Robots have come a long way. Distant fantasies of autonomous machines, programmed to perform tasks and make decisions, have been fulfilled. For better or worse, we have machines like the iRobot Roomba, a roving vacuum to keep things tidy, and Honda's ASIMO robot, who conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2008. On the other side of the fence, doomsday prophesies of robot sabotage and the extermination of the human race has yet to be fulfilled -- at least not that we know of. So why not appreciate the fact that man and machine are still living together in relative harmony at this year's RoboGames.
Hosted at Fort Mason, the sixth annual RoboGames, formerly known as the ROBOolympics (the Olympic Committee had some copyright issues), showcases the best and brightest autonomous and remote-controlled robots in a variety of weird and amusing challenges. Robots from around the world will travel to San Francisco to compete in over 70 different events including combat robots, walking humanoids, soccer bots, hockey bots, sumo bots, kung-fu bots, and assistive suits called Tetsujin (translated Ironman in Japanese).
The Tetsujin competition challenges contestants to "build powered, articulated, strength-augmenting exoskeleton(s) for a human operator." The event measures results in weight lifting, dexterity and walking speed. Monty Reed, a top Tetsujin competitor in previous RoboGames, raised a lot of attention when he started developing, what he calls, his LIFESUIT a few years ago.
After serving as an Army Airborne Ranger in the early '80s and suffering a debilitating parachuting accident, Reed's prognosis was not good. He had broken his back in five different places and was left partially paralyzed and unable to walk. The doctors told him his condition would only get worse.
Undeterred, Reed became inspired by science fiction novels while in the hospital. He focused his attention on Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, where an advanced suit helps soldiers of the future perform superhuman feats. Defying the odds, Reed eventually gained back much of his mobility and began studying medical science and engineering, with the hope of building his own advanced suit.
The LIFESUIT is basically a homemade exoskeleton, powered by a scuba tank full of compressed air with yellow cables spiraling out. The suit provides mechanical assistance with walking and can lift over 200 pounds. With the help of volunteer engineers and outreach coordinators, Reed intends to develop his suit for medical rehabilitation and rescue purposes. Think of a Tetsujin fireman bursting through the walls of a burning building and lifting fiery wreckage to save lives. Don't laugh; it's the future.
Watch Monty Reed and his LIFESUIT take on a treadmill:
Spending the weekend watching robots paint, play soccer, or fight until the bitter end may seem nerdy beyond comprehension, but don't worry about it. It's okay to geek out.
RoboGames is held from June 12 - 14, 2009 at Fort Mason Festival Pavilion. For more information, visit robogames.net