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Snake Robot Walks by Turning Its Head and Tail Into Legs

One of the most compelling research areas in robotics is (I think, at least) bio-inspired robotics, which uses the evolutionary optimization of animals to suggest development paths for robots. Animals have had a long, long time to get their designs down, and creating robots that can take advantage of this (either directly or indirectly) provides a bit of a shortcut towards capabilities that are flexible, reliable, and high performance.

It's easy to look at an animal like a snake and be utterly blown away by all of the things that it can do. And lots of people are working very hard to build robots that are capable of doing all of the same things that a snake can do, at least in theory (or simulation). But, it's just as important not to see animals as the absolute pinnacle of what robots should aspire to, because robots are capable of taking advantage of their own designs in ways that biology either hasn't thought of, or physically can't.

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Dmitry Grishin: "Robotics Has Too Many Dreamers, Needs More Practical People"

When Dmitry Grishin launched a US $25 million VC firm focusing exclusively on consumer robotics, he encountered a lot of skeptics. They told him that the robots he's interested in were still the stuff of science fiction and it was too early to invest in them. That was two years ago. Today, he says, there's been a "big shift." What changed? "Now everybody believes in robotics!"

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Simple 3D Printed Grip Makes Household Robots a Little More Realistic

An absolutely enormous amount of effort is being devoted to teaching mobile manipulator robots how to get things done in environments that are designed for humans. The problem is that unstructured human-friendly environments are not, in general, robot friendly: a daily task that we perform without even thinking about it can be, from the perspective of a robot, somewhere between very difficult and impossible.

A great deal of this aforementioned enormous amount of effort has been focused on making robots as human-like as possible, based on the idea that the more human-like a robot is, the better it'll be able to deal with human environments. So, we're trying to make robots with legs, trying to implement vision systems and databases that let robots look at something and identify what it is, and trying to design anthropomorphic hands that give robots the ability to grasp anything that a human can.

But robots are not really ever going to be like humans (not anytime soon, at least), and it's way easier to just give up on that stuff and instead make some relatively inexpensive and minor modifications to the human environment to make it vastly more friendly to robots. We posted about one example of this last week: using RFID tags to help robots find and identify objects. Here's another one, involving a very simple, very cheap 3D printed adapter that makes it easy for a robot with a simple gripper to pick up and use household tools designed for human hands.

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Microsoft Shuts Down Its Robotics Group

In 2007, Bill Gates wrote his influential "A Robot in Every Home" article in Scientific American*, envisioning a future "in which robotic devices will become a nearly ubiquitous part of our day-to-day lives." The article reflected his belief that robotics was going to be hugely important, and Microsoft had to have a major role in it. Two years earlier, Gates had asked one of his top lieutenants, Tandy Trower, also a big believer in robotics, to lead a group with the bold mission of bringing robots into the mainstream

This week, word got out that, as part of its current restructuring, Microsoft decided to shut down its robotics group. (Two sources at Microsoft have since confirmed the news to IEEE Spectrum.) At a moment when excitement about the future of robotics seems to have reached an all-time high (just ask Google and Amazon), Microsoft has given up on robots.

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When Drone Delivery Makes Sense

When Amazon first announced its PrimeAir drone delivery service, we were skeptical. And we are still skeptical. Google's announcement of Project Wing did very little to reduce our skepticism about delivery drones operating in urban, densely-populated areas (where people want to receive packages quickly). If anything, it made us more skeptical, since what is apparently Google's best solution to the last 50 feet problem (dangling a package from fishing line) seems, uh, sketchy, at best.

We'd certainly love for Google or Amazon to make urban drone delivery work. We don't think they'll do it anytime soon, but we'd be ecstatic to be proven wrong by some ingenious implementation of technology. In the meantime, however, logistics company DHL has demonstrated one of the specific situations in which drone delivery is actually a good, realistic, achievable thing. Here's why.

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Robot Octopus Takes to the Sea

Early last year, we wrote up some betentacled research from Greece that explored what gaits were most effective at propelling a robotic octopus through water. The researchers commented that they were working on adding another physical feature flaunted by the biological version of the octopus: a web between their tentacles, which they hypothesized might help swimming speed or efficiency. Now the researchers report that the addition of a soft and supple silicone web has nearly doubled the speed of the roboctopus, and not satisfied with that, the scientists have also taught it to crawl, carry objects, and swim free in the Aegean Sea.

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Flying LampshadeBots Come Alive in Cirque du Soleil Performance

ETH Zurich's Flying Machine Arena has spawned all kinds of mind blowing quadrotor tricks over the years, so it's not at all surprising that it's also spawned a spin-off performance company to take some of those tricks out into the world for the rest of us to enjoy. Verity Studios is combining ETH Zurich's experience with precision flying robots with the wild imaginations of creatives like Cirque du Soleil, starting with a short film called "Sparked" featuring a swarm of quadrotors with lampshades on their heads. 

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Robots Use RFID to Find and Navigate to Household Objects

Vision is, in theory, a great way for robots to identify objects. It works for us humans, so all of the stuff that we have to deal with regularly tends to have distinguishing visual characteristics like pictures or labels. Robot vision can certainly work as a way to identify objects, but it's not easy, and often requires a ridiculous amount of computing power, whether it's on the robot or off in the cloud somewhere. And even then, if the object you want to find is facing the wrong way or behind something else, you're out of luck. So when you think about it, there are two essential pieces to identifying things, and localization is a big one. Vision is often bad at this.

Another, much easier way of identifying objects is with RFID tags, because you can use a dirt cheap sensor that's super reliable and doesn't give a hoot what orientation an object is or how bad the lighting is or anything else. The other nice thing about RFID tags (besides the fact that they're dirt cheap and printable and will never give you false positives) is that you can detect them from far away, also using them for localization at the same time. If you know what you're doing.

Some researchers at Georgia Tech (including Travis Deyle, who writes his own robotics blog) totally know what they're doing, and have published a paper detailing an efficient, reliable way to perform long-distance localization that's basically (and I'm quoting the press release here) "the classic childhood game of “Hotter/Colder."

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Video Friday IROS 2014: Humanoid Eyes, Drones With Arms, and Printable Robots

The 2014 IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) just ended here in Chicago, and we've spent all week checking out the bleeding edge of robotics research. We've started to post some of the most interesting stuff, and we'll have lots (lots) more for you over the next several weeks, but for now, we're utterly exhausted.

So for Video Friday, we selected 10 of our favorite videos presented at the conference. We're posting each with its title above and paper abstract below. Again, we'll have plenty more dedicated in-depth IROS posts for you coming up, but while we fly back to base to recover, these vids should tide you over. Enjoy!

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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

Editor
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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