- The Washington Times - Monday, March 25, 2002

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Wanted: Aggressive war correspondent with interview skills, satellite phone. Mobility required in hostile, rugged terrain. Pay: None. Solar panels a plus.
Frustrated by what he considers a dearth of solid news from the war being waged in Afghanistan, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher has set about trying to build a roving, multimedia reporter.
A remote-controlled robot could help journalists troll for news in the world's hotspots, witnessing battles at close range and even conducting interviews, says Chris Csikszentmihalyi, director of the Computing Culture group at MIT's Media Lab.
The invention, modeled on National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Mars Explorer, would not only help keep reporters out of the line of fire, but could also help overcome U.S. military's restrictions on press access, the researcher thinks.
Although only a small leap from technology already in use, a roving robot reporter that can acquire and transmit audio and video even interacting with subjects is a terrific idea, says John V. Pavlik, a Columbia University journalism professor whose work centers on the intersection of technology and reporting.
Mr. Csikszentmihalyi initiated the project after the September 11 attacks spurred U.S. military action in Afghanistan.
Unsatisfied with the grainy, faraway shots of falling bombs that passed for combat video, he set to work on his newsbot with little more than off-the-shelf hardware.
About the size of a large dog, the Afghan Explorer is powered by solar-charged battery packs. High-torque surplus motors from copy machines drive its rugged all-terrain wheels.
Controlled by satellite phone, it navigates using global positioning system technology and is sensitive to the environment around it, being equipped with accelerometers, thermometers and distance sensors.
A video console mounted atop a forward shaft is a video screen framed on each side with small Web cameras, intentionally giving the console a face-like quality. The stereo images the device records help it navigate, and would allow journalists controlling it remotely to do face-to-face live interviews.
Engineered to travel about four to five miles per hour, the Afghan Explorer could range about 35 miles per day. In diagrams, a flag with a peace symbol flies from an antenna to indicate neutrality.
The intent was never to replace a human reporter, said Mr. Csikszentmihalyi.
"It's a stupid idea that somehow robotics can replace a person," he said. "But no one is bothering to ask, 'Is a Predator unmanned plane as good as a human soldier?'"
Robert Giles, curator of the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, said the introduction by media organizations of newsbots into combat zones could prompt the Pentagon to place further restrictions on journalists.
"Would the robot know what to do when someone yells 'incoming?'" asked Mr. Giles, a former newspaper editor and publisher. "I'm not sure how practical it is."


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