Israel has become a hotbed of robotic technologies. Its academics are mastering both the mind and body of robotics for solutions in security and defense, medical devices and agriculture.
Israeli researchers from the core fields of computer sciences and mechanical engineering are transplanting these promising technologies to futuristic robots that think for themselves.
By Rivka Borochov
From border patrol SUVs that spot infiltrators to fetal surgery robots that swim through the amniotic sac, world "firsts" from Israel also include smart gadgets that clean your pool and know where to spray fertilizers on a farmer’s fields.
Israel has become a hotbed of robotic technologies. Its academics are mastering both the mind and body of robotics for solutions in security and defense, medical devices and agriculture. The innovation starts at Israeli universities and ends with commercialized products such as SpineAssist, the new x-ray and CT scan guide manufactured by Mazor Robotics.
Prof. Moshe Shoham decided to go into medical robotics after assembling robots at California’s Stanford University 12 years ago.
There is only a handful of systems that actually perform in the operating room today; maybe five," says Prof. Moshe Shoham from the Robotics Laboratory at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, whose research lay the foundation for SpineAssist. One of these five is from Israel and it’s the only robotic device in the world for spinal surgery.
Other innovative technologies on the way include an unmanned border patrol all-terrain vehicle, which works as a fleet and "thinks" like a team.
Robots with a mind of their own
The term "robotics," as Israeli engineers define it, does not refer to a remote-controlled operating system needing a human to instigate action. Israeli researchers from the core fields of computer sciences and mechanical engineering are transplanting these promising technologies to futuristic robots that think for themselves.
"We go far beyond mechanical engineering," explains Prof. Gal Kaminka of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. "Mechanical engineering is about building the machine. Engineering is important to give you the body, but it does nothing for the brains. That’s where computer science fits in – and everyone knows Israel’s reputation is in that field."
Without computers, he continues, "you’d basically get a dead body with some sort of control over it. You can tell the ‘robot’ where to walk, but not really why or how. There are no brains in it. That’s the job of computer science and artificial intelligence. In my lab, I am focused on the ‘minds,’ and thus work with other people’s ‘bodies.’ What Israel provides in a competitive sense is an excellence in software – the brains for existing bodies. In this area we can really excel, and can easily be a world leader in robotics."
Israel does not have state funding to develop robotics, but neither does the United States, points out Kaminka, whose lab is the largest in Israel in terms of numbers of students and post-doctorate fellows.
Crowd control and robotic soccer
"We conduct a diverse set of investigations," Kaminka says. "All are centered around social intelligence: groups of robots, simulated entities, computer games – anything involving the human social condition is of interest. We get inspiration from psychology."
In addition to computer scientists and engineers, his interdisciplinary team includes social psychologists to help devise better algorithms for the "brains" of robots meant to work in teams. Social psychology, he says, has developed a number of important theories as to what people find important in each other when they are in a social setting. These theories serve as the inspiration for algorithms that enable robots to behave as humans do.
As for applications, "We can build a simulated crowd for training police to deal with demonstrations, or for training authorities on how to deal with evacuations, as we are doing with the University of Southern California for the security forces in the Los Angeles LAX airport."
Another top application coming from the Kaminka lab is a robotic soccer team programmed to score goals against other universities’ robotic teams from around the world in an annual RoboCup competition. Kaminka’s team currently places 16th in the world, thanks to a technical meltdown at the last competition in Singapore.
Not just sci-fi
One of Israel’s newer and less known universities also boasts a number of prominent robotics projects: since 2006, the Ariel University Center of Samaria has its own Center for Robotics Research and Applications. There, the researchers are looking to create military robots, medical robots and robots in a new field of road safety. Like their colleagues at Bar-Ilan University, the researchers at Ariel combine psychology with computer science and industrial engineering.
At the lab of Prof. Zvi Shiller, researchers focus on improving the safety of extra-terrestrial off-road and terrestrial, earth-based road vehicles. From working on robots that could guide moon and Mars robots on future missions, the scientists are also working on creating robots that can map the safety of today’s high highways and can help plan the roadways of tomorrow.
Creating motion in confined spaces is the specialty of Prof. Shraga Shoval and his lab team. When external navigation cannot be implemented – for example, in pipes, tunnels and underground — Shoval’s independent positioning system may be able to guide the whole industry of robotics. Drawing on his previous commercial work at Chrysler, Shoval is also working on developing skiing, gliding and walking robots.
Kaminka knows that artificial intelligence and robots who think for themselves sounds very much like science fiction, so he puts it into perspective. "It’s just software development. We’re not going to ever excel at manufacturing robots; the labor is not here. Or the raw materials. But our edge will be software and patents. Israel is already building really good software and that’s Israel’s future if you look at hi-tech. My vision is to jumpstart robotics intellectual property in the form of software and patents in mechanical engineering and robotics – robots with brains."
Automated masseuse, octopus
Getting a rubdown from a robot: The WheeMe massager created by Israeli company DreamBots.
Showing the world the lighter side of Israeli robotics is the company DreamBots, which has developed the world’s first massage robot. Showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early January, DreamBots’ hand-sized WheeMe features four wheels and a massaging "finger" that gives users a tickling sensation as the device maneuvers independently across a person’s back.
Built by Eyal Avramovich, WheeMe can’t fall or roll off the back, thanks to feedback from built-in sensors that assure it won’t go beyond the sides of the back or below the waistline.
Going from exploring the back to exploring the ocean floor, another world’s first is a soft-bodied "octopus" robot now being developed by Prof. Binyamin Hochner from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem together with Prof. Tamar Flash from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. They are part of an international team collaborating on this four-year project, which has many exciting implications for environmental scientists.
The octopus robot is intended to explore tiny crevices on the ocean floor to aid researchers delving into questions about global warming. This kind of tool would be especially pertinent for scientists who want to explore fragile coral reef ecosystems without causing further damage. This many-tentacled creature also has potential applications in medicine as well as search-and-rescue missions, alerting human teams where to dig for victims trapped in collapsed buildings.
A soft-bodied robot isn’t as easy to build as some might think, but it offers many advantages over the stiff robotic arms now being used, Hochner says. Unlike creatures with skeletons, a real octopus has unlimited ranges of motion in 360 degrees. That’s what the scientists aim to achieve. At his Octopus Laboratory, he and the Israeli team are working on the complex task of building artificial muscles for the robotic octopus based on observing and copying the mechanics of octopus movement. The team is also developing an artificial sucker system, sensory system and nervous system for its robot.
Top Israeli Robotics Researchers
• Gal Kaminka
• Eli Kolberg
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
• Yael Edan
• Amir Shapiro
• Hugo Guterman
• Sigal Berman
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
• Binyamin Hochner
Technion Israel Institute of Technology
• Moshe Shoham
• Elon Rimon
• Miriam Zacksenhouse
• Anath Fischer
Tel Aviv University
• Gabi Kosha
Israeli College of Management, Rishon Lezion
• Yehuda Elmaliach
Ariel University Center of Samaria
• Shraga Shoval
• Nir Schwab
• Zvi Shiller