A few years ago I toured the U.S. Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Robotics Lab in San Diego. I shot photos and wrote a piece for Wired about my experience there. What follows are some out-takes along with high-res versions of many of the shots in the piece. Autonomous military robots... what could go wrong?
SAN DIEGO -- The Navy's MDARS-E is an armed robot that can track anything that moves. Told that I was the target, the unmanned vehicle trained its guns on me and ordered, "Stay where you are," in an intimidating robot voice. And yes, it was frightening. Perched atop a strip of cliffs lining a beautiful section of the Pacific Ocean, the Space and Naval Warfare System Command in San Diego develops semiautonomous armed robots for use in combat by the U.S. military. "We're not building Skynet" says Bart Everett, the technical director for robotics at SPAWAR. Though Everett assured me that the use of the robots' on-board weapons is under the strict control of their operators, the lab's bots can navigate and map complicated terrain, work cooperatively with soldiers and identify and confront hostile targets. Sure, they're no Johnny Five, but robots with guns are both creepy and fascinating.
ROBART III is a prototype platform designed in-house at SPAWAR. If it weren't for the chain gun and missiles, he would be pretty cute. Once he's ready for battle he'll almost certainly don an evil-looking suit of armor. ROBART's sensor array consists of a multitude of cameras, SICK LIDAR (like radar, but with lasers), ultrasonic transducers (gold spots), passive IR (infrared radiation) detectors and more. The weapons are planned to work in unison with a special rifle that would automatically target where a soldier points his weapon.
One of ROBART III's weapon systems is this nonlethal pneumatic chain gun. It uses a combination of laser sighting and machine vision to lock in on its target and barrages it with a torrent of 3/16-inch-diameter projectiles. In tests, plastic pellets (like air-soft munitions) and steel darts were used.
This prototype robotic weapon platform is designed to be buried underground for camouflaged deployment. When called to action, the robotic gun pops up and starts shooting. If you're the unlucky soul on the business end of this gun, it's likely curtains for you -- this robot is an extremely accurate shooter. A high-tech night-vision scope permits dead-on targeting even during moonless nights.
Last year I shot a gallery at USC which covered the use of robots for Iraq combat medic training. As I've mentioned before, I love robots.
Here is the intro I wrote for the Heal a Robot, Go to War gallery on Wired.com:
As of last week, 4,000 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq. While a grim statistic, the number would be much higher without the well-trained medical staff deployed to combat service. Before their tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, many corpsmen, doctors and nurses are trained at specialized facilities with elaborate combat-zone simulations, which include sound effects and realistic robot patients.
The Navy Trauma Training Center, located at the University of Southern California Surgical Skills department, is one of only three training centers in the United States. It is adjacent to the Los Angeles County Hospital, which has the busiest trauma ward in the city, treating about two-dozen gunshot and trauma wounds every day. While this real-world experience is invaluable to enlisted medics, a collection of programmable robots are able to tailor their symptoms and reactions to specific scenarios that doctors will encounter in combat zones.
Here are some of those photos from the gallery. If you want to see them in all their full-resolution glory, click here.
Click here to see the rest of the USC Medical photo gallery.
I love robots. I especially love buying robots at a discount. Discount robots rock.
A couple years ago I found a Robosapien II on eBay by saving a search for "broken robosapien". I bought the robot for a tenth of its retail cost and when it arrived I found that it merely had a loose wire in the controller.
Last year when the I-Sobot was announced I wanted one, but the price was just too high for me to justify. I-Sobots are amazing little robots with a dozen servos that allow them to dance, do kung-fu, somersaults and much more. After watching a few videos showing their capabilities I knew I had to have one.
I saved a search on ebay right then for "broken i-sobot". A few months later that search came up with some matches. I bought two of them, figuring I could use the parts from one to fix the other.
As it turned out one of them just needed to be adjusted. So that was a working I-Sobot for about one tenth the retail cost. Win.
The other I-Sobot worked for the most part, but had some strange errors which I think were related to the processor. Either way, one working I-Sobot, and one semi-working I-Sobot made me happy enough.
If you're in to fixing things and don't mind taking a chance with a broken robot, I highly recommend searching for broken robots on eBay. In all likelihood the bot won't be broken or will just need minor adjustments.
A few weeks ago I toured USC's medical center for WIRED News. One of the interesting things I saw was their Surgical Skills Center. One thing they do there is particularly pertinent to a serious issue in our world, the Iraq War. Click here or on the image below to see the Heal a Robot, Go to War gallery on WIRED News.
Last night I got a chance to get up close and personal with Keepon, the friendly dancing robot, at the WIRED Nextfest Creative Commons Benefit. I was hoping to see him perform live with Spoon, although honestly I'm more of a Keepon fan than a Spoon fan, but Keepon's performance was in the lobby, not on stage:
I had a chance to chat with Marek Michalowski and Hideki Kozima a bit about their robot and they even took off Keepon's pants/dress so I could get a shot of his guts which consist of 4 geared DC motors and a RISC processor to control the motors:
They didn't take off his skin, but they said they would for me during the press preview on Thursday. The did let me peak behind the curtain at the beautiful rats nest of cables, interfaces and two MacBooks being used to control the quartet of Keepons.
