Almost science fiction

first_imgThe world watched scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory celebrate some impressive accomplishments a week and a half ago – researchers announced liquid water might exist on a tiny moon of Saturn, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter slipped into orbit around the Red Planet. But not everyone at JPL has their attention focused on far away planets. The big moment for researcher Yoseph Bar-Cohen came last month in a San Diego hotel where he presided over an arm wrestling competition. Of course, in true JPL fashion, this was no ordinary arm wrestling match. For the second year in a row, researchers were squaring off using robotic arms with artificial muscles. Bar-Cohen, though he didn’t enter a limb in the competition, is the sport’s amiable grandfather. In 1999, he threw out the challenge to develop a robotic arm capable of beating humans (inspired by human- computer chess matches). But much like the early days of the chess competitions, humans have the upper hand for now. In last year’s inaugural competition, a high school girl defeated all of the robots. It wasn’t even close. For this year’s match, the human competitor was replaced by an easier-to-manage 1.1-pound weight. But to hear Bar-Cohen tell it, it’s a promising beginning. And listening to him, it’s hard not to get excited. As he explains his work, his enthusiasm is evident. Sometimes he doesn’t even finish a sentence in his eagerness to move on to the next idea. Bar-Cohen is the head of advanced technologies at JPL. He gets to dream up novel ideas that could one day be parlayed into new tools for space exploration, medical diagnoses or national defense. Much of his inspiration comes from biology, he said, as he excitedly turned to his computer to show video clips of an octopus squeezing through a tiny tube and displaying eerily good camouflage. “If we had a robot that can crawl under the door and hide itself like a carpet – imagine for homeland defense!” he said. In his lab, the novel applications of different plastics and ceramics are on display. One table holds a metallic robotic hand and an automated head that can make facial expressions. In a big pool in the opposite corner, a colleague sets a ceramic disc to vibrate so quickly it shoots water and fog into the air. From a stand nearby hangs a paper-thin piece of plastic that bends back and forth when Bar-Cohen flips a switch and sends electricity coursing through it. This is one of the materials that fellow researchers are using for their artificial muscles – but for now it remains no threat to human dominance in the arm wrestling arena. The displays look like a collection of engineer playthings, but Bar-Cohen has great hope that they could be the beginning of a revolution in robotics. With the arm wrestling competition, as well as the conference he organizes, the books he writes and the newsletter he sends out, he hopes to spark the development of even more novel materials and techniques. “Imagine if we had a robot that didn’t have wheels, that could run like a cheetah, climb like a gecko, fly like a bird,” Bar-Cohen said. “Soon, we can turn science fiction ideas into reality.” [email protected] (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4451 AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORE‘Mame,’ ‘Hello, Dolly!’ composer Jerry Herman dies at 88160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img read more