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Earthbound Robots Today Need to Take Flight

This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.

The DARPA Robotics Challenge this past summer showcased how far humanoid robots have come—but also how far they have yet to go before they can tackle real-world practical applications. Even the best of the DRC behemoths stumbled and fell down, proving, as IEEE Spectrum noted at the time, that “not walking is a big advantage.”

There is, in fact, a new not-walking way for robots to perform many kinds of tasks better and faster: the dexterous drone.

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Study: Nobody Wants Social Robots That Look Like Humans Because They Threaten Our Identity

Everybody knows that anthropomorphic robots that try to look and act like people are creepy. The Uncanny Valley, and all that. There’s been a bunch of research into just what it is about such androids that we don’t like (watch the video below to get an idea of what we’re talking about), and many researchers think that we get uncomfortable when we begin to lose the ability to confidently distinguish between what’s human and what’s not. This is why zombies are often placed at the very bottom of the Uncanny Valley: in many respects, they directly straddle that line, which is why they freak us out so much.

Most of the time, robots (even the weird ones) don’t end up way down there with the zombies, because they’re usually a lot more obviously not human. The tricky part about robots, however, is that they can manifest “human-ness” in ways that are more than just physical. When robots start acting like humans, as opposed to just looking like them, things can get much more complicated. This is increasingly relevant with the push towards social robots designed to interact with humans in a very specifically “human-y” way.

In a recent paper in the International Journal of Social Robotics, “Blurring Human–Machine Distinctions: Anthropomorphic Appearance in Social Robots as a Threat to Human Distinctiveness,” Francesco Ferrari and Maria Paola Paladino from the University of Trento, in Italy, and Jolanda Jetten from the University of Queensland, in Australia, argue that what humans don’t like about anthropomorphic robots is fundamentally about a perceived incursion on human uniqueness. If true, it’s going to make the job of social robots much, much harder.

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Video Friday: Droneboarding, RoboCoaster, and AI Video Competition

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your AI-enhanced Automaton bloggers. We’ll be also posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

ASU Rehabilitation Robotics Workshop – February 8-9, 2016 – Tempe, Arizona, USA
The Future of Rescue Simulation Workshop – February 29-4, 2016 – Leiden, Netherlands
ROS-Industrial Consortium Americas Annual Meeting – March 3-4, 2016 – San Antonio, Texas, USA
HRI 2016 – March 7-10, 2016 – Christchurch, New Zealand
WeRobot 2016 – April 1-2, 2016 – Miami, Fla., USA
National Robotics Week – April 2-10, 2016 – United States
AISB HRI Symposium – April 5-6, 2016 – Sheffield, United Kingdom
Robotics in Education 2016 – April 14-15, 2016 – Vienna, Austria
International Collaborative Robots Workshop – May 3-4, 2016 – Boston, Mass., USA
Robotica 2016 – May 4-8, 2016 – Bragança, Portugal


Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

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Latest Version of Gazebo Simulator Makes It Easier Than Ever to Not Build a Robot

Do you have any idea how much time and money it would take to even figure out how much time and money it would take to buy a robot and get it to do what you want it to do? I don’t, because I don’t have that kind of time or money, and unless you’re at a major research institution, taxpayer-funded government agency, or multinational corporation, you probably don’t either.

The reality of robotics may be expensive and messy, but in simulation, everything is fast(ish) and easy(ish) and comes with both “reset” and “undo” buttons that don’t cost anything to push. One of the best robotics simulators named after a polygonal garden structure just got a major update that adds a bunch of new features and makes it even more user friendly. 

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Military Tests Robo-Parachute Delivery Needing No GPS

Someday, U.S. soldiers fighting in the streets of a sprawling megacity will need an airdrop of ammunition, food, or water that can’t be safely delivered by ground convoy or helicopter. But the supplies parachuting from the skies won’t have to rely on GPS signals that suffer from inaccuracy in cluttered city environments or can be disrupted by enemies. The U.S. military has been testing new supply airdrops that can automatically aim for a precise landing based on images of the target area. 

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Dutch Police Training Eagles to Take Down Drones

No matter how many regulations are put in place, drones are cheap enough now that frequent misuse is becoming the norm. There’s no good way of dealing with a dangerous drone: you can jam its radios to force it to autoland, or maybe try using an even bigger drone to capture it inside a giant net. In either of these cases, however, you run the risk of having the drone go completely out of control, which is even more dangerous.

Or, you can be like the Dutch National Police, and train eagles to take down drones for you.

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Video Friday: Marvin Minsky, Submersible Drone, and SLAM on a SnakeBot

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by a society of mindful bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

ASU Rehabilitation Robotics Workshop – February 8-9, 2016 – Tempe, Arizona, USA
The Future of Rescue Simulation Workshop – February 29-4, 2016 – Leiden, Netherlands
HRI 2016 – March 7-10, 2016 – Christchurch, New Zealand
WeRobot 2016 – April 1-2, 2016 – Miami, Fla., USA
National Robotics Week – April 2-10, 2016 – United States
AISB HRI Symposium – April 5-6, 2016 – Sheffield, United Kingdom


Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

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This Robot Changes How It Looks at You to Match Your Personality

I think the idea of designing robots that look like humans to better interact with humans is a solid “meh.” The concept is good, but the execution is usually horrible, and the more your robot tries to look like a human, the more horrible it gets. Having said that, I think that the idea of using robots with specific human features, like eyes, can be a substantial asset for human-robot interaction, if you know what you’re doing. 

Sean Andrist, a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (who knows what he’s doing), has been researching social gaze with robots. He’s developed algorithms that help robots look at people at the right times and in the right ways. It’s not just making the robots less creepy, but more helpful as well.

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Squishy Robot Fingers Gently Tickle Deep Sea Critters

The best part about scuba diving is being able to see all kinds of amazing animals, plants, animals that looks like plants, and plants that look like animals. The worst part about scuba diving is not being able to squidge any of these things. I mean, don’t you just want to give this thing a great big hug? Or this thing? Or especially this thing?

While it’s unlikely that me personally hugging any of these adorable creatures will ever be a good idea (however much I was seriously considering it while taking those pics), it is occasionally important for sea creatures to be aggressively groped in the name of science. Researchers at Harvard have endowed undersea robots with some squishy robotic fingers that allow them to non-destructively collect underwater specimens from under da sea. What more is you looking for?

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Hawaiian Robot Practices Landing Pad Construction for Space Exploration

In retrospect, it seems crazy that we sent people to the moon with nothing there waiting for them. If something had gone wrong, there was no Plan B. We’re probably not going to take a risk like that again, which is why we’re working so hard on robots that can go to the moon or Mars to get things all set up and running and warm and cozy for us in advance. 

Setting up bases and habitats and doing exploring and whatnot may be the exciting extraterrestrial work, but there’s other Very Important things that need to be done. One of the most important things is a high quality landing pad, and the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration (PISCES) has gotten a teleoperated robot to build one. On Earth. Gotta start somewhere, right?

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IEEE Spectrum's award-winning robotics blog, featuring news, articles, and videos on robots, humanoids, automation, artificial intelligence, and more.
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