Marek Michalowski and Hideki Kozima showed off their robots to an interested crowd:
Evidently girls really, really, really like dancing squishy robots (I mean really):
You can see more in my Nextfest Creative Commons Benefit gallery.
The WIRED Nextfest is coming up next week here in Downtown Los Angeles. I am really excited about many of the exhibitions. It's one thing to read about a cool robot online, but to actually see one in real life is even better, as long as it doesn't try and chop off your arm with its sword. I have compiled a list of what I think will be some of the more interesting robots at Nextfest:
- Keepon: This cute, yellow, dancing robot is currently my favorite robot. His little eyes are two cameras and his nose is a microphone. His mastery of expressive head bobbing is quite impressive. I want to get a close-up shot of his insides which are actually quite complex. He will also be making an appearance with Spoon on the 10th
- Chroino: This little robot is totally bad-ass. Check out his strut and watch him stand up, like a person would, unlike a Robosapien 2. This will be one of my next robot purchases!
- Kiyomori[Warning Flash + Music]: Personally I've always thought that the world needed more robots wearing traditional samurai armor replete with swords. I hope that nobody pisses off Kyomori and loses an arm.
- Hubo FX-1: Holy smokes, the alpa stages of mech warriors are upon us! In Korea, "human-riding robot" doesn't ride you, you ride robot.
- HumanKind: Hanson Robotics has endeavored to create expressive robot heads that appear to be human. I don't know if I'm the only person who is creeped out by this, but I'm guessing that I'm not. Their new head, Joey Chaos, is a "one of a kind humanoid rock star is known for his attitude and smart remarks," I guess that could be fairly entertaining.
- Zou Ren Ti: What's creepier than an expressive robotic head? How about creating your twin in robot form. Yep, Xi'an wins.
- Takanishi Bots: There is something really retro about the assorted robots from Takanishi. The WL-16RIII looks pretty original though and the WABIAN-2R looks more modern than their other offerings.
- REEM-A: Pal Technology's REEM-A robot has a sense of equilibrium and if you try and push him over he will regain his balance. I wonder what happens if you push him too hard?
- Juke Bots: My German isn't so great, but from what I can tell from the pictures, the Juke Bots are a pair of what look like industrial welding robots that dance to music. Dancing robots are always crowd pleasers, and oddly enough dancing is a common robot design feature.
- Shadow Hand: This robotic hand is supposedly "the most advanced Dexterous Hand in the world." It looks pretty complicated, containing 40 air muscles.
- BodyBug: I'm not really sure what the point of this robot is, and the demo video, which was clearly inspired by, if not blatantly stolen from, Apple, confuses me even more. I guess it's a robot for playing a dancing game with your friends? I have no idea, but I suppose I'll find out more at Nextfest.
- Salamandra robotica: Ok so this isn't the most interesting robot ever, but the page has some neat motion graphs.
- The LEMUR Robots: NASA's multi-limbed bots look like a cross between robotic insects and big-eyed lemurs. Apparently they can climb walls.
- Outerspace: This robot looks like your average desk lamp, but comes alive and responds to your input as you can see in this video.
- Recon Scout - Reconnaissance Robot: This little dumbbell shaped robot is remote controlled and made for military work. You can toss the Recon Scout into a battle zone and drive it around to get an idea of what lies ahead.
- SRR: Sample-Return Rover: These venerable robots created in 1997 and 2000 may be old, but they're still useful. They can even work together to retrieve samples in hazardous environments.
- Glowbots: These intercommunicating, interactive, LED-encrusted robots remind me of a physical version of Conway's Game of Life. You can watch some videos of the Glowbots here.
Wired Nextfest takes place September 13th through the 16th in the South Hall of the LA Convention Center. Tickets will run you $20 if you're and adult, $15 with a student ID, and kids 2-12 are $5.
I ended up falling asleep before these were done uploading, but here is my final set from Saturday:
Yesterday I went and bought the New Furby which just came out in October this year. The new Furby is a pretty darn advanced toy for only $30, if you haven't seen one before they are basically armless Mogwais with beaks. New Furbys are powered by the Sensory Inc's RSC-4128 which is a multi-purpose microprocessor that does everything from voice recognition to text-to-speach to IO to DTMF output. After reading through the white paper for the RSC-4128 I was pretty sure that the Furby would be quite the hackable robot, so I decided to take a look inside and see what hacking would entail.
WARNING : If you take apart Furby it will never be the same once you put it back together, unless you are really good with a sewing needle.
I started by removing the feet which are fastened to Furby with a triangular security screw. The Boxer 62 piece security bit set that I bought at Fry's a few years back contained a triangular bit that was just slightly too large to fit the Furby foot screws, so I filed it down a tad and in it went. After taking off the feet, the clawed under-feet were exposed which were surrounded with little fur booties that just slid off with a little tug. Once I removed the under-feet I could see how the fur was attached to the skeleton.
