April 17, 2009

tBot comes to life in a demonstration for Congressman Christopher Carney, far right. Below, the bi-pedal robot takes a step in the Dana Engineering Building.

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By Sam Alcorn

LEWISBURG, Pa. – With a slight twist of the hand controller, it whirred to life.

It inched out of Dana Engineering’s Product Development Laboratory bay door on four wheels and into the parking lot outside. It paused, seemingly to size up the crowd, raised its two front arms from the ground and proceeded to stand tall and straight on two dynamic gyroscope-balanced wheels. It turned left, right and back in a graceful pirouette. 

“It” was tBot, a four-wheeled robot being developed in collaboration by Bucknell University engineers and the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) in Pensacola, Fla. It won’t win any dancing competitions just yet, but as a prototype it was showing some fancy footwork.

“That’s tremendous,” said Congressman Christopher Carney, who has helped to secure some $2 million in federal funding for the project to design unmanned ground vehicles to help protect members of the military and law enforcement in urban environments.

Carney gave tBot a quick shove in an attempt to knock it off balance, but tBot took the jolt and more, all in stride.

With further development, the highly maneuverable tBot could one day be in the field, scouting enemy positions, holding ground, conducting surveillance or working in hazardous mine rescue or other life-threatening situations – all with the idea of reducing the risk to human life. 

Carney; the lead researchers for Bucknell, Keith Buffinton, professor and department chair of mechanical engineering, and Steven Shooter, professor of mechanical engineering; IHMC engineers Jerry Pratt and Peter Neuhaus; and undergraduate and graduate engineering students working on the project were on hand for the demonstration of tBot as well as another robotic device, a bi-pedal machine that walks like a human being.

Carney, a Naval Reserve officer, who had just returned from a congressional trip to Pakistan, Israel, Afghanistan and Turkey, said at a luncheon at the Elaine Langone Center that this is “exactly the kind of thing we need. We’re going to be fighting a lot of urban war for which this application is well-suited. We will have an opportunity probably sooner than we would like to deploy the kind of product you guys are working on.”

Buffinton thanked the congressman for the funding support, saying the robotic project gave Bucknell opportunities for cutting-edge research, collaboration with other research centers and universities and the chance to show off the talent and expertise of Bucknell’s students and faculty.

Central Pennsylvania
He said that while the primary mission of the robotics research is to reduce the potential harm to military and law enforcement individuals, it also presented an opportunity to “bring something back to Central Pennsylvania. We’re trying to involve organizations in Central Pennsylvania making parts for us and people in the area. It’s the recognition that we have the technological base here at Bucknell to do these kinds of things. I think it’s very exciting for Central Pennsylvania and I hope more attention and opportunities will come from that.”

Right now, communication and power for the 250-pound tBot that can travel up to 6 mph is via a tethered cable. The researchers are working to build a battery-powered model with sensing capabilities and what they called “more onboard smarts” to reduce the amount of instructions that need to be communicated to the unnamed vehicle. At some point, operators hope to transmit a map of terrain to the unit and it in turn will compute how best to navigate the terrain.

Back in the Product Development Laboratory, Shooter, who is currently spending his sabbatical this year at IHMC to work on the project, talked about the 100-pound, 5-foot bi-pedal robot that was taking its first steps in the lab.

Real world
He said the Pensacola researchers had the foundation for the bi-pedal robot and that Bucknell researchers were assisting in improving the design and “trying to get the simulation to the real world.”

The joints, for example, had too much flex, so Bucknell student engineers redesigned them to be 10 times stronger, Shooter said.

The next steps for the bi-pedal robot project are designing a head that contains cameras and information-gathering abilities and equipping the machine with arm-like devices to assist with balancing. Even at this stage of development, the bi-pedal robot has better balancing faculties than a human being, he said.

Shooter and the IHMC team have also had discussions with NASA in Houston about possible applications for a manned presence on the moon. 

Contact: Division of Communications