Tag Archives: Romela

Robot Skeleton Army….for real

If I mention Craig Ferguson, everybody knows who I am talking about, right?  He’s the hilarious host of the Late Late Show on CBS that airs from 12:30 – 1:30 am each night.  He’s a wonderful comedian, actor, writer, and musician with an irreverent wit that is one part Scot (single malt) and one part American.

OK, so one of Craig’s running gags is an obsession with robots and skeletons.  In fact, he calls his Twitter followers his “Robot Skeleton Army”.  Craig is also a huge fan of the show Mythbusters, and he convinced their resident mechanical genius, Grant Imahara, to design and build a Robot Skeleton sidekick for his talk show.  You can see some videos of the robot on YouTube, here.

“But Mike, what does this have to do with technology?” you ask.  That’s a good question, and one I am about to answer.  So just hold on a minute, ok?  Sheesh.

The point is, Craig’s Robot Skeleton (named Geoff Petersen) is pretty lame.  Now the Mythbusters are totally cool, in a nerdy sort of way, and Grant Imahara is a practical genius, but you have to admit that Geoff is just not really what you would expect for a real robot skeleton sort of guy, even as shtick for a late night talk show comedian.

Enter Dennis Hong and his RoMeLa group at Virginia Tech.  Dennis and a team of undergrad ME students have designed and built a real walking robot that makes Geoff look like a Neanderthal by comparison, robotically speaking.  The robot’s name is CHARLI (Cognitive Humanoid Autonomous Robot with Learning Intelligence).

OK, so Dennis and the ME nerds are not really good at coming up with names for their gadgets (anything with “-a-tron” at the end would have been good…), but this is just so cool you can forgive them.  Watch this movie of CHARLI walking and you’ll see what I mean.

And that’s not all.  Browse around on the RoMeLa site and you’ll see a load of mechanical, robotic creepy crawlies that will set your nerd nerves all a tingle.  How cool would it be to work in Dennis’ lab?

So, Craig, anytime you want to trade that pile of lame scrap, Geoff Petersen, in for a real robot skeleton, just give Dennis Hong a call.  He can fix you up with any sort of robotic sidekick you want.

CHARLI Walking

CHARLI walking in the RoMeLa labs

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Filed under Communications, Robotics, Sensing, software, Uncategorized, Wireless

When is technology a bad idea?

OK, I’m fully expecting to receive some flak about this post, but I’m going to write it anyway.

I remember a scene in the movie Jurassic Park where, after hearing the scientific explanation about how the dinosaurs were cloned and brought to life, Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by rakishly nerdy Jeff Goldblum) says something like, “Just because you can do a thing, doesn’t mean you should do it.”

You know, technology is a lot like that.  Just look at nuclear fission.  The same technology that could give us almost unlimited, inexpensive electrical power, can also be turned on us in the form of nuclear weapons.  Perhaps more to the point, it can also give us Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

I apply that same sort of caution to an otherwise laudable effort by Dr. Dennis Hong and his team to develop technology that would allow blind people to drive a car. You can read more about it here and here.  Dennis’ team is stepping up to the National Federation for the Blind‘s “Blind Driver Challenge“, sponsored by the Jernigan Institute.

I know.   That was my reaction at first, also.  Why in the world would we want blind people driving automobiles?  Sighted people have enough trouble.

So, now that I have that out  of my system, let’s talk about reality.  There is no doubt that Hong’s engineering team will come up with some amazing ways to augment automobile navigation and control.  But let’s face it, who will insure a blind driver?  See, (no pun intended), driving is one of those personal responsibility things.  If you hit somebody, it’s your fault.  Period.  The statistical tables are well understood for the insurance industry, which allows them to set rates based on likelihood of an accident for various population classes who drive.

Oh, and in case you didn’t know, the highest incidence of accidents is not reckless teenage boys with fast cars, as popular 1960s songs might lead you to believe.  Nope, it’s teenage GIRLS.  Not really a surprise, I suppose, is it?

Anyway, just imagine that Hong, or somebody, develops the technology to allow blind people to drive a car on the highway with everybody else.  And suppose some critical part of that technology fails, as technology is wont to do at the most inopportune moments.  And suppose this failure leads to an accident where, unfortunately, one or more people are killed.  Maybe even the blind person.

The lawyers will have a field day.  The blind driver’s family will sue the automaker and the people who developed the blind driving technology for misleading the blind driver into thinking it was safe to drive.  The families of anybody else involved in the accident will sue the blind driver, and probably all the people the blind driver sues as well.  Somebody will sue the regulatory agency that approved this fiasco.  Who knows where it might end?

Which is why I don’t think this technology will ever be used to enable blind people to driver cars on the highway.

BUT, it could have other purposes.  What would a foolproof blind driver system look like?  Well, it would navigate for you, locate obstacles for you, predict paths for you to avoid objects, and pretty much just take over the driving for you.

In fact, if such as system could work, we would all end up in a world where none of us would actually be driving our cars at all.  I mean, if it is that safe, then there would be a massive computer controlled road network with smart cars, no traffic jams, and pretty much no autonomy.

Might as well take a bus or a train….

So, what’s the end of this story?  Well, I think Hong’s work will actually lead to systems that make cars safer and more convenient for sighted drivers, not blind ones.  And while I completely sympathize with blind people and their limited autonomy in life, the usefulness of this technology to them will be limited to in-community, limited use roads such as within a retirement area.  And maybe that is enough.

Be sure to spend a few minutes browsing Hong’s research lab website, the ROMELA lab.  It’s full of very interesting and very, very creepy robotic things, including graduate students.

Hehe, just kidding.  The graduate students, while creepy like all graduate students, are not, in fact, robotic as far as I know.

But with Dennis, you can never be sure….

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Filed under Communications, optics, propulsion, Robotics, Sensing, software