Dr. David Zarrouk in the Medical Robotics Lab at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (Photo/Dani Machlis)
Dr. David Zarrouk in the Medical Robotics Lab at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (Photo/Dani Machlis)

How this Israeli university is creating robotic life in the desert

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A robotic worm inching its way through a human intestine. A massive drone hovering in the air for 12 hours. A robot chauffeur that can be unpacked in five minutes, then drive you to the supermarket.

Deep in the heart of Israel’s southern desert, scientists at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev are quietly and passionately working on inventions that could change our daily lives.

“BGU, in robotics, is at the leading front end,” said Yael Edan, head of the Beersheva-based university’s robotics initiative, a program that encourages scientists to push the boundaries of the field.

In his lab, assistant professor and researcher David Zarrouk is rummaging around, looking for a robot that works.

“We’ll try to run the robot that didn’t break … yet,” he said, smiling as he placed a contraption on the floor.

The BGU lab that Zarrouk directs, the Bioinspired and Medical Robotics Laboratory, is nicknamed “The Toy Store,” and it really does look like it’s full of toys, from brightly colored plastic wiggly things to big-wheeled, wooden, bug-like inventions. But they all have a higher purpose as prototypes for biomimicry robots that might eventually be used in everything from search-and-rescue missions to everyday medicine.

David Zarrouk shows how his robot would work on Mars. (Photo/Maya Mirsky)
David Zarrouk shows how his robot would work on Mars. (Photo/Maya Mirsky)

Zarrouk, who did a few years of postdoctoral research at UC Berkeley earlier this decade, is one of the researchers working on the cutting edge of robotics at BGU, which has pushed to make itself a premiere institute for robotics, both in Israel and abroad.

“Robotics is one of BGU’s specialties,” said Ehud Zion-Waldoks, the university’s liaison for foreign media. “We’ve been doing this for a lot of years.”

In Zarrouk’s lab, that means building prototypes that are deceptively minimalist, made from wood or 3D-printed plastic, and based on natural movements. The idea is to design robots that can move with the efficient ease of nature, such as the waves an eel makes to propel itself through water or the spindly legs of an insect that can flatten itself into a crack.

“We take ideas,” Zarrouk said. “We don’t try to copy nature.”

His cockroach-inspired STAR robot, with its big spoke-like wheels, can flip itself over and change the angle of its wheels to squeeze under things, climb through rocks or sand, or even travel propped between two vertical walls. A ladder-like robot uses a wave movement to speed along the ground. An arm with a motor that moves from joint to joint is intended for space-station repairs. And a biomedical “worm” uses a simple scooting motion to propel itself through a tube — and maybe one day, a human body.

These inventions use simple ideas to solve complex engineering problems.

Prof. Hugo Guterman in his lab in 2012 (Photo/Dani Machlis)
Prof. Hugo Guterman in his lab in 2012 (Photo/Dani Machlis)

“We try to build our stuff simple,” Zarrouk said. “And the reason is, if you build simple stuff it tends to work better.”

As much as BGU has established itself as a center for robotics, the world of science and engineering depends on solid academic connections with the rest of the world. Zarrouk began work on some of his ideas in the department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley, under Ronald Fearing in the Biomimetic Millisystems Lab.

“That lab was one of the top,” Zarrouk said.

He lived in Berkeley from 2011 to 2013, attending Congregation Beth Israel and Chabad of the East Bay, and worked on what would become the STAR robot, while also developing miniature palm-sized robots for search-and-rescue applications.

“I obviously acquired there many interesting skills and research methods,” he wrote in an email to J.

Zarrouk’s work at UC Berkeley even inspired elements of NASA’s origami-inspired PUFFER (pop-up flat folding explorer robot) — particularly its ability to flatten itself to one day get into tight spaces underneath Martian rocks.

Getting into even tighter, and more intimate, spaces is the mission of the miniature earthworm.

“We want to make a robot that people can swallow, and go through the intestines,” Zarrouk said.

BGU's Human-Robot Cooperative Vineyard Selective Sprayer (Photo/Dani Machlis)
BGU’s Human-Robot Cooperative Vineyard Selective Sprayer (Photo/Dani Machlis)

The idea is to help doctors examine inside the human digestive system in a way they can control, unlike with the current PillCam, or capsule endoscopy method, which has limitations in terms of its cameras’ field of vision, according to some studies. As of now, Zarrouk’s lab has tested the robot earthworm in a plastic tube, and also in a fairly slimy-looking pig intestine.

