MIT researchers used a Willow Garage PR2 robot with Microsoft's Kinect sensor to test a 3D mapping system that can be continuously updated with new information to help the robot navigate unknown environments. (Source: Hordur Johannsson, Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Al, thanks for those additional details on the Kinect sensor's limitations. The fact that it doesn't detect objects less than two feet away should not be a deterrence to its use in checking out a new environment for military tasks, such as in advance of first responders. But I'm surprised that it doesn't work well in sunlight--that seems like a major limitation for these applications, and for helping the elderly or disabled, both of which were two applications the MIT team mentions and which occur at least partly in sunlight. I would not be surprised if this research team is working on methods for overcoming that problem, also.
Ann, Used as a tool to aid in developing mobile robots, the Kinect sensor provides a unique type of feedback which can be used in conjunction with flexible I/O, software algorithms and real-time controllers to quickly and easily prototype, test and deploy robotic applications. The development tools already available make it great for prototyping. But while the Kinect is useful for common robot tasks such as obstacle avoidance, like most sensors it also has limitations. For example, the Kinect cannot detect obstacles that are closer than two feet and does not work well in the sunlight. Still great technology at a mind boggling cost.
Al, I agree that obstacle-avoidance and mapmaking software is a big deal. Specifically, the map-making/obstacle avoidance algorithms based on Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) techniques mentioned here, which may also be what's behind the tiny swarming robots' mapmaking ability:
One additional area of software innovation for mobile robots is algorithms for obstacle avoidance. Especially in systems where the mobile robot will encounter humans, such as the tire warehousing application, where the robot is "delivering" a completed tire to a storage/retrieval system, the mobile robot can encounter workers during that delivery process. The software to control those interactions are interesting and also critical to the success of the application.
Ann, The key technology with the mobile robots I've seen is software enhancements and intelligent algorithms. Enhancements in vision systems, for example, provides the mechanism to visualize and ultimately "map" the factory environment but in the end the most difficult task is the mass of intelligent software required. It ranges from becoming an expert system (gathering information to make more informed decisions) to advanced databases for storing information. Lots of software
ChasChas, that's an interesting question you pose. But some of these newer robots will be functioning autonomously, like this one, i.e., not under direct human control. So if these are designed as soldiers, not as merely explorers, the ethical situation changes somewhat.
More and more robots are becoming more autonomous all the time. Now Lockheed Martin has completed a demo mission with two completely autonomous robotic vehicles performing resupply, reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition.
Producing high-quality end-production metal parts with additive manufacturing for applications like aerospace and medical requires very tightly controlled processes and materials. New standards and guidelines for machines and processes, materials, and printed parts are underway from bodies such as ASTM International.
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