'Robot Ships' to clean virtual oil spills

Connect, the new science and technology gallery at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh, is presenting an exhibit about robots which will include 'Robot Ships,' a series of biologically inspired robots which work like ants. If virtual tankers crash, you'll search for these toxic spills and send cleaning ships to eliminate the toxic goo.

Connect, the new science and technology gallery at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh, is presenting a free exhibit about robots until March 31, 2006. You'll be able to see Freddie, the world’s first 'thinking' robot, or use 'Robot Explorer' to move around an alien planet. But the most interesting part of this exhibit will be 'Robot Ships,' a series of biologically inspired robots which will demonstrate how they may be used in the future to solve complex tasks. You'll have to deal with virtual ocean tankers which may crash into islands. But with your autonomous seeker robots working like ants, you'll search for these toxic spills and send cleaning ships to eliminate the toxic goo.

Let's start with the introduction of a news release from the University of York where the 'Robot Ships' exhibit was designed.

Robot Ships, which goes live on 16 February 2006, uses the technology of Video Augmented Environments (VAEs) to create a tabletop ocean. Simply by touch, users can help or hinder robotic boats to work together to clean up oil spills, caused by virtual ocean tankers running aground on islands in the tabletop ocean.
The autonomous seeker robots search for toxic spills which are then cleaned by cleaning ships. The exhibit illustrates how robots of the future will co-operate in a way that is based on the behaviour of living things.

Below are two images showing the 'Robot Ships' exhibit (Credit: University of York/National Museums of Scotland).

Robot Ships: display at exhibit

On this second one, you can see how a user interacts with the virtual ships (Credit: University of York).

Robot Ships: user interface

These 'virtual' robots are based on 'computer vision' and previous VAEs developed at the Visual Systems Lab from the Intelligent Systems Group at the University of York. They based this new application on the OpenIllusionist software, also developed at the lab, and which gives more details about how these virtual robots are collaborating like ants do.

The idea behind the exhibit is to demonstrate the way in which simple, biologically inspired robots may be used in the future to solve complex tasks. In this case, the robots are similar to ants. Scout ships search the tabletop for toxic spills, and upon finding one lay a trail of marker buoys as they return to the central control rig (analogous to the ants' nest). On their way, the scouts must navigate round any objects blocking their path. Once a scout reaches the rig, cleanup "worker" ships are dispatched. They are unaware of the location of the spill, and are reliant upon the trail of buoys left by the scouts to navigate.
Cleanup ships which have found the spill collect a portion of it, and then head back to the rig by attempting to follow the same route back as they used on the way out. Any buoys they pass close to they recharge to encourage more workers to follow the same route. Any worker which failed to find the spill returns in the same way, but instead discharges any buoys passed, thus discouraging other workers from taking the same route. This is similar to the way ants navigate to food, by laying an reinforcing pheremone trails.

The Connect web site provides other details about the other robots shown at the exhibit, including some Robots Teachers' Notes worth reading if you plan to go there before the end of March.

Sources: University of York news release, February 17, 2006; and various web sites

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