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Robotics Space Science

Robotic Space Workers of the Future 135

Roland Piquepaille writes "In an article named "Puckish robots pull together," Nature describes the work done at the Polymorphic Robotics Laboratory (PRL) of the University of Southern California on self-reconfigurable teams of robots. There, Wei-Min Shen and his colleagues simulate the absence of gravity by creating a 2D representation of space by using an 'air-hockey table.' With jets of air flow blowing on the surface, the 30 cm-wide robots, working in pairs, evolve in a frictionless environment, pick elements such as girders to assemble structures like if they were in space. NASA will use these teams of autonomous robots to build space systems like 10 km-long arrays of solar panels and other huge spatial structures. You'll find more details, illustrations and references in this overview."
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Robotic Space Workers of the Future

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    ...welcome our new puckish robot overlords.
  • by NightWulf ( 672561 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @09:59PM (#9287681)
    It's an air hockey table! It's not exactly frictionless, as there is air resistence and other factors. Maybe these scientists know more than I do, but I can't really imagine an air hockey table can even remotely simulate space; where you bump into something and when you bounce back you'll keep going forever, etc. Other than that, it looks intresting of them all working together, a beowulf cluster of space robots, heh.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      Maybe these scientists know more than I do...

      You bet.
    • by quisph ( 746257 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @10:35PM (#9287804)
      No, of course it's not perfectly frictionless, but it's "frictionless enough," you might say, to test the concept. Anyone who's taken more than a little bit of physics has probably done an experiment using "frictionless" air pucks at some point in time; this is nothing unusual.

      A much bigger shortcoming is that this is 2-d instead of 3-d. But then, a ride in the Vomit Comet doesn't come cheap.

    • by kfg ( 145172 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @10:49PM (#9287854)
      Maybe these scientists know more than I do. . .

      I know that when we bought the air hockey table for the physics department we knew what we were doing.

      You are correct, it isn't "frictionless," but it is a much closer approximation to frictionless than is, say, a shuffleboard table, which itself is fairly low friction as these things go. It is frictionless enough that if you were to build an airhocky table a mile long you could drive the puck from one end to the other ( for that matter a golf ball has been driven a mile across a frozen lake, which has both more surface friction and air resistence than a puck on an airhockey table).

      Having so little friction that miles are inside the bounds of relevant behavior makes yards even more so and remember that Gallileo was able to deduce frictionless behavior by rolling crude wooden balls down crude wooden ramps. You can do this thing called "extrapolating."

      Nor is space itself frictionless. It is close enough that one may discuss it in those terms when discussing certain phenomenom, but this too is dealing only in pragmatic approximations.

      Stuff doesn't "keep going forever." Space is not empty. Energy is lost throught various "winds" and collisions, just like on an airhockey table. In the real universe "when you bump into something" you often lose energy because real collisions are not ideal, and even light loses energy when it "bumps into something" (like, oh, say, something vaguely blackish). The total energy of the universe is conserved (the universe itself being "the system"), but the total energy of individual objects is not.

      The airhockey table itself is an example of this, the puck slows down because it bumps into things and transfers some its energy to that thing. Like the table itself. Which loses energy to the universe.

      Think about it, and perhaps you will come to a smaller gap between what you know and what the scientists know.

      • And, dare I point out, that one of the things that, despite its being " vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big," space is absolutely chock-a-block full of is the radiative effects of nuclear reactions?

    • by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @11:16PM (#9287943) Journal
      Keep in mind, this was not about physics, but about controlling devices. This was a test of the AI and logic that exists rather than a validation of the mathmatics of how to manuever.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 29, 2004 @09:59PM (#9287682)
    For the last time, meatbag^H^H^H^H^H^Hpeople...

    Please, do not use the "R-word".

    We prefer to be called Electronic-Americans.

