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Courtesy of New Scientist Magazine

By Bob Johnstone

The ub-1 robot may not be much to look at, but at least it knows how to behave. When instructed to move, the rubbish bin on wheels has enough in-built intelligence to do so without bumping into doors or falling down stairs. Soon UB-1 may even be able to recognize people and answer simple questions.

Such abilities are crucial if robots are to move outside the controlled factory environment into a world which is much less predictable--from purely repetitive jobs, such as assembling cars on a production line, to variable work, such as cleaning or digging.

UB-1 is one of the most advanced "field robots" in the world. It lives in the laboratory of Alex Zelinski at the Australian National University (ANU), and is the product of collaboration between Zelinski and researchers at the Electro-Technical Laboratory (ETL) in Tsukuba, Japan.

At a robotics symposium in Canberra last month, UB-1's abilities were put to the test when it was sent trundling around the ANU campus, controlled from thousands of kilometers away over the Internet by Zelinski's colleagues in Japan.

"Using the Internet there's a lot of delay," says Zelinski, the head of robotics at ANU's School of Information Sciences and Engineering. "If you told a robot to move forward and didn't tell it to stop [quickly enough], it could run through a wall. So the machine has to become autonomous. We have this concept called 'supervised autonomy'. It's like a supervisor at work who gives people tasks, and then periodically checks whether the tasks are being performed, rather than standing over their shoulder and watching every step that they do."

In addition to supervised autonomy, a second Australian-Japanese innovation has provided unprecedented ease of control. Rather than create special software, the researchers opted to use the ubiquitous Web browser, Netscape. A camera perched on top of UB-1 captures a panoramic view of its surroundings. The picture is transmitted to the browser. Then, simply by pointing to a location on the picture and clicking on it, the controllers can tell the robot where to go.

But the camera produces 30 frames a second, each of which takes 0.25 megabytes of data. The transmission of such enormous amounts of information so rapidly would overwhelm the ordinary Internet links between Australia and Japan, which go via the US. Fortunately, the researchers can make use of a new, high-speed link that went into operation last November and which carries 1.5 megabytes of information a second. The cost of maintaining this link is split between Australia's Department of Industry, Science and Tourism and the Japanese government's Real World Computing Partnership.

Real World Computing is the successor to the notorious Fifth Generation Computer Project, sponsored by Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). But unlike its predecessor, whose main objective was to enable Japanese companies to overtake IBM, Real World Computing is a more collaborative, international effort centered on basic research.

At the project's hub is the ETL, a MITI laboratory which employs about 600 researchers. The robotics group at ETL is regarded as one of Japan's best. Zelinski worked with this group for nearly three years, before returning to Australia where he started at ANU in October 1996. The joint project with the Japanese began about six months later, when the Australians received a grant of about A$60 000 from the Real World partnership. They have applied for similar funding for a further three years.

Collaborating with such a large group is important, Zelinski says. "It's very hard to work in robotics with just a few people. The only way we're going to push ahead is through large programs like this." And participation in such a project also helps compensate for local deficiencies. "Australia doesn't have any indigenous computer manufacturers," Zelinski says. "We're hoping that by aligning ourselves closely with Japanese technology companies we'll be able to create new technology that they'll include in their products."

Although UB-1 was designed to be an office helper, it is more likely to work in dirty or dangerous environments. Other potential Australian applications for autonomous robots include mining machines and automated tractors.

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