Hi, Robot

Tech's finest droids and drones

Spend much time around the Georgia Tech campus and you’ll realize the place is a robot haven. Autonomous drones whir through the air, robotic arms dance around labs, humanoid creations trundle through offices. When computational media major Eric Hamilton, one of our student assistants, heard we were featuring robots in this issue, he shrugged. He kept a robot in his dorm room for a while. No big deal.

When the Online Universities website recently published a list of “20 Colleges with Really Cool Robots,” Tech was prominent on the list. “We may one day look back on Georgia Tech as the place our war with robots started,” the listing joked. But Tech’s many robots aren’t threatening. They’re playing a critical role in helping the Institute’s researchers and students create the health care, manufacturing and defense technologies of the future. Here, we introduce you to just a few of the robots that are building the world of tomorrow. Find yourself smiling at these guys’ oddly human faces? Just go with it. Resistance is futile.

Fig. 1
Cody is a human’s best friend. Built in the Healthcare Robotics Lab, it moves around on a small, wheeled base and features human-like arms that respond to the touch. It’s designed to work with nurses or other care givers, navigating around a home or hospital and autonomously performing helpful tasks.

Fig. 2
Dusty II is another robot designed to help people with physical limitations. It scoots around, controlled by a joystick, and can autonomously scoop up almost any object that weighs less than a pound. (It works like a dustpan, hence the name.) Dusty then will ferry the object and lift it up within the user’s reach. The Healthcare Robotics Lab conducted a successful user study partnering Dusty with ALS patients.

Fig. 3
EL-E rests in an out-of-the-way corner of the Healthcare Robotics Lab, long since decommissioned. It was one of the lab’s early successes, designed to assist users by retrieving items from a variety of heights. Though it’s now essentially a dead robot, it still manages to be of aid. Occasionally researchers will cannibalize it for spare parts.

Fig. 4
MONTY might look like a futuristic mini-fridge, but it’s one of the most advanced robots at Tech. It’s a PR2 robot designed by the private builder Willow Garage and modified by the Healthcare Robotics Lab (that’s an Xbox Kinect mounted to its head). Researchers have taught it to care for a quadriplegic man, feeding him and even shaving his cheek.

Fig. 5
Travis might be the world’s most compact DJ. It plugs into an Android phone and uses the device’s sensing and music-generation abilities to listen to rhythms and respond with similar music pulled from the phone’s music library. It also dances and shines lights to the tempo. Unfortunately, Travis’ creators in the Center for Music Technology aren’t making him available for wedding receptions.

Fig. 6
Haile isn’t remarkable just because it plays drums. It’s remarkable because it can listen to human players, analyze their performance in real time and then launch into improvisational drumming right along with the humans. Designed in the Center for Music Technology, Haile has performed pieces composed specifically for it with drummers from around the world.

Fig. 7
Golem Krang might be the most intimidating of Tech’s robots, tall as a grown man with a large two-wheeled base and massive arms that, its creators in the Humanoid Robotics Lab boast, weigh more than 100 pounds. It features a unique joint that replicates the human waist, making it essentially an android affixed to a Segway. That thought could fill you with awe or fear, depending on how much time has passed since you last watched Terminator.

Fig. 8
VIC-E is a modified TurtleBot (also created by Willow Garage) that can build a 3-D map of a home and whir about, carrying water and medication. It’s currently housed at Tech’s Aware Home, where a smartphone app is being tested to control it. We’re told the name stands for Very Intelligent Computer-based Entity, though we think it’s secretly a reference to V.I.C.I. from Small Wonder.

Fig. 9
Shimon might be the most famous of Tech’s robots. It starred in the public service announcement that appeared during Tech’s televised sporting events during the past couple of years and has given performances in Munich, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Seattle. The marimba virtuoso (created in the Center for Music Technology) uses computational models of human perception to generate unique algorithmic responses, which is the fancy way of saying it’s a heck of a lot of fun to jam with.

On the Cover
Simon wants to be your friend. It was built in the Socially Intelligent Machines Lab with the goal of creating an expressive robot that could interact easily with human users (thus the eyes, the moveable LED “ears” and the humanoid arms). The face is designed to appear youthful, intimating that Simon is ready to learn. Research is underway using Simon to determine how, in the future, people might interact with robot helpers in day-to-day life.

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