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The little robot that could

By Laura Stephenson Carter

Emergency responders, suited up in protective gear, cautiously approach a building that's been badly damaged by an explosion. They need to clean up the hazardous materials inside, but the structure is too unstable for anyone to enter. Then along comes HazBot—a suitcase- sized army tank with a seven-foot-long extendable arm. The little robot zips up to the building, opens the door, climbs over debris, maneuvers around obstacles, collects samples of hazardous materials, identifies them, and even begins the clean-up operation. Some day there may be a robot that is smart enough to handle all that. In fact, in war zones, robots already neutralize roadside bombs, examine suspicious vehicles, find snipers, evaluate danger zones, and even sample and collect hazardous materials. But they can't yet operate independently. They are all remotely controlled, or teleoperated, by humans. Trouble is, it takes a while for humans to learn to master the controls. And that can be a problemin emergency situations when trained operators are not on hand.

Device: So Dartmouth researchers, led by DMS plastic surgeon Joseph Rosen, M.D., and undergraduate Jacob Jurmain, set out to design a hazmat robot that would be easy to operate. They built their HazBot prototype out of existing components—the PackBot Explosive Ordinance Disposal manipulator robot, made by iRobot Corporation, and Mantis, a control device made by Mimic Technologies. Then they modified and integrated the device's software to come up with a system easy enough for anyone to master.

The control mechanismis a thimble-sized device. "You just grab [it] and move it around," says Jurmain, now a graduate student at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering. "You immediately get the hang of it." And the robot mimics every move the operator makes.

Further work is needed to make the system more rugged, say the researchers, who reported on their work in the American Journal of Disaster Medicine. One day, HazBot may help in all kinds of dangerous situations—from investigating methamphetamine labs to helping patients in infectious disease outbreaks.

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