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Send In the “MacGyver” Bots!

golemFans of the hit TV show ‘MacGyver’ know that the title character, Angus MacGyver, could make a rocket powered harpoon gun/zip line out of some spare parts like moth balls, cleaning fluid, rope, pulley, and an old telescope. His character is a great example of what ingenuity and a scientific mind can accomplish in the real world.

Sadly, not that many of us can make something out of nothing and our robots are a long ways from being able to follow in MacGyver’s footsteps. Or are they?

Normally, robots see the environment that they are placed in as obstacles to overcome to get at their goal, but not these robots. Recent video submissions to the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA 2014) from Georgia Tech show robots that are able to use objects in their environment to help them complete tasks that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do on their own. Yes, this means that soon they will be unstoppable. And there’s video to prove it!

MacGyver taught us that anything in your environment can be used to your advantage. And as IEEE notes, that’s exactly what Georgia Tech’s Golem Krang robot does by using a bunch of stuff that would otherwise be problematic to perform a task. In the video, the robot is presented with a rescue scenario: a 100 kg brick object and another 100 kg loaded cart blocking entry to a room. How’s the robot going to rescue the person behind the door?

Simple: the robot selects the right board to use as a makeshift lever, while the cart acts as a fulcrum to topple the bricks over. Then the bricks, which were initially an obstacle, are used as a fulcrum for the lever to pry open the door. And finally, the robot finds that a much wider board can create a bridge and perform the simulated rescue.

Now, to be fair, the robot isn’t entirely autonomous: a human operator is standing by to program some of the robot’s actions. But some of its functions (such as balancing itself as it grasps and uses objects) are autonomous. The idea is that robots will someday be able to tackle problems like this by themselves.

Another video submitted to IRCA from a different Georgia Tech team shows how another robot (HRP-2) can cross a gap by building a bridge. This robot uses the concept of Environment Aware Planning or ETAP. ETAP lets the robot reason about tapping into resources available in the environment to complete its task.

In the video, you can see that the gap between the platforms was too wide for the robot to step over. In order to accomplish its task and get over to the other side, the robots’ planning system guided it to pick up the board and drop it across both platforms. After the robot verified that it could reach its goal given the new environment configuration, it stepped across the gap with ease.

The idea behind both these robots is simple: if you give a robot an objective and there are quite a few obstacles to overcome to accomplish that goal, it’ll figure out on its own how to complete that objective, using whatever is available to it. Just like MacGyver would do.

Photo credit: Georgia Tech via IEEE

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