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Review: iRobot Scooba 230


The iRobot Scooba 230 fits an entire floor washing robot inside an adorable little cylindrical package.

We're totally stoked about iRobot's new Scooba 230 floor cleaning robot, largely because it's something entirely new from iRobot, a company that we've gently chided in the past for making only incremental and cosmetic improvements to their consumer products over the last few years.

The Scooba 230, which becomes available for purchase this week, manages to fit an entire floor washing robot inside an adorable little cylindrical package. But is a robot this small able to clean bathrooms and kitchens well enough to give you a break from your chores? We got ourselves a review unit, and we'll tell you, right now.

In the box, or at least the box we got, you'll find the robot itself, two virtual walls (the kind with on/off switches that take those gigantic D batteries that nobody ever uses except for oversized flashlights), a set of three spare bottom plates, a base plate, some packets of cleaning solution, the battery, a charger (two prong), and a handy quick-start guide.

If you have a Roomba, or a regular Scooba, the first thing you'll notice about the Scooba 230 is that it's small. Incredibly small. I have relatively big hands, I'm told, but this robot fits comfortably in one of them. The controls, all of two buttons, are mounted on the top: there's one button that says "power" and one button that says "clean." There's even an adorable carrying handle.

The top of the Scooba 230 is at about the same height as a Roomba or Scooba, and I assume that the infrared virtual wall sensors are spaced around the top rim somewhere underneath that black strip. The front of the robot, all 180 degrees worth, is a bump sensor, and there's a wall-following sensor looking forwards too.

Around the back, you'll find the battery slot, which is kinda neat: the battery itself is long and flat and extends essentially the entire length of the body of the robot. If you're curious, it's a 7.2 V, 1300 mAh, nickel metal hydride. It's press-fit, without any catches or clips or anything, and there's an o-ring on the outside end to keep it dry. Right next to the battery is a little rubber flap that keeps the charging port covered.

The Scooba 230 fills up with clean water from the front and empties dirty water out the back (more on that later). Little plastic doors (handily labeled "FILL" and "EMPTY") flip out to allow water to be added or removed. The doors are designed so that you have to press them tightly into the robot to make sure they seal properly, but there's no clicking noise or anything to let you know you've got it tight enough. It's a little too easy to not quite press the door hard enough, which will end up letting little dribbles of water leak out.

Poking around the Scooba 230 as much as I can without going at it with a hacksaw reveals some neat design features. Part of how iRobot was able to make the robot so small was to use an active reservoir system, which you can see when you look in the fill ports:

Inside, there's a large water compartment containing one big flexible plastic bladder that's attached to the "FILL"port. When you fill the robot with clean water, the bladder expands until you've got about 1.65 cups of water in it, and it entirely fills the interior of the robot. As the robot does its thing, it sprays clean water out and sucks dirty water in, and the dirty water starts filling up the inside of the robot's sealed water compartment, but outside the clean water bladder itself, which is busy getting smaller as the water gets used up.

So eventually, you end up with lots of dirty water inside the water compartment, and an empty clean water bladder that's squished flat and not taking up any room. The clever bit is that the volume of water inside the robot never really changes; clean water in one place just gets turned into dirty water in another place, and utilization of the limited amount of space inside the bot is always close to 100 percent.

The bottom plate itself is detachable in five seconds with no tools, making it easy to take it off to clean it or to put a new one on if the little scrubby bristles wear out, which happens in about six months of normal use. Near the back is the squeegee, which has a bunch of tiny (millimeter-sized) holes punched into it that lead to two ports up inside the body of the robot. This, I assume, is the system used to suck up dirty water back into the Scooba, and as far as I can tell, these holes set the limit of what the robot can physically remove from the floor. Let me reiterate that: anything larger than these teeny tiny little holes will not be "cleaned up" by the robot, it'll just get shoved around.

Underneath the bottom plate, you can see a peristaltic pump that's used to squirt the clean water out of the robot. This makes a lot of sense, largely because pumps like this have basically one single moving part and no valves or seals or anything else to wear out, which definitely bodes well for the reliability of the robot itself.

The slots at the front of the robot appear to be the edge sensors, not the water jets. In fact, I had a heckuva time trying to figure out where the robot spits out the clean water, until I realized that a lot of it actually comes out the back, not the front. You can see minuscule nozzles here, that align with slightly less minuscule holes in the bottom plate:

Why does it work this way? Well, you have to remember that the Scooba (and every other home robot that iRobot makes, pretty much) is designed to work most effectively in multiple passes. So in this case, my guess is that since the water comes out the back (or mostly out the back, at least), pass one is with dry bristles, which are probably more effective at loosening up dirt. Then, water is left on the dirt as the robot passes over it to let it soak a bit. Finally, after a few passes, the robot stops squiring water out the back and transitions to just squeegeeing it up, and you're left with a clean, dry(ish) floor.

