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Tuesday, January 13, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Army of robots drills for new military project
By Elise Ackerman
SAN JOSE, Calif. When Randy Gobbel joined SRI International a year ago, one of the coolest things about his new job in the Engineering Building was the little red robots wandering the halls.
Trundling along on three wheels and resembling mutant ladybugs, they'd stop at Gobbel's open office door and silently peer inside. "Sometimes you feel like you just want to pet them," said Gobbel, a computer scientist who is working on a biochemical database.
But it wasn't a social visit. Although they looked like toys, they were working together to build a collective map, sending information back to a central computer. They also were on the lookout for objects interesting enough to warrant an alert to a human commander.
The Centibots are part of a military project funded by DARPA, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Working in teams of up to 100, they are designed to conduct surveillance in hazardous areas, spot intruders and find "objects of value" such as prisoners or wounded people.
After 1 ½ years of development, the Centibots' creators say they are ready to show their stuff to their military backers.
In December, nearly 100 robots lined up in a hallway for a class picture, then were to spend the next few weeks in final testing before snuggling into bubble wrap for the trip back east.
Charlie Ortiz, who oversees the Centibots project at SRI's Artificial Intelligence Center, said the effort is a step forward in getting robots to work together autonomously and as a team.
Researchers have built robots that vacuum rooms, explore shipwrecks, manufacture microchips, imitate puppies and fly around hunting for Osama bin Laden. But for the most part, modern robots act alone.
DARPA wanted machines that could coordinate with each other to create a map of an area. The Centibots communicate with a human commander who tells them where to search and reviews the information they send back. However, the commander doesn't need to give detailed instructions to each machine.
SRI International, the University of Washington, Stanford University and ActivMedia, an Amherst, N.H.-based commercial robotics company, shared $2.2 million in DARPA funding to develop everything from a user interface to systems of navigation, communication and mapping.
Sitting in a windowless command center, Michael Eriksen, one of SRI's research engineers, put a handful of Centibots through their paces. As they rolled down the hallways, a map formed on his screen. He pressed some keys, and the map became a 3-D image.
Next, Eriksen put on a pair of glasses and selected Centibot No. 33. Streaming video showed him that the robot was "seeing" a hallway and a person's trouser legs.
The Centibot researchers say the maps the robots create are correct within a couple of centimeters. The robots can also find and identify an object, recognize each other and spot an intruder by separating moving objects from stationary ones.
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