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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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RoboGames Is Back in 2015 (With Your Help)

The year 2013 was, as far as we knew, the last year for RoboGames. This was very, very sad, because there was really nothing like RoboGames: it was unique among robot competitions, not just because of the robot combat (although the robot combat was pretty darn awesome), but because of the enormous variety of events and the inclusiveness that encouraged people from all ages, with any level of experience, and from all over the world to attend and participate. And people did: 54 separate events, teams from nearly two dozen countries, and tens of thousands of spectators over the last five years. It gave aspiring roboticists structure, a goal, and rewarded them for effort and creativity. Oh, and it was a huge amount of fun to watch.

And then it vanished after the 2013 event, never to return.

Until.

Now.

If you help them out with just a little bit of money, that is.

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Dynamic Vision Sensors Enable High-Speed Maneuvers With Robots

We love watching quadrotors pull off amazing high-speed, high-precision acrobatics as much as anyone. But we’re also the first to point out that almost without exception, stuff like this takes place inside a controlled motion-capture environment, and that the quadrotors themselves are blind bots being controlled entirely by a computer somewhere that’s viewing the entire scene at a crazy framerate and from all angles through an expensive camera setup.

It’s going to take something new and innovative for robots to be able to perform high-speed maneuvers outside of a lab. Something like a special kind of camera called a Dynamic Vision Sensor (DVS) that solves the problems that conventional vision systems face when dealing with rapid motion.

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U.S. Navy Tests Robot Boat Swarm to Overwhelm Enemies

A fleet of U.S. Navy boats approached an enemy vessel like sharks circling their prey. The scene might not seem so remarkable compared to any of the Navy's usual patrol activities, but in this case, part of an exercise conducted by the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR), the boats operated without any direct human control: they acted as a robot boat swarm.

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Video Friday: Open Source Humanoid, HelloSpoon, and Drone Versus the Volcano

After some crazy IROS and post-IROS weeks, this week was a relatively calm one. We weren't busy dropping everything and going to talks or expos or workshops or recovering from same.

Except that one on Tuesday.

But anyway, sometimes it's just nice to be able to sit back, relax, and stay up until 5:47 a.m. putting together a good ol' Video Friday for you to enjoy.

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Tiny 3D Printed Robots Make Teleoperation Cheap and Simple

Do you have any idea how to operate a robot? If you're reading this blog, odds are that you in fact might. But that makes you a total weirdo, because most people have no idea how to operate a robot. And why should they? If roboticists do their job right, the idea is, no end user should have to learn how to program or how to use a teaching pendant or game controller or whatever. It should all be simple and intuitive and user friendly.

A common approach has been to let users drag robots around to show them a task, which the robot can then remember and execute autonomously. And there's nothing wrong with that, except that it requires the robot to be human safe while you're doing it, and it's harder to jump into the middle of a task to tweak something. Also, if the task requires adaptation (like, trying to grab a randomly moving object), anything pre-programmed gets thrown out the window, and teleoperation is the only way to go.  

RoboPuppet is a way of remotely controlling a robot that makes so much sense, and is so obviously a good idea, that we're honestly not sure why it's taken this long to implement. It's simply an interface where you 3D print a little tiny version of the robot you want to control, add some encoders, and then use the model to puppet the full-size version, which just mimics whatever it is you do. It's adaptable, it's cheap, and it lets even inexperienced users do some remarkable things.

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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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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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Canada
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Tokyo, Japan
 

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