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GCN : June 2014
GCN JUNE 2014 • GCN.COM 19 at work ment they believe will be critical to expanding the tasks robots can do in the public sector. The first is improving robots ability to manipulate objects in a human environment. "We don t ask the world to change to adapt to the robot," said Robert Ambrose, chief of the Software, Robot- ics and Simulation Division at NASA s Johnson Space Center. "The world is already mostly built for people, and that is fine. We now have the technology to build a robot that can step into the world built for humans and be an assistant." SRI s Mahoney agrees. In fact, one of the teams at SRI is focused on developing highly dexterous low-cost robotic hands. "As better manipulation becomes available," Mahoney said, " we ll begin to see a bigger application of robotics for a broader array of applications." The second critical area is improving robots autonomy and ability to coordinate actions. "Right now the focus has been on customization and tailoring of platforms," said Tom Phelps, director of robotics products at iRobot, which has built a small army of robots suited to public safety missions. But we re also seeing the use of multiple robots to respond to a situation, he added. "You may have a scenario where you need the larger robot to move and to carry things, and then you need smaller robots going to confined spaces on the same mission. So there has been a lot of focus on creating a cohesive product family so the robots can work together. In the future, we will see more collaboration with controllers where a single user can control multiple robots and address the unexpected factors that occur on a mission." The third critical area is, not surprisingly, lower costs. The military supports basic research in robot- ics challenges, but, according to Wintergreen Research s Eustis, "there just aren t a lot of grants out there for domestic robots." To boost those e orts, she said, the federal government could support development of better energy technolo- gies to power robots, which would help build the domestic market for robotics technology. But it is not just researchers in the military and universities behind the robotics movement. Demand for robot systems has started to build in the developer community and among indi- vidual enthusiasts, leading some to conclude the market is ripe for an even broader expansion of personal robots. "It was the entrepreneurial class of hobby-computer scientists that drove the personal computer revolu- tion," SRI s Mahoney noted. "I think the same thing is happening now in robotics. I think we re right on the verge of that commercialization."