Fielding robots

unmanned helicopters and farm-harvesters will be the first automated vehicles to roll out from a new research centre in the us, which is trying to sell National Aeronautics and Space Administration's ( nasa ) technology to industries. nasa has given us $2.5 million to Carnegie Mellon University (cmu), Pennsylvania, to build a centre to market its remote-sensing and control systems which are vital for reliable robots. cmu 's work with nasa has already resulted in an autonomous helicopter that uses video cameras and the global positioning system to plot its own flight.

Within three years, cmu 's unmanned farm-harvesters could begin to automatically harvest fields. The new robots will also benefit from nasa 's experience in making rugged machines capable of withstanding extreme temperatures. Dante- ii , a robot developed for nasa at cmu was successfully tested last year in the ice fields of the Antarctic and inside a volcano.

Radio-controlled helicopters are already being used in field-spraying trials in Japan. The cmu is now using nasa 's technology to make more viable machines by completely automating every decision the robot-sprayers make. Some of them will be able to carry cameras, sensors and the computing equipment necessary for autonomous flight.

Other sensors such as laser range-finders and acoustic devices, will be integrated with their vision system so that the vehicles can fly at low altitudes and land safely. The biggest problem facing the researchers is increasing the stability of the robots in gusts and cross winds. Although the craft can cope with these conditions when it is flying, it may become unstable when it is hovering. Five years ago, researchers were barely able to create a robot that could fly. Now there are aerial robots that not only fly steadily but are also able to navigate and manipulate objects on the ground.