Architecture & Design

FIU RoboCop Helping Disabled Officers Get Back in the Field

In two years, Miami might be home to the first on-duty robocops.

For the past 18 months, FIU's Discovery Lab has developed and built a functional, mobile. and interactive robot specially designed to help disabled officers and veterans return to the field. With a budget of just $20,000, TeleBot is groundbreaking for its affordability -- plus, who ever built a working robot in just 18 months?

Recently profiled by Fox News and the Discovery Channel, Telebot is becoming something of a national celebrity, but we're proud to say it's Miami students who got him there.

See also: Listen: How the New RoboCop Compares to the 1987 Version

All right, so it's not really like the robot in the famed '80s movie RoboCop, whose remake can now be seen in theaters citywide. Actually, it's a lot more like the main character in Avatar.

"In Avatar, the disabled veteran got injured in the back, so he can't walk, and he rebounds by connecting to a system," said Janghoon Kim, director of Discovery Lab and chief designer of TeleBot. "We want to build that kind of system."

So far, they've done a damn good job. It's hard enough just getting a robot to walk in 18 months, let alone to be controlled via commercial-grade virtual-reality videogame systems and open-source programs.

Besides Kim, the project has been undertaken by Dr. Nagarajan Prabakar and Dr. S.S. Iyengar, as well as 11 volunteer undergrad students and one intern from MAST Academy High School. External support has come from U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jeremy Robins and 3D designer and lab manager Mangai Prabakar.

"It is incredibly fast and also very, very low-budget," Kim said. And it has to be relatively inexpensive if it's going to meet their goals.

"Maybe in NASA and some other places, they'll spend a million dollars to develop this," Kim said. "In real life, it's difficult to buy this kind of robot because it is so expensive. The main goal to our design is that it should be offered at a low price and satisfy the minimum requirements for law enforcement duty."

Don't let Kim undersell you. TeleBot is quite the sophisticated machine.

Standing six feet tall and weighing about 80 pounds, TeleBot is equipped with a 360-degree camera that allows it to collect and transmit live data to the controller, or TeleOperator. This input is received through an Oculus Rift, a virtual-reality headset that gamers commonly use in their homes.

Kim and his team, mostly undergraduate students at FIU, have also developed devices that allow TeleBot to mimic the physical movements of the TeleOperator. Hypothetically, this would help disabled officers get back in the field, but there are still some bugs to work out.

"Most of the things we've done are experimental in the lab," Kim said. TeleBot got its first field test a few months ago, which gave Kim and the students some invaluable feedback.

To date, TelebBot travels at only 5 mph, and he still experiences some lag -- both things the team will continue to work on. They're also busy developing different sensors and information-gathering techniques, because the more info TeleOperators get from TeleBot, the better their decision-making becomes.

The work isn't over, but Kim thinks the team is right on track. He expects TeleBot to be ready for field use in as little as two years.

"The police department is our target customer," Kim said. "They don't have a billion-dollar budget for buying a robot, but they usually buy the motorcycles for the police officers for patrolling out. That motorcycle is around $50,000, so if we can build a robot around $50,000, that is a reasonable price for them to use that and buy some patrolling bots, especially if the target goal is giving jobs to disabled police officers or disabled veterans."

To learn more about TeleBot, visit discoverylab.cis.

Follow Kat Bein on Twitter @KatSaysKill.

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Kat Bein is a freelance writer and has been described as this publication’s "senior millennial correspondent." She has an impressive, if unhealthy, knowledge of all things pop culture.