Robot parade: Rat to cat to elephant size

The Jetsons were lucky enough to be able to palm off their housekeeping tasks on Rosie the Robot. We're not yet that technically advanced, but Paul Perrone wants to close the gap.

As every good nerd knows, the first step in creating a cybernetic domestic slave race is achieving autonomous mobility, and it's to that end that Perrone has been pursuing his latest project. Sort of.

Perrone heads up Team Jefferson, a Charlottesville-based technical swat team that has set its sights on a program of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The first DARPA Challenge, held in March, offered a prize of $1 million to the team that could design and build an unmanned vehicle with the mettle to tackle a 175-mile course set up in the Mohave desert. Unfortunately, the performances turned in at the inaugural race proved to be decidedly unimpressive.

"I think there was one that tipped over at the starting line, and some of them crashed into the walls at the beginning," laughs Perrone. Even the best showing, turned in by the vehicle sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University, managed to go only seven and a half miles.

Thus, the money rolled over into the next event, so Team Jefferson will face plenty of competition at the rematch in October 2005 thanks to the doubled prize. Still, Perrone, 36, doesn't seem worried.

"We're definitely going to have far more than they were expecting in March," he says confidently.

The source of this pride is Tommy, a four-wheeled fusion of torpedo and taxi that Team Jefferson has been feverishly crafting– or, more specifically, its brain.

"We're focusing on a platform, an operating system, if you will, for robotics," he says of the MAX software developed by Perrone Robotics. "We're building a platform for extensibility, so that our software can run on anything from rat sized to cat sized to elephant sized."

The DARPA Challenge grew out of the military's interest in the promising technology. Unmanned robots mean fewer human casualties.

"We're talking about things from robots to run around doing surveillance in military facilities to robots mounted on little R[adio] C[ontrolled] cars that can run around in caves in Afghanistan looking for terrorists," explains Perrone excitedly.

Developing software for such devices– even perhaps a robot vacuums like the Roomba– is a sensitive task.

"Your laptop computer isn't going to run amok. It doesn't have legs and arms, and it's not going to attack you," says Perrone ominously, "but once you start putting these things in Roombas and fear for the life of your cat or dog, you have to leverage in certain safety measures."

Or, depending on the situation, perhaps not. If Perrone has his way, we might soon be searching for terrorists by dispatching a horde of homicidal vacuum cleaners.

Paul Perrone