If you ask Dr. Amir Shapiro, director of the Robotics Lab at the Mechanical Engineering Department of Ben Gurion University, what’s a robot, he’ll point at the phrase decorating the lab walls: “If you don’t want to do something, a robot will do it for you.” Dangerous, dirty, boring jobs? No problem, a robot could do all of them: Descending into sewers, entering a failing nuclear reactor, exploring dark tunnels on the Gaza border, spraying pesticides – robots will soon be able to carry out all these and more.
In the university’s two robotics labs, run by Dr. Amir Shapiro and Prof. Hugo Guterman, you realize that when it comes to robotics the sky’s the limit. Drones, jeeps, submarines, ATVs, serpentine robots, robots that carry gear for soldiers, robots that help the elderly and pick apples – all unmanned, autonomous and fascinating. Robotics, According to the two robotics directors and their students, is the future, and it’s already here.
Dr. Amir Shapiro explained: “In this lab we develop our own projects or custom projects for clients. We build prototypes, design and build working models – their mechanics, electronics, software, algorithms – It’s all done right here, in-house. After the prototype phase we begin looking for a sponsor who will fund the rest of the development process. We focus on walking robots and robotic grip, meaning the ability of robots to grip and hold objects.”
The first product presented to us is a micro-robot built for the Ministry of Defense: A black box the size of a cellular phone, basically a tiny, two-wheeled antenna. Soldiers carry the robot along with the rest of their combat gear. When the unit is about to enter a suspicious residence, for example, the robot is activated and sent into the building. The soldier carries a tiny monitor strapped to his left arm, displaying whatever the robot’s camera sees: Doors, furniture, balconies and people. The robot can maneuver inside tunnels and it can also carry cameras, sensors, laser pointers, all according to mission requirements.
The next robot we saw is a logistics support robot for carrying heavy combat gear. Robots of this type already exist in the market, but this robot is unique: It operates by reading its handler’s hand gestures. The soldier can pull the robot behind him or push it in front of him, as needed.
Another military robot: A climbing robot. Hot glue keeps it stable on building walls, giving it the ability to reach windows, look inside and transmit information. Other similar robots have sticky wheels and another robot actually uses claws to climb walls.
Next are the naval robots: A small underwater camera robot used to scan ships for attached explosives – or drugs packages. The robot is waterproof, uses magnets to attach itself to ship hulls, climbs, searches and takes photographs. No wonder it was developed by two students who served in the Israeli Navy.
Amir Shapiro then comes up with a surprise – a robotic serpent, back home after making an appearance at an Indian expo. It moves like a snake and has the ability to climb obstacles. Its purpose is helping search and rescue units, entering collapsed building after an incident and looking for survivors. The snake can carry any payload – camera, audio recorder, heat sensor and more. The Ben Gurion Robotics Lab deals only with the robots themselves, not their payloads.
Some other, entirely civilian, applications for agriculture, automobile industry and medicine:
The lab is a part of a large-scale European project which involves 13 companies, with the aim of developing a robot that will pick apples, peppers and grapes used in the production of quality wines. The robot is still in development, with the Ben Gurion lab in charge of developing its grasping mechanism, the way it grabs the fruit to be picked. Another group develops fruit-identification software and another develops the grasping fingers themselves. 10 million euros have been invested in the project.
The automobile industry: A General Motors project. Robots have been assembling cars for many years now, but the current generation is only capable of assembling one, specific model of a car. The robots needs to be replaced in order to assemble even very similar models. The Ben Gurion Lab has been given the task of designing a robot with universal appendages, with the ability to manipulate many types of vehicle parts.
Medicine: The Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem is currently running clinical tests using robots that helps the elderly maintain their balance. The idea came from the U.S. Army, where many soldiers suffer from knee and ankle injuries, having to work hard in order to get their balance and walking abilities back.
Flexible robot: A plastic sheet with integrated muscle wires, which react to electric currents by growing shorter. The sheet can change its shape according to user preference. One of its uses in defense is camouflage: Soldiers can cover a tank with the sheet, for example, while having it change shape so that the tank underneath remains unnoticeable. It can be rolled into a ball, carry a payload inside and rolled into a room or a suspicious building.
