Saturday, 27 June 2009

AIR 2009 day 2

The first talk this morning was by Guido Bugmann who talked about creating stimulus-response mappings. The benefits of which is that you can pre-plan what to do in a specific situation and then map that to an action, the point being that planning what to do is the slowest part of making the robots go and if you have some stuff that is pre-planned then the robot is much (much) quicker to react. One of the inspirations for this was tennis players, because they can decide on a course of action, like which way to run to get to the ball, in an incredibly short space of time ~200ms which is the quickest that a message can propagate through the brain (from seeing the ball being tossed to telling the muscles what to do). One of the things that he found interesting is that it is very very easy to program the brain. The example he used was to get us to raise our left hand if we saw a letter A on screen and our right hand if we see a B. That's a pretty straightforward task right? In the process of telling us what to do he's made us program our brain to do this simple task, which wouldn't have been evolved or taught we can just do it without practise. Psychologists haven't really investigated this phenomenon, they tell subjects to do something and then look at what the subject did, there's not really been any investigation of how long it takes a subject to be "programmed" to do a task.

The next talk was byDave Barnes about the challenges of putting robots into space. Basically it's incredibly difficult! Everything ideally has zero mass, volume and power consumption and it has to be resistant to radiation and the cold and the heat. They spend an enormous amount of time callibrating the robots and all other parts of it, that's most of what they seem to do in Aberystwyth actually. The guys here built the robot arm for the Beagle 2 mission, and there's a lot of work that's gone into it. They were also responsible for the colour callibration thing which is basically some colours on a square which the robot can photograph in order to check the colour correction on the lenses (the Mars atmosphere distorts colour in a different way to Earth's atmosphere apparently). It's nothing more than a square of colours with no mechanics or moving parts but they needed 3 teams of scientists to work on it to prevent colour fading, or dust sticking to it and getting exactly the right colour pigments etc etc. A lot of work! This was easily the most interesting talk of the week. It gave a real insight into the issues of space robotics, basically it's nigh impossible and absolutely everything is working against you. Good stuff.
Another talk was about Artificial Immune Systems, in no other field of research I've encountered have people been so adamant about stating that you should consider the pros and cons of their algorithms and that it won't solve everything. I think this is partially because Jon and Mark are very honest about it... mostly because they "haven't found their niche yet", but that's just my opinion and is probably nothing like reality.

After the talks were all over we were taken to Aberystwyth's Mars Lab, where they test the Mars rovers! They have a scale version of the next Mars rover which is half size in all dimensions (so the real one is 8x bigger) which I photographed here (click to enbiggen):

Mars Rover, at Aberystwyth Uni

Pretty neat huh? The white blobs are things for tracking the robot's movements across the lab. There's a picture of me with this robot, but that's far too blurry to put online. The white stuff it's stood on is Mars sand D, which is basically sand which is the same consistency and has the same properties as some Mars sand (there are lots of different types of sand on Mars). This rover's job is to look for sedimentary rocks and analyse samples to see if Mars once supported life. It also has a drill on the side (although this model I think does not) which drills down into the Mars soil to take samples from below the surface, because Mars has little/no magnetic field so doesn't protect the surface from the sun's harmful radiation.

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