Now, on to what you really care about, which is how it works in practice. My bathroom supports a total of three people. And three cats. And, four three rats. And also one rather large snake. Admittedly, not all of us are generally trying to use the bathroom at the same time (or, at all), but I mention them anyway to attempt to give you a flavor of the variety (and quantity) of, uh, maintenance that our bathroom generally requires.

The first thing to do when using the Scooba 230 is to fill it with warm, but not hot, water. I tried to be careful, but it's hard to avoid slopping water all over the robot as you do this. Fortunately, iRobot figured that this would happen, and the bot can get wet (to a reasonable extent) without harming it. It's important to leave the back ("EMPTY") port open even as you fill the bot with clean water; this lets the bladder expand fully. After putting the water in, you can optionally add cleaning solution before sealing it up.

Starting the cleaning cycle involves all of two buttons, and since the robot only has two buttons, you're not likely to have trouble figuring out which ones to push. The only decision you have to make is whether you want the robot to clean for 20 minutes for smallish areas (60 square feet or so), or 40 minutes for largeish areas up to 150 square feet. It defaults to a 40 minute clean, but if you hold the "CLEAN" button for a couple extra seconds, it makes a sound and switches over to 20 minutes. And then, you just let the Scooba 230 do its job, simple as that.

I have to say, it's a pretty cute little robot to watch at work. It's brisk. Determined. Feisty, even. It clearly wants to do a bang-up job, and it's going put in as much effort as its round little body is capable of to get your floors clean. While operating, the 230 is certainly not silent, but it's not what I'd call loud, either. You can have a conversation while it's running, and if you lock it in your bathroom, you'll probably only here the occasional "thunk" as it runs into a wall.

It's possible to pick the robot up mid-cycle, and it will stop cleaning. However, it gets unhappy when you do this and complains loudly, flashes a red light, and drips all over the place. This brings up an unfortunate reality of a wet-surface cleaning robot, which is that unlike a Roomba, you can't really just decide that it's done and shut it off. I mean, you can, but if you interrupt the Scooba in the middle of its cleaning cycle, it's going to leave a wet and sloppy mess all over your floor.

After a full cleaning cycle, the Scooba 230 will sing at you and light up a little green check mark to let you know that it's done. You can then lift it up, carry it over to the sink, and dump the dirty water out of the "EMPTY" door. It's much less drippy when you pick it up at the end of its cycle, probably because it's had its water jets turned off for a little bit before it actually stops cleaning.

A cursory inspection revealed some gunk caught up in the bristles on the bottom plate, which I rinsed off. A more careful inspection revealed that a few of the tiny little vacuum holes that the robot uses to suck up dirty water were clogged by more gunk. This is a little bit troubling, since it implies that after maybe five or ten runs, all of the vacuum holes would be clogged up and the Scooba would cease to clean. Luckily, iRobot has anticipated such an event, and the rubber squeegee bit can be partially removed to get at the holes from both sides and clean them out. You can also remove and clean the wheels, and iRobot recommends that you rinse out both water reservoirs.

The robot got pretty wet during this cleaning process (which took me maybe 3 minutes), and some water got up underneath its front bumper and stuff, but no electrical shorts or fires seemed to result, so that's good. Personally, it's hard to get used to cleaning a robot under running water, but with the Scooba 230, that seems to be the way to go.

When the bot is all emptied out and cleaned up, you just set it on its little baseplate where it can drip dry without making a mess, plug in the charger, and you're done.

So, great, but how's the floor? The short answer is, it's clean. The long answer is, it's clean but still pretty wet. I was honestly expecting the robot to do a slightly better job of getting the water up. I wouldn't say that it leaves puddles or anything, but you'll need to let the floor air-dry for a few minutes at least. To give you a better sense of how much water it leaves behind, here's a pic of a glass tabletop after the robot has cleaned it:

In general, however, I was quite impressed by how clean the bathroom got. The robot was successful at removing not just surface dirt, but also sticky patches from soap and things that would generally require a bit of scrubbing from a human. It can easily and effectively take over for routine bathroom floor maintenance, and there's nothing stopping it from being equally effective on other hard surfaces in your home, like kitchens. Really, it does a good job.

Now, as impressive as the Scooba 230 is, there are some points that you should be aware of if you're thinking about buying one. First off, one thing that quickly became apparent when using the Scooba 230 is that, as we suspected based on the design of the bottom plate, while the robot is totally happy to clean the surface of your floor, it's really not any good at picking up stuff that couldn't be called "dirt." It does have a vacuum in it, but that vacuum is designed to suck up water, not debris, and is physically incapable of ingesting any particles larger than about a millimeter. You may need to sweep or vacuum your floor before you unleash the Scooba on it.

