June 26, 2001
Rovers tend to be associated with space exploration. In 1997, the Sojourner rover successfully studied the surface of Mars. Today, engineers are designing the twin rovers that will go to Mars in 2003. Rovers, however, can also be useful here on Earth, especially in dangerous environments that are difficult for humans to enter. Engineers are currently testing an Urban Robot, nicknamed Urbie, which may one day be used by police, emergency workers and rescue personnel.
Urbie is small and lightweight, making it easily transportable and able to fit in tight spaces. Like rovers bound for planetary exploration, Urbie must be autonomous, or able to control itself. Its twin set of cameras act like eyes and provide stereoscopic vision, helping the rover avoid obstacles in its path. Arms that rotate 360 degrees permit Urbie to climb over obstacles and drive up stairs. If Urbie ever flips over, the arms help it to turn upright again.
In the future, Urbie will also carry a night-vision camera and a two-axis scanning laser range finder. The range finder, a new sensor being developed at JPL, will be used for 3-D indoor mapping, obstacle avoidance and terrain mapping.
Originally designed for mobile military reconnaissance in city terrain, Urbie and robots like it may one day investigate environments contaminated with radiation, biological hazards or chemical spills. These rovers could also search for victims in fires too dangerous for firefighters.
Urbie is a joint effort of JPL, iRobot Corporation, the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Southern California Robotics Research Laboratory.