March 25, 2009
Fun with homeland security robots
Amir Shapiro, 37, has a youthful attitude that makes his job seem like child’s play. For fun, this father of four designs navigation algorithms for multi-limbed robots and locomotion methods for snake-like robots at Ben-Gurion University, where he’s a lecturer with the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
His latest project indulges his interest in locomotion of mechanisms in unstructured complex environments. In other words, he’s building a robot that will map tunnels for the Israeli army.
“[The IDF] can find the entrance, but they want to track the entire tunnel,” Shapiro said. “Underground there is no GPS and no orientation system.”
It’s difficult to map smuggling tunnels (see “Best (and bizarre) in tunnel sniffing”). So it would be up to a robot like the one Shapiro’s developing – which looks like two remote-controlled tanks linked by a metal bar (see photo) – to traverse the length of the tunnel and report back with details on slope, depth, angle, etc., which could help the IDF determine where to strike so it can’t be rebuilt (the tunnel, not the robot).
Another piece of homeland-security technology Shapiro is working on is based on a suggestion from two students who served in the Israeli navy.
“When something hits a ship, they want to see if there’s damage. They can’t necessarily put a diver in the middle of the ocean, since it’s too dangerous,” he said.
Hull inspection robots exist, but most are expensive swimming ROV systems. Shapiro’s idea is to have a camera mounted a 10-inch wide robot, which could be sealed in a watertight case and sent off to roll along the hull with its magnetic wheels looking for damage. But the system wouldn’t just be limited to ships. Shapiro also sees potential in using it for bridge inspection.
Shapiro is one of about 60 researchers at BGU’s Robot Lab, which was established in 1988. Current projects include military, medical, agricultural and search-and-rescue systems.
The robot snakes Shapiro designs, like his Big Ben, are not so unusual – these search-and-rescue systems are segmented, featuring different motors that can produce their own independent motion. The snake can slowly move through small pockets in a collapsed building to find trapped survivors. This technology is several years old, but Shapiro’s twist is to create the first autonomous snake, which could operate independently of humans.
In fact, Shapiro believes the evolutionary stage in robot development will be the ability of these systems to act on their own—to repair themselves and to build other robots without human involvement. And right after that Skynet will become self-aware and before you know it—Judgement Day.