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Bots vs. Smugglers: Drug Tunnel Smackdown

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robot in tunnel

A sensor-laden robot navigates drug-smuggling tunnels and outputs chemical readings, video, and maps.

Jason Slater / Foster-Miller Inc.

New software developed at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) is being used with semi-autonomous robots in the war against drug smuggling. The software can be installed on different robots, allowing them to self-maneuver through smugglers' tunnels while mapping them. Navigation control is shared between a human operator and the robot, with operators telling the robots where to go but the robots doing the driving. The special intelligence software has already been used with robots beneath the U.S./Mexican border. "They are not places you want to send people, especially ones that are claustrophobic, so it’s a perfect application for robotics," says INL roboticist David Bruemmer, who runs the Robotic Intelligence Kernel laboratory.

In December, researchers used a robot equipped with chemical sensors to search a tunnel near Arizona's border. "Within a few minutes, we were able to task it down and get the video back so [Homeland Security officials] could look at it," says INL roboticist Victor Walker.

As robot development matures they are being adapted for use in very specific tasks. In Canada, for example, utility companies use robots to inspect pipes, while government agencies reportedly have inquired about converting robots for use in underground surveillance.

"It's all about the man-machine interface. Like Windows just provided this simple user-understood interface, I think that's what we're really trying to do with robots," Bruemmer says. "Forget about trying to make robots massively intelligent."

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