Another thing to be aware of is that the Scooba 230 can't clean corners. That same roundness that allows it to make zero-radius turns also prevents it from getting itself into square corners. It's great at getting close up along walls, but there are always going to be little triangles inside any right angles in your bathroom where the robot simply can't reach.

I don't feel like this is a huge issue, though, because iRobot has always said, quite correctly, that their robots are maintenance tools. Neither a Roomba nor a full-size Scooba can completely take over for you wielding a vacuum or a mop. What the robots can do is make things significantly cleaner most of the time, and make it so that the cleaning that you have to do is easier and less frequent. Yes, you're still going to have to clean your bathroom floor to get those little corners that your Scooba misses. But when you don't have time to do that, the robot will keep most of your floor much, much cleaner.

The last thing to be aware of about the Scooba is that it's not designed to be completely autonomous, and has somewhat less autonomy than a Roomba does. With a Roomba, you can tell it to clean a room, and then just leave, and the robot will do its thing and then go back home to charge, and it can do this several times completely unsupervised. The Scooba, by contrast, requires you to fill it with clean water, seal it up, tell it to clean, go get it after it's done cleaning, dump out the dirty water, and then plug it into its charger every time you want it to do its job. There's no "fire and forget" capability. This, incidentally, is why the Scooba doesn't have a scheduling function: the assumption is that you're going to need to be there at the beginning and the end of the cycle.

Really, though, it's all relative. The fact is, the Scooba does the cleaning for you, which is otherwise the sucky part. Yes, it requires you to put a minimal amount of effort into setup and cleanup, but while it's scrubbing your floors, you can go do something else. Someday, I'm sure, robots will be able to integrate themselves much better into our homes, and iRobot might even be working on it. But until that happens, the Scooba 230 requires minimal and intuitive maintenance that isn't nearly as bothersome as it sounds, especially relative to its effectiveness.

The Scooba 230 kit (which includes the virtual walls and spare base plates) costs $299.99, or $300 to anyone who's not a marketing executive. It's on sale at iRobot.com as of right now, so if you like the look of it, go get one! And if you've got any questions, this baby is mine for the next week, so ask away.

[ iRobot Scooba 230 ]

FirstLook: iRobot's New Throwable Baby Surveillance Bot

iRobot 110 FirstLook robot

iRobot has just introduced the 110 FirstLook, a very small and lightweight robot designed to be used for scouting and surveillance when you don't have access to its big brother, the Packbot. FirstLook is 25 centimeters (10 inches) long, 23 cm (9 in) wide, and only 10 cm (4 in) high. It weighs less than 2.3 kilograms (5 pounds). Onboard, it has four separate cameras, one on each side, allowing the operator to see in every direction at once, with IR illuminators for night vision.

FirstLook is designed to be as rugged and reliable as iRobot's other battlefield robots. It's throwable, and can survive a 4.5 meter (15 foot) drop onto concrete and complete submergence in water. Using a pair of rotating flippers, it can climb curbs and stairs, and flip itself over if it ends up upside-down. Top speed is 5.6 kilometers per hour (3.5 mph), and FirstLook can scoot around for up to six hours on a charge, or spend 10 hours broadcasting live video from a stationary position.

If FirstLook robot looks somewhat familiar, that's because it is: We saw a very similar robot (or at the very least a similar form factor) as part of an early LANdroid prototype program, which was still active as of September of 2010. That program was intended to create a swarm of super cheap (less than US $100) urban robots that can work together to form an adaptable and self-healing wireless network. Now, I'm not saying that FirstLook is related to the LANdroid, per se; it may just be that iRobot has developed a simple, rugged, and reliable form factor that can be adapted for several different purposes.

However, FirstLook also does seem to have some very LANdroid-y capabilities. From iRobot's fact sheet:

Mesh Networking Capabilities -
Digital mesh networking allows multiple FirstLook robots to relay messages over greater distances, increasing Line of Sight and Non-Line of Sight capabilities. The robot offers multiple public and military radio band configurations.

Interesting, very interesting. It sort of sounds like FirstLook may in fact be able to be used as network extenders like LANdroids, albeit likely without the autonomous and self-healing capabilities, and definitely without the $100 price.

Another cool feature: iRobot developed a fancy operator control unit (OCU) for the FirstLook. It's a wrist-mounted touchscreen device that looks like something straight out of a James Bond movie [see photo below]. From the specs:

Wrist-Mounted, Touchscreen OCU -
FirstLook uses a wrist-mounted,  touchscreen Operator Control Unit  (OCU). The battery-powered OCU  includes a built-in radio.

Oh, and there's one other little interesting factoid from iRobot's fact sheet on the FirstLook, when they're talking about payloads:

Payload Expansion -
Facilitates integration of specialized cameras, thermal imagers,
chem-bio-radiation sensors and destructive payloads weighing up to a half pound.

Destructive payloads, you say? Would that be like dropping little mines, or like driving underneath a tank and committing suicide in homage to one of the first battlefield robots ever? Either way, my imagination is already running wild with that one.

