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February 12 2014

DARPA Is Developing 'Transformers'-Style Flying Drones

It's official: The U.S. military is getting into the business of building Transformer-style robots. Of course, they won't exactly be like the ones you've seen in Michael Bay's films, but in terms of purpose and functionality, the early versions won't be far off

DARPA, or the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, revealed on Tuesday concept images of its plan to outfit the U.S. military with modular flying drones, which can "transform" to meet various mission needs

Called ARES (Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System), the drone will serve as an unmanned flying vehicle capable of setting troops down in hazardous environments, and as a resupply vehicle for military deployments. ARES will also be able to facilitate the evacuation of injured soldiers, a key feature for missions unassisted by combat-ready helicopters Read more...

More about Military, Robots, Robotics, Darpa, and Tech

February 07 2014

DARPA Celebrates 56th Birthday With Photo of Cake-Loving Robot

When you've been responsible for some of the most amazing and occasionally creepiest technology in human history, you can afford to take a load off every once in a while and celebrate yourself

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which has been funding research and development for a wide array of defense and military projects for 56 years, chose to celebrate its birthday on Twitter Friday by sharing a whimsical image of — you guessed it — a robot with a birthday cake. It's a photo that's well-earned, especially considering DARPA's impact on modern society

Happy Birthday DARPA! 56 and innovation never looked so good pic.twitter.com/sn6fgs2ysi

— DARPA (@DARPA) February 7, 2014

More about Robotics, Darpa, Gadgets, Us World, and Us
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10 Signs Your Robot Is Planning to Kill You

If artificial intelligence is the way of the future, then we should probably prepare for the worst.

Because who really knows what these little guys are capable of?

To protect ourselves from the possibility of a robot revolution, here are a few helpful guidelines for sensing when you're in danger.

Keep these scenarios in mind the next time your Roomba seems to be acting up

Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments. Read more...

More about List, Pics, Lists, Robots, and Robotics

January 30 2014

What Google Is Really Doing With All Those Robot Companies


Since December of last year, Google has purchased at least six companies either buildings robots or creating technologies used in the development of robotics.

Former Google Android lead and current Google Robot Guru Andy Rubin's list of acquired companies reads a bit like a baseline robot kit:

  • Redwood Robotics for robot arms

  • Holomni for robot wheels

  • Bot & Dolly for robotics cameras

  • Boston Dynamics for creepy and cool mobile robots

  • DeepMind Technologies for artificial intelligence

  • Meka Robotics for humanoid robots

  • Industrial Perception for computer vision (which may or may not be for robotics)

    While we know Google has interest in self-driving cars, the robot end-game is unclear. Sure, you can build an army of C-3POs, but for what?

    Well, robots are excellent at repetitive tasks, like changing the settings on millions of computers so that they have Google.com as their home page and Google as their default search engine. Would these Google Robots invade homes to make the change or would Google offer it as a service? Send us your computer and our robots will "fix" them.

    No one knows. Until then, I offer you the comic guesswork above. Read more...

  • More about Google, Robots, Robotics, Tech, and Gadgets

    January 09 2014

    Dancing Drones Drop a Beat and Get Their Groove On

    The use of drones is a hotly debated topic right now. These robots of the air could be used for spying or they could deliver Amazon packages — no one really knows

    But thanks to YouTube channel TheDmel, we at least know one thing for sure: Drones can groove.

    While waiting for the rest of the world to figure out what the heck to do with those enigmatic fliers, the guys at KMel Robotics decided to drop a beat and choreograph a handful of drones for some fun. We can see these talented machines put to good use on Broadway — maybe WALL-E the Musical is right around the corner. Read more...

    More about Viral Videos, Humor, Dancing, Robotics, and Gadgets

    January 01 2014

    The Need to Be Open: U.S. Laws Are Killing the Future of Robotics

    The next step in transformative technology is already here, and the United States runs the risk of getting left behind.

