The Center for Robotics: Intelligence in Action

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The CSAIL Center for Robotics brings together leading experts in robotics who are engaged in research aimed at creating robots that can drive cars, walk, fly, or swim; grasp and assemble arbitrary objects; perceive the world and find their way in buildings and streets; coordinate and form teams; and even change their shape to suit their task. According to Tomas Lozano-Perez, the TIBCO Founders’ Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at MIT and co-director of the Center, “The key challenge lies in bringing intelligence to bear on action. A robot is not just a machine that moves – it is a machine that can choose its motions to accomplish a goal.” Boundless possibilities Robotics is already a multibillion-dollar industry with its core in manufacturing automation. The market for personal robots that can perform domestic tasks such as cleaning, vacuuming, and mowing is already significant. Yet this is only the beginning of the robotics revolution. Robotic driving and flying will transform transportation, reducing energy costs. Efficient walking robots that can perceive and manipulate will bring robots into homes, hospitals, and retail environments, where they will assist the elderly and the handicapped. Robots that function in environments inaccessible to humans by swimming through coral reefs or hovering above a rain forest canopy can yield powerful insights for scientists studying phenomena such as climate change. Space exploration is already dependent on robots; increased autonomy will enable their deployment in larger-scale operations. Beyond commercial and military applications, robotics is also a partner to biology and neuroscience in answering fundamental questions, such as: Why do animals and humans walk so efficiently? How does touch sensing enable precise manipulation? How do insect swarms accomplish remarkable feats of construction? Much of the work of the Center’s researchers is inspired by ideas like these from biology, and provides a platform for testing biological theories. Although in the public imagination robotics is typically associated with humanoid robots that move, grasp, and possess hand-eye coordination, the Center’s researchers engage in many other dimensions of robotics with potentially transforming applications. For example, one of Professor Rus’s research projects focuses on the development of tiny robotic particles – smart sand – that can self-assemble into a variety of objects such as a tent, a cup, a screwdriver, or a bench. Other principal investigators are working to create flying robots that flap their wings and can land on a wire, or an autonomous forklift that can unload a truck of supplies. Works in progress Scientists at the Center for Robotics work on projects that have potential applications across a broad spectrum – from "service robots" working in home and office environments, to robots that provide support in medical and underwater environments, to applications that deliver the benefits of automation in areas such as manufacturing, homeland security, environmental science, transportation, and agriculture. A sample of current projects underway at the Center includes the following: Agile robotics – Led by Professor Seth Teller, the Agile Robotics Logistics group applies autonomous mobility to logistical tasks such as supply chain maintenance. Researchers are creating robotic forklifts capable of gathering, identifying, and transport materials in a manufacturing environment. These capabilities, which require a combination of situational awareness, arm control, image processing, and grasping, are supplemented with human interfaces that enable the robots to receive directions and ask for clarification or help. View a demonstration Programmable matter – This project, led by Professor Rus, focuses on creating programmable matter that uses self-disassembly to form itself into objects. Through decentralized point-to-point communication, the block discards elements to shape itself into the object specified. Once that object is no longer needed, the matter can be reprogrammed to autonomously reconfigure itself into another shape. View a demonstration