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8/7/2003
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Linux Robot: Could Be A Hero, Could Be A Toaster

Researchers are developing robots that run on Linux to do search-and-rescue in environments unsafe for people.

The Linux operating system has a growing following among business-software users, but could Linux one day play a key role in the search and rescue of disaster victims?

At LinuxWorld in San Francisco this week, scientists from SRI International's Artificial Intelligence Center demonstrated Linux-based robots that can search for objects and people in environments unsafe for rescue workers, such as the site of a chemical spill or an earthquake-damaged building. The research project is sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Linux was chosen for the robots, called Centibots, because they require a small, reliable operating system that has drivers for a variety of devices, can be automatically installed, and have a journaling file system, says Regis Vincent, a scientist with the nonprofit research institute.

Unfortunately, Centibots have a ways to go before they're reliable enough to save lives. The Centibots' task at LinuxWorld was to map out a maze that SRI had constructed on the floor measuring about 400 square feet in size, and then seek and find a Linux penguin doll tucked into a nook in the maze. The larger of the two Centibot models, measuring knee-high in height, successfully identified the configuration of the maze using laser range finders.

Then it was time for a smaller, tracking Centibot to navigate a structure based on the map designed by the larger Centibot, and then seek out the desired object using a camera and sensors.

Joking that the smaller Centibot would "become a toaster tomorrow" if it didn't find the Penguin, Vincent placed the Centibot in the maze. Onlookers watched for a few minutes with no movement from the Centibot, until it had to be replaced with a second tracking Centibot.

The relief robot found the penguin in the maze after several minutes, while communicating its location over a wireless network to a command center set up at the demonstration.

The Centibots are self-contained entities that can determine their location and plan their path, process images they see, make decisions based on a continually expanding knowledge base, and negotiate with other robots when teamwork is required, according to SRI. The robots use a mainboard from Via Technologies Inc. and software that's written in Java and the C language.

No predictions yet on when the robots might be ready for real-life use.

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