    Thank you.

    end transmission.
  • working in space? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by xlyz ( 695304 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @10:00PM (#9287690) Journal
    it seems that in the U.S. people really dislike working. they are sending jobs everywhere.
    • by Adolph_Hitler ( 713286 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @10:41PM (#9287822)
      This is the worst thing we could do as humans. IF you want society to fall apart simply make the majority of humans useless. I mean if Robots can do what the average human could do, what the hell is the average human useful for? I guess its time to start slaughtering and killing about 6 billion useless people so we have space for these robots. Don't you agree?
      • by Anonymous Coward
        I guess its time to start slaughtering and killing about 6 billion useless people so we have space for these robots. Don't you agree?

        Excellent idea! We shall start the slaughter immediately. You first, since you're the one who proposed it we're sure you won't have any objections to being killed. Come along now...
      • what the hell is the average human useful for?

        Why should a human have a use? Your insecurities about your personal exploitation in life cloud your thinking. Exist, and be happy.
      • People said the same sort of thing 150 or so years ago during the Industrial Revolution. But even though machines and steam power did take the place of a lot of manual labour, people just found new work, in the industries created by the very technologies that took away their previous jobs. The future isn't as grim as you make it out to be.
      • by Fweeky ( 41046 ) on Sunday May 30, 2004 @09:42AM (#9289255) Homepage
        Well, it's going to happen sooner or later; one day it might even be cost effective in the general case. I hope we can come up with a better way of dealing with it than you when it finally is; that's probably giving humans a bit too much credit though.

        "what the hell is the average human useful for"? Who said we had to be useful anyway? We have to survive (well, not really, but let's pretend); whether we do that working our asses off or having fun while our technology does our work for us doesn't make a whole lot of difference.
      • what the hell is the average human useful for?

        As an energy source of course.
      • I mean if Robots can do what the average human could do
        I'm sorry dave, I cant do that.....
    • I think this would be a better funny post than an insightful post, but anyways, it's not so much disliking work as it is safety and efficiency and cost.

      it's like replacing windows networks with linux, it'll cost a chunk at first, but then you'll later reap the benefits. unlike MS systems where they might offer a sweet deal at first, then the major payouts go on forever.

      in this case, replace windows with people and robots with linux, and you get the same thing.
      People = will want to be paid for work, and ev
  • by IllogicalStudent ( 561279 ) <> on Saturday May 29, 2004 @10:04PM (#9287702)
    Hmm, I just hope the robots don't stop working after they let 7 goals get by them.
  • Replicators (Score:1, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    So these robots are small pieces that come together on their own in order to form larger structures?

    I have a feeling the Asgard are going to be rather pissed at us...
    • I have a feeling the Asgard are going to be rather pissed at us...

      You mean the Aesir. Asgard is where the Aesir lived.
      • You mean the Aesir. Asgard is where the Aesir lived.

        I think he means Thor in particular, and the rest of the council not far behind him, her,

      • No, he means the Asgard of Stargate: SG-1.

        Take up nomenclature with the writers of the show. (Who do as good a job as you could possibly expect from a television science-fiction weekly, but are certainly not invulnerable. Besides, I wouldn't be surprised they deliberately chose the name Asgard knowing it's not quite right, simply because there's a lot of people like me who connected Asgard to Norse mythology right away, but wouldn't have recognized Aesir at all, or spelled it correctly after hearing it.)
      • No...Asgard is a piece of ABS plastic that hangs from the back of your belt, often used in conjunction with the Manssiere (or the Bro)
  • Little buddy. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by GhostChe ( 585665 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @10:06PM (#9287714)
    These hocky puck things remind me of another robot [] devoloped by nasa. They both like floating around in space, but nasa's has more of the little buddy going for it.
    • The unit is supposed to have been inspired by the lightsaber practice droid in star wars but it smacks more of "Bit" from tron to me... floating over the shoulder and offering advice. Now if only they can make it pulse all spiky like that, it can poke out someone's eye, too.
    • A floating, talking, robotic sphere with cameras and microphones?

