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UP is building robots
By Jo. Florendo B. Lontoc

ASIMO of Honda, a walking humanoid, is considered the most advanced robot in the world. It takes the shape of machines of the future—those that approximate the human form and perform tasks in ways no other form of machine can. UP’s robotics expert, Dr. Manuel Ramos, says that the best kind of machine that can exist in the human environment must also be walking on two legs or be humanlike in form. Biped locomotion, a most useful technology toward making the most efficient machines, is therefore relentlessly pursued by many in robotics.

The output of UP robotics in the direction of the humanoid still consists of the bare minimum—two legs and the ability to walk. This is no small feat, however, since UP’s robotics laboratories started from scratch and late. Yet their work is already on a par with Asimo—which took Honda 20 years to make—when it comes to the algorithms of walking or the calculations needed to perform the seemingly simple, but in reality very complicated, task of walking on just two feet.

At UP three of the 14 research laboratories at the Triple E (Department of Electrical and Electronics Engineering) Building on the Diliman campus have been directly involved in—though not confined to—making robots. They are the Instrumentation, Robotics, and Control (IRC) Laboratory; the Yamatake Industrial Control and Automation Laboratory (YICAL); and the Mobile Robotics (Mobot) Laboratory. Established only in the 1990s, they have made UP a thriving center for robotics development in the country.

Arms, legs, wheels, senses

At YICAL on the third floor of Triple E, there are rudimentary metal legs, having wires still sticking out and rough edges. Students in the laboratory are tracking the algorithms of human walking so that the biped can use the data to function in infinitely better ways than a walking doll.

But legs are not all the laboratories are making. Dr. Manuel Ramos, the head, instructs a student to place small canisters at random on a platform beside a PC and a cranelike machine. With a simple command typed into the computer, the machine picks up each of the canisters, then piles them in pyramid formation, before returning each of them to their original position. The mechatronic arm or “manipulator” is able to pinpoint images captured by its camera, identify them as objects for picking up, locate them, determine the manner and amount of force with which to pick them up, decide how they are to be arranged, and then move accordingly—all on its own.

Providing arms and legs with intelligence so that they can perform commands are two projects of the Lab which have applications for industrial automation. YICAL is also doing research on building automation (as in automated functions of building management), machine vision and data mining (as in predicting power distribution over a certain area).

Two floors up, in the Mobot Lab, a knee-high “all-terrain” rover is equipped with two cameras on its “head”. This humanlike binocular vision allows the robot to have depth perception and compute the distance of obstacles on its path and avoid them. A computer installed inside the robot enables it to process the images it receives from the cameras and allows remote control from a Local Area Network (LAN) through its connection to the Internet in wi-fi (wireless fidelity).

Lying on a shelf top is a smaller mobot (mobile robot) installed with a car vacuum cleaner. Prof. Percival Magpantay, assisant lab head, says its name is Charlean—it charges itself and its task is to clean the floor on its own. Beside it lies a charger to which it attaches when its batteries are running low. Magpantay says an expensive commercial version of the robotic vacuum cleaner exists. He says that built from scratch, with some parts available, surprisingly, on Raon, the Mobot Lab invention cannot cost more than P7,000. The price can go down further if the unit is mass-produced.

The third robotics laboratory was established and is headed by Dr. Luis Sison, who did high-level research on bio­sensors at Berkeley in 2003. Established in 1991, the first to be created among the three robotics laboratories, the IRC Lab now focuses on biomedical engineering, wireless sensor networks and mechatronics.

The laboratory’s thrust in biomedical engineering provides the bridge to ferry the benefits of electronics engineering to health, not through the creation of cyborgs, but through more practical means such as medical instrumentation and control. For example, the IRC is developing devices to monitor the patient’s “vital signs” with communication occurring between a transmitter worn by the patient and a central monitoring or base station. These devices enable the patient to go around while his or her health condition is being monitored by the cellular-phone network.

One of the IRC’s projects on wireless sensor networks will automate monitoring work in wildlife and agriculture; energy conservation, surveillance, security, and vibration control in buildings and other types of infrastructure. Having built sensor nodes for the network, a team will soon deploy them to monitor a habitat of birds in UP Diliman. Because data is transmitted via radio, a person need not check the readings of each installed sensor. The network “self-organizes”: each “node” automatically determines its relationship with the rest of the network.

In mechatronics, IRC has created a simulator for active mass damping, a technology to reduce the effects of vibration in buildings by applying an amount of mass, for example, on the stories of a building. Through the machine, students have been able to devise various schemes for vibration control.

Walking in the big league

Admittedly in its infancy, UP robotics is nonetheless making an impact locally and internationally. For the past two years the Mobot Lab has emerged winner in the Microcontroller Applications and Design Contest, a local contest organized by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Philippines, for the category that applies microcon­trollers—single-chip computers commonly found in “intelligent” household appliances—to useful automated tasks. Mobot’s office delivery robot won this contest in 2004 and Charlean won this year.

Projects of IRC students took the second, third and fourth places in the Open Design category.

Runner-up to Charlean was a portable device that monitors the breathing of patients with sleep apnea disorder. In third place was a data acquisition system that uses wireless transceivers to transmit biosignals to a PC.


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Mr. Lontok is a University of Santo Tomas journalism graduate and is taking MA at the University of the Philippines. He has been writing for UP’s System Information Office for the past five years.

 

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