By Scientific American
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Extra resources for 21st Century Robotics (Scientific American Special Online Issue No. 14)
With 1,000 MIPS, the program digests over a glimpse per second, adequate for slow indoor travel. 0 O ne thousand MIPS is only now appearing in high-end desktop PCs. In a few years it will be found in laptops and similar smaller, cheaper computers fit for robots. To prepare for that day, we recently began an intensive three-year project to develop a prototype for commercial products based on such a computer. We plan to automate learning processes to optimize hundreds of evidence-weighing parameters and to write programs to find clear paths, locations, floors, walls, doors and other objects in the three-dimensional maps.
If floors are uneven, if legs get in the way, if lighting conditions change, the robot has to deal. Extra computing power doesn’t necessarily help; on the contrary, more sophistication typically means less resilience. Through the school of hard knocks (lots of them), robot experimenters have learned to keep things simple. Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and robo-guru Rodney A. Brooks led the way in the mid-1980s with a new style of robot programming, in which cheap sensors directly trigger elementary behaviors.
It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to install guide wires under concrete floors, and the routes are then fixed, making the robots economical only for large, exceptionally stable factories. Some robots made possible by the advent of microprocessors in the 1980s track softer cues, like magnets or optical patterns in tiled floors, and use ultrasonics and infrared proximity sensors to detect and negotiate their way around obstacles. The most advanced industrial mobile robots, developed since the late 1980s, are guided by occasional navigational markers—for instance, laser-sensed bar codes—and by preexisting features such as walls, corners and doorways.