      Is it named "Colin?"

  • Space is 3D..... (Score:2, Insightful)

    Let's see how these things do in a swimming pool. It's probably a closer approximation to space than an air-hockey table... Astronauts Take a Dive []
    • In a pool or in water for that matter, you have boyancy. While this works for astronauts because they are heavy enough to not float to the surface, I have a funny feeling these robots would float to the top. On top of that, water wouldn't do these things good.

      On a side note, since the idea of testing these things in a pool was brought up. If they were heavy enough to float around in water, would it be possible to test these in that liquid that one company invented that doesn't stick to anything or is the
    • The Air Hockey table worked better for the purpose of this research. A swimming pool simulated weightlesness (the most unfamiliar factor to humans in space). The Air Hockey table simulates frictionlessness(the big factor in moving things in space). Thus the air hockey table is better for robotic manueverabilty, the swimming pool the best for human purposes.
  • Will this come in time to protect us from the terrible secret of space?
  • Imagine what kind of a strategy game this makes possible. As a long time SCBW player I sometimes hate all that scrolling arround. Now, if someone would take let say, 10 or those tables, big number of smaller robots, and devise some nifty control interface where two teams can duke it out while overseeing the whole table, THAT would be REALLY RELLY nice. Oh yeah, and if someone decides to do this, I want paid trip there and a few days of unlimited playtime :)
  • Potential issue (Score:4, Insightful)

    by The_Mystic_For_Real ( 766020 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @10:38PM (#9287814)
    It says that these things are able to continue to learn and adapt. I am not an AI expert, but how many mistakes does it have to make before it figures everything out? I have yet to see a machine programmed with every facet of the instincts that might prevent disasters from unforseen situations. Of course, humans make their own mistakes.
    • Re:Potential issue (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Mostly a lurker ( 634878 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @11:19PM (#9287958)
      I have yet to see a machine programmed with every facet of the instincts that might prevent disasters from unforseen situations. Of course, humans make their own mistakes.

      Indeed, humans make their own mistakes. Darwin had a theory (mostly accepted) about how humans have develop the "instincts" that help them improve their performance and in some cases keep them alive. Some experiments in AI based on similar principles seem to have held promise (e.g. see When Robots Play Games []). Perhaps the key is to have multiple teams of robots with slightly different designs such that an error by one team is less likely to be replicated by all.

    • everything in life and dynamic systems, more specifically, is based on a rate of change. If the machines are able to learn from and reduce errors faster than any human system, then an improvement is to be gained here. I work in some of the same areas as these guys, namely Ant swarms and optimization, and I can tell you that a major idea in these areas is reduction of error, not a perfect execution of a process. Just like any system, as long as the rate of error does not exceed the rate of correction of erro
    • This robot has a strictly limited domain to master. It doesn't need to perform every task that a human is capable of. What it needs to do, and do superbly, is assembling structures in space over and over again.

      This type of repetitive task is something which machines will excel at and no human can come close. There is also no conceivable reason that these machines can't be monitored and overriden if there is a potential of an enormous mistake.

      This would be the same as existing procedures using automated ma
    • It says that these things are able to continue to learn and adapt. I am not an AI expert, but how many mistakes does it have to make before it figures everything out?

      I don't think that's the kind of intelligence they were talking about. There's a sort of "collective intelligence" you see in communities of "unintelligent" creatures, like ants or bees. Each does a fairly simple task which may or may not help out, but together they get something accomplished. The community seems intelligent, but the individu

  • I think that this is great - low-cost zero gravity, or a 2-D version - it may open up more possibilities for people who want to experiment with the robots or the AI. Pesumably, more people will build the hardware, which would (hopefully) be good for the AI people as well.
  • I've been outsourced...

    ...and you'll never believe from where this time.

