Washington, DC--An intelligent machine has the ability to sense both expected and unexpected changes in its environment and respond quickly and appropriately.
In the United States, limited forms of smart robots have been largely confined to electronics, automotive, and space industries. Seeking to accelerate and promote robotic technologies into wider fields is a volunteer advisory group, the Intelligent Machines Cooperative Council (RIMCC).
Supporters say the initiative would keep design engineers busy for decades creating new robotic applications.
To achieve its aims, RIMCC calls for a coordinated nationwide effort, encompassing the support of industry, universities, U.S. laboratories, and governments. Council members hope to get the federal government to back it both in spirit and in funding for national testbed centers.
Possibilities for new intelligent products abound, claims Patrick Eicker, director of the largest robotics R&D laboratory in the United States, at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, NM.
"Imagine a world where smart cars avoid collisions, where surgeons guide molecularly precise instruments instead of hand-held scalpels, where satellites the size of marbles monitor rogue nations, and where grasshopper-size sensors survey a battlefield and detect and remove deadly mines," Eicker entreats.
RIMCC members envision additional new projects for designers of intelligent machinery in many other industries.
Robot aides. Among them: robotic "friends" that help the elderly and handicapped; delivery systems that can handle packages of any shape; butcher robots for cleaning and cutting beef, chicken, and fish carcasses and autonomous systems for construction, sandblasting, and mining.
Also, automatic movers of cameras and sets for filming; robotic bellboys for hotels and motels; intelligent systems for searching and rescuing and for protecting the environment; driverless farm machines; service robots that automatically collect hazardous wastes in hospitals, and a robotic guide that interacts with park visitors.
In manufacturing, the experts foresee human-like dexterity for materials handling and assembly, automatic inspection and maintenance systems, and robot forklifts and item pickers for conveyor systems. Future systems, they add, will work with product designers and front-line workers to ensure manufacturability and then autonomously reprogram themselves for new product designs.
Later in the 21st century, RIMCC members predict, engineers will be designing applications for robots that learn by imitation, recognize faces of users, and even appear to display emotions.
Much R&D remains before designers can tackle most of the contemplated applications. The proposed national initiative would concentrate on such R&D.
Reaching goal. For example, more accuracy in large-reach manipulators is needed. At present the precision and repeatability of manipulator positions is related to their overall dimensions. A research goal is the invention of a manipulator of about 10 m with absolute precision measured in millimeters. As manipulators grow, ways also must be found to damp oscillations.
Robot vision must improve, too. One aim is development of a real-time self-calibrating system for recognizing objects in 3-D. Current systems are slow and too hard to calibrate.
Also essential is creation of new, cheaper sensors, such as solid-state replacements for gyroscopes and other inertial- sensing devices. Low-cost slippage sensors are needed for integration into automatic systems for controlling grasp forces. Robotic navigation and surgery will require more reliable force sensors.
A major hindrance to intelligent machinery is the lack of open-architecture robot controllers. Technicians cannot now replace components in a controller from one robot to another. Plug-and-play interfaces for sensors and actuators are needed.
Many advances already are being made in intelligent machine technology. To show examples to politicians, RIMCC and Sandia held a full-day Congressional Expo on Robotics and Intelligent Machines on Capitol Hill.
Among the intelligent machines demonstrated were: an advanced intelligent system for production of electronics; a robotic surgical assistant; a six-legged walking robot for exploring rough terrain, and wheeled "robugs" less than two inches square.
A microscope at the Congressional Expo displayed "microgrippers" smaller than a human hair. They are an early step in creating the processes for assembling nanorobots the size of a grain of sand. Some day nanorobots may perform exploratory and surgical tasks inside the human body.
Most members of Congress and the Administration who stopped by the Expo voiced approval of the initiative's aims. They seemed less enthusiastic, however, about assigning federal funds for testbeds.