    The amount of robotics inventions is steadily on the rise, and the U.S. military is already in on the action. A few years ago, Air Force drones surpassed 1 million combat hours. Hobbyists are using platforms like Arduino to build their own robots, and they're building them by the thousands. Tesla recently announced its intention to develop and market driverless cars by 2018. Last year, Chris Anderson quit his job as the editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine to found and run a robotics company. Read more...

    More about United States, Law, Tech, Robots, and Robotics

    November 16 2013

    A Chinese Province Is Trying to Solve Its Labor Problems With Robots

    What do you do if you’re faced with increasing labor costs and a shortage of workers? If you’re one Chinese province, you invest in workers that never demand raises and are willing to work around the clock.

    Over the next five years, authorities in the eastern province of Zhejiang, a manufacturing hub, will invest some 500 billion yuan ($82 billion) to help 5,000 companies per year swap humans for machines, China Daily reports. Labor costs have been rising almost 16% annually in the province, and switching over to machines could trim the need for 700,000 jobs, according to the Zhejiang Economic and Information Commission. Of course, robot producers are quick to point out that using their products doesn’t necessarily mean job cuts. “Replacing workers with robots in dangerous and unhealthy working environments and using them for more creative jobs will be an inevitable choice for China’s manufacturing sector,” said Li Gang, China robotics head at the Zurich-based industrial robot producer ABB. Read more...

    More about China, Employment, Robots, Robotics, and Gadgets

    October 23 2013

    14 Robotics Breakthroughs From the Past Decade

    Robots — is there anything we're more fascinated by and terrified of at the same time?

    Everyone knows that robots are cool, but the technology has also come a long way from their humble beginnings. We've bought robots as toys, sent them into space and let them into our bodies — and this is only the beginning.

    The robotics world is far too vast and fast-growing for this to be a comprehensive list, but these are some of the most notable developments in robotics since 2000.

    2000: Run, ASIMO, Run

    ASIMO RobotImage: Honda

    Honda has worked on an interactive, walking robot since 1986, aiming to improve our quality of life. The company started with legs, and improved its models over time. Read more...

    More about Gadgets, Features, Tech, Robots, and Robotics

    October 04 2013

    Wireless WildCat Robot Can Run a 4-Minute Mile

    The Cheetah robot was born in 2012. The speedy four-legged bot could run at 29 miles per hour —outpacing Usain Bolt — while tethered to a power supply.

    Now, the cat's off the leash.

    Boston Dynamics introduced WildCat, a wireless version of Cheetah, on the group's YouTube channel. The robot clocks in at a top speed of 16 mph, slower than its wired predecessor, but still faster than many humans. WildCat can run a less-than-four-minute mile.

    Without a cord, the new generation of robot can run outside of the lab.

    Boston Dynamics' video of WildCat in action shows it running in a parking lot. WildCat uses "bounding and galloping gaits" and can run on all types of flat terrain, the group noted in the description on YouTube, and can both move in a straight line and cut turns. Its motor noticeably hums. Read more...

    More about Robot, Robotics, Darpa, Tech, and Gadgets

    August 21 2013

    Why We'll Have Robots In The Workplace Before Robots At Home

    Two technology companies have decided that the world needs a robot that can help you telecommute more than it needs a robot that can deliver beer.

    Suitable Technologies announced Wednesday that it will be hiring the majority of employees at another robotics company, Willow Garage. As a result, far more manpower will be put into Suitable's robotics research, and it appears that Willow Garage is essentially ceasing further development of its main product, the PR2 robot.

    Suitable Technologies and Willow Garage are both started by the same founder, Scott Hassan. Suitable Technologies is best known for Beam, a remote presence robot. Beam began as Willow Garage’s Project Texai, but became such an intense project that Hassan created a separate company around it. Beam competes with several existing robot product lines that help employees "attend" company events remotely while they’re physically still at home. 

    Willow Garage, on the other hand, is best known for its sophisticated personal robot, the PR2. Operating on open-source robotics technology, PR2 can flip pancakes, deliver beer to employees, and even plug itself in when it senses its battery getting low. 

    Now that Suitable Technologies will be retaining Willow Garage employees, don’t expect to see any new developments with the PR2. Intricate but bulky, and priced at $400,000, the PR2 is sophisticated but not revolutionary.

