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Is Drone Racing Legal?

Star Wars fans will no doubt remember the pod-race scene from Episode I: The Phantom Menace, where the young Anakin Skywalker speeds through a barren landscape in a jet-propelled, levitating scooter, ultimately edging out the competition. Teenage thrill seekers are not yet able to dash through the air quite like that, but a similar adrenaline rush is now available to almost anyone through the new sport of drone racing, which typically involves radio-controlled quadcopters zooming around a predefined course low to the ground.

The buzzing contraptions are piloted by people with sharp reflexes through video goggles or some other means of obtaining a first-person view, a form of radio-control model flight that goes, naturally enough, by the acronym FPV. Multiple drone-racing leagues have sprung up in the United States, and this summer saw the first Drone Nationals (more properly, the 2015 Fat Shark U.S. National Drone Racing Championships), which took place at the California State Fair in Sacramento last month.

The attraction of drone racing is easy enough to understand. What puzzles me is how an organized sport could emerge in the face of what appears to be a legal prohibition on the whole activity.

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Why We Really Should Ban Autonomous Weapons: A Response

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

We welcome Evan Ackerman’s contribution to the discussion on a proposed ban on offensive autonomous weapons. This is a complex issue and there are interesting arguments on both sides that need to be weighed up carefully. This process is well under way, and several hundred position papers have been written in the last few years by think tanks, arms control experts, and nation states. His article, written as a response to an open letter signed by over 2500 AI and robotics researchers, makes four main points:

(1) Banning a weapons system is unlikely to succeed, so let’s not try.

(2) Banning the technology is not going to solve the problem if the problem is the willingness of humans to use technology for evil.

(3) The real question that we should be asking is this: Could autonomous armed robots perform more ethically than armed humans in combat?

(4) What we really need, then, is a way of making autonomous armed robots ethical.

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Video Friday: Talking Humanoids, Badminton Robots, and Boomerang Drone

The invasion of social robots continues. This week, Japanese robot maker Vstone and telecom company NTT announced plans to market little humanoids that can interact with people and also with devices around the house. In a press conference in Tokyo, the desktop-size robots, called CommU and Sota, held conversations with two lifelike female androids and, later, a male android. (Hmm, this last one, it’s possible that it was a real man, but we’re not sure.)

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Robots Reveal How Water Striders Jump on Water

Water striders are little insects that spend their existence skating around on the surface of lakes, ponds, and streams, relying on surface tension to keep them dry and happy. Watching them zip around is very cool, and its equally cool to think about the physics going on between the water and their toes to allow them to do what they do. Water striders are also able to jump, which substantially ups the difficulty on the whole not-sinking thing, since they have to somehow exert a substantial amount of force on the surface of the water without breaking through. How do they do it? South Korean researchers built a robotic water strider to find out.

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We Should Not Ban ‘Killer Robots,’ and Here’s Why

Yesterday, an open letter was presented at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Buenos Aires, Argentina, calling for a “ban on offensive autonomous weapons.” A bunch of people signed it, including “more than 1,000 experts and leading robotics researchers.” And I mean, of course they’d sign it, because who would seriously be for “killer robots?”

I am.

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Video Friday: Atlas Kicked, Tea-Brewing Robot, and Rodney Brooks's Giant Brains

We love robot competitions, and the only bad thing about them is that we don’t have the time (and, er, travel budget) to cover them all. The biggest robotics event happening this week was RoboCup, in Hefei, China, and we have some videos of that for you. But first, let’s watch a 150-kilogram robot getting kicked, shall we?


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Windbot Could Float Through the Clouds of Jupiter

Sending a robotic lander to Jupiter is probably not a good idea. There’s a rocky core down there somewhere, encased by metallic hydrogen and covered by an ocean of supercritical hydrogen, so technically, there is somewhere to land. But even if your lander made it all the way down there (which it probably wouldn’t for a variety of reasons), you’d be squished and fried and not even able to see anything while it was happening.

So let’s not do that.

Instead of thinking of Jupiter as totally inhospitable, let’s take a page from this Venus playbook, and aim for exploration of the atmosphere instead, with a robot that floats in the clouds and harvests energy from the wind.

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NASA Tests New Robotic Refueling Hardware on International Space Station

Sending up one satellite is expensive. Sending up another satellite to replace the first satellite when it breaks is even more expensive. It would be crazy to junk your car every time it needs a new tank of gas, but that’s basically what we do with satellites right now, and it’s incredibly wasteful. NASA has an entire office dedicated to fixing this problem, called the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO), and last week, they tested out some new robotic hardware for on-orbit satellite repair up on the International Space Station.

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Mother Robots Build Children Robots to Experiment With Artificial Evolution

When designing a brand new robot, it’s usually a good idea to design and test it in simulation first, to get a sense of how well your design is going to work. But even a successful simulated robot will only provide you limited insight into how it’s going to do when you actually build it: as we’ve seen, even sophisticated simulations don’t necessarily reveal how robots will perform in the real world.

This fundamental disconnect between simulation and reality becomes especially problematic when you’re dealing with an area of robotics where it’s impractical to build physical versions of everything. Evolutionary robotics is a very good example of this, where robot designs are tested and iterated over hundreds (or thousands) of generations: it works great in simulation (if you have a fast computer), but is much harder to do in practice. However, with something like evolutionary robotics, we come back to the original issue, which is that a robot that has evolved to work well in simulation may not work well at all out of simulation, which throws into question the value of iterating on the fitness of a robot through simulation at all.

In a paper published last month in PLOS ONE, Luzius Brodbeck, Simon Hauser, and Fumiya Iida from the Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at ETH Zurich took things one step further by teaching a “mother robot” to autonomously build children robots out of component parts to see how well they move, doing all of the hard work of robot evolution without any simulation compromises at all.

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First FAA-Approved Drone Delivery Is a Success, but Does It Matter?

Flirtey is a company that’s working to commercialize the consumer delivery drone, which is something that we’ve been very, very skeptical about. On Friday, Flirtey partnered with Virginia Tech and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to conduct the very first officially-approved drone delivery in the United States. Flirtey called it a “Kitty Hawk moment” for the entire delivery drone industry, but we’re not so sure.

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Automaton

IEEE Spectrum's award-winning robotics blog, featuring news, articles, and videos on robots, humanoids, automation, artificial intelligence, and more.
Contact us:  e.guizzo@ieee.org

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Erico Guizzo
New York, N.Y.
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Evan Ackerman
Berkeley, Calif.
 
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Jason Falconer
Canada
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Angelica Lim
Tokyo, Japan
 

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