Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Greg Jordan

January 3, 2013

Independent robots: BSC students working toward high-tech future

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by robots. I would watch the old 1940s and ’50s serials on television that featured men from Mars and, of course, robots. The robots were always people in heavy costumes, but they were robots and I loved it.

I would watch the show “Lost in Space” during the 1960s because one of the main characters was a robot. My favorite character in the class movie “Forbidden Planet” was the iconic Robby the Robot; I understand a collector paid about a million dollars from him recently. I’d love to have Robby in my living room, but I can’t outbid anybody with a million dollars. Even old tin toys of Robby can cost hundreds of dollars.

Then came “Star Wars” in the 1970s and the “droids” C-3PO and R2-D2. Actors brought the droids to life, but it was still fun to imagine that they were real machines. Next came “The Terminator,” the major machine you don’t mess with; you can beat it and blast it, but it will be back. I could keep going on and on about robots on television and cinema.

Those of us who marveled at robots when we were kids have lived to see them starting to become reality. A lot of them are remote-controlled machines, but they can do things like handle bombs or explore the planet Mars. Some of them are becoming more and more independent, but full autonomy is going to take some time. I understand that inventing a robot that could cross a street without any human input would be a considerable achievement. Making a machine that could think for itself is that complicated.

I know a lot of people would be surprised to learn that steps toward more independent robots are being taken at nearby Bluefield State College. I’ve written several stories about the professors and students building robots capable of running obstacle courses on their own; several of them have won awards when pitted against robots built at universities from across the world.

The robot workshops at BSC are filled with lots of things you would expect such as work benches, tools and scavenged parts. You could build a robot — remote controlled, of course — from a kit, but these students don’t take that shortcut. They find or make the parts they need, and the computer software they need is not bought off the Internet. They have to create their own, and a lot of thought and effort goes into creating a robot that could roam hallways by itself.

The resulting robots don’t look anything like C-3PO, but they do resemble R2-D2. Built on a trolley, they are collections of components and sensors designed to explore an obstacle course without any human help. How much thinking would a robot have to do in order to navigate an obstacle course? Well, imagine conducting your regular routine in a wheelchair. You can’t simply step over and around obstacles. You have to think carefully about your path and every move that you make; that’s why making public places accessible to wheelchairs is so important.

These machines might not look sleek, but inventions under development rarely look sleek and futuristic. For instance, the Wright Brothers’ first airplane looked like a fancy kite you would give to a child. Just getting airborne and being controllable was a major achievement; supersonic flight was decades away, but that motorized kite took the first steps.

Then there were the first rockets. The Chinese made simple ones from gunpowder, wood and cardboard. Later, inventors used metal and experimented with liquid fuel. Their rockets were cobbled together from what junk they could cut and weld into new shapes. Those primitive backyard projects were a long way from the mighty Saturn V rockets that sent the Apollo missions to the moon, but they laid the groundwork for those huge machines, the space shuttle and spaceships yet to come.

Some day the robots being made by BSC students will be relics in a museum that show the public how robots took their first independent steps. Whenever that happens, we will likely have things like robot cars that drive themselves. We may have robot dogs and cats for people who are allergic to fur or robots that clean up after our real pets. Robots may be mining the moon, the asteroids or Mars for minerals and sending them to Earth.

Of course, somebody has to figure out how to give these machines the gift of autonomy. For example, a robot sent to mine an asteroid can’t wait the hours it would take for an order sent by radio to reach it. It must be able to act on its own to some degree. An even more extreme situation would involve robot probes sent to planets beyond our solar system: for example, picture a robot being sent to a world like the fictional Pandora in the movie “Avatar.” Even moving at the speed of light, it would take years for a command to reach a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. No, we would have to have a probe that could think for itself.

Steps toward such wonders are being taken at Bluefield State. I’m looking forward to my next visit so I can see history in progress. I might some day be telling kids who are used to robot cars and robots that carry their book bags about the days when robots that could take verbal orders and cross the street without any help were being created.

Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com.

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