For kids, a new way to control virtual characters is all fun and games. For soldiers, more intuitive controls for robots could mean the difference between life and death.
Using the controller from the popular Nintendo Wii gaming system (the "Wiimote") scientists from the Idaho National Laboratory, working with engineers from the U.S. Army, Foster-Miller, and iRobot, are developing novel ways to control military robots.
"If a soldier wants to find a bomb [with a robot], 95 percent of their attention has to be focused on the screen," said Doug Few, an engineer at the Idaho National Laboratory working on the project. "Using the Wii remote reduces the work load on the operator and also extends the numbers of domains that the robot can be used in."
The current laptop interface that controls the military robots can have up to 50 hard buttons and requires a soldier to place all attention to the monitor, a potentially deadly distraction in a war zone.
The white Wiimote is more intuitive, say the researchers, as evidenced by its popularity among gamers.
The Wiimote is equipped with buttons, an infrared beam and accelerometers. A player can point it at the television screen to aim and fire at objects like a gun, or swing it to play games like virtual tennis.
"It's very easy to drive the robot with the Wiimote," said Slater.
Few and his colleagues at the INL have modified the Wiimote so they can drive a military robot. Using the infrared beam, they can point to a specific place, and the robot, using an artificial intelligence system, will find its own way to that point.
The various buttons and physical actions on the Wiimote would activate certain responses, such as throwing a grenade or sweeping for land mines, faster than having to look down and operate a specific key.
"You really need two people to run the current system; one to run it, another to guard that person," said Jason Slater of robot manufacturer Foster Miller. "With the Wii remote you can give the soldier operating the robot more awareness of his surroundings."
Along the way the robot even creates its own map of the area, so when a button is pushed the robot will find its own way back to the soldiers, even if they have changed positions.
The Wiimote-controlled robot works fine in test conditions, but a battlefield is a rougher place. Before any new robot control device is used in combat it must be significantly "ruggidized," said Slater.
The hardware and software on the Wiimote would also need to be improved, to improve accuracy and ensure the robot can't be hacked.
Updating hardware and software would take significant time, so far Foster-Miller has no plans to market a Wiimote-controlled robot anytime soon.
"I think you'll be seeing a lot more new and unique ways to control things like military robot, especially as sensors and other technologies are miniaturized," said Slater. "But we are still a long way from the popular image of fully autonomous robots walking around."
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