Jewish Journal


July 29, 2009

Playing with robot snakes on Sunset



The best-kept secret in the Negev is not Dimona (home of Israel’s hush-hush nuclear program) but Ben-Gurion University, said Israel Consul General Jacob Dayan, who introduced robotics professor Amir Shapiro during a Ben-Gurion event that attracted several dozen people to the Luxe Sunset earlier this month.

Shapiro, who served as a visiting researcher at Caltech 2007-2008, looks to nature for inspiration when crafting his robots. For fun, he 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.

One project Shapiro is involved with features agricultural robots that can spray and pollinate date palm trees – a process that requires three people (one driver, two assistants working at heights of more than 50 feet) and which has lead to deaths due to falls on uneven terrain. With an automated system, target spraying would be handled by one driver and a robot, which could recognize dates by sight and handle straying/pollination duties with little human involvement.

A military project under development in Shaprio’s lab features a tunnel-mapping system, which resembles two remote-controlled tanks linked by a single metal bar. The robot would traverse the length of a tunnel and report back with details on slope, depth, angle, etc. This, in turn, could help the IDF determine where to strike so a tunnel couldn’t be rebuilt.

But it’s the robot snakes Shapiro designs, like his Big Ben (pictured above, wearing a smile), that capture the imagination of onlookers. Engineers turn to nature for examples – monkeys, insects, donkeys – when creating robots that can climb, fly or carry equipment. And yet it’s the snake that people want to watch slither in corkscrew fashion or pump along in waves.

The snakes, he says, 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, or work its way through pipes to find something as mundane as a blockage.

This technology is several years old, Shapiro says, but the real twist is to eventually create the first autonomous snake, which could operate independently of humans.

The IDF snake-like robot featured recently in television news coverage is not one he was directly involved with, Shapiro said. But he did study alongside its creator, Alon Wolf of Technion, whom Shapiro says wasn’t happy with the IDF distributing video of snake, which is not ready for field use.

Copying the natural movements of animals is the current trend in robotics, but Shapiro says that the next stage in robot evolution will be the ability of these systems to act on their own. The real trick, he says, is to get the system to repair themselves and to build other robots without human involvement.

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