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Toyota Invests $1 Billion in AI and Robots, Will Open R&D Lab in Silicon Valley

Today in Tokyo, Toyota announced that it is investing US $1 billion over the next five years to establish a new R&D arm headquartered in Silicon Valley and focused on artificial intelligence and robotics. The Toyota Research Institute (TRI) plans to hire hundreds of engineers to staff a main facility in Palo Alto, Calif., near Stanford University, and a second facility located near MIT in Cambridge, Mass.

Former DARPA program manager Dr. Gill Pratt, an executive technical advisor at Toyota, was named CEO of TRI, which will begin operations in January. Toyota president Akio Toyoda said in a press conference that the company pursues innovation and new technologies “to make life better for our customers and society as a whole,” adding that he wanted to “work with Gill not just because he’s an amazing researcher and engineer, but because I believe his goals and motivations are the same as ours.”

We spoke to Dr. Pratt to find out what kinds of things TRI wants to work on, how they plan to transform pure research into practical applications, and where all that money is going.

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Watch This Massive Drone Launch and Recover Another Drone in Flight

We’ve written entire posts on how tricky it can be to recover a fixed-wing drone. Only the ridiculously large and expensive and over-engineered drones are able to land themselves (Predators, Global Hawks, things like that). Most other fixed-wing drones land themselves by crashing into the ground as gently as possible if they’re small and cheap, or maybe using a parachute if they’re slightly less small and cheap. Bigger fixed wing drones have to get more creative, especially if a precision landing is required (like recovery to a ship). Unmanned aircraft system developer Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary based in Bingen, Wash., has developed one of the most creative and awesome drone launch and recovery systems I’ve ever seen, using an enormous octocopter carrier aircraft.

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MIT Drone Flies Autonomously While Avoiding Obstacles

In just about every video featuring drones making aggressive maneuvers around obstacles there’s some amount of “cheating” going on. By that we mean the drones are typically relying on an external motion-capture system, as well as beefy offboard computers and a rock-solid wireless link. For doing research on aggressive maneuvers and other drone capabilities, it’s totally fine to “cheat” like that. But at some point you’ll want your drones to be able to fly anywhere and not just inside the controlled environment of a very expensive robotics lab.

With that goal in mind—and just US $1700 in hardware—MIT PhD student Andrew Barry has managed to fire a fixed-wing drone at some trees and not hit them, using only two cellphones worth of onboard computing hardware and real-time image processing.


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Startup Developing Autonomous Delivery Robots That Travel on Sidewalks

We’re pretty sure that delivery drones aren’t going to be a thing anytime soon. The reason that so many companies are breathlessly promising that it’s right around the corner is because having robots deliver stuff to you whenever you want it is a fantastic idea. At first, drones seem like a good idea because flying lets you get to places quickly while avoiding obstacles, and people have been stuck on this idea for years because it would be great if you could actually get it to work.

So far, it hasn’t worked, but that doesn’t mean that robots delivering things shouldn’t happen. And really, do consumers care whether it’s delivered specifically by autonomous aerial drone as long as they get their stuff relatively quickly and don’t have to change out of their pajamas? A startup called Starship Technologies, with offices in London and Tallinn, Estonia, has announced an autonomous delivery robot that promises to do everything that a delivery drone can do (and more), except from the ground and with a realistic chance of actually happening.

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Video Friday: Motorcycle Robot, Paper Plane Drone, and R2-D2 Fridge

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’re also going to start posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

Humanoids 2015 – November 3-5, 2015 – Seoul, Korea
2015 Robot Film Fest – November 07, 2015 – Pittsburgh, Pa., USA
Asian Robotics Week – November 12-13, 2015 – Singapore
AAAI Fall Symposia – November 12-14, 2015 – Arlington, Va., USA
SF Bay Area Robotics Group Meetup – November 18, 2015 – San Francisco, Calif., USA
ROBOT 2015 - Iberian Robotics Conference – November 19-21, 2015 – Lisbon, Portugal
Robotics Expo – November 20-22, 2015 – Moscow, Russia
World Robotics Conference 2015 – November 23-25, 2015 – Beijing, China
Dronetech – November 26, 2015 – Bristol, U.K.
IREX 2015 – December 2-5, 2015 – Toyko, Japan
RoboUniverse Shanghai – December 8-10, 2015 – Shanghai, China
RoboUniverse San Diego – December 14-16, 2015 – San Diego, Calif., USA

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

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Forget Siri: Here's a New Way for Robots to Talk

Samantha from “Her.” She was smart, feisty, and sometimes pensive. Sam was easy to talk to and brimming with personality.

The AI from Spike Jonze’s 2013 movie caught our attention not just because it had the knowledge base of a thousand IBM Watsons, but also because conversations with Samantha were like chats with a close friend.

Over the last few years, robot researchers Dr. Crystal Chao and Professor Andrea Thomaz at Georgia Tech have been devising a new way to build humanity and personality into human-robot dialogues. It starts with rethinking the way we talk to machines.

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You Probably Shouldn't Expect City Repairing Drones Any Time Soon

The University of Leeds has been awarded £4.2 million to lead part of a national infrastructure research project in the U.K. with the vision of using small robots to create “self-repairing cities.” The general idea is to create swarms of small robots that will be able to zip around cities, keeping out of the way of people while proactively identifying weak infrastructure and making repairs before anything actually goes wrong.

This award is part of a larger national initiative to explore “how new ways of using robotics and autonomous systems can restore the balance between engineered and natural systems in the cities of the future.” This sounds awesome, and technological optimism is great, but it’s also important to temper expectations with reality, and avoid getting swept up in the hype of a press release. Like, that “of the future” phrase should immediately make you suspicious, because of a.) its rampant overuse in headlines by lazy tech bloggers b.) its inherently nonspecific nature. In other words, if something sounds implausibly good, well, it probably is, especially if there’s not a lot of detail to go along with it.

We do have some details about what the robotics part of this project is going to focus on, and it’s some pretty crazy stuff that we’re guessing is never actually going to happen.

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Video Friday: Origami Drone, Tesla Autopilot Fail, and Crowdsourced Robots

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’re also going to start posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

International Conference on Social Robotics – October 26-30, 2015 – Paris, France
AUVSI Unmanned Systems Defense – October 27-29, 2015 – Washington, D.C.
Biorobots: Dissected – October 28, 2015 – San Francisco, Calif.
Humanoids 2015 – November 3-5, 2015 – Seoul, South Korea
2015 Robot Film Fest – November 7, 2015 – Pittsburgh, Pa.
Asian Robotics Week – November 12-13, 2015 – Singapore
AAAI Fall Symposia – November 12-14, 2015 – Arlington, Va.
SF Bay Area Robotics Group Meetup – November 18, 2015 – San Francisco, Calif.
Robotics Expo – November 20-22, 2015 – Moscow, Russia
World Robot Conference 2015 – November 23-25, 2015 – Beijing, China
Dronetech – November 26, 2015 – Bristol, U.K.

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, automation, artificial intelligence, and more.
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Erico Guizzo
New York, N.Y.
Senior Writer
Evan Ackerman
Berkeley, Calif.
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Angelica Lim
Tokyo, Japan

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