On Research: Teaching Robots to Be Smarter Ken Keatley --------------------------------- Homewood News and Information Robots that swim along the ocean floor in pursuit of elusive plankton, and those that spot-weld cars on a high-speed assembly line, are plagued by similar problems: how to get the job done faster and more accurately. For researchers, the fundamental question is, How do we make robots smarter? Louis Whitcomb, associate professor of mechanical engineering in the School of Engineering, is working to find solutions to the control and dynamics issues that hold back new or advanced uses of robots. "The goal is to develop robots that are intelligent in learning about themselves and their environment, and can use that information to improve their performance," Whitcomb says. While there is much more to be learned, Whitcomb and the robots he's helped develop are literally making great strides. He was the architect of a new control system for JASON and ARGO II, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's remotely operated underwater vehicles. Last summer, ARGO II was successfully deployed 3,500 meters beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean to investigate hydrothermal vents. The state-of-the-art robot, linked by fiber-optic cable to a control room in a ship on the surface, permitted precise data collection in a complex environment. Such instruments as an electronic still camera (which took 30,362 photos for an oceanographic survey) and sonars were operated via joystick from the mother ship floating over two miles above the ocean floor. "We had to hover ARGO II just off the bottom, and position it back and forth over a vent," Whitcomb explains. "We were able to make the vehicle go where it was supposed to go, enabling the robot to bring back data that will help geologists unravel the mystery of hydrothermal vent formation." This summer, Whitcomb will again collaborate with Woods Hole scientists in developing a prototype control system that will enable an underwater robot equipped with two cameras to track the movements of plankton for an extended period of time. On land, Whitcomb has been equally successful. He is a consultant to a number of the world's leading manufacturers of industrial robots, and recently spent a year in Japan collaborating with engineers at the University of Tokyo and at the Toshiba Corp. Research and Development Laboratory. He formerly worked as an R&D engineer at GMFanuc Robotics Corp., the largest robotics vendor in North America. "For a lot of operations in the body shop of an automobile factory--like arc and spot welding, or painting--robots are the right way to do the job. They are especially useful in replacing human workers in jobs that are dirty, dull or dangerous," Whitcomb explains. Nevertheless, earlier generations of robots have been less successful when the application--like deburring of rough edges, or cutting patterns in metal surfaces--requires precision in an ever-changing environment. Whitcomb is developing and applying model-based adaptive control techniques that compensate for such forces as gravity and inertia, and result in high-performance systems. "You can write a mathematically precise control algorithm that gives the machine a chance to adapt, to interact dynamically with its environment," he continues. While Whitcomb has seen many of his control systems put into place on the assembly line and beneath the ocean, he is well aware of the challenges ahead. "It will be a long time before robots are as smart as a 6-month-old child," he says. Whitcomb, who joined the Hopkins faculty last fall, is part of a burgeoning group of robotics engineering researchers. Others are fellow mechanical engineer Gregory Chirikjian and biomedical engineer Reza Shadmehr.
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