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The Robo-Claws Have It

The Navy is developing robotic devices to venture into places humans can't go.
The Navy is developing robotic devices to venture into places humans can't go. These intelligent mechanical devices will be packed to the gills with sophisticated sensors and computing power that will perform difficult tasks in extreme conditions--mine sweeping, search and rescue, and other tasks.

Robo-LobsterThe robotic devices will be made possible courtesy of biomimetics, a relatively new field of robotics in which programming is modeled on the behavior and adaptive reactions of animals and insects. The approach uses reverse engineering techniques, studying animals in their natural environments and using mechanical and computing devices to mimic their biological reactions to environmental stimuli.

A robot modeled on a lobster is being developed under the auspices of the Office of Naval Research in Arlington, Va., and the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to detect mines. Robo-Lobster is based on research by Joseph Ayers, director of external relations and associate professor of biology at Northeastern University's Marine Science Center. Ayers has been working more than four years on the device that scampers along the ocean bottom to identify potential explosives and help steer military personnel around them.

Ayers wanted to avoid the limitations of more conventional robotic designs, such as those used in factory-floor automation-so instead of hiring a staff of engineers, he chose biologists. Ayers' team of 22 scientists studied films of live lobsters in their natural habitat and digitized their motions, storing these adaptive movements in a program library.

The battery-powered device is 18 inches long with four hinged or jointed legs on each side. Nickel and titanium wires triggered by small electrical jolts take the place of muscles. Two oval paddles about 8 inches long function as Robo-Lobster's claws. The device also has paddles and a tail that let it maintain balance and enhance its maneuverability on the ocean floor and in other ocean environments.

Robo-Lobster uses sensors in the form of antennae and hair to detect obstacles, natural or otherwise, and determine what they are. Signals from these sensors are processed by its microprocessor brain. The robots are being built by Massa Products Corp. in Hingham, Mass., and prototypes are expected to be ready in September.

Robo-Lobster is only the tip of the claw of biomimetic research. Robo-Fly, Robo-Lamprey, Robo-Scorpion, and even Robo-Tuna, among others, will also be crawling, swimming, and flying out of the labs-probably much sooner than you'd think. Robo-Scorpion, also being developed at Northeastern, is expected to take its first trek across the desert next summer. The solar-powered device's field test will be a 25-mile jaunt into the Mojave Desert, navigating its way back to its exact origination point.