Page last updated at 16:35 GMT, Friday, 26 June 2009 17:35 UK

Robots and cars for the future

By Ian Hardy
Reporter, Click

How the City Car is built

The world-famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology - MIT - is a breeding ground for boffins - the next generation of gadget creators.

Ten thousand students, five schools and one college including the famed Media Lab make up MIT - which has an annual research budget of well over $500m (£302m).

Every year hundreds of new inventions and patents are created at MIT and millions of dollars are earned in royalties from previous projects that have become public. So what's next?

Electric cars

Electric vehicle research has gone into overdrive recently and MIT's Smart Cities Lab is developing a whole new transportation system for urban environments one element of which could be the stackable City Car.

They are like luggage carts at the airport. You pick one up, use it briefly and drop it off at another location.

The City Car charges while stacked.

"It has displays, batteries onboard and different control systems that help us use the vehicle," said William Lark, an MIT research assistant. "But the key feature of this is the wheel itself.

"Instead of having a traditional drive train with mechanics throughout the vehicle," he said.

"We can localise everything to the wheel itself and do things like turn the wheel a full 120 degrees which allows us to have the vehicle spin on a dime, translate sideways, give you all the freedoms and movements that you might get just moving around as we do as humans today.


The roboscooter
The roboscooter has many of the same benefits as the City Car

The Roboscooter follows the same philosophy - clean, green and available anytime anywhere for quick trips. It too charges at its station and folds up for an ultra small footprint.

Another MIT project is an electric bicycle that stores pedal power - allowing the rider to tap into it when going up hills.

Of all the mobility inventions this is the one that is likely to have the fastest and biggest impact in existing societies.

Ryan Chin, a research assistant at MIT, said: "There are actually a lot of e-bikes out there in China and Europe.

"Over 20 million of them in China. The primary difference is that we have integrated the motor and the battery together in the hub space of the wheel which allows us to easily retrofit this unit into any bicycle."

Designing new vehicles is just one aspect of the Smart Cities Lab.

Their big picture is a world where riders and vehicles make decisions based on real time data.

Ideally a navigation system would tell travellers how fast they can get to their destination and which is the cheapest route to take.

Robot carers

A robot pet
This robot pet is not pre-programmed but learns to negotiate its territory

Many researchers in the US are working to give robots the ability to learn about their environment without the aid of the humans that built them.

Already a robotic pet has been developed which can be fed information about the terrain in front of it by a circle of cameras.

It is not pre-programmed for the task - but makes its own decisions instantly about which route to take.

Once robots can learn they could find a role in many diverse fields.

Japan, for example, hopes to use humanoids as caregivers for an increasingly elderly population.

Alternatively miniature robots might one day crawl through our intestines looking for and fixing medical problems.

One learning robot project at MIT is an ornithopter that has a computer on board. Every time it flies it learns how to fly better. One day this may be the perfect surveillance or search tool.

The Ornithopter
The computer driven ornithopter learns from expereince

MIT PhD student John Roberts said: "There is a lot of computational power which is important because some of the learning algorithms can be relatively intensive.

"We have a number of sensors here that are able to measure the rate it's spinning, the accelerations it is experiencing."

Better batteries, smaller chips and more computing power are helping the project get closer to its ultimate goal which is for the robot bird to mimic the endurance, manoeuvrability and speed of a living creature.

These are the challenges that generations of students and professors at MIT have tackled.

Thousands of hours of painstaking research, hundreds of tiny scientific steps forward slowly creeping in the right direction until eventually, for a lucky few the eureka moment arrives.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

banner watch listen bbc sport Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific