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GCN : June 2014
22 GCN JUNE 2014 • GCN.COM and handling hazardous materials. The da Vinci Surgical System, a large device with three or four interactive robotic arms controlled by a physician seated at a nearby console, received FDA approval in 2000. The da Vinci offers 3D high-definition video, giving a human surgeon magnifications of up to a factor of 10. In addition, the robotic arms are capable of greater range and precision than human hands. The da Vinci system is currently used for more than a dozen procedures, in- cluding those to treat bladder cancer, colon cancer, coronary artery disease, as well as prostate and throat cancers. More than 2,000 units have been sold, includ- ing several that have been in regular use at Veterans Administration facilities. "The da Vinci spun out of our lab back in the 1990s," noted Richard Mahoney, director of SRI International's robotics program. Adding that the original fund- ing came from DARPA, Mahoney said the research agency was interested in creat- ing remote capabilities for surgeons who would log on to the robot and perform surgical procedures on the soldiers on the front line. More prosaically, hospitals -- including Veterans Administration facilities -- are al- ready making extensive use of Xenex ro- bots, units that are sent into patient-care locations after treatment to kill bacteria, viruses, molds, fungus and spores. The Xenex robot employs a different kind of environmental manipulation -- a pulsed xenon lamp that emits germicidal ultravi- olet light. The robot can do its job in 5-10 minutes for most rooms and at an esti- mated cost of only about $3 per cleaning. EMERGENCY RESPONSE The Defense and Homeland Security departments have been using robots for years for a different form of remote sur- gery: bomb defusing and disposal. And dropping costs and enhanced capabilities of robotic technologies are spurring new devices with more decidedly domestic benefits. In 2012, for example, the Depart- ment of Homeland Security introduced the SAPBER, or Semi-Autonomous Pipe Bomb End-cap Remover. After a bomb- disposal unit, human or robotic, has re- trieved a pipe bomb, SAPBER takes over What is arguably the most sophisticated human- oid robot recently got a present delivered by a SpaceX rocket: a set of legs. Robonaut 2, which has been operating on the International Space Station for the past three years, has until now been just a torso with a head and arms planted on a pedestal with wheels. Designed to work in a human s world, Robonaut s head has cameras that work like human eyes. Its hands work like a human s to use the same tools that the astronauts do. As envisioned, Robonaut would help people working in space "with the same interface systems as humans," said Robert Ambrose, chief of the Software, Robotics and Simulation Division at NASA s Johnson Space Center and a primary developer of Robonaut. Robonaut can be programmed to perform tasks on its own, or a human can take direct control, viewing what the robot "sees" through its cameras and controlling its movements. One of the major challenges in developing Robonaut was, of course, being able to replicate human movements. "A key challenge was being able to handle objects that were built for people," Ambrose said. "Most robots don t even have a thumb, right?" Another hurdle was ensuring the safety of astronauts working next to Robonaut. That challenge was addressed with the use of redundant sensors in Robonaut that detect contact. "If the robot is minding its own business and you bump into it, it can sense that," Ambrose said. "If it s in motion and bumps into something else with a force below a certain threshold, it pauses. Above a certain threshold, it shuts itself o ." "That s the biggest breakthrough for Robonaut," Ambrose said. "It is the first robot that is ever been allowed to operate right next to people where it is responsible for its own safety system." Also, Ambrose added, "Robonaut is very smooth. A lot of robots have angles and sharp edges. We ve been very careful to make everything smooth." Robonaut s new legs will allow it to move about inside and outside the space station to perform tasks, such as checking the many air filters on the Space Station. In fact, Robonaut s legs, which have prehensile feet, will give it an edge over the humans on board, letting it climb ladders while its hands are free to work or hold objects. Once fully developed, Ambrose said, the robot might be sent on missions ahead of humans, or be left behind as a caretaker, waiting for the next crew to arrive. "A robot doesn t mind being left behind," he noted. "It doesn t get lonely, so you can do things with a robot you would never do with the human crew." "These robots are just going to get better and better," Ambrose said, adding that Robonaut will eventually have many terrestrial applications. "Robots will get more capable electrically and mechanically, but they re also going to get smarter." --- Patrick Marshall Robonaut 2 gets its legs ROBOTICS