    Its legacy may actually be more in software than hardware. When DARPA needed to choose a standard on which to base its global robotics contest, it picked ROS, the robotics operating system Willow Garage developed with PR2 in mind, but not the PR2 itself. For the physical robot model, it chose Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot instead. 

    Meanwhile, Beam is priced at $16,000 (which is still pretty steep when you realize there are remote-presence robots on the market for as low as $2,000.) And the PR2 requires extensive programming for practical use. 

    In other words, the PR2 simply isn’t as close to being ready for mainstream manufacturing as Beam is. It makes sense that Hassan is more interested in putting his focus into Beam.

    According to a company press release, customer support for the PR2 will still continue. However, Willow Garage will be selling its “remaining stock” of PR2 models, which makes it sound like it won’t build new models. 

    I’ve reached out to Suitable Technologies for more information on just what innovations we can expect to see soon with Beam.

    Photo courtesy of Suitable Technologies

    Tags: robotics

    August 14 2013

    Sphero Robot Introduces Version 2.0, Focused on Kids

    An updated version of Sphero, a robotic ball that can be controlled by most smartphones, is available for preorders on Wednesday.

    Sphero was launched as a mobile gaming peripheral by Orbotix two years ago. The motorized, tennis-ball sized robot interacts with devices through Bluetooth and can work in tandem as a drivable toy and a game controller.

    Sphero's new features include a faster motor, smoothing turning and brighter LED lights inside the ball. Adam Wilson, Sphero's chief software architect, said the device can travel twice as quickly as it used to. Read more...

    More about Gaming, Robotics, Entertainment, Gadgets, and Sphero

    July 07 2013

    Nanobots Could Perform Surgeries in The Future

    Putting a robot in your eye could be the next innovation in medical technology.

    Researchers in Zurich are building nearly microscopic bots to help with delicate surgeries. The bot has a retractable needle for probing and a body that is only a quarter-millimeter in diameter — which is the equivalent of about 4 human hairs. This means it's as thin as a surgical scalpel and its needle is just as sharp.

    Given the size of the robot, any surgery could be non-invasive and minimal. Unlike a conventional robot, however, it is too small to carry any kind of battery or drive. To get around this, researchers developed a system called "The OctoMag," which uses a series of electromagnets around the patient's head to power the robot. Then, by slightly increasing or decreasing the force of the electromagnets, the robot is pushed or pulled through the body. Read more...

    More about Robot, Medicine, Robotics, Tech, and Gadgets

    June 27 2013

    Our New Robot Underlords Triumph In DARPA's Virtual Robotics Challenge

    At DARPA’s Virtual Robotics Challenge (VRC), everyone’s a winner.

    You might think I’m being folksy here, given how when robots are capable of saving our lives in disaster situations, it’s a pretty good thing for all of humankind. 

    While that's almost certainly true, the VRC took it more literally. The original plan was to run 26 university-affiliated robotics teams through three virtual trials to produce six winners. In the end, members of nine different teams were awarded advancements.

    What happened? According to a DARPA release, several team mergers and no small amount of “good sportsmanship” were involved. 

    Over the past two weeks, the 26 teams have been judged by their abilities to program a simulated ATLAS robot to complete several skills that would be mega-useful in a disaster situation, especially since they’re all things that would be hazardous for humans. What’s more, DARPA limited communications and vision between the team and the robot, to better reflect the difficulties first responders might face in a real disaster. 

    Watch the video to see an overview of the three scenarios in action:

    The teams all used the Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF)’s Gazebo simulator because, as CEO Brian Gerkey predicts, it should translate easily to programming on an actual robot. 

    “If you come up with a winning solution for [the simulation], then the software that you’ve written for it should, for the most part, transfer to a physical robot in a physical environment and produce qualitatively the same results,” he said in a VRC media roundtable discussion. 

    The original plan was to award the six winning teams six ATLAS robots with which to advance to the physical part of the DARPA robotics challenge, this December. But with members of nine teams advancing, it’s a little different. 

