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Bring on the 'bots.

You're in full couch-potato mode after school, plopped in front of the TV. Wouldn't it be great if a robot could raid the fridge for you, take the dog for a walk, and toss out the trash?

Who knows? Amazing robots are popping up their metal heads faster than ever. Some robots can vacuum a living room, serve orange juice, and mow lawns. Others explore Mars, perform hip surgery, and clean up hazardous waste. No matter what their skills, all robots are electronic machines that must be programmed to do jobs humans normally do.

Turn the page to check out some of robotics' latest and greatest!


Mechanical ostrich? Well, sort of Meet Troody, a robotic copycat of Troodon, a 2-m (12-ft)-long Cretaceous dinosaur that struts on her toes like an ostrich. "If Troody works well, we could recreate extinct animals in a way never before possible," says creator Peter Dilworth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Troody's claim to fame: she's one of the first biped (two-legged) robots ever--most use wheels. Dilworth uses remote-control to steer Troody as she runs, jumps, and turns. Getting the dino to keep herself balanced as she moves was the trickiest part, says Dilworth. Fortunately she comes equipped with several mechanical helpers:

* Her tail: Like Troodon, Troody's tail swings from side to side, balancing her the way your arms balance you. Try to run with your arms folded. It's almost impossible to keep your body from wagging side-to-side.

* Tilt sensor: This device is an electronic version of a carpenter's bubble level, a horizontal tube with a bubble of air inside marked with a center line. "If the bubble moves too far to one side, the computer knows Troody is off-balance," says Dilworth. The dino's mini-motors then move her body to correct her alignment.

* Force control sensors: Troody's 16 sensors gauge the pressure on her joints, the places where her metal bones meet. If too much force prods her to the left, Troody shifts a joint right to ease the pressure.

Eventually, Troody and company could show up at your nearest science museum or theme park.


What has six legs, two antennae, and an electronic backpack? A bionic roach! Japanese scientists wired a normal cockroach with a remote-control device that commands the insect to turn left, right, or forward. Their reasoning: real insect legs maneuver better in tight spaces than six-legged robots.

Android insects with mini-cameras could be sent to detect people trapped in earthquake rubble. Or robo-locusts (a grasshopper-like insect that destroys crops) could lead a swarm of the real bugs into a trap.

To make Robo-Roach, the scientists first clipped off the roach's wings. (Ouch!) Then they attached electrodes, wires that carry electricity, to the insect's muscles. Just like nerves, cells that carry messages in your body, the electrodes send electric signals to muscles to tell them to move.

The scientists--rather than the roach itself--control Robo-Roach's every move. How? A real roach feels a wall with its right antenna, which directs the insect to move left. Scientists measure that electric signal's intensity from antenna to muscle. When they control Robo-Roach, they recreate "charges" with the same intensity, using electrodes instead of nerves. That tells it where to go!


It looks more like a traffic light than a robotic dolphin. But Rodolph shares something in common with dolphins--and bats: It uses sound waves to "see."

Nearly all robots use video cameras to recognize objects. But for sharper vision, Rodolph's creator Roman Kuc of Yale University turned to echolocation--a sensing technique in which animals squeak with high-pitched sound waves to determine their own location and target prey. The sound waves bounce off objects nearby, and an echo returns to the animal. The delay between sound and echo indicates how far away each bump and groove of an object is from the animal. Rodolph's "sound-vision" is so sharp it can tell if a coin is heads-up or tails-up!

Rodolph emits sound waves with his "mouth," the center circle. His "ears," the two circles on either side of the mouth, rotate to pinpoint the returning echoes. Eventually, handicapped people may command mobile robots like Rodolph to locate objects they can't see or reach. A paralyzed person could simply blink an eye to tell the robot what to do.


Imagine a two-month-long trek in the bleak Atacama desert in Chile--where only 2.5 cm (1 in.) of rain falls every hundred years! For a new robot called Nomad, the trip was no sweat. Nomad wheeled through Atacama last summer, collecting scientific data on the desert in a practice run for even rougher treks--like the moon or Mars. To "see" with the robot's panoramic camera, scientists controlled Nomad from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 8,050 km (5,000 mi) away.

How do you get the picture from Chile to Pittsburgh? First, Nomad's video cameras scan the landscape. The video is converted to electromagnetic radiation--wave energy like radio waves or microwaves. A satellite dish beams up the waves to a satellite, which aims them toward the control center in Pittsburgh. A computer then converts the signal back to an image, and it's displayed on a 6-meter (20-ft)-wide curved screen at the Carnegie Science Center museum. Regular visitors can check out what Nomad experienced for themselves.

Within a few years rovers like Nomad may hike across the moon. Earth-bound tourists at a theme park may be able to "drive" the rovers themselves for a virtual "moonwalk"!

RELATED ARTICLE: Totally Cool Career

If you visited the lab of 26-year-old robot designer Yoky Matsuoka, she'd give you a hand--a robotic one. She's designed human-like hands for Cog, a robot that mimics the brain and movement of a six-month-old baby. Cog could help scientists understand how humans learn.

"When I was young, I wanted a robot to play sports with me," says Matsuoka. She excelled in physics and math in high school, and is now earning her PhD in electrical engineering and computer science.

To build her 'bots, Matsuoka designs the model, cuts and shapes metal, wires electrical circuits, constructs and programs the machines. To find out more about robotics, check out the Web site:
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:robotics produce robots for consumers and scientists; includes related articles
Author:Allen, Laura
Publication:Science World
Date:Feb 9, 1998
Previous Article:The mating game.
Next Article:Deadly carbon dioxide.

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