“Lucky me, I don’t have to do it,” Zarrouk said. “That’s why I have students.”

Zarrouk also has come up with a one-motor robot that can move in all directions, the kind of trick that looks easy once it’s done but was before considered impossible. Before that, two motors had been the minimum, and now Zarrouk finds himself a record-setter.

“We asked if we could have a Guinness record but we can’t,” he said. “You know why? Because it can’t be broken.”

These kinds of clever solutions are typical of the research that scientists are doing at Ben-Gurion. The Agricultural, Biological, and Cognitive (ABC) Robotics Initiative under Yael Edan, a professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management, recruited Zarrouk and others in a push to make the university even more competitive in an already very competitive field. The school’s long-term plan to achieve robotics excellence was given added impetus in 2012, when the university received more than $6 million from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust for the initiative.

But it’s not just about getting bright minds to come and work at the desert university. It’s also about pushing them out of their offices once they are there, getting them to collaborate with others and, above all, forcing them to be creative.

“The ABC Robotics Initiative brought together researchers in both familiar and unfamiliar ways, challenging them to move outside their respective ‘comfort zones’ in order to probe the unexplored,” Edan said in an email to J.

These “unexplored” areas can be anything — from pollinating flowers and harvesting fruit (with drone bees and agricultural robots in Edan’s work) to the strange world inside our heads (and learning about how the brain responds to the feeling of touch in the work of Ilana Nisky.

Ilana Nisky and a grad student in her lab, with a surgical robot (Photo/Maya Mirsky)
Ilana Nisky and a grad student in her lab, with a surgical robot (Photo/Maya Mirsky)

“In order to understand your environment, you need information about your movement and the forces you feel,” said Nisky, a BGU faculty member and researcher by way of Stanford University.

It sounds abstract, but it is also definitely — and somewhat gruesomely — concrete. Nisky’s research is all about robotic surgery, where a device of knives and scalpels is operated remotely by a surgeon.

Her work at the BGU Biomedical Robotics Lab looks at the way people both perceive and adjust their motions under different circumstances, and how those results might affect a surgeon working remotely. For example, if there’s a time delay in the process, Nisky wants to alleviate any adverse effects that might result from that.

“This is something we can correct for in the system,” she said.

Using robots for surgery isn’t new; the first devices came into use in the 1980s. But it’s growing: There were more than 1.7 million robots slicing up patients between 2000 and 2013 in the U.S. alone, and the global market for robot surgery is expected to reach $12.6 billion by 2025. According to the makers of the da Vinci surgical robot, the most common robot used for medical procedures and one of the devices Nisky uses in her research, there have been more than 3 million procedures performed with da Vinci robots since 2000.

But if the surgeon is not in the room with the patient, the question arises as to how to compensate for lags in information between what the surgeon sees and feels and how the robot reacts.

“You can’t transmit the information faster than the speed of light,” Nisky said. “There’s always going to be a delay. That’s going to be a problem for you.”

Nisky, the first woman faculty member in BGU’s small department of biomedical engineering, earned her undergrad and graduate degrees at BGU but had a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford in the department of mechanical engineering under Allison Okamura.

It was there, in Stanford’s Collaborative Haptics in Robotics and Medicine Lab, that she honed a passion for learning about how the human brain understands touch. Now she has her own lab at BGU, as one of the recruits for the new initiative.

The push to make BGU a university known for its creativity seems to be paying off in the way it’s attracting new talent.

When Guy Avraham, for example, finished his undergraduate degree in biology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he decided to pursue his master’s degree at BGU.

“I wanted to go more into the relationship between robotics and biological research,” Avraham said. “Because I think we can use the technology to both understand how the brain works and to use it for rehabilitation.”

The research he saw at BGU got him intrigued, and he ended up earning both a master’s and a Ph.D. there, finishing up his degree under Nisky. Now, like Zarrouk, he’s doing a postdoctoral fellowship at UC Berkeley, but for his master’s he ran his own version of the famous Turing Test, which judges how well artificial intelligence can mimic a human. In Avraham’s version, he tested robot handshakes, and ran a tournament with researchers to see who could come up with the most realistic version to confuse humans.

