By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
New security robots are fulfilling archetypal human role: the old-fashioned beat cop. The autonomous bots have been purchased by real estate groups and similar companies to patrol neighborhoods at a walking pace, looking for crime. Humanoid robots face many hurdles.
The Silicon Valley-based company Knightscope has sold more than 50 of its artificial intelligence-powered, autonomous security robots to more than 20 clients. Their conical, five-foot robots feature four cameras and can scan license plates and pick up on individual cell phones’ MAC addresses. While they don’t look like a classic police officer with dress blues, they patrol the block at walking speed to keep neighborhoods safe.
Their effectiveness has been difficult to prove so far, but behaviorally, they bring to mind the issue of humanoid robots. In his video series Robotics, Dr. John Long, Professor of Cognitive Science on the John Guy Vassar Chair of Natural History at Vassar College, explained how humanoid robots are becoming more like us.
Artificial intelligence seems to far outpace humanoid robotics. Making a robot think is much easier than making it capable of holding an egg in its hand without crushing it. However, roboticists continue to make strides.
“The RAPHaEL robotic hand is an air-powered robot hand, introduced in 2009 at Virginia Tech,” Dr. Long said. “The name RAPHaEL is an acronym for Robotic Air Powered Hand with Elastic Ligaments. The use of compressed gas is what provides the energy and pressure to move the fingers, allowing the hand to hold onto light bulbs or heavier objects with carefully controlled levels of force.”
Dr. Long said that miniature DC motors in the hand itself can also provide dexterity, as was the case with a commercial hand released by the German company SCHUNK. Each finger has three degrees of freedom and its motion is driven by small motors in the palm and fingers. Feedback from pressure sensors on its skin—and careful control—help SCHUNK’s robot hand operate.
“Shadow Robot Company sells a Dexterous Hand with 129 sensors,” Dr. Long said. “Now, this is a hand that has 20 actuated degrees of freedom, plus four additional joints that are indirectly actuated. The thumb has extra degrees of freedom—five—and the pinky has four.”
The Dexterous Hand also features a 3D camera and can operate as an autonomous robot by itself.
More Human Than Human
As robots continue to develop more human-like appearances and behaviors, what does the future hold? Dr. Long has some ideas.
“Smooth transitions from one kind of movement to another—from walking to climbing stairs, for example, changing pace, stopping on a dime—those will be important,” he said. “Another important thing will be allowing the arms to actually carry objects or perform other tasks while the legs are continuing [to move] the entire body in various ways. A third area of work will be thinking and moving fast.”
This third area requires some explanation and says a lot about a fourth area: teamwork. Every year at RoboCup, robotic soccer contests held around the world, engineers like Aldebaran Company feature robots like Nao. Nao are humanoids with two cameras, an inertial measurement unit, touch sensors, four directional microphones, and two sonar rangefinders. Standing two feet tall, Nao robots play soccer with one another on teams, thinking and moving quickly and cooperating.
“Working with humanoids […] General Motors is working not on soccer, but on coordinating the reaching and grabbing, good old-fashioned robotic pick-and-place of multiple humanoids working together,” Dr. Long said. “This problem is a lot like playing soccer or doubles in tennis: You have to be able to know where you are, where you need to be, where others are, and where they’re likely to be.
“Think fast and move fast: These are two essential ingredients for humanoid robots.”
When combined with Knightscope’s security robots, maybe a squad of cooperating police robots taking down a drug ring—or at least imitating a Benny Hill skit—isn’t far off.