Do the Bug Walk II

In our December 1994 issue we reported on the work of Grant Braught, a graduate student in electrical engineering who was "teaching a six-legged robot how to hop, crawl, skittle, scoot—however it is bugs go." Braught was back at the 1995 Graduate Research Exhibition, displaying a new bug-related robot that he and his adviser, Stelios C. A. Thomopoulos, are developing. During the Exhibition, Braught was interviewed for the public radio show "The Amazing Science Emporium." Series host Dan Mushalko provided us with the following transcripts (in which SFX means "sound effects").

"Robot Redux, Part 1"
Original Airdate: 9505.3
Copyright 1995 by Dan Mushalko

SFX: Traffic sounds.

DM: Hi, I'm Dan Mushalko in the—SFX: Car horn honks—Hey! Watch where you're going, you neandertal! Ooops . . . uh, sorry officer. Uh, we're here in the Amazing Science Mobile Unit. Now and then, I like to . . .

SFX: Andrews Sisters vocals—"Hit the road!"

. . . to seek out new science, and new dissertations. To boldly go where no science show host has gone before! SFX: Alexander Courage, "Star Trek"—(Swoosh), then play theme open. Establish quickly, then fade under.

We journeyed to the 10th Annual Penn State Graduate Research Exhibition, and caught up with grad student . . .

GB: . . . Grant Braught, and I'm in the electrical engineering department here at Penn State.

DM: And Grant has—well, an inspiration for robots that you might find a little unusual.

GB: What I'm doing is looking at insect colonies—bee hives and ant colonies—and how they work, and taking that as an inspiration on how to do robotics projects. The basic premise is we can work with simpler robots and work with a whole bunch of them instead of making a really complex, single robot to do the job.

SFX: Kraftwerk, "The Robots" vocals—"We are the robots." Fade up under Braught, establish vocal, then fade out.

DM: Everybody thinks that we're trying to work toward robots that are human, like androids, but you seem to be advocating something else entirely.

GB: Well, the goal of making android-type robots still is out there. That's a real, let's say, somewhat unrealistic goal, given where we are today. This is the sort of an approach that we can apply today with the technology we have today, making simple robots to accomplish more complex tasks.

SFX: Buddy Holly and the Crickets vocals—"It's so easy, it's so easy, yeah-ah-ah, it's so easy..." Fade under.

DM: What would these kinds of robots be used for?

GB: One type of application is planetary exploration: search and gather types of missions. Go out and find rock samples. Clear landing areas or put together very rudimentary types of settlements, or just explore different areas. And undersea missions. Areas where the failure of your robot is critical to your mission. In this case, we have thousands of robots doing it. A couple of them die, we don't really care.

SFX: Dan Aykroyd & Pat Thrall, Dragnet vocals—"Dance or die."

DM: It makes sense. Why risk humans or expensive robot models as we explore the universe? Send in the drones. But why program them to behave like bugs? The answer must wait until tomorrow, when Grant Braught joins us again in the Amazing Science Emporium.

"Robot Redux, Part 2"
Original Airdate: 9505.31
Copyright 1995 by Dan Mushalko

DM: Welcome to the Amazing Science Emporium. Yesterday, we started talking with Grant Braught, a grad student at Penn State who sees things. Bugs. Robot bugs. Now there's a pleasant thought, eh?

SFX: Ohio Express, "Mercy" vocal—"Oh, you're making me crawl up a wall."

Well, yeah. We'd make these robots do whatever we need. Producing lots of cheap robots to do our bidding in dangerous places might be better than sending humans. But, um, why does Grant see bugs as holding the key to future robots?

GB: This goes back to using simple robots to accomplish the task. Bees and ants are relatively unintelligent, but yet they accomplish things that are much beyond the capability or the understanding of the individuals.

This is where the term "superorganism" came from. It was popular in the '70s with biologists and entomologists looking at the collective behavior of such societies of insects.

DM: So, an ant colony or bee hive as a whole has a kind of intelligence, whereas the individual units are just drones.

GB: Correct.

SFX: 1910 Fruitgum Company, "Simon Says" vocals—"Simple Simon says. Do it when Simon says. Simple Simon says. And you'll never be out."

DM: You programmed your computer to do something here, it looks like.

GB: What I've done is taken a platform—it's called a flat earth—and balanced it in three dimensions so it's free to rotate. Then, I took a colony of 50 simple robots and distributed them randomly on this platform. Their goal is to move around so that it balances in a horizontal position.

SFX: Thompson Twins, "The Gap" vocals—"Keep moving on into the gap."

And over time, as the platform becomes balanced, there is less and less intelligence required to balance the platform, so more robots are freed up to do other things. They're represented by the green dots.

SFX: Rowlf, "Bein' Green" vocals—"It's not easy bein' green."

DM: Do they actually have other tasks in here, or do they just turn green?

GB: The second task is sort of artificial. They turn into what is called a follower, and they go to the nearest intelligent robot and just follow him around.

DM (laughs).

GB: Other tasks we hope to incorporate are a feeding behavior, where they go out and acquire food or resources to help support the other robots so they don't have to leave the goal or the task they're working on.

SFX: Jack Wild, et al, "Oliver!" vocals—"I'd do anything, for you, dear, anything."

DM: Thanks to Grant Braught for speaking with us. It's a pity his robots are still just dots on a computer screen; I could sure use one of those things acquiring food for me. In the Amazing Science Emporium Mobile Unit, I'm Dan Mushalko.

SFX: Cab Calloway, "Everybody Eats" vocals—"I cook your favorite dishes..."

Grant Braught is a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering, College of Engineering, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-7667. Stelios C. A. Thomopoulos, Ph.D., is associate professor of electrical engineering; 865-3744. For information on The Amazing Science Emporium, contact Dan Mushalko, ASE, P.O. Box 274, Dublin OH 43017; 614-876-1997. Also see "Notebook."

Last Updated December 01, 1995