Enter Robots, Slowly; September 1999; Scientific American Magazine; by Beardsley; 2 Page(s)
The autonomous robots of science fiction have thus far failed to whir into everyday life: they are too clumsy and expensive for the home, hobbyists aside, and can be tolerated only for the most repetitive tasks in industry. But major development projects are making progress in some of the most difficult areas, thanks to cheaper computing and radio links. "We will begin to see robots more often," says roboticist Takeo Kanade of Carnegie Mellon University.
Although "smart" technology can take numerous forms, almost all mobile robots to date use wheels, a choice that has confined them to a single floor of a building. But Johnson & Johnson, in partnership with inventor Dean Kamen, has recently announced a gyro-balanced wheelchair that can rear up on two wheels, traverse uneven terrain and climb stairs, while keeping its occupant perfectly stable. Kamen says the biggest challenge in the five-year project was ensuring the safety of a user even during a collision or a component failure: the system employs three Pentium-class computers that "vote" on what action to take if an error is detected. The Ibot Transporter is now in clinical trials. Johnson & Johnson is apparently counting on mass manufacturing, because it plans to sell the transporters for as little as $20,000. Advanced battery technology and superefficient motors allow the devices to run for up to a day without needing to be recharged. Kamen is now investigating other possible applications of the stable base.