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Peter Corke, director of the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision at Queensland University of Technology, and other members of Team ACRV work on their robot, named Cartman, which won the 2017 Amazon Robotics Challenge in Japan.

Aussies Win Amazon Robotics Challenge

Amazon has a problem, and that problem is humans. Amazon needs humans, lots of them. But humans, as we all know, are the most unreasonable part of any business, constantly demanding things like lights and air. So Amazon has turned to robots (over 100,000 of them) for doing tasks like moving things around in a warehouse. But it’s proving to be much more difficult to get the robots to do some other tasks. One of the hardest is picking objects from shelves and bins.

To solve this problem, Amazon is making it someone else’s problem, by hosting a yearly robotics “picking” challenge. In the competition, teams have to develop robotics hardware and software that can recognize objects, grasp them, and move them from place to place. This is harder than it sounds, because we’re on year three and Amazon is still running this thing, but some clever Australians are making substantial progress.

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Boston Dynamics' SpotMini robot

Video Friday: Boston Dynamics, Inflatable Robots, and Japan's Space Ball

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

IEEE CASE 2017 – August 20-23, 2017 – Xi’an, China
IEEE ICARM 2017 – August 27-31, 2017 – Hefei, China
IEEE RO-MAN – August 28-31, 2017 – Lisbon, Portugal
CLAWAR 2017 – September 11-13, 2017 – Porto, Portugal
FSR 2017 – September 12-15, 2017 – Zurich, Switzerland
Singularities of Mechanisms and Robotic Manipulators – September 18-22, 2017 – Johannes Kepler University, Linz, Austria
ROSCon – September 21-22, 2017 – Vancouver, B.C., Canada
IEEE IROS – September 24-28, 2017 – Vancouver, B.C., Canada

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


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Georgia Tech developed a robot mediator for patients and caregivers

Robots Could Act as Ethical Mediators Between Patients and Caregivers

Most of the discussion around robots and ethics lately has been about whether autonomous cars will decide to run over the nearest kitten or a slightly farther away basket full of puppies. Or something like that. Whether or not robots can make ethical decisions when presented with novel situations is something that lots and lots of people are still working on, but it’s much easier for robots to be ethical in situations where the rules are a little bit clearer, and also when there is very little chance of running over cute animals.

At ICRA last month, researchers at Georgia Tech presented a paper on “an intervening ethical governor for a robot mediator in patient-caregiver relationship.” The idea is that robots will become part of our daily lives, and they are much, much better than humans at paying close and careful attention to things, without getting distracted or bored, forever. So robots with an understanding of ethical issues would be able to observe interactions between patients and caregivers, and intervene when they notice that something’s not going the way it should. This is important, and we need it.

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NRL CICADA drone

Naval Research Lab Tests Swarm of Stackable CICADA Microdrones

The U.S. Naval Research Lab has been working on its CICADA (Close-In Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft) drones since at least 2011. The tiny drones are designed to be carried aloft by other aircraft and dropped, whereupon they’ll use GPS and little fins to glide to within 15 feet of their destination. They can carry a small sensor payload, and they’re designed to be cheap enough that you can use a whole bunch of them all at once. At the Sea Air Space Expo back in April, we checked out the latest MK5 CICADA prototypes, along with a new delivery system that’ll launch 32 of them out of a standardized sonobuoy tube all at once.

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Professor Einstein robot from Hanson Robotics

Professor Einstein Is a Fun, Wacky Robot That Loves to Talk About Science

When I tell my daughters, ages 6 and 9, that I have a new robot to show them, they perk up. I then take Professor Einstein out of the box.

“Ahhhh!” they both cry, wide-eyed.

My wife walks into the room: “Ahhh!”

Yep, Professor Einstein doesn’t look like your typical robot.

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A child touches Tega's face while playing a language learning game.

Robots for Kids: Designing Social Machines That Support Children's Learning

In this guest post, Jacqueline M. Kory Westlund, a researcher in the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab describes her projects and explorations to understand children’s relationships with social robots.

“Hi, my name is Mox!”

This story begins in 2013, in a preschool in Boston, where I hide, with laptop, headphones, and microphone, in a little kitchenette. Ethernet cables trail across the hall to the classroom, where 17 children eagerly await their turn to talk to a small fluffy robot.

“Hi, my name is Mox! I’m very happy to meet you.”

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MIT Extra Robotic Limbs

How to Control Those Extra Robotic Limbs You've Always Wanted

I am personally very excited to adopt a few extra robotic limbs, because I have a desperate need to improve my ski-boxing. Other people are probably interested in extra robotic limbs for less exciting reasons, like helping them do their jobs without getting injured. We’ve seen a bunch of research into this area recently, along with a variety of prototypes, and many of them seem like they have the potential to be useful and practical for ski-boxing and whatever else. The difficult thing at this point is controlling those extra limbs, because if you’re using one of your real limbs to control a fake limb, it’s not clear that you’re really coming out ahead.

At the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) last month, researchers from MIT presented a paper on “Independent, Voluntary Control of Extra Robotic Limbs,” which seeks to develop a control system for an extra pair of robotic waist-appendages that’s easy and comfortable to use and doesn’t interfere with control of your real arms and legs.

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THOR Transformer Drone

THOR Transformer Drone Hovers and Cruises With No Compromises

Wings are great for cruising over long distances and carrying heavy loads, but they aren’t that great if your aircraft needs vertical agility. Rotors, on the other hand, are great for vertical agility, but they aren’t that great for long distances and heavy loads. Any aircraft that wants to fly efficiently can be designed for cruising or hovering, but not both.

Lots and lots of people have tried to figure out a way of making some sort of compromise work. Mostly, this involves stapling as many vertical rotors as you have a budget for to a fixed-wing aircraft and just calling it a day: When you want to go up or down, you use the vertical rotors, and the rest of the time, you use whatever other rotors you can afford to have mounted horizontally. If you’re very clever, maybe you come up with a design that uses one set of rotors for both vertical and horizontal flight, either with some kind of rotating wing or with a vehicle that can pitch over in flight; but the fact remains that your design is wasteful—either you have useless rotors when flying horizontally, or useless wings when flying vertically.

At ICRA this year, researchers from the Singapore University of Technology & Design introduced a new kind of flying robot called THOR: Transformable HOvering Rotorcraft. THOR manages to achieve very high structural efficiency by using all of its aerodynamic surfaces in both vertical and horizontal flight modes, transforming from a flying wing into a sort of whole-body spinning bicopter thing that you really need to see to believe.

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APIUM water drones

Video Friday: Water Drones, Sad Robot, and Self-Driving in Duckie Town

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

MARSS – July 17-21, 2017 – Montreal, Canada
Summer School on Soft Manipulation – July 17-21, 2017 – Lake Chiemsee, Germany
Living Machines Conference – July 25-28, 2017 – Stanford, Calif., USA
RoboCup 2017 – July 27-31, 2017 – Nagoya, Japan
IEEE CASE 2017 – August 20-23, 2017 – Xi’an, China
IEEE ICARM 2017 – August 27-31, 2017 – Hefei, China
IEEE RO-MAN – August 28-31, 2017 – Lisbon, Portugal
CLAWAR 2017 – September 11-13, 2017 – Porto, Portugal
FSR 2017 – September 12-15, 2017 – Zurich, Switzerland

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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Erico Guizzo
New York City
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