SFU AutoLab at Science World

February 14, 2005

Children’s laughter rings out as a puppy-sized robot wheels around the room. One boy sits in absorbed concentration, grasping a joystick to navigate the blue and red robot around people and desks. Behind him, another robot winds quietly around the room, exploring its surroundings and deftly avoiding a crowd of onlookers. This robot, however, no one controls.

On January 29, SFU Assistant Professor Richard Vaughan and his team attended “Robot Invasion!”, a day of robotics demos at Science World. Representing SFU AutoLab at Science World were CS students Pouya Bastani, Yaroslav Litus, Jens Wawerla, Pawel Zebrowski and Carl Zhang.

The SFU AutoLab group, alongside UBC Engineering, the Vancouver Robotics club, and the FIRST Robotics Challenge showcased their innovations for the public of all ages. Among the highlights were two mobile Pioneer 3 robots named Priss and Roy, robotic research projects of the SFU Computing Science Autonomy Lab.

Richard described the difference between his two robots. “One could be –carefully!- controlled by joystick by the children. The other was completely autonomous, exploring the room on its own. Kids would try and stop it, but it would just turn around and go the other way.” The autonomous robot featured a unique self-charging mechanism. “When its battery level ran low, it would search for its charging station and then charge itself. In fact, when we arrived, we set it up and then didn’t touch it for the next five hours. It looked after itself.” The recharging station was built by students in his lab, with an ingenious gripper system devised of electrodes and baby socks.

Self-sustaining robots like this are a main area of research at the SFU Autonomy Lab. According to Dr. Richard Vaughan, the lab’s director, other robotics labs around the world focus on ideas such as mapping, exploration and making robots more efficient. To his knowledge, SFU’s Autonomy lab is the only one in the world which focuses primarily on the self-maintenance and resource management of robots.

Breakthroughs in this area can lead to aiding projects such as the Mars Land Rovers. “There are 2 semi-autonomous robots on Mars, but they need 24-hour supervision by a team in Pasadena.” Richard hopes that one day a space exploration robot would be able to answer its own questions such as “How long should I recharge, or do I have enough energy to get over that hill.”

When asked whether his research could lead to a robot-run society depicted in science fiction movies, Richard replies that concerned individuals should “come see the robots and see how limited they are. Their anxiety will be relieved.” Today’s limitations in robotics and Richard’s dedication to ethics in science can calm most fears. He believes that scientists must act responsibly when choosing their area of research. For example, Richard maintains a web site called No Evil Robots which discourages the development of autonomous weapons.

Richard also co-maintains a Free Software package called Player/Stage, a widely-used robot control and simulation system. His other hobbies include snowboarding, surfing, and wall climbing with his team of graduate students.

Learn more about the SFU Autonomy lab here.

Photo by Julia Vaughan.