While we don't yet know how much FirstLook is going to cost to deploy, to keep it competitive with other small surveillance robots it's going to need to end up somewhere in the high four figures to low five figures. We'll keep you updated as we find out more, but in the meantime, check out a bunch of extra pics and some video of FirstLook in action:

More images:

iRobot 110 FirstLook robot

iRobot 110 FirstLook robot

iRobot 110 FirstLook robot

iRobot 110 FirstLook robot

Images and video: iRobot

Lockheed Martin's Spybot Knows How Not to Be Seen

There are some basic rules that both humans and robots should be aware of when it comes to not being seen, and Monty Python only scratched blew up the surface. Lockheed Martin's Advanced Technology Laboratory has been developing a robot designed to operate around humans without being detected, and not just by being small and quiet: it listens for humans, guesses where they might be looking, and then finds itself a nice dark hiding place when it needs to.

Lockheed's robot is equipped with a 3D laser scanner that allows it to build detailed maps of its surroundings. It also has an array of acoustic sensors, which allow it to localize footsteps and voices. It can then combine the locations of humans with its 3D map to guess what areas the humans might be able to see, and then does its best to stay hidden. Keeping to the shadows, the robot always maintains an escape route, and if it senses a human approaching, it will look for the deepest darkest corner it can find and then hold its virtual breath until the danger has passed.

This is certainly not the first deceptive robot we've seen. Given the opportunity, a robot swarm at EPFL independently evolved the capacity for deception alarmingly quickly in a competition for virtual food. And researchers from Georgia Tech taught a robot to use deliberately deceptive tactics to fool other robots and humans. The Georgia Tech research, especially, seems like it's destined for applications like surveillance, as it endows a robot with a method of analyzing a situation to determine whether deception would be effective, based on what it knows about the robot (or person) trying to find it. If it decides that deception would help it achieve its goals, the robot then leaves tracks in one direction before moving off in a different one.

The key to avoiding detection by humans is to understand how you're perceived by humans. As Monty Python so astutely pointed out, for example, even the most perfect hiding place won't do you any good if it's the only possible place that you can be. By building models of both physical environments and perceptual environments, or how humans sense and react to things, robots will be much better at not just spying, but also understanding and reacting to us in less adversarial environments.

[ Lockheed Martin ] via [ New Scientist ]

'Blinky' Short Film Now Online, Not Safe For Your Sanity

“Soon every home will have a robot helper. Don’t worry, your kids are perfectly safe.”

You know when you see a tag line like that on a movie poster, that your kids are going to be far, far from perfectly safe. Blinky, a short film from a company called Bad Robot Productions that we've been looking forward to since 2009, doesn't disappoint.

Directed by Ruairi Robinson (who's currently working on Akira), Blinky is very well done, although it definitely messes with your head. Personally, while I'm glad I watched it, I kinda don't think I'd want to watch it again. If you're up for it, Blinky is probably rated PG-13, so use your best judgment as to what that implies. You've been warned!

Via [ io9 ]

Can Japan Send In Robots To Fix Troubled Nuclear Reactors?

japan fukushima radiation monitoring robotEditor's Note: This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

When it comes to robots, Japan is a superpower, with some of the world's most advanced robotic systems and the highest levels of industrial automation. So it makes sense to ask: Why can't Japan use robots to fix the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear power plant?

Many people have wondered about this possibility, and there's been a lot of speculation and confusion. One news report even slammed Japan for lacking nuclear-disaster robots.

I'd be the first to shout, "Send in the robots!" if it were clear that robots could help in this case. But things aren't that simple. To understand what robots can and cannot do at Fukushima, I spoke to several experts. Here's what they say.

Can Japan send robots into the reactors to repair them?

It'd be a difficult mission. To understand why, let's first take a quick look at the alarming situation at the Fukushima plant. One of the biggest problems is that the reactors and spent-fuel pools have lost -- and and may be continuing to lose -- cooling water. To make things worse, the earthquake and tsunami, and subsequent fires and explosions, may have damaged the reactor vessels, spent-fuel pools, and cooling and control systems, as well as the buildings that house them.

So if you wanted to send in robots, the first challenge is getting around inside the buildings. "The problem of mobility includes not only rough terrain but also gaps and obstacles," says Satoshi Tadokoro, an IEEE Fellow and professor of robotics at Tohoku University, in Sendai. "The path might have obstacles that a human could remove but most robots can't."

Dennis Hong, a roboticist at Virginia Tech, says researchers are constantly developing new ways of traversing difficult terrain -- using wheels, legs, tracks, wheel-leg hybrids, and other approaches -- but still, "a site like these reactors, where debris is scattered with tangled steel beams and collapsed structures, is a very, very challenging environment."

