Wednesday, February 20, 2008

MARV and the Hoppers

At the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico swarms of robots are hopping and rolling about the laboratory grounds communicating and coordinating actions amongst each other while sniffing out chemical plumes, photographing "secret" targets and setting up adhoc wireless communications stations.

These robots range from about a foot wide down to several millimeters wide. The hoppers are the largest ones and move about by leaping into the air over and over again while moving towards their goal. The hoppers can jump up to fifty feet high and go up to five miles on a tank of gas. They are packed with sensors, cameras, location and directional finders, and an assortment of other electronic "brains". When they land they are weighted so that the piston that propels them is always facing towards the ground and the internal sensors move the robot so that it is always facing in the direction of its target. Mostly envisioned for use in military and police work, these robots are also being looked at for space missions to Mars and other planets. The lightweight and low cost make them ideal candidates for launching in large numbers onto the surface of an alien world.

M.A.R.V.'s or Mini Autonomous Robotic Vehicles are arguably the smallest autonomous robots ever created. In an effort to pack as many sensors into ever smaller and smaller moving machines the researchers have created these bots that can "turn on a dime and park on a nickel". These robots are so tiny that they can move virtually undetected through buildings on hard floors and carpets. Through further miniaturization the group is working on adding cameras and other communications equipment to the tiny machines. The biggest restriction on making the robots even smaller is the size of the batteries that run them. As power supplies shrink the machines will shrink as well making them even harder to see as the swarm around the room a room collecting information.

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