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SCHAFT Unveils Awesome New Bipedal Robot at Japan Conference

Right now, the New Economic Summit (NEST) 2016 conference is going on in Tokyo, Japan. One of the keynote speakers is Andy Rubin. Rubin was in charge of Google’s robotics program in 2013, when the company (now Alphabet) acquired a fistful of some of the most capable and interesting robotics companies in the world. One of those companies was SCHAFT, which originated at the JSK Robotics Laboratory at the University of Tokyo and is best known for winning the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials by an absurd amount.

We haven’t heard anything from SCHAFT over the past three years, and all we know is that they’re now part of X, Alphabet’s experimental technology lab. Somehow, Rubin convinced them to show up to his NEST keynote, and they brought a brand new bipedal robot along with some absolutely incredible video of what they’ve been up to.

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DARPA's Self-Driving Submarine Hunter Steers Like a Human

Today is christening day for DARPA’s Sea Hunter, a full-scale prototype of an autonomous surface vessel that’s designed to be able to launch from a pier and go out on its own for weeks or months at a time, for thousands of miles at a stretch.

The 132-foot-long, diesel-powered vessel was built by U.S. defense contractor Leidos under DARPA’s ACTUV program, a somewhat clunky nested acronym that stands for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel.

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Sweep Is a $250 LIDAR With Range of 40 Meters That Works Outdoors

Are you building a robot that’s supposed to autonomously navigate in a useful way? Cool, that means you’ll be needing a LIDAR system, then. For better or worse, it’s usually just that straightforward: LIDAR is arguably the best sensor we have right now for reliable navigation, localization, and obstacle avoidance for ground robots. In terms of relatively low-cost sensors, sonar is poor resolution and short range; structured light and time-of-flight sensors are short range and don’t work well outdoors; and camera-based vision systems aren’t robust enough for reliable navigation.

The “relatively low cost” bit is the problem: LIDARs are pricey, and an “affordable” 2D unit, with a range of 10 meters or less, can cost you over US $1,000. This is an enormous problem for both hobbyists and cost-conscious commercial robotics developers (i.e. every single commercial robotics developer). 

A San Leandro, Calif.-based startup called Scanse has developed a 2D LIDAR system that promises to be simultaneosly much cheaper and much better than what’s out there. For $250, you get a spinning LIDAR sensor with a range of 40 meters, even outdoors. We featured Sweep on Video Friday a while back, but we wanted follow up with a more detailed article, with some additional info from the Scanse team.

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Touching a Robot's 'Intimate Parts' Makes People Uncomfortable

Humanoid robots can sense the world around them, move their bodies, and interact with people in ways that are similar to the ways that real people interact. But a robot’s “human-ness” is (at least for now) all just a simulation. It’s a combination of clever software, and in some cases, hardware that’s designed to make it easy for us to fool ourselves into thinking that some glorified box of circuits is even a little bit like a person. We’re very, very good at fooling ourselves like this, to the point where it starts to get a little weird.

Researchers from Stanford University will present a paper at the Annual Conference of the International Communication Association in Fukuoka, Japan, in June, with the title of “Touching a Mechanical Body: Tactile Contact With Intimate Parts of a Human-Shaped Robot is Physiologically Arousing.” The study shows that when a NAO robot asks humans to touch its butt, we get uncomfortable. This is weird because NAO doesn’t really have a butt in the traditional sense of the word, and even if it did, it’s just a robot, and on a very basic level it doesn’t care where you touch it. So what is going on here?

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Kinema Systems De-Stealths, Demos Deft Depalletizer

Today, Kinema Systems, a robotics startup based in Menlo Park, Calif., is coming out of stealth mode to announce Kinema Pick, which is “the world’s first self-training, self-calibrating software solution for robotic depalletizing.” I know, it sounds a little dry, but they have a convincingly cool demo, and we have lots of details on how the system works (and why it’s important) from Kinema co-founder and CEO Sachin Chitta.

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Video Friday: Dogs That Code, Robotic Football Team, and Self-Driving Bicycle

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your gullible Automaton 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!):

National Robotics Week – April 2-10, 2016 – United States
AISB HRI Symposium – April 5-6, 2016 – Sheffield, United Kingdom
ROS-Industrial Training Class – April 6-8, 2016 – San Antonio, Texas, USA
IEEE Haptics Symposium – April 8-11, 2016 – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Robotics in Education 2016 – April 14-15, 2016 – Vienna, Austria
NASA Swarmathon – April 18-22, 2016 – NASA KSC, Fla., USA
LEO Robotics Congress – April 21, 2016 – Eindhoven, Netherlands
FIRST Robotics Championship – April 27-30, 2016 – St. Louis, Missouri
International Collaborative Robots Workshop – May 3-4, 2016 – Boston, Mass., USA
ICARSC 2016 – May 4-6, 2016 – Bragança, Portugal
Robotica 2016 – May 4-8, 2016 – Bragança, Portugal
ARMS 2016 – May 9-13, 2016 – Singapore
ICRA 2016 – May 16-21, 2016 – Stockholm, Sweden
NASA Robotic Mining Competition – May 18-20, 2016 – NASA KSC, Fla., USA
Skolkovo Robotics Conference – May 20, 2016 – Skolkovo, Russia
Innorobo 2016 – May 24-26, 2016 – Paris, France
RoboCity16 – May 26-27, 2016 – Madrid, Spain
RoboBusiness Europe – June 1-3, 2016 – Odense, Denmark
IEEE RAS MRSSS 2016 – June 6-10, 2016 – Singapore
CR-HRI – June 6-10, 2016 – Orlando, Fla., USA
NASA SRRC Level 1 – June 6-11, 2016 – Worcester, Mass., USA
Field Robot Event – June 14-18, 2016 – Haßfurt, Germany
RSS 2016 – June 18-22, 2016 – Ann Arbor, Mich., USA
European Land Robot Trial – June 20-24, 2016 – Eggendorf, Austria
Automatica 2016 – June 21-25, 2016 – Munich, Germany
ISR 2016 – June 21-22, 2016 – Munich, Germany
UK National Robotics Week – June 25-1, 2016 – United Kingdom
TAROS 2016 – June 28-30, 2016 – Sheffield, United Kingdom
RoboCup 2016 – June 30-4, 2016 – Leipzig, Germany
Amazon Picking Challenge – June 30-4, 2016 – Leipzig, Germany