The lab is a part of an Israeli group, which includes the Ben Gurion and Bar Ilan universities, the Technion, IAI and Cogniteam. The group works on teaching robots how to walk carefully and slowly, without falling. This is a DARPA project, the R&D agency of the U.S. Department of Defense. The Ben Gurion lab is in charge of the gripping algorithms for the robot’s legs while walking slowly.
Dr. Amir Shapiro explains that mechanical engineering students mostly study mechanics, mechanisms and control, but not robotics. The purpose of the lab is to fill the gap, allowing students – from all academic levels – to complete their robotics projects. Some of the results of their theories and algorithms for movement and navigation have been presented above.
The next lab is run by Prof. Hugo Guterman, one of the only labs in the academic world that builds complete systems from A to Z. The professor even gave iHLS exclusive access to a new product: The first locally built submarine!
The first Israeli-built submarine was designed by students for a robotics competition abroad. It is 2 meters long and can cruise, float in place, descend and rise. It has a load-bearing arm and a camera. The submarine is made of composite materials. It is powered by six small engines and can reach a depth of 70 meters. The next version will be able to reach a depth of 300 meters. Applications? Everything is fair game: From mapping corral reefs and inspecting ships from underneath to guarding oil fields. Prof. Gutterman explained that this type of underwater vehicles can remain underwater for 24 hours: Guarding large ports, aiding ship cleaning efforts and checking suspicious ships.
The researchers showed us a video featuring the Be’er Sheva submarine as it made its way to San Diego in the western U.S., where it descended into the ocean surrounded by American divers. We saw it move forward, turn around, rise and descend, identify a gate and pass underneath it – all autonomously. A real unmanned underwater vehicle. Next to the submarine, in the lab, there’s a yellow kayak boat, apparently normal in every way – except this one is autonomous, a robotic kayak. Lab researchers are currently looking into operating the kayak along the submarine, using a shared communication system. The submarine will transmit data from below to the kayak on the surface, which will relay the information to the operators on the ground.
The next stop in our tour is the land systems display room. Ground-based robots face more significant challenges than maritime systems, since land is uneven and full of obstacles. Some of the vehicles here have practical applications, while others were developed for research purposes.
- An automatic scooter for off-road driving
- A large tom-car capable of successfully traversing difficult slopes, used for beach cleaning, snow removal and military security patrols: All dangerous and costly missions for humans.
- An autonomous tractor for agricultural work.
- A fire fighting robot. It enters burning buildings, creates maps of the area and relays information to incident commanders, all in order to avoid risking the lives of fire fighters.
Prof. Hugo Guterman: “The robotics programs of today are advanced and sophisticated. They give robots the ability to make decisions. If a robot comes across an unfamiliar situation it will still know how to decide what to do. Its software gives it a set of rules, although the robot may still come across situations with changing rules. A well known example is a person driving a vehicle, waiting for the traffic light to change from red to green, when an ambulance arrives. What should the driver do? Will he follow the law and wait until the light turns green, or will he move and allow the ambulance to pass by? How will an autonomous vehicle react? The robot is programmed to stop at a red light, but the arrival of the ambulance breaks the rules. This is one of the challenges facing researchers of advanced robotics. However, robots never get tired or bored, and can repeat the same action millions of times without complaining.”
Current trends in robotics:
- Certifications for robots and autonomous vehicles. Even today operators of large civilian UAVs have to be issues civilian aviation certifications. There are many unanswered questions, such as what are the exact requirements.
- In the future a large number of unmanned systems will operate in the same airspace as manned flights. Coordinating traffic in crowded future skies will require special communication systems.
- Autonomous vehicles carry a multitude of sensors. How will operators know when a specific sensor breaks down and starts transmitting corrupt data?
- As is the case for manned platforms, ongoing research is aimed at increasing safety and robustness, especially for vehicles used in harsh environments.
Courtesy of i-HLS.Com