UTA unveils humanlike robots at new lab

ARLINGTON -- Graduate students Ghassan Atmeh and Adrian Rodriguez look like video gamers as they manipulate a virtual humanoid on their computer.

But they aren't playing. The University of Texas at Arlington graduate students are trying to figure out how to make a computer model of a robot walk like a man. Their work may someday help create a humanlike machine that can enter extremely dangerous situations to save lives.

Advancing technology for the betterment of humanity and finding affordable solutions to the world's complex problems are the top goals at UTA's new Assistive Robotics Lab, said Rick Lynch, executive director of the UTA Resarch Institute.

The lab, which is part of the institute, was unveiled Monday in a ceremony that introduced two high-priced working robots.

"We need innovation and innovation is born from institutions like this," Provost Ron Elsenbaumer said.

One of the robots is a nursing assistant that can lift about 400 pounds. As the robotic nurse assistant lifted 20-pound weights, experts described how it can help place patients on a gurney. The robot will help to explore how technology can be used in hospital settings.

UTA experts said the robot's sheer strengh will protect nurses, who sometimes injure themselves while moving patients. Experts said this has become more of a healthcare issue as the nation grows more obese.

"We are going to take it to a new level," Lynch said.

UTA also has a Dragon Runner 20 that is used for disarming bombs in urban combat. This remote-controlled robot is also stirring new engineering ideas among UTA experts and students. It is small and portable so it can be carried by soldiers and detect bombs.

UTA experts said the DR-20 technology can evolve to help protect the U.S. border or to help the visually impaired, like a Seeing Eye dog.

The robots were gifts from RE2 Inc. and QinetiQ North America.

RE2 is a Pittsburgh-based robotics engineering firm associated with Carnegie Mellon University. QinetiQ North America, a Virginia-based company, also gave UTA funding to help develop the DR-20.

Combined, the robots and funding are valued at $1 million.

Lynch, a retired Army lieutenant general, said one goal is to take technology from the war zone to the home front so that it can be used in hospitals and homes to help treat ailing and aging populations.

"We are going to look at affordable solutions to complex problems," he said.

The new robots will be added to the lab, where students have already been working to advance robotics for healthcare and first-responder situations. The RNA and the DR-20 will join UTA's robot fleet, which includes Zeno, a friendly robot that is helping with autism research.

Joe Sanford, a graduate research assistant, uses a Nintendo Wii control to move a robot that resembles a mechanical arm and moves close to the ground. Sanford said this technology could someday act like an arm for wheelchair users.

Another robot, the PR-2, can high-five, fist-bump and hug for an audience, but students said it could evolve into one that helps a handicapped person with day-to-day chores. Students said it can also fold clothes and could be the predecessor to robots that help the elderly.

"I think of my own parents," said Isura Ranatunga, a graduate student. "I don't want to be in a situation where I can't take care of them."

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675

Twitter: @dianeasmith1