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Additional resources for 21st Century Robotics (Scientific American Special Online Issue No. 14)

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Roomba closely resembles a vacuum robot, Trilobite, that was introduced by Swedish appliance maker Electrolux in November 2001. Electrolux didn’t respond to repeated requests for a demo model and doesn’t sell Trilobite outside Sweden, but I tried it out in a shop on a visit there this past fall. Trilobite features a more powerful and rug-friendly vacuum; a sonar to detect obstacles, so it seldom actually makes contact with anything; and a position tracker, so it can return to its home base and plug itself in when it needs a charge.

Some robots made possible by the advent of microprocessors in the 1980s track softer cues, like magnets or optical patterns in tiled floors, and use ultrasonics and infrared proximity sensors to detect and negotiate their way around obstacles. The most advanced industrial mobile robots, developed since the late 1980s, are guided by occasional navigational markers—for instance, laser-sensed bar codes—and by preexisting features such as walls, corners and doorways. The costly labor of laying guide wires is replaced by custom software that is carefully tuned for each route segment.

In seventh grade Burick built a voice-controlled mobile robot, and in high school he constructed an autonomous fire-fighting rover. As he got older, Burick dabbled with the low-level microcontrollers, servos and sensors used these days by amateur robot builders, but he finally gave up in frustration. His jobs had been in retail, selling consumer electronics rather than making them. With no formal training in programming or electrical engineering, “the learning curve was too steep,” he says. ” The better way occurred to him 18 33 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN EXCLUSIVE ONLINE ISSUE months ago as he was repairing one of the generic “white box” PCs he assembles from components and sells at his small computer store half a block up the street.

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21st Century Robotics (Scientific American Special Online Issue No. 14) by Scientific American

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