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Saturday, January 5, 2008

Giant Mechanical Man

Giant mechanical men have been staples of science fiction movies for a long time. I almost said "stories" instead of "movies", but then I realized that I cannot remember a single story that ever featured a giant mechanical man, and I have read a large quantity of science fiction.

Contrary to their roles in movies, where the giant mechanical man is often involved in heroic or villainous activities, I see a more prosaic use in things like construction and perhaps search and rescue. Instead of using a crane to lift supplies to the top of a building, you could just bend down, pick things up and set them on top of the building. Imagine being able to step over small hills, or scale mountains with ease. A mechanical man capable of performing such tasks would necessarily be very sophisticated.

Constructing such a mechanical man would be a big engineering task, but I see no insurmountable barriers. I envision a mechanical man that would be controlled by an human operator, not an autonomous machine controlled by a computer. This mechanical man would be roughly sixty feet tall, ten times the height of a human. The operator would be strapped into an exoskeleton mounted in the head. The exoskeleton would follow the movements of the operator's arms and legs, and hydraulic control circuits would cause the mechanical man to mimic his movements.

The operator would be strapped to a seat back leaving his arms, legs and head free to move about. An exoskeleton would follow the motions of his limbs and provide force-feedback, essential if we are going to have any precise control. Alternatively, we could use a three axis device to simply track the motions of the operators hands and feet, and then use a computer to translate the motions of the operators hands and feet into motions of the mechanical man's arms and legs. A three dimensional tracking device would be much simpler to construct than an force feedback exoskeleton, but the developing the computer software to perform the command translation (and force feed back) for the three dimensional tracker could be a difficult.

In any case the operator is going to need a fairly large space to accommodate the unrestricted motions of his arms and legs. A spherical space perhaps eight to ten feet in diameter would do, i.e. the head of our mechanical man. Ideally the head would be able to move as a person's head can. This is going to take a little finesse. Take for example tilting your head forward to look at your feet. It is not enough to just look down, the head must move forward to look over the chest. If the "chair" the operator is strapped to is mounted to the mechanical head, and the head tilts forward when the operator tilts his head, the effect is going to be that the operators head will tilt twice as far as he wants. So the operators chair is going to need to be fixed in orientation relative to the mechanical man's torso, and free to move in the head. Whereas the operator's head is going to be relatively motionless relative to the mechanical man's head.

It would be a great deal of work to design and construct such an apparatus, but I think it could be very worthwhile. I do not think anyone has really considered what such a machine could do for us. Once people see one in action I am confident all sorts of applications will appear.

Of course there is one application that has already captured people's imagination and that is war. Unfortunately, that seems to be where we are willing to spend the most money. I would not be surprised to see the Department of Defense provide the initial funding for a project like this. Disappointed perhaps, but not surprised.

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