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See Inside October 2006

Ballbots

A new mode of locomotion will enable mobile robots to stand tall and move gracefully through busy everyday environments

The dream of intelligent, mobile robots that assist people during their day-to-day activities in homes, offices and nursing facilities is a compelling one. Although a favorite subject of science-fiction writers and robotics researchers, the goal seems always to lie well off in the future, however. Engineers have yet to solve fundamental problems involving robotic perception and world modeling, automated reasoning, manipulation of objects and locomotion.

Researchers have produced robots that, while falling far short of the ideal, can do some remarkable things. In 2002 one group dropped off a robot at the entrance to the annual meeting of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence in Edmonton, Alberta. The clever machine soon found its way to the registration booth, signed up for the conference, was assigned a lecture room, proceeded to that location and finally presented a brief talk about itself at the appointed hour. Some robots have in the meantime served effectively as interactive museum tour guides, whereas others show promise as nursing home assistants. Computer scientists and engineers have also equipped mobile systems with arms and hands for manipulating objects. All these experimental devices travel about on bases supported by three or four wheels. Designers call this configuration "statically stable" because it keeps the robots upright even at rest.

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