Computer scientist's robotic research to rival Animal Planet

August 19, 2005

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- A Texas A&M University computer scientist's robotic research is for the birds. Really. Assistant Professor Dezhen Song builds autonomous and teleoperated robots with which natural scientists -- and ordinary people like me and you -- will watch animals such as endangered birds and grizzly and polar bears. "You can watch Animal Planet," he said, "but you don't have that same involvement (with the animals)." Song started his research with Professor Ken Goldberg of the University of California, Berkeley, this summer. He and Goldberg received $400,000 from the National Science Foundation to fund their research, which they called Collaborative Observatories for Natural Environments. The research is administered by the Texas Engineering Experiment Station, the engineering research agency of Texas and a member of The Texas A&M University System. "You have several elements behind 'collaborative': Collaboration between experts and the general public and collaboration between humans and machines," Song said. In other words, natural scientists will work with robots -- Song referred to them as observatories -- to teach us about animals. The scientists will tell the robots which locations to watch and turn the robots loose at those locations. Song said he wants the robots to be "automatic adapted." "Drop the box there," he said, "and it starts working." To work, the robots will need electricity, which most locations lack. Song said wind will generate electricity for the robots' climate-controlled domes, digital video cameras and wireless networks. The domes will cover the cameras to keep the cameras from weather. Song said the cameras, which were donated by Panasonic Research and Development, are lightweight, small and sparing in their use of electricity. The camera's streaming video will travel via the wireless networks to the Internet. The scientists will watch the streaming video, which will show animals at the locations, on their computers. We may watch the animals on our computers, too. Meanwhile, the robots will continue to watch the locations with no further instructions from the scientists. Song said they will work autonomously. "Teleoperated means a human actually controls the robot," he said. "Autonomous means that it runs without human intervention." The robots will not work autonomously all the time because the scientists will set them up and take them down. Song said he and Goldberg, with help from the U.S. Geological Survey, may set some robots up in Alaska soon. "People can sit in their warm homes and watch polar bears," he said.

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