But what about robots designed for difficult terrain, like search-and-rescue robots and those bomb disposal robots used in Iraq and Afghanistan?

There are many robots capable of negotiating rough terrain, steep inclines, and even stairs. Indeed, as we've reported earlier, Japan might use these robots in rescue and recovery operations. But there exist countless other obstacles -- as simple as a closed door, for example -- that could be hard for most mobile robots to overcome, says Henrik Christensen, a professor of robotics at Georgia Tech, in Atlanta. 

What's more, he says, the robots would have to be remote controlled by human operators, and communication is another challenge. Relying on wireless transmissions is tricky because the reactors have thick concrete walls and lots of metal around. An alternative would be using a tether, but the trade-off is you lose range and mobility. "Even with a fiber-optic tether it is very hard have a range longer than 2 kilometers, so they would have to deploy people to be close by to operate the vehicle," says Prof. Christensen.

What if the path inside the reactor is more or less clear for a robot -- what other challenges exist?

The biggest one is radiation, which can damage microchips and sensors, and also corrupt data (bits) in semiconductors [read "Radiation Hardening 101: How To Protect Nuclear Reactor Electronics" to understand why radiation damages electronics]. So if you'd want your robot to last long enough for a complex mission, it would need not only radiation-hardened electronics but also lots of heavy shielding.

The result is that if you try to build a robot that can overcome all the challenges described above (mobility, communication, radiation), you'll end up with a machine that is big and slow, as Dr. Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University, in College Station, explains:

So in some sense you need a dinosaur robot -- big, beefy, slow, and stupid (as in few processors) -- and even then it’s just a matter of time before enough radiation fries something important… You don’t know how long you’ve got. 

In the end, even if the robots can survive the radiation and reach the right places, they'd have to be capable of performing complex tasks like opening and closing valves, activating pumps, or handling hoses to deliver the cooling water.

The problem is that there are no commercial or research robots designed to carry out a mission like that. Any attempt involving robots would require a lot of improvisation, and this being a nuclear crisis, and this being Japan, authorities will probably be very conservative in their actions.

What about an agile humanoid robot that can walk on rubble, operate heavy machinery, and endure fires and radiation, Terminator-style?

You're watching too much TV. Even Japan, which has built the world's most advanced humanoid robots, doesn't have anything remotely close to that. Humanoid robots, despite their recent advances, are still research projects. They can walk, run, climb stairs, dance, and perform dexterous manipulations. But they can't fix nuclear reactors.

But there must be something robots can do at Fukushima?

There's plenty robots can do -- and are already doing. Perhaps the most important job at the moment is monitoring radiation. Dangerous levels of radiation prevent emergency personnel from accessing the buildings, so we need robots that act as our eyes in and around them. Only by gauging the damage can authorities devise effective plans to control the situation.

Prof. Tadokoro says there's already at least one robot on site equipped with cameras and sensors to measure gamma and neutron radiation [see photo above]. (The authorities are also measuring radiation with non-robotics methods, of course, on the ground and using airplanes and helicopters in Fukushima and elsewhere.)

Developed by the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute after a nuclear accident at a fuel processing facility in Tokai in 1999, the tank-like robot is 1.5 meters tall and weighs in at 600 kilograms. The robot moves at about 40 meters per minute and can operate at a distance of 1.1 km from its controller. Researchers designed this robot for several missions, including opening doors, turning valves, and drilling a hole on pipes. These capabilities could be useful inside the Fukushima reactors, but it all depends on whether the robot would be able to navigate inside treacherous spaces.

Tadokoro adds that if it becomes necessary to spray more water on the reactors from the outside, and if using manned trucks is too dangerous for a human crew, Japan has developed several firefighting robots that could shoot water on the buildings. The only problem is that these robots were not designed to withstand radiation, so they'd have to be fitted with shielding. He says it's not clear whether firefighting robots are present at Fukushima at this time.

Japan has sent out a request for more robots to the international community. The Japanese authorities apparently plan to use robots for gaining visual access of areas near the reactors and removing rubble and other clean-up operations. iRobot has sent PackBots and Warriors ground robots at Japan's request. France has apparently offered robots, too.

What about flying robots to peek inside the buildings?

Both Georgia Tech's Christensen and Virginia Tech's Hong suggest using unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, to generate imagery. "I am very surprised they have not used this option to provide better live footage from the site," Christensen says. "UAVs could be used to generate information from close range without risking lives."

The U.S. military has reportedly sent a Global Hawk drone to peek at the reactors from above, and there's talk of sending unmanned helicopters as well. But again, the Japanese authorities will probably be conservative in their choices, preferring not to fly a UAV that could crash and make things worse.

Robots fixed the BP oil leak in the Gulf. Why can't they do the same here? Does the nuclear industry use robots anyway?