“Once you get software or computers or robots to move in a way indistinguishable from humans, it can be applied to many human-robot interactions,” he said.

But sometimes we just want the robots to replace humans.

Hugo Guterman's team is working on an IVO, a robotic chauffeur. (Photo/Courtesy Ben-Gurion University)
Guterman’s team is working on an IVO, a foldable robot chauffeur. (Photo/Courtesy Ben-Gurion University)

In the harsh blowing wind of the Negev desert, a driverless golf cart trundles across a parking lot, bumping to a halt just meters away from a grad student who — one can see from his calm demeanor — has acted as a guinea pig many times before.

“Today people talk a lot about autonomous vehicles and autonomous cars,” BGU professor Hugo Guterman said. “But what they forget is that there are 2 to 3 million vehicles [in Israel] that are not autonomous.”

To that end, Guterman and his students have developed a chauffeur of sorts: IVO, a foldable robot that can be installed into any car’s driver’s seat. IVO stands for intelligent vehicle operator.

“The idea here is to transform any vehicle into an autonomous vehicle quite fast,” explained graduate student Oded Yechiel.

Guterman’s Laboratory for Autonomous Robotics hopes IVOs can be a sort of autonomy shortcut. Instead of fancy systems built into the car, they’re building a robot with sensors and cameras that also has appendages that can control the steering wheel and pedals, just like a human driver. Also like a human, it relies on what it sees.

“The system thinks like a human being,” Guterman said. “It copies some of the way we make decisions.”

In theory that makes IVO good for any vehicle, although the researchers don’t see this technology coming to city streets anytime soon. Instead, they imagine agricultural or industrial uses. The lab also is working on a motley collection of projects, such as autonomous submarines (that can patrol Israel’s shores) and an injection system that can find a person’s vein with ultrasound and align the needle with a smart algorithm (the medical practitioner need only pull the trigger).

It may seem like a strange assortment of inventions, but not following a straight line is the kind of creative thinking that the robotics initiative, and the university in general, is trying to nurture.

“It’s in our DNA to do things differently,” said Dana Gavish-Fridman, vice president for entrepreneurship at BGN Technologies, the university’s technology transfer company, which helps researchers turn ideas into marketable commercial concepts.

The earthworm and the golf cart chauffeur aren’t on the market yet, but some BGU research has already been spun off into companies that are trying to make their inventions into something commercially viable.

“We make autonomous mobile platforms,” said Ofir Bustan, CFO of RoboTiCan. “Some people call them robots.”

At RoboTiCan, BGU grads have built autonomous robots that can be customized for university research, factories, agriculture or home use. Here the question isn’t about complicated wheels as much as it is about getting the robots to not be stupid.

“If you have smart software that will do well, you can make anything,” Bustan said.

Their robots, like the almost humanoid ARMadillo or the squat rolling Komodo, can map out their space and navigate it, while their Rooster drone is encased in a small basket-like cage when it flies, saving it from damage in small spaces, such as a terror tunnel or a collapsed building. A new concept is a giant octocopter drone that will be able to hover for up to 12 hours, tethered to a truck with a cable for power.

Unspoken at RoboTiCan and even in the research laboratories is the idea that these robots can also be used by the Israel Defense Forces for security purposes, from entering tunnels to monitoring protests, which means some reporters’ questions about real-world applications for this tech are met with strategic silences and noncommittal shrugs. In fact, the IDF, as both a client and a stimulus to research, looms prominently in the background of robotic and high-tech research at BGU.

Over the next few years, the IDF is planning to expand into Beersheva with a tech center that will house intelligence and cybersecurity units. The new base is slated to be built in the slick style of a tech company campus, right next to BGU, adjacent to a high-tech park as well as the university’s own tech transfer spot. Both the university and entrepreneurs are counting on this to turbo-charge an already healthy high-tech industry in this city of 206,000, while the IDF is counting on proximity to the university to make soldiers want to stay and innovate.

This means it’s even more important for researchers at BGU to stay on top of their game. The robotics initiative lets the university’s bright minds explore new scientific ideas and come up with potentially revolutionary inventions, while attracting the rising stars of the industry by letting them have a chance to do the work they love best.

“It’s cool,” Nisky said. “It’s exciting.”

Staff writer Maya Mirsky was in Israel in the spring to report on robotics innovations at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev as part of American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s 13th Annual Murray Fromson Journalism Fellowship.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.