    One of the winning teams, Caltech, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, chose to use its own robot and donate its ATLAS to another team. Two other teams merged, and were awarded a seventh ATLAS robot from Hong Kong University. In total, seven teams (comprised of members of nine original teams) will be competing. Whew! 

    While seven teams advanced, that doesn’t mean they all did equally well. The top performance came from the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola, Fla., with 52 points. The next team to even come close to that was Worcester Polytechnic Institute, from Worcester, Massachusetts, with 39 points. The lowest amount of points a team earned - that had members still advance - was 23 points.

    Those score numbers are based on rankings that show how many tasks the team completed, how fast the team completed the task, and how many bits of information they used to communicate with the robot.

    Over the next few weeks, DARPA will be publicizing the teams’ performances on its YouTube channel, and then we’ll really be able to see what the difference between a 52 and a 23 looks like.

    Tags: robotics

    June 20 2013

    Robots Ride To The Rescue In DARPA's Virtual Robotics Challenge

    Let’s face it, our human bodies could use a hardware upgrade. Our flesh is easily torn by sharp objects, and we’re pretty vulnerable to stuff like fire and explosions. So when disasters like nuclear meltdowns or earthquakes affect our world, there’s not much we can do. 

    With Human 2.0 nowhere in sight, our best chance of increasing our survival in disaster situations is to build robots that can become our first responders. 

    Right now, DARPA’s Virtual Robotics Challenge is underway, a contest that could have groundbreaking implications for disaster preparedness around the entire world. It’s the first of three events that make up the yearly DARPA Robotics Challenge.

    Robots As Rescuers

    Every year, the DARPA challenge mobilizes university-affiliated teams (both with funding and without) to come up with ways to program robots to do the things that human first responders, like firefighters and rescuers, badly need them to do. 

    This year, disaster responders came up with three key robotic priorities which became the three trials of the Virtual Robotics Challenge: driving a car, walking over rubble, and using a hose (for example, to pump cooling water into an overheated nuclear power plant). If that doesn’t sound difficult enough, all these actions need to be voice-commanded, so that nearby people can operate the robot without any training. 

    While over 100 teams around the world signed up, only 26 made the cut by completing a preliminary challenge. Watch the video to see the Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF) explain and demonstrate the preliminary challenge: 

    The Virtual Robotics Challenge and preliminary are completed entirely in OSRF’s Gazebo simulator, a virtual environment that works like the real world, even if it doesn’t look exactly like it. All contestants will be using Robot Open Source (ROS), a robotics language developed by Willow Garage and maintained by OSRF. 

    Up to 6 winning teams will receive an ATLAS robot, pictured above, developed by Boston Dynamics. The winning teams will be able to use these robots at the DARPA Robotics Challenge trials in December, as they try to make their virtual simulations a reality. 

    Live But Under Wraps

    The contest began on Monday, June 17, but we’re not allowed to report on the details of the challenges or how various teams fare until June 27, when the winners are announced. That’s because the contest is trying to simulate a disaster situation by narrowing contestants' own knowledge about the scenario, in part by limiting real-time coverage to the general public. 

    DARPA has a few restrictions for the teams designed to mimic the chaos of an actual disaster. In some cases, DARPA will vary the quality of communication between the team and the robot, since the team can’t count on everything working properly during an emergency. 

    In the preliminary challenge, teams were able to view the simulation from all angles, the better to make informed decisions about the robot’s course of action. But during the Virtual Robotics Challenge they’re limited to just a robot’s first person view, as would be the case in an actual disaster. DARPA is recording the challenges from all angles for later, but releasing those videos early would give teams an unfair advantage. 

    DARPA has released all the information that’s currently available to the public on its Robotics Challenge website. Other than that, we won’t know what really happened at the contest until next week.

    Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated when the winners will be announced. That announcement is expected on June 27. 

    Photo courtesy of DARPA


    Tags: robotics

    May 09 2013

    How An Open Source Operating System Jumpstarted Robotics Research

    Ever wonder why it has taken so long for your robot butler to arrive? It's 2013, so why aren't those long-promised robotic domestic servants helping out around the house yet?

