Robin Murphy, a professor of robotics at the University of Texas A&M, is competing with sci-fi robots in a new series for the scientific journal Science Robotics. First of all: R2-D2 and BB-8, Star Wars darlings.
The first article, published today, examines the real-world feasibility of two breakout bots. Although astromech droids are beautiful and useful far away in the galaxy, they will not be so useful here on Earth.
Part of the problem is that robots don’t have weapons, they just have a series of tools under their shells. Murphy says the kind of “multi-tool” seen in movies is not possible. Yes, these are sci-fi tools, but in the real world, most active robots have at least something resembling a human arm – which probably rejects even the hard-limbed C3PO as an effective boot.
Murphy says consider NASA’s robotics. “The first thing about it is that the robot has arms, it doesn’t have legs,” she says. Weapons enable robots to “manipulate and handle tools and other objects”. This makes the probate the opposite of astronomy like R2-D2 because it has all the arms instead of all the legs. But this fact also makes it suitable for life in space, where it can touch astronauts or do some basic work (such as replacing air filters).
Murphy also points to the problem of BB-8 movement in the desert. Sphero famously made a model of the droid that works great on hardwood floors, but placing it in the desert only creates a mess. Murphy found more versatile robots, like lizards or snakes, that navigate the sands best.
However, both the R2 and the BB-8 do something that has been shown to be useful in robotics: beeping and whistling. “This non-verbal communication works very well,” Murphy said. When it comes to human-robot interaction, Murphy says these signals “show that they are alive, busy and you want to talk to them more.”
Next on the robot debunking docket for Murphy? In a published article about the giant Max seen in the Pacific Rim. In this movie, the giant robot needs to be controlled by a team of pilots who control the various functions of the boat.
Max, who runs on human power, thinks there are already real-life applications. “The restoration has been amazing, with the help of electricity you can, but maybe people don’t need to be telepathically connected.” Real-world exoskeletons or mechs don’t usually need two pilots. Murphy says that as these systems get bigger, so does the need for automation.
Finally, Murphy’s series may reveal were science fiction gave us real, working ideas in robotics … although it did have some consequences for damaging Boston Dynamics’ fleet of bots. Gone, we’re still a long way off. Just as beautiful as we see on the screen.
“I was inspired by science fiction as a kid, and it’s fun to turn them into teaching able moments,” Murphy said.