Sandia robot strengthens long arm of the law

Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have unveiled a wheeled police robot that makes many decisions on its own.

Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have unveiled a wheeled police robot that makes many decisions on its own, freeing up its operator to make the more critical decisions during potentially dangerous bomb-disablement or other law enforcement missions.

In collaboration with REMOTEC Inc. Sandia developed and installed new software on a robot on loan from REMOTEC. The software is said to automate many of the robot’s movements while retaining the operator’s ability to command the robot’s behaviours.

The software, called SMART, for Sandia Modular Architecture for Robotics and Teleoperation, is expected to make police robots quicker, safer, easier to operate, and capable of more behaviours. It also is expected to make available to on-scene commanders a greater number of tools for responding to a wider variety of situations.

Law enforcement agencies worldwide are said to be welcoming mobile robots into their special operations units to perform tasks that would normally put an officer in danger.

But today’s police robots can be difficult to operate. A robot’s driver, often working under the pressures of limited time, has to master control levers for each joint of a robotic arm, as well as for a robot’s on-board grippers, cameras, and other tools.

The operator has to operate the arm while the camera views might be upside down and backwards. Furthermore, the operator has difficulty judging distances through the cameras, which provide limited depth-of-field information.

A SMART-based robot with associated sensors and other tools could be pre-programmed, using software control sequences that allow it to grip tool A or go directly to point X rather than having individual movements controlled separately by the operator.

‘It will free up the human operator to think about what needs to happen and in what order — which is what humans do better than machines — rather than the monotonous and sometimes confusing details of moving joints,’ said Sandia project leader Phil Bennett.

SMART’s patented control algorithms guarantee that a variety of components, perhaps from different vendors, can be integrated into a single system and work correctly the first time, said Bob Anderson, Sandia developer of the software.

‘SMART overcomes obstacles to system stability in unstructured environments,’ added Anderson. In addition, SMART’s ‘stackable’ software modules — one for each robot component or function — enables the rapid assembly of off-the-shelf equipment into a working system.

Bennett expects that REMOTEC and Sandia will begin introducing new tools, sensors, and behaviours for additional law enforcement needs soon. Possible new technologies could include path planning, machine vision, proximity sensing, obstacle avoidance and visual targeting.

Bennett hopes law enforcement agencies one day will be able to select and download new behaviours or tool modules from a network or off of a CD-ROM and insert them into their robots’ control systems.