Autonomous vehicles may be ?robots in disguise?

?More than meets the eye … Robots in disguise …? So runs the famous chorus of the theme song to the Transformers animated TV series and films, which in its 1980s and modern day incarnations are about shape-shifting giant robots which can morph into all manner of cars, trucks, aircraft and other vehicles.

Until now, the fantasy of the Transformers has been exactly that – fantasy. Robots already do play some rudimentary roles in the manufacturing process, particularly in factories and production plants. The US military has also experimented with aerial combat and surveillance vehicles that are no larger than toys or models and sponsored driverless car contests such as the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency?s (DARPA) Urban Challenge robot road race. The US Defence Department has also made no secret of its ambition to phase out human ground troops and replace them with robot troops on the frontline by the 2030s. Even in mining and other related industries, there is a capacity for machines to be controlled remotely.

But there have never been any vehicles that were robots unto themselves or controlled by artificial intelligences.

Now these new robot technologies are finding their first real-world applications, after Carnegie Mellon University?s National Robotics Engineering Centre (NREC) and Caterpillar announced in September that they would be collaborating on a ?robo-driver mode? for Caterpillar?s two largest haul trucks – the 793D and the 797B. The ?robo-driver mode? could make the 600-tonne haulers, each with payload capacities of 217 tonnes or greater, intelligent and self-driving as part of a large-scale mining automation system.

NREC previously collaborated with General Motors on an autonomous SUV called ?Boss? that won the 2007 Urban Challenge in Victorville, California and which Caterpillar also sponsored. NREC will work closely on this project with Caterpillar?s Pittsburgh Automation Centre, which opened in September 2007. The project is part of a three-year master agreement for sponsored research between Caterpillar and Carnegie Mellon University.

?We?ve assembled a great team of people from across the institute who are excited to play a major role in delivering this ground-breaking capability,? said Tony Stentz, the principal investigator and associate director of NREC.

?This project is one of many allowing researchers and engineers from the NREC and Caterpillar to create innovative solutions for differentiated Cat products and services, with increased speed to market,? said Sam Kherat, manager of Caterpillar?s Pittsburgh Automation Centre.

The driverless haul truck is part of an autonomous mining haulage system that Caterpillar is developing with BHP Billiton, for integration into BHP Billiton?s mine sites by as early as 2010. The autonomous technology is designed to provide productivity gains through more consistency in processes and it is also expected to minimise environmental impact by both improved efficiency and overall mine safety.

The NREC will concentrate on adapting perception, planning and autonomous software architectures that it developed for DARPA?s UGCV-PerceptOR (UPI) autonomous vehicle program and the DARPA Urban Challenge.

The news of the NREC/Caterpillar collaboration has excited engineers and scientists, but terrified conspiracy theorists on the internet who have already started labelling the 797B a ?mega-robot? (even before it is successfully automated) and ?clearly one of Skynet?s minions in the making?. For the uninitiated, Skynet is the name of the artificial intelligence that brought about nuclear apocalypse in the Terminator films that starred Arnold Schwarzeneggar.

Given that the first robot-controlled trucks that may be rolled out by Caterpillar for BHP Billiton in 2010 will not necessarily be more advanced in their features than the present model, there is no reason to start fearing nuclear apocalypse yet. It is unlikely the Cat trucks will be anything other than benign and the prospect of the human race being wiped out either accidentally or intentionally by smarter machines is unlikely to start in the quarry sector!

Sources: Carnegie Mellon University, Technology Marketing Corporation, The Register, The Age

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