In the television series Macgyver, the eponymous title character was notorious of being able to take a paperclip and some pocket lint and make an aircraft carrier out them. Now researchers at Georgia Tech want to give robots that same ingenuity. A team led by Professor Mike Stilman plans to create a “Macgyver bot” that can go into a disaster area and use whatever is lying around as tools to complete its mission.
Robots are being increasingly used at disaster scenes and in war zones. Their ability to go into areas too hazardous for humans is making them important assets for everything from fighting fires to clearing up after nuclear accidents. Unfortunately, their usefulness is limited because they have to be told exactly what to do and need to have most of their tools built into them. The Macgyver bot is designed to overcome this limitation by being able to go into a disaster area, assess the situation and use whatever is lying around as a tool to deal with the it.
“Our goal is to develop a robot that behaves like MacGyver, the television character from the 1980s who solved complex problems and escaped dangerous situations by using everyday objects and materials he found at hand,” said Stilman, an assistant professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech. “We want to understand the basic cognitive processes that allow humans to take advantage of arbitrary objects in their environments as tools. We will achieve this by designing algorithms for robots that make tasks that are impossible for a robot alone possible for a robot with tools.”
In action, the Macgyver bot would identify objects and use algorithms and a knowledge of basic mechanics to determine what their potential function is. Then it would plan how to use them to complete a task by turning the objects into tools or “simple machines.” It could, for example, use boxes for climbing or pipes for levers or doors for bridges. In addition, the robot would be able to navigate around hazards and judge how much force would be needed to open a jammed door.
The U.S. Navy is funding the project with a US$900,000 grant from the Office of Naval Research (ONR). The Navy is very interested in the idea because in the future, service personnel will be working very closely with robots and they want the machines to have human-like reasoning and the ability to works as teammates.
However, a great deal of work remains to be done before the Macgyver bot enters service. The robot will not only have to be able to judge potential tools by sight, but also develop a sense of touch so that it’s able to weigh and feel an object to determine its suitability. The next step for the Georgia Tech team will be to develop the robotic software and run it in computer simulations. After that, the software will be installed in Stilman’s Golem Krang humanoid robot for testing.
The video below shows the Golem Krang robot, which will be the basis for the Macgyver bot.