The nuclear industry does use robots, and newer plants have higher levels of automation, but you won't see robots running around doing chores. Robots are typically used in reprocessing plants, where spent fuel is recycled. The robots are not really autonomous machines; they are teleoperated robotic arms to handle highly radioactive materials.

Dr. Gerd Hirzinger, director of the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics, part of DLR, the German Aerospace Center in Wessling, says that in the 1960s, Germany did a lot of work on teleoperated manipulators for the nuclear power industry, but when plans for a central German reprocessing plant were suddenly killed in 1989 (the government decided to do reprocessing at a French plant), robot development stopped and roboticists shifted their focus to other areas. "But I agree that we should have a mature and highly reliable teleoperation technology for all nuclear plants," he says.

In deepwater oil exploration, the tools used to assemble the riser pipes, wellheads, and other equipment are designed for the robotic hands of remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, not for human hands. These underwater robots, in other words, act as telepresence systems for human operators. This approach never became part of the nuclear industry, though some argue it should. AI pioneer Marvin Minsky called for this type of technology more than 30 years ago:

Three Mile Island really needed telepresence. I am appalled by the nuclear industry's inability to deal with the unexpected. We all saw the absurd inflexibility of present day technology in handling the damage and making repairs to that reactor. [...] The big problem today is that nuclear plants are not designed for telepresence. Why? The technology is still too primitive. Furthermore, the plants aren't even designed to accommodate the installation of advanced telepresence when it becomes available. A vicious circle!

But people have used robots in other nuclear emergencies, no?

Yes. Carnegie Mellon roboticist William "Red" Whittaker developed ground robots that have been to the nuclear disaster sites at Three Mile Island, in the United States, and Chernobyl, in Ukraine. The robots helped by capturing images of the sites and monitoring radiation, but they couldn't do much more than that.  

Why did Japan have to ask foreign companies, like U.S. firm iRobot, to send robots rather than use some of their own?

Due to post-World War II regulations, Japanese robot makers can't export military robots. For this reason, Japanese robots haven't been tested in real conditions as extensively as U.S. robots like iRobot's PackBot and Foster-Miller's Talon, both used in Iraq and Afghanistan, have.

What's more, Japan's wireless regulation is very strict, limiting the power output of transmissions, even during emergencies, compared to what is allowed in the United States.

Will the nuclear industry invest in disaster robots now?

I hope so, but there's reason for skepticism. The nuclear industry never embraced robots like the auto industry or the oil and gas industry because it didn't make economical sense. Auto makers use robots because they help make cars cheaper; the oil industry uses ROVs because that's the only way they can get to deepwater reserves. The nuclear industry never had the incentive to adopt robots on the same scale.

Photo: Asahi Shimbun

READ ALSO:

iRobot Sending Packbots and Warriors to Fukushima Dai-1 Nuclear Plant
Fri, March 18, 2011

Blog Post: A group of iRobot employees is on their way to Japan along with specially equipped Packbots and Warriors

More Robots to the Rescue
Fri, March 18, 2011

Blog Post: An underwater vehicle and another ground robot join the rescue and recovery operations

Global Hawk UAV May Be Able to Peek Inside Damaged Reactors
Thu, March 17, 2011

Blog Post: A Global Hawk UAV is scheduled to overfly the Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear plant today, taking infrared images to attempt to determine what's happening inside the reactor buildings

Robots Help Search For Survivors
Sun, March 13, 2011

Blog Post: Japanese engineers are deploying wheeled and snake-like robots to assist emergency responders

Voice-Activated Robot Feeds You Your Desired Dish

meal assistive robot

Eating is a primary need, and many of us take it for granted. But what if the daily ritual of holding a fork, picking up food, and putting it in your mouth were impossible?

Last week, I came across a robot that detects the food on your plate and feeds you your desired dish. Here is a video:

This meal assistance system was developed by Isao Wakabayashi, an undergrad at Chukyo University, Japan. He used the Rascal robot set from Robix, and wrote his own image processing software to automatically recognize meal items. It labels all the pieces on your plate, so that you can use voice command to choose your next bite. "Pudding, please!"

Researchers are developing meal assistance robots like this for those unable to feed themselves, for example due to accident or illness. In fact, the Japanese company Secom has been selling their MySpoon robot for at least five years. Wakabayashi's work could have the ability to help this assistive technology become more automatic, user-friendly, and affordable.

In a world where robots are being used for work, play, and even war, hopefully these assistive robots can help us enjoy one of life's simple pleasures: eating.

You Definitely Need a Robotic Spy Vacuum

Before you dismiss this as just another Asian knockoff not-quite-a-Roomba, just take a minute to think about how the Samsung Tango View could change your life for the better. In addition to sporting a sophisticated visual mapping feature, the Tango is equipped with a camera, spotlights (!), and a microphone. It's Wi-Fi enabled, meaning that you can access the vacuum over the internet, and when you do, you're presented with a live view from the robot, complete with supplemental lighting and what could be two-way audio (although it's hard to tell). You can pilot it around manually, making sure that the oven is off, the fridge door is closed, and that nobody has broken into your house and stolen your fancy vacuum robot. You can also duct-tape a yardstick to it and use it to program your VCR while you're away. People still use VCRs, right?

