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Robot event shows facts behind science fiction
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Robot event shows facts behind science fiction

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Yam Geva demonstrates some of the smaller robots to a group of children at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel on May 22.
Yam Geva demonstrates some of the smaller robots to a group of children at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel on May 22.

Robots that slither like snakes, schlep like llamas, and climb like Spider-Man are all in a day’s work for Dr. Amir Shapiro, director of the robotics lab at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Appearing May 22 at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, Shapiro and graduate student Yam Geva wowed a crowd of over 100, including about 30 children, with a demonstration of the “Amazing Robots of Israel.” The automatons stole the show as they writhed on the floor or walked across tables.

But Shapiro’s work in robotics is hardly kid stuff. He explained that robots are needed for three general tasks — dangerous tasks, dull tasks, and delicate tasks — and are as essential to the Israeli military as they are to industry.

Shapiro pointed to the four-legged “llama” — which can walk with stability even on rugged terrain — as an example of a robot suited to dangerous tasks.

“During the Second Lebanon War, the Israeli army used [actual] llamas in order to take equipment for soldiers. But when they got to the war zone, and there was shooting everywhere, the llamas did not want to go,” explained Shapiro. “They’re smart animals. They know it’s dangerous. Therefore, we suggested to the army to use mechanical llamas — the robots.”

With compressors, the robots weigh about 600 pounds and can carry about 200 pounds, according to Shapiro.

“We are working now to perfect the control of the robot and make it walk smoothly,” said Shapiro. “The ultimate goal in making the robots walk is having robots that can walk on really rough terrain. How they walk on this, they actually select steps — foothold locations — very carefully to maintain stability and walk and not fall.”

Shapiro and his colleague also offered a demonstration of a snake robot, which is suited to the “delicate” task of searching the rubble of a collapsed building for survivors. With 18 motors inside and a variety of joints, it moves in a wave pattern. Equipped with a camera, it can send back to the rescue team everything it “sees.”

The demonstration included videos of climbing robots that scale walls and leave a glue trail behind, and another that moves by shooting arrows connected to a web-like material.

While such robots are only prototypes, Shapiro also described some ready-for-market robots, including one that helps improve balance and gait on uneven terrain for all kinds of people, but especially senior citizens. Another, designed for GM, enables its assembly line robots to grasp differently shaped objects. The robot makes it possible for the car company to build different models on the same line. And yet another sprays date palm trees with water and insecticide.

The program was sponsored by the Greater New York Region of American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Shapiro, who got his degree in mechanical engineering from the Technion and did post-doctoral work at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, also worked at CalTech for a several summers.

Children and grownups alike asked scores of questions, from the simple to the complex. At several points, Shapiro had to cut off the questions or, he said, “we’ll be here until tomorrow morning!”

Prompted by an adult member of the audience, Shapiro took several opportunities to emphasize how kids make robots when they grow up. “To the children: You see here very cool stuff, right? And we all like to play with robots. But in order to make them move like this, we have to do a lot of equations and computations — it’s a lot of math.

“So go to school, learn math, and you’ll be able to do robots!”

Russell Kaplan, a South Orange resident and member of Sharey Tefilo-Israel, came with his nine-year-old daughter, Chloe. She liked the spider-bot in particular, she said. “I liked the way it was climbing and shooting arrows like Spider-Man”; and, she added, “I like Marvel comics.” Although she really likes science and math, she doesn’t see robotics in her future; “I want to be a doctor,” she said.

Her father had a slightly more sophisticated, if no less enthusiastic, perspective. “It was interesting to see what robotics is in real life as opposed to our understanding of robots that is so colored by movies and unrealistic creative processes that aren’t truly representative of reality,” said Kaplan.

“It’s interesting to see what the science really is, and how it’s employed in the world, as opposed to Star Wars on planets far, far away in the future.”

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