    One reason for the delay: Robot engineers lacked a common platform on which to communicate and collaborate with one another. Robotic hardware and software systems had to be built from the ground up every time. 

    Open Source Robotics

    But just as open-source operating systems for computers have amped up digital innovation, the robotics industry has undergone a similar transformation over the last five years. Ever since the advent of ROS (Robot Operating System), an open-source platform on which engineers could build robotic programs and apps, robotic innovation has picked up speed.

    On Friday, robot engineers from around the world gather for the second annual ROScon in Stuttgart, Germany. Meanwhile, ROS has become a requirement for several high-profile DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) robotics projects - in this year’s DARPA Robotics Challenge, every contestant will use ROS.

    "ROS has also started to appear in job listings and on resumes," said Tully Foote, ROS Platform Manager at the Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF). "At robotics conferences and presentations, most people are using ROS on their robots," Foote said, "and those who are not often justify why the are not using ROS if they are not."

    “ROS is distinguished by its focus on building a community of collaborators,” Foote added. “From its inception, ROS has been designed to facilitate sharing of the software between members of the worldwide robotics community.”

    Leveling The Robotics Playing Field

    Steve Rainwater, a robotics expert and blogger at Robots.net, agrees that ROS is today’s "leading software framework for robotics," because it integrates exceptionally well with prior robotics research frameworks

    “There have been other projects that tried to write complete robot operating systems from the ground up, but where [ROS creators] Willow Garage got it right is they understand how open source works,” Rainwater said. “They invent the parts they need and integrate them with the parts that already exist.”

    ROS "keeps the playing field level to an extent between students and hobbyists at one end of the spectrum and governments and universities at the other," Rainwater added. "Improvements to robot software can come from either end of that spectrum and because of the way free software licenses work, everyone's contributions are accessible to benefit the entire community."

    How ROS Works

    Robotics research center Willow Garage invented ROS to solve the common platform problem. Today, the platform is overseen by the nonprofit OSRF to ensure that is remains easy to share and distribute. 

    As an example of how ROS works, imagine you’re building an app. That app is useless without hardware and software - that is, your computer and operating system. Before ROS, engineers in different labs had to build that hardware and software specifically for every robotic project. As a result, the robotic app-making process was incredibly slow - and done in a vacuum. 

    Now ROS, along with complementary robot prototypes, provide that supporting hardware and software. Robot researchers can shortcut straight to the app building. And since other researchers around the world are using the same tools, they can easily share their developments from one project to another. 

    What Hath ROS Wrought?

    The PR2, Willow Garage’s most sophisticated robot (built on ROS), has been prototyped to a variety of apps already. It can walk the dog, fold the laundry, bring you a beer and even plug itself in when it senses its battery is running low. At $400,000, it’s designed for researchers, not customers, and only 60 exist so far. 

    “One of the ones I consider most impressive is the PR2 and Rosie making pancakes in Munich,” said Foote. “This is a demonstration of situational awareness, multiple robots coordinating, perception of deformable objects and they are doing it repeatedly with many visitors watching.” 

    We're still a long way from affordable, personal robot assistants doing real work in homes and institutions. But the common ROS platform is helping roboticists create workable robot butlers - and many other useful robotics applications - far sooner than would have otherwise been possible.

    Images courtesy of Willow Garage.

    Tags: robotics

    March 27 2013

    I Abused The Family Dog. But It Was A Robot Dog, Which Makes It OK, Right?

    OK, I didn't really abuse my robot dog. Although I might, if only to test cultural limits. Would you? It's just a robot, after all. A gadget. 

    If you spotted animal cruelty, would you react any differently if you discovered it wasn't really an animal but a robot? How about if it looked and behaved like a real dog — and even whimpered in pain? What if your daughter enjoyed pulling whiskers off the family cat — but it, too, was just a robot? Would that set off any alarms?