The fur is glued on in 2 places, which i cut with a sharp knife. The fur also has plastic tabs that go into the base of Furby, which can be pulled out with a little effort. Once you have the base of the fur free from Furby you will have to open up the back of his little fur suit, this back is lightly sewn with just a few stitches and opens easily once you free the first stitch, almost like it was made to come open easily.
After you have opened the back of the suit you can slide it over his head, you will have to snip the small threads at the tips of his ears to get it off over his head, don't snip the big white threads that loop through the plastic ear guides, this is used to track the location of the ears. You will also have to snip the thread on the tip of his mohawk support and the thread wrapped around his eyebrow mover.
Then comes the tricky part and that is the last screw that holds the plastic eye and mouth guides onto the center of the face, at first I tried just pushing a screwdriver right between his eyes and turning but I couldn't get a hold of the screw. Next I tried just twisting the whole thing, but this seemed like it was going to mess up the eyelashes. Finally I just pulled hard on it and it the plastic flexed and popped off the screw. Now Furby is hairless and looks like a cyborg version of Mr. Potato head, sans-bucket of parts.
Furby's shell is closed by 6 screws and once they are removed you can open it up and see the goodies inside. After his shell is open, you will have to unwind the zig-zagging red and black wires, which I think are some kind of antenna to allow the Furby to communicate with its brethren. After you have released and unwound the wires you will need to cut the microphone, as there is no way to get it out of the shell without cutting it. Once you cut the wires in the middle, you will need to strip off the insulation so that the mic can pass through the grommet. The grommet has two sides, to get it out first pry out the outer grommet from the front of the shell and then push on the leads to drive the mic forward and out of the shell. You can then pull out the the rear grommet and use them together to protect the mic although it isn't really necessary.
After pulling the mic, I stripped the cut leads and removed the old leads from the motherboard, then I soldered the mic back on to the mic traces on the motherboard. I suppose this was the first actual hack. I then screwed back on the under-feet, stood Furby up, and switched it on. He worked fine and responded to my request to tell a joke.
I then removed the silicone mouth which was fastened by two screws to the face, once it was free from the face i had to clip two little silicone loops that attached to the beak and tongue, this will probably prevent the Furby from ever working the same again, although I suppose gluing would be possible.
The next step was to take a look at the motherboard. The motherboard is fastened to Furby with two screws, once you pull it off you will have to remove several snap in connectors, but to really get a good look at it I had to snip the feeding switch leads. Cutting the feeding switch wires was actually a good thing, because it makes feeding Furby much easier (just short the wires together). Here are pictures of the motherboard, the ROM/RAM daughter card and the transistor daughter card. The epoxy blob in the center of the MB is the RSC-4128, I am not yet sure what the other blob is.
The coolest thing I saw once I opened up Furby was that the board designers were nice enough to leave nice large pads for the RSC-4128 diagnostic interface, which hopefully should allow programming of the Furby. I am not sure, but I think the diagnostic port is a serial interface. I have ordered the development kit from Sensory Inc, and I'm sure this will help answer some of my questions. If I do end up being able to alter the programming / data on the Furby here are some things I plan on doing:
- Give Furby a more colorful vocabulary
- Teach Furby some tasteless jokes
- Change Furby's voice tone to be less cute and more evil
- Give Furby a funny accent and maybe a lisp and a twitch
- Hook up some of the unused I/O ports to control other things (the chips has 24 I/O ports with 10mA outputs)
- Expand Furby's memory
- Utilize the voice recording function of the RSC-4128
- Make Furby a voice controlled DTMF dialer
- Utilize the MIDI synth contained in the RSC-4128
Here is what I plan on doing even if I can change the code or data:
- Add nicer switches to the make the Skeletal Furby easier to
- Turn off
- LEDs that light up when Furby moves
- Volume control for the speaker
- Put the Furby head on a Robosapien body
Here are some relevant links:
So I am a sucker for robots and the new Furby looks pretty damn cool, so I ordered one, hey it only cost me $30. The new Furny has an off switch, and we all know you should never trust a robot without an off switch. It also responds to voice commands and has a whole bunch more motors and movement than the old Furby.
The furby also has 6 times more memory (512k) than its predecessor. It is powered by a Sensory RSC-4128 chip which is a "single-chip solution providing all hearing, talking and CPU functions". The Furby uses Sensory’s Quick Text to Speaker Independent™ (Quick T2SI) recognition technology, which sounds like it will make hacking a very interesting possibility as it uses text instead of audio files for its speach, there is also a plethora of developer info on the Sensory Inc website, and you can download an IDE.
I am also going to try and get a dev kit. Did I mention it has an off switch? As soon as I get it I will be removing its fur and taking pictures of the process. I will also see what kind if IR fun I can have with it.
After reading through the white paper for the RSC-4128 I can see this is going to be a totally hackable robot.