The Navy's MacGyver Bot Makes Its Own Tools, Doesn't Have a Mullet

Having whole-heartedly employed "drones": for air strikes, the U.S. military is now embarking on a project to put autonomous robots on the ground to serve as...

Oct 15 2012, 2:00pm

Having whole-heartedly employed drones for air strikes, the U.S. military is now embarking on a project to put autonomous robots on the ground to serve as soldier sidekicks. The model combat partner? TV’s most resourceful action-hero, MacGyver.

The U.S. Navy just committed $900,000 to a group of roboticists at the Georgia Institute of Technology to build what has been dubbed the “MacGyver-bot.” In the words of the chief roboticist on the project, professor Mike Stilman, the 1980s television character “solved complex problems and escaped dangerous situations by using everyday objects and materials he found at hand.”

MacGyver, a Vietnam War bomb diffuser technician with a background in science, is best known for performing Herculean tasks using only what he had on-hand — typically a gum wrapper, toothpick, some duct tape and a Swiss Army knife.

"Now that robotic systems are becoming more pervasive as teammates for warfighters in military operations, we must ensure that they are both intelligent and resourceful," said Paul Bello, director of the Office of Naval Research’s Cognitive Science Program. The MacGyver-bot, Bello said, "is the first of its kind, and is already beginning to deliver on the promise of mechanical teammates able to creatively perform in high-stakes situations."

Georgia Tech’s Golem Krang bot, which will serve as the MacGyver testbed, kinda looks like something from Terminator, right?

The idea is to develop an autonomous robot that not only thinks for itself but is designed to help soldiers out of sticky situations.

“If today’s most sophisticated robot was trapped in a burning room by a jammed door, it would probably not know how to locate and use objects in the room to climb over any debris, pry open the door, and escape the building,” according to Georgia Tech’s announcement of the project.

More than piecing together the hardware, the trick is programming an algorithm that allows the MacGyver-bot to identify objects and their potential uses, then employ the objects as “simple machines” to create “motion plans.” For instance, the bot would need to be able to deduce that stacking boxes could help it climb over something, that standing on a chair would allow it to reach higher, or that a metal pipe can be repurposed as a lever.

Such feats are simple for Richard Dean Anderson’s mulleted bomb-diffuser character, who once fashioned a torpedo out of some sticks, rocks, rags and a metal pipe. But imbuing a robot’s circuit board with human reasoning and inference capabilities is a complex undertaking.

“Researchers in the robot motion planning field have traditionally used computerised vision systems to locate objects in a cluttered environment to plan collision-free paths, but these systems have not provided any information about the objects’ functions,” Stilman said.

When the researchers are finished tweaking what they call their “hybrid reasoning system,” they intend to test it using Golem Krang, a humanoid robot built by Stilman’s lab.