When a person today says “Robot”, many people think of the small automated vacuum systems that homeowners and businesses commonly use. Several different companies including iRobot have created systems for pool cleaning, gutter cleaning, carpet vacuuming, and tile floor scrubbers. Some systems are quite sophisticated. They have the ability to sense the layout of furniture to create an internal map of the most efficient paths to clean using the least amount of battery power. They are able to sense signals from invisible wall buoys that keep them from entering rooms or other areas where they are not intended to go. The same system that allows them to keep from falling down stairs allows them to remember where their charging station is located, and return when battery power is low.
Some robotic systems are used to help handicapped individuals with automated limbs, highly refined camera systems, speech systems, and other attachments to aid sight, hearing, and movement. More electronic and robotic systems are being added to vehicles to aid drivers when parallel parking or to speed reaction time for emergency stopping. Items that were deemed science fiction only a few years ago are becoming a part of our society on a daily basis.
Government agencies such as NASA often have contests to allow citizens, small business owners, and schools that have created robots, to compete for prize money and status. The Centennial Challenges Program is one such contest. It is overseen by NASA’s MarshallFlightSpaceCenter in HuntsvilleAlabamaUSA. Being a part of the Space Technology Mission Directorate, this program helps the people responsible for developing hardware for future missions.
Recently a three-day event was hosted at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts USA featured a first day event for eleven robots. A two acre park was chosen for the event. Some robot retrievers maintained the look of a canine and were operated without human control. The park was chosen due to the uneven terrain, trees, and buildings such as a gazebo to test the ability of the robot retrievers to find specific geologic samples.
These contests boast of prize money in excess of one million dollars to help promote the improvement of technology. Though backed by NASA, many applications for robot technologies can be used on Earth. Creating more sophisticated industrial and hazardous zone robotics can avoid injuries and save lives.
Rather than making any attempt to claim the right to any intellectual property of the winning robots, NASA encourages the winners to start businesses to continue the work created for the contest. The agency would like to access the success of the business to help their scientists work out difficult areas in their designs. The hope of having an ongoing relationship between the contestants and the NASA center could trim years off of research that is completed independently.
With awards ranging from one hundred thousand to over one million dollars, as well as ‘guts and glory’ awards, robotics researchers of all levels should seek out and enter as many contests as possible. The time is now to be a part of one of the most exciting fields of scientific hardware research.