    Kate Darling, a lawyer and Ph.D. candidate in the field of Intellectual Property and Law & Economics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, explores such questions in a series of experiments that examine how people interact with "social companion" robots (emphasis added):

    At first glance, it seems hard to justify differentiating between the legal treatment of a social robot, such as a Pleo dinosaur toy, and a household appliance, such as a toaster. Both are man-made objects that can be purchased on Amazon and used as we please. Yet there is a difference in how we perceive these two artifacts. While toasters are designed to make toast, social robots are designed to act as our companions.

    (See also: The ReadWrite Q&A with Kate Darling, below.)

    Robots are all around us. Not Blade Runner-like android robots, of course. Not yet. Today's robots are used in medicine, to help build our cars, manufacture our smartphones, and in some cases, to clean our floors.

    Such robots are typically developed for a specific purpose. They look, unsurprisingly, like nothing more than a functional machine. But not all. Some robots look "alive," like the popular Pleo They are designed as companions. Expect them to get better, more lifelike, more responsive — more like actual companions, in other words.

    Do these robots deserve legal protection similar to what we now provide pets, for example, or horses? Your initial reaction may be, Of course not. But what if this social robot served as the equivalent of your family dog and someone came along and stole it, abused it and "killed" it? Then posted video on YouTube? (Go ahead — take our poll on the right, then sound off in comments.)

    In her 2012 paper, "Extending Legal Rights to Social Robots," Darling makes it clear why people often find it more troubling to witness or incite violent or abusive acts on a "social robot" as opposed to a more machine-like, functional robot:

    Studies involving state-of-the-art technology already indicate that humans interact differently with social robots than they do with other objects. 

    Robotic toys, household robots, and personal-care robots that interact with us on a social level generate stronger psychological attachments than we experience with everyday objects. This difference in how we perceive social robots could have legal implications.

    Rapid advances in robotics, haptic feedback, voice recognition, design, data processing and algorithms are rapidly making highly realistic robot "pets" a reality for many. Nonetheless, that adorable, forever-puppy robot that "bonds" with your children presently has no more legal rights than the power drill hanging on the wall of your garage. 

    I spoke with Darling about social robots, typical human responses to them, and potential legal issues we all might face down the road.

    ReadWrite: Should we grant rights to social robots?  

    Kate Darling: That's really up to society to decide. But there are two reasons it could make sense to give social robots some legal protection beyond the property right of the owner. The first is that if people feel strongly enough about it, for example the way that we feel about protecting certain animals from abuse, we might want the law to reflect that social preference.

    The second is that we might want to deter types of behavior that could be harmful in other contexts. One theory behind animal rights looks at it not from the viewpoint of the animals' inherent capacities, but rather from the viewpoint of what it says about ourselves if we're willing to treat other creatures or things in a certain way.

    RW: Are there examples of rights you would propose for social robots — robot pets?

    KD: I would say that analogies to animal abuse laws are helpful — so not "the right to live", but rather protection from being treated in a way that we associate with unnecessary cruelty. 

    RW: Should such rules be different based upon what the robot is? A robot dog, for example, versus a robot woman.

    KD: I would rather distinguish between robots that are specifically designed to interact with us socially and be anthropomorphized, as opposed to the many other robots, such as factory robots, that are not meant to engage our emotions.

    RW: Have any countries (or legal entities) extended legal rights to robots?

    KD: Not that I know of.

    RW: Have any countries explicitly restricted legal rights of/to robots?

    KD: Not that I know of.

    RW: What might prompt legal action?

    KD: I think (YouTube videos of animal torture). Even with existing technology and very few use cases, the YouTube comments on videos picturing "torture" of robotic toys and pets are strikingly polarized. A lot of people get upset, or at least feel very uncomfortable watching something that they perceive as life-like get abused, accusing the video makers of horrible cruelty. This reaction is likely to become more common and more extreme with the increasing development of robots that are specifically designed to interact with us socially in a cute and sympathetic way.

    RW: Have any religious groups promoted or restricted social robot rights?

    KD: None that I am aware of. I could imagine that some might be opposed, but that really depends on their respective beliefs.

    RW: Do you expect some societies to act first or differently regarding social robots?

