A really 'smart' robotic monkey
Monkey (Shutterstock)

Search and rescue robots of the future may take the shape of a monkey, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Computers can figure out complex equations in a blink of an eye, but something as simple as programming a robot to pour a cup of water is incredibly difficult. Sangbae Kim, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, says giving robots the ability to complete simple tasks that humans have been perfecting through millions of years of evolution could take decades or longer. But when designing a robotic monkey that can aid in search and rescue operations, Kim and his team decided to combine the best of both worlds.  

"So we think of bringing human intelligence and combining it with computer algorithms, so we took only the good part of each to really make the best robot for disasters where we can actually use robots instead of risking human life," said Kim. 

The operator and robot are linked via tether that sends data in both directions. The operator can control the robot while getting visual and sensory feedback in real time. Researcher Albert Wang, a PHD graduate student working on the project, describes tele-operating the monkey as an out of body experience.    

"On the operators side there is what we call a balanced feedback interface. So this is something that is strapped around the operator to allow him to feel what is going on inside the robot. So if the robot is shifting its own weight, the operator can feel how that weight is placed over its feet," he said. 

Wearing video goggles, the operator can see what the robots' camera is recording in real time. Wang says this connection gives the robot the ability to complete sophisticated tasks because a human is in control.  

The other important element, says Wang, was fitting the monkey with arms and feat that would give it a wide range of capabilities.

"So instead of going into a disaster or search and rescue situation and being able to just observe and use small tools we want to be able to exert very large forces."

Large forces like breaking through walls and chopping through wood.

Wang and Kim says there is still a lot of work until their machine is ready to leave the lab.  But they say a human controlled robotic monkey could prove to be a powerful tool in future disaster relief operations.