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

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MIT's Smartphone Laser Scanner Is Totally Decent and Costs $49

To do capable and useful things, your robot needs capable and useful sensors, which is just another way of saying that your robot needs you to spend a lot of money on it. This is really too bad, because hardware cost is enormously restrictive for robots, especially ones that are intended to be affordable by people who haven’t co-founded a robotics startup or something (I think there are a few people left who have yet to do this). In particular, distance sensors that allow your robot to detect and avoid obstacles tend to be both very useful and very expensive, but if you want one that works reliably outdoors, start saving, because they cost thousands of dollars. 

At MIT, a group of researchers led by Professor Li-Shiuan Peh designed a phone-based laser rangefinder that costs a total of $49, plus a smartphone that you’re not using anymore. Is it the greatest laser rangefinder ever? Not even close. But for less than $50, it’s pretty darn great anyway.

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Tiny Little Multi-Modal Picobug Walks, Flies, Grabs Stuff

Bipedal walking has worked out pretty well for humans. I guess. We’re kind of stuck with it until someone comes up with something better. And the really frustrating part is that all kinds of animals have already come up with better ways of getting around: specifically, birds and insects, who use wings to fly as well as legs and feet to walk. This multimodality makes birds and insects inherently versatile and adaptable, which is why you can find them doing quite well just about everywhere.

Some of the most versatile and adaptable robots also exhibit multimodal characteristics: they can fly and climb, or jump and glide, or even fly and swim. But flying and walking seems to be by far the most useful combination, as evidenced by the variety of animals that can do it, and researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP Laboratory have designed a new robot called Picobug that can fly, walk, and even (soon) grab on to stuff.

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How Google Wants to Solve Robotic Grasping by Letting Robots Learn for Themselves

You are likely pretty good at picking things up. That’s nice. Part of the reason that you’re pretty good at picking things up is that when you were little, you spent a lot of time trying and failing to pick things up, and learning from your experiences. For roboticists who don’t want to wait through the equivalent of an entire robotic childhood, there are ways to streamline the process: at Google Research, they’ve set up more than a dozen robotic arms and let them work for months on picking up objects that are heavy, light, flat, large, small, rigid, soft, and translucent (although not all at once). We talk to the researchers about how their approach is unique, and why 800,000 grasps (!) is just the beginning.

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Video Friday: Robots Building Robots, EggBot Op Art, and The Beginning of T-1000

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your shapeshifting Automaton 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!):

RoboCup European Open – March 30-4, 2016 – Eindhoven, Netherlands
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
ROS-Industrial Training Class – April 6-8, 2016 – San Antonio, Texas, USA
Robotics in Education 2016 – April 14-15, 2016 – Vienna, Austria
NASA Swarmathon – April 18-22, 2016 – NASA KSC, Fla., USA
LEO Robotics Congress – April 21, 2016 – Eindhoven, Netherlands
International Collaborative Robots Workshop – May 3-4, 2016 – Boston, Mass., USA
ICARSC 2016 – May 4-6, 2016 – Bragança, Portugal
Robotica 2016 – May 4-8, 2016 – Bragança, Portugal
ARMS 2016 – May 9-13, 2016 – Singapore
ICRA 2016 – May 16-21, 2016 – Stockholm, Sweden
NASA Robotic Mining Competition – May 18-20, 2016 – NASA KSC, Fla., USA
Skolkovo Robotics Conference – May 20, 2016 – Skolkovo, Russia
Innorobo 2016 – May 24-26, 2016 – Paris, France
RoboCity16 – May 26-27, 2016 – Madrid, Spain
RoboBusiness Europe – June 1-3, 2016 – Odense, Denmark
IEEE RAS MRSSS 2016 – June 6-10, 2016 – Singapore
CR-HRI – June 6-10, 2016 – Orlando, Fla., USA
NASA SRRC Level 1 – June 6-11, 2016 – Worcester, Mass., USA
Field Robot Event – June 14-18, 2016 – Haßfurt, Germany
RSS 2016 – June 18-22, 2016 – Ann Arbor, Mich., USA
European Land Robot Trial – June 20-24, 2016 – Eggendorf, Austria
Automatica 2016 – June 21-25, 2016 – Munich, Germany
ISR 2016 – June 21-22, 2016 – Munich, Germany


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


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