The way robots should be

Maine’s burgeoning automaton population
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  April 28, 2010

READ:Chris Faraone's Ray Kurzweil profile "Is genius immortal?"
While Ray Kurzweil pursues the Nanotech Revolution, robotics researchers in Maine are chasing their own futuristic outcomes. Here’s what’s new on the local robot scene (didn’t know we had one of those, didja?):

The University of Maine Orono is on the cutting edge of robotics research, thanks to dedicated students (who provide the energy), the Maine Technology Institute (which provides some of the cash), technology firms around Maine (which execute some of the ideas), and mechanical engineering professor Mohsen Shahinpoor (who provides the vision). Shahinpoor and his team are working on a variety of bionic and robotic projects, including robots that assist with surgical procedures by providing surgeons with a remote sense of touch, and robotic muscles that mimic the real thing. Don’t believe it? Try arm-wrestling a robot. No joke — the power of Shahinpoor’s ARTIFICIAL MUSCLES (his Artificial Muscle Research Institute moved with him from New Mexico to Maine last year) was demonstrated in a human-robot arm-wrestling competition in 2005. Driven by electroactive polymers that respond to electrical or chemical stimulation (Shahinpoor’s specifically respond to charged ions), these muscles could have military, medical, and industrial applications. Check out videos of robotic wings, fingers, and fish at Shahinpoor’s site: artificialmuscles.org.

Maine Republican Olympia Snowe recently co-sponsored a bill in the US Senate to encourage education and innovation in nanotechnology, which is considered one of the fastest growing sectors in the world. According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), foreign students earned 63 percent of the engineering doctorates awarded in the United States in 2007. We need to catch up, Snowe and her co-sponsor, Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), say. THE PROMOTE NANOTECHNOLOGY IN SCHOOLS ACT (S. 3117), which was referred on March 15 to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, would direct the NSF to award $400,000 in grants to high schools, community colleges, and higher-ed institutions to better prepare US students for careers in nanotech. Grants (which need to be 25-percent matched) could be used to purchase equipment or train teachers.

Earlier this year, the University of Maine established a ROBOTICS MINOR. Students can choose to specialize in special-vision or walking robots, or those that perform surgical tasks or help in hazardous environments.

A couple of weeks after the June 11 World Cup kick-off in South Africa, the RoboCup kick-off will happen in Singapore. A team of six humans from Bowdoin College will be present with their Northern Bites — the second-best team of SOCCER-PLAYING ROBOTS in the world — hoping to maintain their dominance in an international field. After working out some bugs at this month’s “US Open” (for example, the robots were having a hard time regrouping after falling over), the team is ready to rock the RoboCup. Team members (including some newbies) did some quick and calm reprogramming, and on the second day of the tournament, the Bites were in better shape. “We, more than any other team in RoboCup, are able to make [in-tournament] adjustments in a positive way,” says faculty advisor Eric Chown. Working off student-written code, the Northern Bites compete autonomously without human intervention on the field. “Players” are programmed to scan the field and recognize colors, opponents, the ball, the goal posts, and other field markers, and then move, communicate, and act accordingly. The RoboCup’s ultimate goal is to create “a team of fully autonomous humanoid robots that is capable of defeating the human world-champion soccer team.”

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