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The Year in Robotics

Advances in robotics for personal assistance, medicine, and the military in 2008.

Robotic research marched ahead this year: biomedical robots performed less invasive and more complex experimental surgeries, winged robots copied each other to perform potential military maneuvers, and researchers began work on robots that may even be able to travel through the blood to zap a tumor. Some highlights:

Tactile learner: The UMan robot has wheels, a battery pack, a one-meter arm, and a three-fingered hand, which it uses to prod objects on a table in order to determine how they move.

Grab and Grasp
Robotic grasping and learning is becoming sophisticated enough that people may soon be able to simply gesture to any object that they want and, without needing to program specifics, rely on a robot to retrieve it. A robot demonstrated this year at Georgia Tech, El-E (pronounced “Ellie”), a wheeled, one-armed robot, follows a green laser pointer to retrieve objects. (See “A Robotic Helping Hand.”) Later in the year, the group gave El-E new abilities based on how dogs respond to humans. (See “Robot Mimics a Canine Helper.”) Another grasper, the UMass Mobile Manipulator–UMan, for short–demonstrated that it could learn how to use new objects. (See “A Robot That Learns to Use Tools.”) Just as humans learn by testing an object, UMan is able to experiment and learn by playing with objects, including scissors, shears, and wooden toys.

Stomach Explorers
While doctors have used capsule cameras for the past few years to image the insides of patients, they hope for ways to control such a camera so that it pauses at areas of interest. A group in Germany uses a magnetic device outside the body to control the movement of a pill camera (See “Remote Control for Pill Cameras”), while researchers at Carnegie Mellon University created a robot capsule that can anchor on delicate internal tissue without damaging it. (See “Controlling a Gut Bot’s Position.”)

Scientists would also like to give these tiny explorers the abilities to take samples or directly treat areas of interest. Researchers are designing robotic modules that can be swallowed individually but can link together to form a longer, snakelike robot that can then investigate the intestines. A European endeavor called ARES strives to develop a longer, self-assembling robot that can explore and treat areas in the gut. Currently, teams are working on the best way to connect and anchor such a bot. (See “Building a Self-Assembling Stomach-Bot.”)

Surgery Assists
Robotics can make complex surgery easier and less invasive, which can speed up patient recovery time. Robotic arms and microinstruments that a surgeon can control also give rise to the potential of telesurgery. This year, hospitals across the country have reported success with 3-D imaging, robotic arms, and microinstruments in performing a variety of cancer surgeries and procedures such as complex knee surgery. (See “Robotic Guidance for Knee Surgery.”)

Heart surgery normally requires a doctor to crack open a patient’s ribs to reach the heart within. But long snakelike robots could theoretically slide in through a small incision to perform heart surgery. (See “Snakelike Robots for Heart Surgery.”) Another robotic system could allow doctors to operate on a heart while it’s still beating, avoiding the potential for brain damage and lessening recovery time. (See “Operating inside a Beating Heart.”)

Eventually, scientists would like to shrink robots down far enough so that they can travel through the blood to directly target tumors. While the work’s still in early stages, researchers at the École Polytechnique de Montréal have been able to attach naturally magnetic, swimming bacteria onto microscopic beads, creating rudimentary “nanobots” and steering them using MRIs. The researchers hope that these hybrid bacteria bots can eventually be carted through the blood on a larger, magnetically controlled vehicle. (See “Voyage of the Bacteria Bots.”)

Flying Learners
Robots have always been of particular interest for military applications, in the hopes that sophisticated robots can perform reconnaissance, help soldiers in the field, and carry out riskier tasks. Recently, scientists at Stanford University have developed a system to teach unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) how to learn new maneuvers by watching another helicopter do it. (See “Teaching Robots New Tricks.”) The learning system could extend to other robots. Other research seeks to use robotic aircraft to improve weather forecasting. (See “Robotic Weather Planes.”) Finally, scientists also seek to emulate nature when it comes to fliers. Researchers have looked to model dragonflies in particular, because they can stop and hover in midair, an ability that might be useful for a camera or reconnaissance drone. (See “The Flight of Dragonfly Robots.”)

Certainly, as electronic components continue to grow cheaper and smaller, and researchers are able to give robots more flexibility to manage in the real world, bots will continue to move out of the factory and into the home, hospital, and field to fill the gaps where needed.

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