'MacGyver' Robot Can Use Found Objects to Solve Problems

Locked out of your car with nothing to break in but a piece of chewing gum and a hair tie? No problem -- there's a robot for that.

Or there soon will be, as Georgia Institute of Technology researchers are designing a robot that can solve urgent problems using objects it comes across, much like the fictional TV character MacGyver. The robot is called Golem Krang, and is the brainchild of Georgia Tech Assistant Professor Mike Stilman, head of the institute's Humanoid Robots Lab.

Its ability to MacGyver its way out of problems will come from an algorithm Stilman aims to develop that would help the robot think like a human when faced with an object in its environment that could help accomplish a task.

"We want to understand the basic cognitive processes that allow humans to take advantage of arbitrary objects in their environments as tools," Stilman said in a press release. Examples of how the robot might do this include using a chair to reach something on a high shelf, or stacking boxes to climb over something, he said.

The Office of Naval Research has granted Stilman and his team a three-year, $900,000 stipend for the project.

Stilman has likened Golem Krang to the 80s uber-geek action hero (capable of using anything and everything as a tool to get out of a sticky situation), but the robot is more likely to react like any intelligent, quick-thinking human who is trying to solve a sudden and urgent problem. According to Stilman, the key to the algorithm will be providing Golem with basic knowledge of rigid body mechanics and simple machines. With that knowledge, Golem Krang will be able to autonomously determine the amount of force an object has and quickly come up with plans for using that force appropriately.

Geek speak aside, if the code works, the robot will react like any human in a burning building with only a locked window as a means of escape. Golem Krang could quickly assess the potential of using a chair or something heavy to break the window in order to get out alive.

Thinking quickly won't be the humanoid robot's only charm. Golem Krang has already been touted for its superior strength, with the ability to lift 100kg -- the combined weight of its two arms. This strength will come in handy when the robot needs to use a pipe as a lever to lift a heavy object that's pinned someone, one of the simulated scenarios envisioned by Stilman and his team.

Because of the potential to work alongside humans in dangerous situations, it's not surprising that the Navy is funding the project. Golem would be just the sort of human-helping robot the military has hoped to build via its various robotic endeavors.

In fact, Golem Krang sounds like the perfect candidate for the DARPA Robotics Challenge, which is asking teams to compete to create a robot that can perform a number of physical activities that might be required in a disaster. Those activities include skillfully navigating rubble, or using a tool to break through a wall -- actions that would be right up Golem Krang's alley.

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