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Sandia Robots transform into museum pieces

Whichever way you look at it, the Sandia National Laboratory can’t help but describe itself in grandiose and emotional ways. It’s nice to know that, every now and then, the billions invested into its various programmes, produces something which doesn’t improve the way we kill people. KitGuru eats re-fried beans and studies satellite images from the New Mexico area.

Since 1949, according to its own site, Sandia National Laboratories has dedicated huge resources toward the goal of developing science-based technologies that support US national security.

And, with ‘Sector 7’ dedication, these chaps believe that “Today, over 300 million Americans depend on Sandia’s technology solutions to solve national and global threats to peace and freedom” [Pity they never managed to solve George W Bush, now that would have helped further peace – Ed].

What kind of stuff are they capable of creating? Well, in December 2010, Sandia announced that its scientists had used a transmission electron microscope to create a rechargeable lithium-based battery where the anode was a single nanowire one seven-thousandth the thickness of a human hair. The team was led by Jianyu Huang – who claims not to be related to nVidia’s graphics guru.

Sandia was delivering complete MARV (Miniature Autonomous Robotic Vehicles) bots in a 1" cube (2.5cm) back in the mid 1990s

With all that expertise in nano-battery technology etc, it won’t come as much of a surprise for you to learn that Sandia has a very active robot programme.

However, the rate of development is so quick that, every now and then, the lab is able to donate old robots to museums. And that’s what they did last week.

Nine historically significant robots were donated to America’s Smithsonian.

Philip Heermann, Senior Manager of Sandia’s Intelligent Systems, Robotics and Cybernetics said “The Smithsonian selected Sandia robots for inclusion after they researched the history of robotics and they found worldwide references, all pointing back to Sandia robotics as early pioneers”.

MARV was particularly interesting for the museum. Miniature Autonomous Robotic Vehicles pack everything a little ‘neanderthal-type transformer’ needs to function, into a very small space indeed – normally a cube that’s less than 2.5cm (1 inch in old money) on each side.

Other key robots include SIR, which in 1985 became one of the first truly autonomous bots for interior use.

Another bot, Dixie, began scanning battlefields on its own in 1987 and the awesome ‘Hopping Robots’ which can navigate onto or over objects – again on their own.

The new museum exhibition will give visitors an idea of just how fast these technologies develop. Even MARV was out of data within 5 years of being developed – and it was replaced by a new generation of super miniature robots in 2011. These guys were less than a quarter of the size and could make themselves useful in search and rescue environments. Armed with cameras, microphones, chemical detection and communication devices – these second generation mini-bots were also able to work collaboratively in swarms. And that was more than 10 years ago.

Lastly, there will be Netbots at the show. These guys work in groups of up to 20 and can be used to sweep areas intelligently for things like unexploded weapons – without risking human life.

The bot on the left (SIR) is for indoor use, the guy at the back on the right (DIXIE) was designed to make battlefields safe and the Hopper can leap up to 20 feet (~6 metres) in the air, to clear obstacles. Now they are museum pieces.

KitGuru says: It sounds great – wish it was in the UK.

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