Robot research gets a boost
by Tim Hornyak, BA’95
Can robots be useful tools outside of controlled environments like factories? NASA probes exploring Mars and military drones have shown that they can, but the new McGill-led NSERC Canadian Field Robotics Network wants to push the envelope a little further.
Gregory Dudek, the scientific director for the new network and the director of McGill’s School of Computer Science, says the new network provides Canadian researchers with the opportunity “to realize the promise of robotics.”
Dudek has developed six-legged robots that can crawl over rocks, ice, and snow, or even swim in water. He and his colleagues envision a new generation of robots that will act like remote eyes, covering the vast expanses of Canadian wilderness – for instance, monitoring fish breeding grounds or scouting hazardous icebergs that might threaten shipping. At the press conference that announced the network, Dudek said he and his colleagues will develop robots that can “operate and take measurements in almost any kind of outdoor environment [including] a spreading oil spill or a toxic waste zone.”
Progress toward that goal received a major boost when the new network received $5 million in funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). The network involves eight universities and 14 partner organizations and represents robotics engineers across the country.
The funds won’t be used to create expensive, impractical humanoids such as Honda’s Asimo, but to improve the functionality of existing robot platforms. That means how robots move around, how they communicate with humans and each other, how they gather data and how they survive outdoors.
“I have a six-legged robot that crawls around like a giant cockroach,” says Dudek. “My students are now looking to get it to stand up on its back legs and run around.”
Some researchers in the network will investigate the possibility of using robotics technology to improve wheelchair functionality. Robots developed by other members of the network could be used to help search for people who have gone missing in accidents, especially where conditions are too hazardous for rescuers.
Robotics experts can imagine a day when robots will be used for everything from monitoring border crossings to tackling nuclear plant disasters, but the machines will require better navigation systems, sturdier power supplies and an enhanced ability to withstand weather and sea currents. The overarching goal of the network is to pool the creative know-how required to advance the industry.
“The number one objective of the network is to connect all the people in Canada who do robotics,” says Dudek. “We’re basically looking at robot operating systems, and if we’re lucky, some of these ideas will be used in every robot in Canada, whether it’s in your robot vacuum cleaner or in some vehicle.”
It’s an important shot in the arm for the Canadian robotics industry, which does not have a formal funding mechanism such as the U.S. National Robotics Initiative, which allocates up to $70 million annually for robot development.
“Robotics is a field which is only starting to mature very quickly, much like desktop computers did between 1965 and 1985,” says Dudek. “It still took [desktop computers] 20 years to become ubiquitous and robust. I think robotics is on a similar trajectory.”