5 agencies design robots of the future

Could your next doctor be made of metal?

Five government agencies are teaming up on a major robotics program to develop medical, military, scientific, agricultural and bomb disposal robots.  The Robotics Technology Development and Deployment (RTD2) program is a joint effort by the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation, and the Agriculture and Homeland Security departments. In its announcement, the program noted that improvements in core technologies such as microprocessors, sensors and algorithms have poised robotics technology on the verge of explosive growth.

As a technology, robotics can potentially meet a range of national needs, such as defense, homeland security, medicine, health care, space exploration, transportation, manufacturing and agriculture. The announcement stated that the technology may be very beneficial to the lives of the elderly and disabled. One of the more intriguing areas of research is the possibility of developing “co-robots” — next-generation robotic systems that can work safely in close proximity to or in physical contact with humans to help carry out “mundane, dangerous, precise or expensive tasks,” the announcement states.

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The NIH, DARPA and the NSF are all working on technologies to create these future co-robots. Both the NIH and NSF are interested in creating robot caregivers and devices to aid the elderly, the disabled, and hospital patients. The NSF is also looking into robot-assisted recovery, rehabilitation and behavioral therapy as well as specialized surgical and medical robots. As part of this effort, DARPA is seeking to develop and demonstrate novel robot actuators that are safer and stronger than human muscle. These next-generation actuators will help robots work and move more efficiently and safely around humans in a variety of environments.

The USDA is exploring ways for robotics to help automate farm work. It is supporting research in automated systems for handling, sorting and harvesting animal and plant products while sensing for ripeness, damage and microbial contamination. The department is also interested in dexterous, vision-based robotic arms that can distinguish plants and animals in natural environments and that can handle these products with the appropriate force.

Detecting and disarming explosives is the research focus of the DHS. The department wants to develop robots that will help state and local bomb squads. These robots would have a variety of potential platforms, control, navigation, manipulation and payload systems designed for multiple missions. DHS also wants robotic systems for cross-border tunnel surveillance. This mission will require platforms that can operate remotely in underground areas for inspection and forensics work. These robots will have the ability to cross obstacles such as debris, mud and water; operate in explosive atmospheres; generate a complete geospatial map of the tunnel; and possess an articulated lifting arm with a 50-pound minimum lift weight capability.

About the Author

Henry Kenyon is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.

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