Robots of the Future

January 9, 2010

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SALT LAKE TRIBUNE – Exoskeletons that give mere mortals superhuman strength, and human-made “snakes” that slither unseen up tall poles to unobtrusively “spy” for handlers half-a-world away, aren’t just fodder for comic books or futuristic movies anymore.

Such creations are everyday fare for an eclectic group of handpicked engineers and designers tucked away in a building on the northeastern edge of Salt Lake City’s Research Park. These offbeat, high-tech inventors are part of Utah-based Sarcos Research Corp., founded in 1983 by an equally offbeat and eclectic University of Utah engineering professor.

But that professor, Stephen C. Jacobsen, for whom discovery is more challenging than mere production, needed a way to get his company’s work produced on a large scale. Two years ago, he combined Sarcos’ defense operations with military-hardware giant Raytheon.

“We’re good at bringing the vision into reality. But we would rather see the creation go to the mother company, with its focus on producing and disseminating large systems into the field,” he said. Sarcos is part of Raytheon’s Integrated Defense Systems Division.

“They have 12,000 employees; they make gigantic radar systems and the Patriot missile. The snake is now in Raytheon’s hands; the exoskeleton will be transferred to them next year.

“My interest is to keep my core group intact so we can go on to the next project.”

As the snake and exoskeleton head to California, his tight-knit group of 65 engineers, designers and artists will move on to creating the next generation of exoskeleton. Also near the top of Jacobsen’s long to-do list — developing microcameras no bigger than a human hair that have industrial and medical applications.

It’s exciting stuff, and Jacobsen, whose mind seems to be miles ahead of his rapid-fire speech, exudes, “These things are going to change the world. In 10 years they are going to be everywhere. They’ll be used in medicine and to build buildings.”

A rough beginning

So how did this indefatigable inventor and mechanical-engineering professor, now in his late 60s and with a full career of scientific firsts behind him, come to all this? Even he acknowledges a rough beginning.

The 1959 East High graduate says his grades weren’t all that hot during his undergraduate years at the University of Utah’s College of Engineering.

“I wasn’t that serious; I fooled around a lot, and I got into trouble every now and then.”

Longtime friend Brad Bertosh, with the entrepreneur-development nonprofit Wayne Brown Institute, puts it more succinctly.

“Steve was very bright, but he was viewed by the U. as an undisciplined student,” Bertosh recalls. “As the story goes, he set off a widespread explosion in the Merrill Engineering Building, and he rigged vending machines so they would respond only to him. He was a poor student, and he was asked by the U. to leave — not by the college, but by the U. administration.”

That’s when Wayne Brown, then dean of the engineering college, took Jacobsen aside and said, as related by Bertosh: “Steve, you are the smartest kid I have ever had the privilege of teaching. If you can keep a B average, we’ll get you back into school and get you a degree.”

Jacobsen came back, produced the appropriate grades and went on to get a master’s degree. Then, on the strength of recommendation letters by Brown and Willem Kolff, who directed artificial-organs research at the U., he was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The future inventor, who as a master’s candidate had been a laboratory assistant for Kolff, returned to the U. in 1973 where he participated in work on the artificial kidney and other artificial organs. Eventually, he founded the U.’s Center of Engineering Design and developed what become known as the Utah Arm, an advanced prosthetic elbow and hand combination.

Realizing that inventing was more to his liking than a desire to be involved in production, he used students to help form, and then run, Motion Control Inc. to manufacture the arm, now in its third iteration. Later, through Sarcos, Jacobsen’s team developed the AdVAntage Arm, a much-lighter, body-powered arm that the military uses for amputees.

Why turn over to students a company producing a groundbreaking product that, particularly during times of war is in strong demand?

“I didn’t want to stand in booths and sell things,” he said. “I want to sell visions.”

The skeleton suit

Take, for example, the vision of the exoskeleton.

It consists of a skeleton-like suit fashioned out of aluminum and weighing about 150 pounds. A person simply steps into it and straps it on. The suit can be a total-body device or adapted for upper torso or legs only, and a 50-pound compact engine, carried like a backpack, provides the power that can be generated by liquid fuel or batteries.

wkd_robotics_011010~5The motor drives power-modulation devices, sensors and controllers. When engaged, the exoskeleton greatly enhances human strength and endurance.

“You’re carrying yourself; the robotic suit carries the load,” Jacobsen said. For example, an airman attaching armaments onto the undercarriage of an aircraft eventually will be able to pick up 200-pound loads and install them, and do it over and over.

The human operator, when lifting, say, 15 pounds, feels a weight equal to only 1 pound. The kinds of tasks a person wearing the robotic suit can accomplish are widespread.

“It all depends on what you design it to do,” said the inventor.

This minimal use of human strength allows humans to do what was once back-breaking labor “all day long and not get tired,” Jacobsen said. Essentially, a person wearing the exoskeleton can easily transport something weighing 150 pounds while walking a steady 3 to 3½ mph, climbing stairs or steep hills up to a 25 percent grade without fatigue. In combat situations, the wearer can be outfitted with ballistic armor, as well as protection against a variety of chemical and biological agents.

Although it has not been tested in combat, Raytheon Sarcos software engineer Rex Jameson has spent about 120 hours in the suit during laboratory testing and demonstrations.

He said it seems a bit strange at first. “There’s an imperceptible delay before it ‘follows’ you; that delay is milliseconds, [but] as soon as you relax and let it go, it’s fine. It really takes no special skill to be in it.

“It feels the same, whether you have no weight on it or are carrying 150 pounds.” What takes time, he said, is for the wearer “to relax and believe that it will do what you expect it to do.”

Then, there’s the snake.

To study how to make this long, sinewy mechanized creature move, Sarcos developers studied real snakes, from those that slither in a relatively straight line to sidewinders — a species that moves in lateral undulations. A goal was to see which parts of a real snake’s body actually touch the ground and help propel it.

Test models are generally 5½ feet long and use two rubberized tracks, one at each end, for better propulsion. Current models can be powered this way for up to 3½ hours, said Jacobsen.

The device, no larger in diameter than 2½ inches, can be mounted with a small camera, sensors or explosives. It is guided remotely, with its camera showing the route to an operator far away. It can pass through hole or pipe at least 4 inches in diameter and climb a vertical circular pipe or post up to 20 feet tall.

It can navigate through dense grass and clutter and, on a flat, nonslippery surface, travel 1,640 feet in one hour. That’s not all. Developers said it can climb the inside of a vertical pipe, go up a staircase in minutes and pass over a foot-wide gap.

These aren’t the usual devices one sees even in movies.

In out-of-the-lab testing, developers ran the snake through an obstacle course, guided by an operator nearly two miles away. Jacobsen said it traveled down a street, went through two culverts, through heavy brush and climbed a pole, where it sat for two hours conducting surveillance with its tiny camera. Then it came down the pole and went back through the course — all within the 3½-hour power limit.

“They are long, thin robots and very complicated to build,” said Jacobsen. “But they work and work well.”

Story by John Keahey

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