    KD: Some societies (like Japan and South Korea) seem to accept interaction with robots more easily, which could incentivize a societal push sooner than in other cultures.

    Clearly, the ethical and legal implications of robots virtually endowed with human qualities can quickly sends many people down the rabbit hole. But society may be forced to grapple with the issue anyway. What if the robot looks not like the family dog, but like a human being? Is anyone harmed if your teenage son uses a fembot to practice sex with? (Or should that be "on"?)

    Even when we can reliably predict aspects of the future, we seem to often miss out the larger implications of what we create. What do you think?

    Image of adorable Boston Terrier puppy and Pleo doll courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

    Tags: robotics

    August 24 2012

    January 19 2012

    Deep-Sea Diving Robot Can Do Dangerous Work

    In some instances, it’s a good thing when a robot can replace you at work. A team of professors and student researchers are exploring ways robots can be used instead of humans for dangerous missions, like deep-sea diving in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of an oil spill.

    Mathematician and Associate Professor at Louisiana State University Michael Malisoff and his team are creating robots that can act somewhat autonomously, working in the place of humans in harmful places — oil spills, natural disasters and mosquito-infested lagoons. Instead of a human doing the dangerous work, the bots could “detect dangerous substances in dangerous places” and relay the information back to a human worker on shore.

    “These robots are operating in potential hazardous situations,” Malisoff says. “It keeps the human in the loop but out of harm’s way.”

    After the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, Malisoff, who specializes in mathematics dealing with control processes that apply to robotics, tapped the National Science Foundation and asked if self-directing robots might be useful to explore the damage. They answered in the affirmative and awarded the team a one-year grant to work on the bots and find out how the machines could be used in the future. The robots could be used to monitor the biological impact of such a spill, how much oil has leaked and where the oil is coming from.

    “The main novelty of the research is that we we’re able to use a technique called ‘automatic control,’” Malisoff says. “The robot is able to sense where it is.”

    There are four robots total; three can go underwater. “Fetch” is the name of one of the underwater robots. It can reach a depth of 100 meters and has a battery life of 10-12 hours before it must be recharged by a battery bank on shore.

    A feedback sensor on the robot allows it to determine its current location and the desired route to get to its destination. Unlike a remote-controlled car, this robot can figure out its current location using built-in commands and decide its next course of action using tracking control features. Underwater robots like these still require human intervention and the team doesn’t expect to make them completely autonomous, but with some fine-tuning the robots can spare people from doing dangerous work.

    “Typically with marine surveys, the water is too vast, so it has to do some routing,” he explained. “Feedback control helps it put itself back on course if tides take it off course.”

    The team had a test run with the bots in the Gulf of Mexico. The underwater robot was attached to a leash on the shore and would navigate into the water.

    Right now, the robots don’t communicate as quickly as the team would like them to. Murky waters and the density of the ocean cause the robots to occasionally be unresponsive to feedback — like when you’re in your car and the GPS stops working when you go through a tunnel, Malisoff explained.

    “Overall, we had promising results, but there’s always room for improvement,” he says. “It’s very much a work in progress.”

    The four robots are built by students who are overseen by the team of professors. Right now, the robots are disassembled while the team works to meliorate the problems. But students are busy, Malisoff said. Between other classes and projects, the bots are not being attended to as if it is someone’s full time job. Fortunately for the team, the new grant they have runs through 2014.

    “This is one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on,” Malisoff says. “I can see this has potential to help people in the Gulf Coast area in case of an oil spill or natural disaster.”

    Photo courtesy of Georgia Tech

    More About: Autonomous, research, robotics, robots

    For more Dev & Design coverage:

    January 05 2012

    Meet Tailbot: A Robotics Breakthrough Inspired by Dinosaurs [VIDEO]

    Could the future of robotics actually lie somewhere in the ancient age of tyrannosaurus and velociraptors?

    That’s what the findings of an interdisciplinary group of UC Berkeley researchers appears to indicate. After studying the ways in which lizards — and probably dinosaurs before them — use their tails to maintain balance when leaping, the team of biologists and engineers has applied that prehistoric technology to a robotic car dubbed Tailbot. Researchers point to a famous scene from the film Jurassic Park, in which a velociraptor leaps from a balcony to a tyrannosaurus skeleton, as an example of their idea.