The Tango vacuums quietly and effectively and stuff, so the possibilities for this robot (when it comes to cleanliness and surveillance) are virtually endless, but for whatever reason it's somehow incapable of vacuuming and spying at the same time.

One oft-overlooked aspect to the Tango is that it clearly hits it off with the ladies. We've seen several earlier models of this robot, each in bed (literally) with a different woman. These latest pics make it look like the robot has finally settled down with a family, though, so perhaps congratulations are in order... However, I've never really gotten the sense that the Tango could be happy with a long term commitment like that, and my guess is that we'll see an updated model in six months or so, with a new girlfriend to boot.

Samsung's Tango View (specifically the VC-RL87W) is available in Korea for about $700.

[ SamsungTomorrow ] via [ Akihabara News ]

Japan Earthquake: iRobot Sending Packbots and Warriors to Fukushima Dai-1 Nuclear Plant

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of our ongoing news coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency


iRobot Warrior 710s getting prepared for deployment to Japan.

The Special Ops group of Japan's Self Defense Forces has asked iRobot for some robotic assistance with the situation at the Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear plant, where several reactors are dangerously unstable after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake followed by a tsunami led to failures of their cooling systems last week.

Four robots, including iRobot's Packbot 510 and Warrior 710, left Bedford, Mass., this morning on their way to Japan, along with a team of iRobot employees to provide support, an iRobot spokesperson told me.

The iRobot team will be training Japanese defense personnel, who will control the robots remotely, from a protected vehicle, and iRobot employees will not be getting close to the reactors themselves.

These robots may be able assist at Fukushima Dai-1 in several different ways. The Packbot 510s are equipped with HazMat payloads [photo below], which can detect temperature, gamma radiation, explosive gases and vapors, and toxic chemicals, and feed all of that data back to their controllers in real-time.

The Warrior 710 [photo below] is much larger and stronger than the Packbots, able to carry payloads of up to 68 kilograms (150 pounds), while lifting over 90 kg (200 lbs) with their arms.

According to the iRobot spokesperson, the Warriors may be used as robotic "firefighters," pulling hoses into hot zones inside the nuclear plant to help direct the flow of cooling water. Whether the robots will actually carry out that mission is unclear at this point.

Both of these robots are equipped with cameras that stream live video back to their operators, who steer them using game-style controllers. The bots have a wireless range of over 600 meters (about 2,000 feet), are capable of negotiating rubble and climbing stairs, can handle being dropped 1.8 m (6 ft) onto concrete, and will continue to function even after being completely submerged in water. The Warrior 710 is even able to carry Packbots on its back, and deploy them into structures through windows.

Details are still a bit scarce on what the timeline for iRobot is here; we just know that they've packed up their robots and are on their way with plans to help. We'll be bringing you updates as they're available.

Images: iRobot

Japan Earthquake: More Robots to the Rescue

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of our ongoing news coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency

KOHGA3 search and rescue robot japan earthquake
Japanese roboticists plan to use the KOHGA3 ground robot (shown here during a test) to inspect a collapsed building in Hachinohe, in the northeastern portion of Honshu island.

Japan is mobilizing more robots to assist with rescue and recovery operations after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that struck the country last Friday.

As we reported earlier, two teams are on standby, ready to deploy ground and snake-like robots. One team is based in Tokyo and the other in Sendai, but they are prepared to travel anywhere in Japan where they are needed.

Now I've learned that two other teams are also ready to field their robots. A group led by Prof. Eiji Koyanagi from Chiba Institute of Technology received a request from a company in Kajima, in the Chiba Prefecture, eastern of Tokyo, for a robot that can inspect underwater infrastructure (the roboticists are not allowed to disclose the name of the company and the nature of the infrastructure). Prof. Koyanagi visited the site to assess what robot could be used.

Another team, led by Prof. Fumitoshi Matsuno from Kyoto University, who's vice president of the International Rescue System Institute, is traveling to Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, to help inspect a building whose ceiling collapsed. His group will work with colleagues from the Hachinohe Institute of Technology to send in a ground robot called KOHGA3 [photo above].

Below is a video of KOHGA3 during a recent exercise at Disaster City, a simulated collapsed town in College Station, Texas, and the world's largest training facility for urban search and rescue.

The activities in Kajima and Hachinohe don't involve searching for survivors. They are recovery missions with the goal of ascertain damage and plan the next steps in terms of repairs and reconstruction.

In fact, recovery, rather than search and rescue, should be the focus of most robot operations from now on. The Japanese teams, however, remain prepared to assist emergency responders should their robots become necessary.

