Summary:

Be it defusing car bombs or programming old people’s VCR’s (so their displays finally stops blinking 12:00), the grabby little Taurus has the makings of a real renaissance robot.

Taurus

Be it defusing car bombs or programming old people’s VCR’s (so those displays finally stops blinking 12:00), the grabby little Taurus has the makings of a real renaissance robot.

Developed by the non-profit research and development organization SRI International at the behest of government agencies looking for a more surgical approach to eradicating vehicle bombs, the Taurus is the world’s newest, smallest and possibly most capable remote-telepresence robot.

At just 35 centimeters from metallic shoulder to shoulder, it gets down to work when attached to the hand of bigger, burlier bomb-squad robots, which have fairly crude but powerful arms good for bumping and knocking things over, but not so much for executing precise and dexterous tasks like snipping the yellow wire and not letting it touch the blue wire.

But as I learned while visiting SRI’s Menlo Park, Calif. headquarters yesterday, the Taurus also has a softer, more sensitive side (of course, just look at those adorable camera lens eyes). Tom Low, SRI’s director of medical systems and tele-robotics, told us the robot will soon be commercially viable for the elder-care field as well. He sees the Taurus as an extra set of eyes that can move around and monitor the home of an older person to make sure everything is all right. When operated remotely by relatives or commercial entities, it could take care of lots of little things, from turning off an oven to setting a microwave for the correct time.

While the Taurus certainly won’t end the need for people to move on to assisted living facilities, “it could buy one or two years of independent living,” Low said.

The Taurus is the little cousin of the Davinci, SRI’s remotely-controlled medical robot. With the Taurus, bomb squad technicians will be able to use the control panel to place the tiny robot arms right above a target and defuse the bomb from a safe distance. “The arms can unfold and it can do its magic,” Low said.

This would be a big change of modus operandi in the way vehicle bombs are defused in crowded urban settings. Car and truck bombs are typically neutralized by putting another explosive on the device, strategically setting it off and hoping that explosion will break the detonator and prevent the big device from going off. That can potentially cause big problems, especially in a shopping mall or city center.

“If the device is big enough, that’s a big risk you’re taking. There is a chance your detonating will set the big device off and perhaps more certainly, doing so is going to destroy a lot of evidence that could be used to track down whoever planted that device,” Low says. “Forensics are important.”

The Taurus prototype is currently being tested by a Sacramento, Calif.-area bomb squad and will ship to a second squad this summer. Low plans to have it in at least four agencies by the end of the year and available commercially within two years.

The robot and its accompanying remote-control panel will be commercially priced between $30,000-$40,000 — or around the cost of a police car, Low said. He believes that price point will fall within the discretionary budgets of most law enforcement agencies who need it.

“They don’t have to have 10 years of bake sales to afford it,” he said.

But at a price comparable to a new, base-model Cadillac CTS with a tennis ball on the antenna, Grandma might want to start selling her baked goods now.

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