May 24, 2011      

Researcher Amir Shapiro started out believing that robotics was solely about fun and games. So, during his student years, he designed robots that could play soccer and dance.

Today, as director of the Robotics Lab at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Shapiro and his team are creating “snake-like” robots that can climb between walls, scale slippery vertical surfaces, maneuver rugged terrain, and move about in spaces that are too small or inaccessible for people to enter.

While on a fundraising tour in New York this winter, Shapiro demonstrated his robots and gave the audience a chance to take them for a test drive. “Robots have yet to obtain their full potential, because they are very complex machines, and if one thing breaks down, the robot stops functioning,” he says. “My goal is to create a snake robot that is autonomous. The existing robots require manual controls similar to the ones we use for model boats. One of the great challenges of mobile robotics is to be able to send one to a location that is remote and unfamiliar and know where it is at all times.”

Shapiro began work on his signature snake-like robot designs as a postdoctoral student at Carnegie-Mellon University. While there, he devised a robust robot that could climb between two walls. Later, at Ben-Gurion University, he extended the idea to a three-dimensional model and created a snake robot that could move through a wider range of terrain.

The Israeli military has also been experimenting with robots to patrol the country’s borders to minimize the risk to its soldiers. It is estimated that in 10 to 15 years, approximately one-third of Israel’s military machines will not require a human to operate them.

Those autonomous military devices might one day include a four-footed robot, designed by Shapiro and his team. The device would come equipped with claws similar to a cat’s that would make it ideal for climbing rough surfaces. Another idea, inspired by a graduate student who had been a naval officer, was aimed at finding a better way to inspect ships, a task that’s often labor-intensive and dangerous. The researchers’ solution was to equip a robot with magnetic wheels, which are mounted on springs, thus enabling the device to adhere to a ship’s hull and even go underwater. The magnetic robot, which has been tested successfully, might be used to inspect metal bridges as well.

Shapiro, who has also experimented with robots designed for applications in healthcare and agriculture, believes that in the years ahead robots will increasingly perform “work that humans consider too dangerous, dirty, or dull. Human life is very precious and should not be wasted through needless accidents or on the battlefield. I hope one day that wars will be conducted, if at all, between the robots of one country versus another. The winner will be the country that has developed the smartest robots.”