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How to Make a Steerable Robot With Just One Single Motor

Imagine a little robot with six even little leggy wheel things that it uses to scurry around on the floor. Or, don’t imagine it, and just look at the picture above instead. This robot is called 1STAR, for “1 actuator STeerAble Robot.” Even though it has six legs, and it can controllably move and turn both left and right, it manages to do it with one single motor. Just one.

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Real Robots to Help Fight Ebola

A few Fridays ago, we took a little bit of a dig at all of the media coverage of an “ebola-fighting robot” that turned out to be essentially just a UV light on a wheeled cart hooked up to a timer. It’s clever marketing, but not clever robotics. Even one of the fanciest UV disenfecting “robots” have instructions that begin, “after a hospital staff member cleans the room using traditional methods...” This is not what real robots are all about. Real robots use autonomy (or at least teleoperation) to keep humans as far away from dangerous situations as possible.

You’d think that real robots would have a lot to offer when it comes to assisting with the control of a highly infectious disease, just like you’d think that robots would have a lot to offer when it comes to assisting with the control of a highly radioactive nuclear power plant. You’d be right to think that, but the problem that we’re having now with Ebola is the same as the problem that we had with Fukushima: there simply aren’t any robots that are prepared and ready, right now, to tackle an immediate crisis, even though robots would be immensely valuable in this situation.

To attempt to rectify this, the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University is partnering with the White House Office of Science and Technology and other groups to hold a policy workshop on Safety Robotics for Ebola Workers. The goal of the workshop will be to not just figure out what kinds of robots would be valuable to have on-hand for future epidemics, but also to try and identify things that the robots we have now can actually help with. And they’ve already got some good ideas.

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Video Friday: Keecker Not a Robot, Drone Racing, and Robotics Tipping Point

Today, we’ll be attending the 2014 edition of the Stanford-Berkeley Robotics Symposium. These two fine institutions have historically been partners, allies, and friends The SBRS is a manifestation of that, featuring a solid day of presentations from professors and students. Last year at Berkeley, more than a few interesting things happened, and this year we’re looking forward to more of the same. Except better.

We’ll bring you highlights when we’ve got ’em, but until then, videos!

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Yamaha Demos Agricultural RoboCopter, But Humans Can't Unleash It Yet

Agriculture is (arguably) where drones are going to be the most useful in the near future. Drones have already proven their usefulness to hobbyists and the military, and agriculture is the next huge commercial frontier. And although commercial drone operation is still waiting for official approval, at least in the United States, developers of unmanned aerial vehicles are eager to show that the technology is ready.

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NASA's New Free-Flying Robot to Conquer ISS in 2017

NASA has had little flying robots called SPHERES on board the International Space Station since 2006. That’s closing in on a decade of successful operations, in that they’ve mostly behaved themselves and done everything that their astronaut masters have asked them to do. So that’s all well and good, but the idea (or one of the ideas) behind putting robots on the ISS was to get them to do useful things, ultimately freeing up the astronauts to look out the windows more often. And, you know, science.

Neither the little SPHERES robots nor Robonaut 2 have been able to contribute to inspection and basic maintenance tasks. NASA has just announced a contest to name a new, ISS-bound robotic system called the “Free Flying Robot,” which will be the next step towards robots that are useful in space.

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Robot Teams Practice for Japan Volcano Monitoring

When Mount Ontake erupted in Japan a few weeks ago, it was completely unexpected. No significant earthquakes, no steam or gas releases, nothing. Usually, some warning does exist, and the best that we can to is to monitor active volcanoes as carefully as we can to try and spot whatever warning signs that are there. This is especially problematic with volcanoes that are undergoing frequent periods of activity, where it’s not safe to get close to them to determine when a minor eruption might turn into a major one. Not safe, you say? There’s a solution for that: send in the robots.

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Drones Learn Tricks With Suspended Loads, Through-Window Package Delivery Inevitable

Drones that carry things come at many different scales. On the smaller end, you have delivery drones, real or imaginary. On the larger end, you have…well, delivery drones, I guess, but ones that are full-size helicopters, that can deliver entire crates of supplies autonomously. Once you start thinking about how to deliver objects much bigger than a breadbox, it stops making sense to try and stuff all of your stuff inside the drone itself, and you end up having to hang it from the outside. Hanging things from fast-moving aircraft with cables results in payloads that swing around, and controlling that swing can lead to more stable payloads, and other, way more exciting things.

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Video Friday: Pico Quadrotor, iRobot Control, and Android Metamorphosis

You know how we keep saying that robots are designed for places that are dirty and dangerous? Yeah, we need to get ourselves some robots that can go in and help with the Ebola outbreak. That’s why I got all excited to see something about an Ebola-fighting robot in the news this week. But as it turns out, this thing is totally not a robot, since a human has to wheel it around, and then it just sits there and turns some UV lights on and off for five minutes. No sensing, no reacting to its environment, no autonomy or intelligence. It’s just a dumb machine. This isn’t to say that it’s not effective at what it does; it’s just not a robot.

Sigh.

To make ourselves feel a little bit better, we’ve done what we usually do, which is to fill our Friday with videos of robots that really are robots.

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Sidewinding Snakebots Sinuously Summit Steep Sandy Slopes

As a snake owner, I can personally attest to the fact that lack of limbs is no impediment to mobility. In fact, snakes are masters of moving over all kinds of terrain where wheeled or legged robots usually fail. They’re also excellent swimmers, and they can even jump and glide. Part of what makes snakes so adaptable is how they can choose from a variety of gaits depending on what they’re trying to do or where they’re trying to go. Robot snakes can do this too, and in some ways, they can do it even better, because they can execute behaviors that real snakes don’t know how to do, like rolling longitudinally to climb up poles (or legs).

We don’t mean to say that robot snakes would have real snakes trounced. Far from it: we have a lot to learn about how, and why, snakes move the way they do. In the latest issue of Scienceresearchers from Georgia Tech, roboticists from Carnegie Mellon, and herpetologists from Zoo Atlanta describe how sidewinders climb up steep sandy slopes, and show how snake robots can learn from their technique.

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Beautiful Fluid Actuators from Disney Research Make Soft, Safe Robot Arms

Roboticists have long been trying to build robot arms that are light, nimble, and safe to operate near people. Some designs rely on compliant actuators, artificial muscles, or sensors and software to keep the arms from smashing into things that they’re not supposed to. The challenge, however, is that most robot arms are stuffed full of electric motors and gears, and these are relatively big and heavy, adding to the size and weight of the arms.

Now engineers at Disney Research have come up with an ingenious way of making robot arms that are low mass but high speed. Instead of conventional motors, their arm uses what’s called a fluid transmission. It consists of tubes filled with air or water that connect antagonistic actuators. The result is a system that’s passively safe and compliant and lightweight and backdriveable and backlash free and... Well, it goes on. This thing is cool.

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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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