Prof. Satoshi Tadokoro from Tohoku University and president of the International Rescue System Institute tells me he contacted the fire departments of Sendai and Kobe, as well as the Ministry of Trade and Industry's Tohoku Branch and various businesses, to inform that his team's robots are available for any kind of mission. He says robots would be particularly useful to look for damages at warehouses and factories.

"I offered robotic inspection of damaged factories, particularly of dangerous locations like a chemical plant," he says.

Tadokoro, Koyanagi, Matsuno, and their colleagues Tetsuya Kimura, from Nagaoka University of Technology, and Katsuji Ohgane, from Niigata Institute of Technology -- among the leading Japanese experts in rescue robotics -- were actually in the United States when the earthquake struck. They were testing their robots at Disaster City and participating in a workshop organized by the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University, headed by Prof. Robin Murphy, another authority in rescue robotics. The researchers are also members of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society

quince search and rescue robotThe teams flew home as soon as they heard about the quake, arriving in Japan the next day. Prof. Tadokoro left Narita airport driving to his home in Sendai carrying on the trunk of his vehicle a tank-like ground robot called Quince and the Active Scope Camera, a remote-controlled snake-like robot.

Quince [photo, right], developed as part of Japan's New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) project, is a creation of researchers led by Prof. Tadokoro and Prof. Koyanagi, with support from the International Rescue System Institute.

The Active Scope Camera is one of several Japanese robots that have actually been used in real disasters. Below is a photo showing the device at the site of the Berkman Plaza 2 parking garage collapse in Jacksonville, Fl., in 2008.

active scope camera berkman plaza 2 garage collapse jacksonville florida

Here's a video of the Active Scope Camera during a demonstration:

As he drove to Sendai, through roads away from the ocean, Prof. Tadokoro didn't see many collapsed buildings; most destruction in this area was caused by the tsunami. That means his robots probably won't be needed here, as they're best suited for inspecting rubble and damaged structures. 

But Prof. Tadokoro and his colleagues don't have time to rest. With recovery operations just beginning and the possibility of more aftershocks as well as the threat of a nuclear crisis, the roboticists and their robots remain on standby.

More photos of KOHGA3:

KOHGA3 search and rescue robot japan earthquake

KOHGA3 search and rescue robot japan earthquake

Photos and video: Kyoto University; Tohoku University; International Rescue System Institute  

Supposedly, Iran Has Supposedly Constructed a Robotic 'Flying Saucer' (Supposedly)

Iran's Fars News Agency, which is generally acknowledged to be "semi-official" with ties to the Iranian government, is reporting the unveiling of "a home-made flying saucer." Here's the picture that they posted along with their article:

Seriously. Check the link. I mean, I would have just chalked this up to a hilariously misunderstood translation, but, well... That's their picture.

I apologize for simply quoting their article here, but I'm worried that if I don't, you're all going to think that this is just one big joke:

"The unmanned flying saucer, named "Zohal", was unveiled in a ceremony attended by Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei.

Zohal, designed and developed jointly by Farnas Aerospace Company and Iranian Aviation and Space Industries Association (IASIA), can be used for various missions, specially for aerial imaging.

The flying machine is equipped with an auto-pilot system, GPS (Global Positioning System) and two separate imaging systems with full HD 10 mega-pixel picture quality and is able to take and send images simultaneously.

Zohal uses a small, portable navigation and monitoring center for transmission of data and images and can fly in both outdoor and indoor spaces."

Okay so obviously, if it can fly in indoor spaces, it's probably (probably) not the giant flying saucer blurrily hovering over a forest like in the picture. I did some digging, and a few other (less "semi-official") Iranian news sites refer to this thing as a "cuadrotor." Ohhh, okay Iran, you made yourself a quadrotor. Well that straightens that out, I guess, if we're going to assume that Fars News is just messing with us and Iran does not in fact have an actual robotic flying saucer.

And what if they did have an actual robotic flying saucer? It might not look like the thing in their picture, but it could easily be something like this:

Yep, that's an actual flying saucer UAV. It's called a Coandă effect UAV, in reference to the effect that causes air (or any fluid) to tend to stick to a curved surface. The UAV has a rotor at the top that thrusts air downward, and the air sticks to the body of the UAV, flowing around and down over the curved bottom edge to provide lift and thrust. Vanes around the edges of the UAV are used for steering and to counter the torque of the single rotor. While Coandă effect UAVs are generally not as efficient as helicopters, they're dynamically balanced in flight and have a rotor that's both enclosed and smaller than the body of the UAV, making them much more resilient.

So an Iranian Coandă effect UAV is within the realm of possibility, but I'm still betting that Iran has just put together a regular old quadrotor with GPS guidance and a data downlink. Pretty cool, but sadly, it's no flying saucer.

[ Fars News ] via [ Daily Mail ]

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