MANHASSET, NY As a child, James McLurkin was constantly building with Lego bricks, cardboard boxes, or any other materials he could get his hands on. Today, McLurkin continues this tradition. By modeling aspects from nature, he is researching algorithms and techniques for constructing and programming large swarms of autonomous robots.
McLurkin will deliver the keynote at this year's Sensors Expo (June 6-14) in Chicago. He'll explain how he was inspired by the behavior of ants and bees, the result of which is his robot Swarms, robots that perform individual tasks and collectively contribute to the goals of the group of robots.
His keynote will focus on the logistics of creativity and how one can structure one's environment to enhance creative thought. "Encouraging creative thought is important for everybody, no matter what you do or how old you are," said McLurkin.
McLurkin works for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, which has research projects that span both disciplines. His current project is to use a "swarm" of robots working together on a single task. He is focusing on developing software and programming techniques applicable to large swarms of robots, with populations in the 10 to 10,000 range.
One application of robot swarms might be for earthquake rescue. On his Web site, McLurkin describes a possible scenario: thousands of cockroach-sized scouts to infiltrate debris and locate survivors; a few dozen rat-sized structural engineers to get near the scene and solve the "pick-up-sticks" problem of getting the rubble off; and a few brontosaurus-sized heavy-lifters to carry out the rescue plan.
McLurkin hopes to generate a buzz about his work at his Sensors Expo keynote to garner more creative ideas from his listeners to resolve the software problem.
The confab will also be the venue for a couple of other events that touch on engineering creativity and innovation.
An "Innovation at a Crossroads" panel, to be moderated by John Hanks, vice president of Measurement and Control at National Instruments, will include representatives from an Internet startup company, General Motors, an inventor/physician, and a best-selling author on innovation.
One panelist, Jon Fredrickson, director of innovation expansion at InnoCentive.com, will detail how his Web site entices innovators in many disciplines to combine "technology, economic incentives, and human ingenuity to resolve global problems". These problems are posted on the site, where interested parties can find solutions to them. As an example, one challenge posted on the site is looking for a joint-development partner for a disposable wireless sensor for detecting moisture to be funded for three to six months to show proof of concept.
Patricia Seybold, author of Outside Innovation and founder and CEO of Patricia Seybold Group, will expound on her ideas for the process of business innovation by incorporating the design ideas of the customer into the final product. Seybold is involved in promoting the FIRST Robotics Competition for high school students, in which they can hone their skills for making robots to solve specific problems.
How innovative ideas can successfully transition from the lab to the fab is the theme of a full-day event at Sensors Expo on Monday, June 2. The event, organized by industry analyst Roger Grace, will address nanotechnology and micro-electro-mechanical systems and their prospects for successful commercialization.