    The cutting-edge work could lead to practical advances in the field of robotics that enable more durable, nimble machines to function in hectic and uncertain situations, including disaster relief missions. In radioactive environments, for example, robots could one day successfully carry out operations too dangerous for human operatives.

    “Engineers quickly understood the value of a tail,” Thomas Libby, a team member and Berkeley graduate student in mechanical engineering, told the campus news center. “Robots are not nearly as agile as animals, so anything that can make a robot more stable is an advancement, which is why this work is so exciting.”

    Tailbot is equipped with a small gyroscope that detects its angle and sends feedback to the robot’s tail. The tail then adjusts accordingly to rebalance the machine. When dropped nose-down, Tailbot can right itself before dropping a foot, researchers say.

    UC Berkeley integrative biology professor Robert Full leads the team of researchers and has studied geckos for the past two decades, analyzing how the lizards’ toe hairs help them climb smooth surfaces such as glass and how their tails help them avoid dangerous falls and slips.

    More recently, Full and six students used motion capture technologies to record how the red-headed African Agama lizard uses its tail. When the lizard ran down a low-traction ramp to leap to a nearby surface, the lack of friction before take-off caused it to slip and spin haphazardly. But the lizard used its tail to counteract the imbalance. Full and his team took note, creating a mathematical model to help understand the lizard’s adjustments and apply similar functionality to Tailbot.

    Tailbot’s design created a stir at at a recent international conference on intelligent robotics, where the UC Berkeley team’s work was one of five projects highlighted from a field of more than two thousand robot studies. Their findings will also appear in the Jan. 12 issue of the journal Nature.

    Full said that the work “shows the competitive advantage of interdisciplinary approaches” in leading to innovation, but he and his team aren’t done yet. They are now researching how lizards use their tails to help control pitch, roll and yaw while running, another potential breakthrough that could also help create more capable robots in the future. And, as with their more recent findings, the team’s collaboration of the natural and mechanical sciences will continue to be an advantage in pushing robotic technology forward.

    “We showed for the first time that lizards swing their tail up or down to counteract the rotation to their body, keeping them stable,” Full said. “Inspiration from lizard tails will likely lead to far more agile search-and-rescue robots, as well as ones having greater capability to to more rapidly detect chemical, biological or nuclear hazards.”

    What do you think the future holds for robotics? What else can robots learn from the natural world? Let us know in the comments.

    More About: mashable video, robotics, robots, Science

    January 16 2011

    Gang of Smart Mini-Copters Learns How to Build Stuff [VIDEO]

    Look out everyone, because there’s a gang of miniature, four-rotor electric helicopters that’s figured out how to work together and build a simple structure. This could be just the beginning of what they can do.

    Those clever programmers at the GRASP (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception) Lab at the University of Pennsylvania have made these quadrotor helicopters autonomous, teaching them how to work together while building things. Heck, most people can’t do that.

    The robot builders simply tell the copters which structure to build, and then, according to a GRASP technician, the quadrotors cooperatively “figure out the assembly plan and then build it.” The flying bots even have the ability to go for another attempt if the magnetic parts don’t snap together quite right.

    Even though the clever programmers have created simple modules for the helicopters to construct, nevertheless, this is the first glimpse of cooperative flying robot construction on a larger scale. Imagine if these mini copters were scaled up to 100 times their size, putting together skyscrapers, bridges, or the components of Skynet.

    Experimentation with these brainy choppers has been going on for a long time. When we saw videos of the quadrotors performing autonomous feats early last year, we were immediately impressed. They were downright aggressive, flying through thin slots and moving hoops with spectacular precision. A few months later, they got even more sophisticated. Now, they’re getting downright scary.

    What about it, readers? Should we be afraid yet?

    [Via Hacked Gadgets]

    More About: Autonomous, GRASP, quadroter, robotics, Skynet, University of Pennsylvania

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