by Jeff and Jenn Eckert
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Definitely a Cool Robot
With the Antarctic crawling with
everything from marine biologists and
geologists to astronomers to Sports
Illustrated swimsuit models, it's getting to
be a pretty popular place. Unfortunately,
it's still one of the world's most hazardous
locations, given the glaciers, crevasses, sea
ice, mountains (Antarctica has the highest
average elevation of all continents), winter
temperatures that plunge down to - 80°C
(-112°F), and not a single Starbucks to be
found. It's also an expensive place to visit.
An average expedition will run you about
$125,000, largely because of the costs
involved in literally dragging people, equipment, fuel, and other supplies around using tractors. A big problem is that these
vehicles are in constant danger of overloading a snow bridge and plunging into a pit, leaving them buried as much as 200 ft
below the surface. In the past, tractors have employed ground-penetrating radar mounted on booms to detect weak spots,
but this method provides only an iffy 2. 5 second warning before you fall in.
Recently, the National Science Foundation ( www.nsf.gov) got together with some students from Dartmouth and an
Army Engineering lab, and came up with a solution. The "Yeti" robotic rover is now being deployed to head up the convoys
and provide much earlier detection. The four-wheeled Yeti's radar generates a continuous waveform of subsurface layers to
distinguish between solid ice and snow bridges, and since it weighs only 150 lb ( 68 kg) it isn't as likely to drop through.
(That’s a relatively cheap $25,000 price per unit, so apparently, it's not a huge loss if it does.) NSF estimates that Yeti-guided
trips to McMurdo Station alone with save $200 million per year.
Yeti bot with the boom-mounted radar unit it is replacing.
Printable Bots on the Way
Photo courtesy of Jason Dorfman.
Providing yet another reason why 3D printers are likely to be
must-have computer peripherals in coming years, the MIT Computer
Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL, www.csail.mit.edu)
is heading up a project to "reinvent how robots are designed and
produced." The aim is "to develop a desktop technology that would
make it possible for the average person to design, customize, and
print a specialized robot in a matter of hours." The five-year project is
backed by a $10 million NSF grant, and also involves team members
from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. According to MIT's
Prof. Daniela Rus, "Our vision is to develop an end-to-end process;
specifically, a compiler for building physical machines that starts with
a high level of specification of function, and delivers a programmable
machine for that function using simple printing processes."
When the platform is available, we should be able to simply identify a household problem, choose
an off-the-shelf CAD design, customize it to suit our needs, and have a printed, assembled, programmed,
and operational bot running within 24 hours. For a video of the pictured insect bot, just search "printable
robots" on You Tube.
Insect-like robot designed and printed
using the new process.
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