes, shapes, and specialties'now can the bots work as a team?

3 min read

This segment is part of "Engineers of the New Millennium: Robots for Real."

In this special report, we meet some of the world’s most creative minds in robotics to find out how their robots will transform our lives—for real. “Engineers of the New Millennium: Robots for Real,” a coproduction of IEEE Spectrum magazine and the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Engineering, aired on public radio stations across the United States.

Hosted by Susan Hassler and Ken Goldberg
Senior editor: Erico Guizzo

Robots for Real: The A-Team of Robots


Narrated by Phil Ross
Reported by Lisa Raffensperger

Sergeant Chris Kuklok: Patrol officers were called to a residence where a male was staying...possible suicidal. They used the robot to...make entry basically on the first floor. Once the main floor was clear...drove it down to the basement area, cleared that as well, where they found he had set up some propane tanks to explode. So the robot was pretty integral in helping them clear as much as possible inside the structure without having to send bodies in.

Duc Fehr: This is the Scout robot. It's probably the most important robot in our lab—it's basically the one that kind of made the lab. It is a very tough robot—you can toss it around like this, and it still works.

Phil Ross: Duc Fehr is a Ph.D. researcher in the Center for Distributed Robotics at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities—the lab which invented the Scout robot. About the size of a Coke can, the remote-controlled bot carries a video camera between its rubber wheels. It was designed as a rugged reconnaissance tool for military, police, and rescue agencies—over 100 of which are already using it worldwide, including the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Plymouth, Minnesota, SWAT team also uses the Scout. Sgt. Chris Kuklok says it has given his team a first set of eyes on dangerous situations.

Sgt. Kuklok: You don't...eliminate all the risk, you just try to minimize it.

Phil Ross: The Scout is just one of the robots that has been or is being developed at the Center for Distributed Robotics.

Nikos Papanikolopoulos: This is the place where we're building the robots, we're testing them, we modify them—it's where all the action is. Where the magic happens.

Phil Ross: Nikos Papanikolopoulos is director of the center. The Scout has been his biggest success, spawning its own company, but its celebrity belies the real emphasis of the lab—creating robots of diverse shapes, sizes, and specialties that work together in a single team. Those diverse robots, at the moment, include an amphibious robot, a transforming helicopter bot, and a big robot that can climb stairs and deploy smaller bots.

Phil Ross: Finally, there's the Adelopod. It's quite unique in that it tumbles—like a crab might move with only two legs.

Phil Ross: The robot can traverse bumpy terrain, but it's simple in design. So it's cheaper to build and has fewer parts that can break. The Adelopod rounds out the lab's diverse cast of robots. Teams of them could someday be deployed for tasks like environmental testing or space exploration. But coordinating many robots is challenging, Papanikolopoulos says.

Nikos Papanikolopoulos: And I will argue that we can build robots which are extremely good—we can build robots that could fly, robots that can move on the ground. But how are we going to have tons of them working together being integrated with the human? I have no answer.

Phil Ross: No answer—yet. But it's a problem the lab is hard at work on. One solution they're exploring is programming the robots to follow one another, using only their video cameras. That way, one robot can help another, explains Ph.D. student Hyeun Min.

Hyeun Min: Small robots have very limited resources, so if they can follow a big robot which has many resources then it would be easier to deliver them.

Phil Ross: And there are strengths of heterogeneous robotic teams. Each robot can specialize on one or two tasks and rely on other robots to help with the rest. It's teamwork—a lot like the teamwork behind the scenes to create these robots, says grad student Andrew Carlson.

Andrew Carlson: We had kinda lab meetings, different things, where we'd brainstorm different, just wild ideas for robots, just anything and everything we could come up with.

Nikos Papanikolopoulos: So it's a playground—it's a robotics playground.

Phil Ross: And the schoolyard lesson, for these robots, is playing well with others. They're learning. I'm Phil Ross.

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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