How are robots able to “MacGyver” their way through a problem?

Lots of you probably remember the action-adventure TV series MacGyver. The show was most memorable for the titular named secret agent protagonist and his ability to engineer his way out of any fix using ordinary objects like chewing gum, a lighter, and paperclips, or a 1” steel washer, dental floss, and a Swiss Army knife.

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The show, and ad-hoc problem-solving featured therein, left a lasting impression on viewers and pop culture. Now, it’s even inspired new robots with very impressive capabilities.

Robots Demonstrating ETPA
As detailed in IEEE Spectrum, video submissions for the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA 2014) feature robots demonstrating their ability to solve problems and overcome obstacles using objects within their environment. While they may not be able to build tools and weapons out of miscellaneous items, the aptly dubbed “MacGyver” robots functions are based on a concept known as ETPA, or EnvironmenT Aware Planning.

“MacGyver” Their Way Through A Situation
Through the ETPA concept, the robots, under remote guidance of their operators, are able to assess their overall environment and individual elements within to determine which are useful in completing a specified task. Although human operators need to either guide the robots through the obstacle, or create a planned setup that the robot is programed to interact with, the robots are able to “MacGyver” their way through a given situation by turning objects and obstacles into tools.

Using Objects And Obstacles As Tools
One ICRA 2014 submission video shows how a robot clears a blocked door by using a basic fulcrum and lever arrangement to lift heavy bricks out of the way. In another video, a robot is shown assessing a gap between platforms, which is too wide to step across. By using a nearby plank of the adequate width to bridge the gap, the robot is able to cross from one platform to another.

Useful For Remote Tasks
While these ETPA capable robots can’t quite set to work navigating through just any space or situation on their own, they could be useful in any number of inaccessible emergency, rescue, or retrieval situations that would need to be traversed remotely. Humans are needed to direct and control these robots, but some functional elements of their performance, such as balance while grasping, are autonomous.

Using robots as tools to operate devices of their own opens up a lot of possibilities for remote tasks. What are some uses or situations you can think of? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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3 thoughts on ““MacGyver” Robots Turn Obstacles Into Solutions”

  1. I recall that TV series very well. In fact, that TV series not only inspired a new generation of engineers, but also a generation of comedians. Well, maybe it didn’t inspire any breakthroughs that revolutionized our lives, but it did make for a pretty funny Saturday Night Live skit based on a sort of reverse McGiver. Does anyone remember that skit, McGruder? He was a bumbling version of the original character who always managed to blow himself up.

  2. This article and the things these robots are doing and how they are thinking makes me think about robotics and automation deals with manufacture and application of robots and computer systems for their control, sensory feedback, and information technology to reduce the need for human work. Robots are already replacing humans for repetitive, manual jobs. What’s next, robots that do the thinking for us? That’s how the machines will take over.

  3. Robots almost universally treat the environment as one giant obstacle that needs to be avoided. But obstacles can be turned into tools, as long as you know what the obstacles are potentially good for. In the video submission by Georgia Tech’s Golem Krang, his robot uses a bunch of stuff that would otherwise be problematic to perform a task. I find it quite amazing. The future has exciting things to reveal.

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