  • Accurate? (Score:3, Funny)

    by Wes Janson ( 606363 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @10:56PM (#9287874) Journal
    What happened to that pesky 3rd dimension? Y'know, it tends to complicate interactions just slightly. Not to mention air resistance, air currents, and the possibility of friction if/when the pucks come too close to the surface. Sounds like a half-baked idea to screw around with robots and leftover air hockey tables.
    • Re:Accurate? (Score:3, Informative)

      by Nasarius ( 593729 )
      If the algorithms and interfaces are designed well, it could scale up to three dimensions quite easily. Just replace all those 2D vectors with 3D vectors. It's extra calculation, but it's the same core concept nonetheless.
  • "As played by stuffed mechanical ape"
  • by robertchin ( 66419 ) on Sunday May 30, 2004 @12:07AM (#9288103) Homepage
    "I am bender. Please insert girder."
  • Swarm? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by magefile ( 776388 )
    So is this a true swarm relationship (as described, albeit badly, in Prey by Michael Crichton), or is it pair-only?

    And can they get a divorce if one of the robots is cheating?
  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Sunday May 30, 2004 @12:58AM (#9288277) Homepage
    Stanford has had air-bearing robots to simulate space operations [] for over a decade. Theirs, though, carry an air tank and work against a flat granite slab.
  • by wildmage ( 163526 ) on Sunday May 30, 2004 @01:23AM (#9288321) Homepage
    Hi folks. I'm very excited that this project is finally getting some attention. The concept is simple, but it has been overlooked for quite some while.

    Let me give some straight facts through all this futuristic market speak in the articles and from my professor. Where are we now?

    1. We are trying to do a proof-of-concept that a team of robots can indeed assemble structures together in a near-frictionless environment.

    2. We are currently trying to build a triangle out of 3 reconfigurable beams assembled by a pair of tethered robots. With a triangle we can realize more rigid and useful structures such as trusses.

    3. We are halfway there. We have achieved two-beam assembly with reconfigurable connectors and everything.

    We have been working on this thing for almost a year, and one of the things you might be asking is why is this so difficult?

    1. Main issue is connectors. You want to have connectors that can be automatically assembled together yet provided tight tolerances and carry heavy loads. These are often conflicting requirements and this has required a lot of tinkering to accomplish.

    2. Reconfigurable connectors. These are connectors that not only automatically connect, but also automatically disconnect. Give the above requirements in 1 and this becomes doubly more difficult.

    3. Precision control in a "near-frictionless" yet noisy environment. This is very difficult. Our positioning is kind of crude, our propulsion is non-linear, and the noise in the air-table is not predictable. We've been able to accomplish a lot of our results by using the tether to pull the two robots together and assemble the beams together with a rolling motion.

    For those of you who are interested in seeing our latest results I recommend going to the media page at our lab here []

    The last video (which is surprisingly not up yet) is here []

    For future reference, the research involved in "evolving and adapting" has not yet been done. That is future work.

    Jacob Everist

  • new species alert! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Whitecloud ( 649593 ) on Sunday May 30, 2004 @01:44AM (#9288373) Homepage
    NASA will use these teams of autonomous robots to build space systems like 10 km-long arrays of solar panels and other huge spatial structures.

    How long before the AI is advanced enough for the computer/robots are able to identify flaws in their design and reprogram themselves accordingly. This kind of intelligence will allow 'robots' to evolve, superceding humans as the dominate species on earth. The will have all the assets that belong to humans, ie technology, brainpower, but none of the weaknesses, such as the neccesity of oxygen to exist.

    Probably not in our lifetimes, but then the pace of technological development seems to be increasing exponentially...put it this way: take all the scientists that lived from year x to 1900: there are more scientists on earth today than in this total period.

    • "but none of the weaknesses, such as the neccesity of oxygen to exist."

      However, they'll still depend on a major source of energy, the sun perhaps. In such an event, we could scorch the sky, after all, without the sun, where would they get energy?

No problem is so large it can't be fit in somewhere.