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Japan Earthquake: Global Hawk UAV May Be Able to Peek Inside Damaged Reactors

global hawk block 30

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.

UPDATE: The U.S. Air Force informs us that the schematic below is of a Global Hawk model Block 40; the drone used in Japan is a Block 30.

A U.S. Air Force Global Hawk drone based out of Guam is tentatively scheduled to overfly the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear plant today, in order to provide a more complete picture of what's going on inside the facility.

Japan, after being struck by its biggest-ever recorded earthquake on 11 March, and then hit by a devastating tsunami an hour later, has been battling a third potential catastrophe in the form of a nuclear meltdown.

Dangerous levels of radiation are preventing nuclear workers and emergency responders from safely approaching the facility's four reactors to control fires and assess the extent of damages. If the Global Hawk can provide detailed images of the buildings, it could be a big help for the authorities planning the next attempts to cool down the damaged reactors.

The Global Hawk is an autonomous, jet-powered UAV with a sensor package that includes synthetic-aperture radar as well as electro-optical and infrared sensors with telescopic capability for high-resolution imagery.

The infrared sensors, which can detect heat, may be able to acquire images of the reactors showing which parts of them are at what temperatures, and repeated observations could provide critical data about the effectiveness of different attempts at cooling the reactor vessels and spent fuel pools.

Earlier today, helicopters dumped approximately 30 tons of seawater on the No. 3 reactor building to attempt to cool it down, but officials are still trying to figure out if it had any effect. Data from the Global Hawk's sensors could potentially detect whether or not the seawater had an effect on the temperature inside the reactor, and therefore whether or not additional helicopter flights, or deploying truck-mounted water cannons, makes sense.

For the past few days, the Global Hawk has been assisting with disaster relief efforts around Japan by collecting near real-time imagery which allows officials to better prioritize and direct their resources. This is a familiar role for the Global Hawk, which also helped to monitor the situation in Haiti after the 7.0 earthquake there in January of last year.

The Global Hawk, with a 35-meter wingspan, is capable of conducting surveillance for 36 hours at a stretch at altitudes of up to 18 kilometers (60,000 feet). It can survey 100,000 square kilometers (about 40,000 square miles) of terrain -- the size of the state of Illinois -- in a single day, entirely without human intervention: Once the robot receives its instructions, everything from taxiing to takeoff to data collection to landing is performed entirely autonomously.

The drone was originally designed for the U.S. Air Force as a long-duration surveillance aircraft, and has a history of successful and effective use in Iraq and Afghanistan, offering on-demand near real-time imagery that can't be provided by satellites. The platform proved to be successful enough that Global Hawks have been adapted for climate monitoring and environmental mapping, and NASA has a pair of the UAVs that it's using as technology demonstrators.

Images: Northrop Grumman

[ Global Hawk ] via [ U.S. Air Force ] and [ Kyodo News ]

Robonaut Gets Unpacked, Finally

Robonaut 2 was delivered to the International Space Station in a giant packing crate last month.I don't know about you, but if somebody sent me an awesome robot that looks more than a little bit like a Cylon, I wouldn't leave it all packed up in its box. And you know what? President Obama agrees with me, and during his live chat with the ISS crew on March 8, he directed (or, suggested, anyway) that they let the bot out already:

"Still in packing foam? That's a shame, man! C'mon guys, unpack the guy! He flew all that way and you guys aren't unpacking him?"

Steven Lindsey, commander of STS-133, replied:

"You know, the poor guy's been locked in that foam for about four months now... Every once in a while we hear some scratching sounds from inside, maybe a 'let me out, let me out,' but we're not sure."

Uh, that's kinda creepy. But for better or worse, R2 is now officially out of its packing crate, hooray!

You know, in that stowed pose, R2 looks almost exactly like a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robot. Not that I'm implying anything...

Sadly, R2 still has a long wait ahead of it, since testing isn't scheduled to begin until May. In the meantime, R2 is just going to sit there on its pedestal, ready to rock 'n sock anyone who happens to float too close.

[ Robonaut ] via [ AP ] and [ @Astrorobonaut ]

Cyberdyne Demos New Flavors of HAL Exoskeleton

When I tested out Cyberdyne's HAL exoskeleton at CES in January, it turns out I was testing just one of several significantly different versions of the power suit that Cyberdyne has under development. Specifically, I was wearing the medical rehab version of HAL, which Cyberdyne plans to introduce commercially alongside a separate strength enhancing version, along with a dedicated single cyborg arm to help people repetitively lift and hold heavy objects.

While the suits may be designed for different purposes, the underlying technology is fundamentally the same: as I found out, the HAL suits use skin sensors to detect electrical commands as they travel from your brain to your muscles, and then the suit moves you itself before those muscles even have a chance to kick in. The suit you really want to take home, though, is definitely the industrial version, which looks quite a bit beefier and more fantastical, includes the upper body segments, and probably doesn't (but might!) allow you to punch straight through a brick wall. Plus, it comes in a sexy red color, which just screams I'M A SUPERHERO.

The basis for HAL is an entirely new field called "cybernics," which (as far as I can tell) was more or less invented by Cyberdyne's president and CEO, Yoshiyuki Sankai:

"The word cybernics comes from cybernetics, mechatronics, and informatics. But this field also requires neurology, behavioral science, robotics, IT, physiology, and psychology. It also involves law, so it even extends as far as the social sciences. We're going to develop this field by looking at all perspectives, from fundamental research to the real world."

It's great that Cyberdyne is working so hard to make sure that their technology is useful for the general public who needs it, and not just industry and the military. I'm (still) looking forward to the day when I can go down to my local robotics emporium and rent an exoskeleton for a few hours, for those times when I need to move my couch or finally take my revenge on that kid who punched me in the nose for no reason in middle school. I'm coming for ya, buddy, just as soon as I can stuff my feet into these tiny shoes.

[ Cyberdyne ] via [ DigInfo ]

Top 10 Robot Videos of the Month

robot drops grenade on live television

February was a big month for robots, but then, from our perspective, every month is a big month for robots. Robonaut finally made it to the ISS, and Watson proved that humans are doomed at Jeopardy, more or less. And did we mention a bomb-disposal bot dropped a real grenade on live TV [image above]? Oops.

Here's our favorite robot videos from February. We're actually going in order, so please feel free to let us know why we're dead wrong about what we liked best in the comments.

10. Assembling and disassembling little robots is a chore, unless the robots can do it all by themselves. Eventually, you'll just be able to swallow all the right pieces and have robots built themselves in your tummy.

9. Robonaut is now in space, ready to take over for the astronauts. The good kind of take over, that is.

8. In just under 55 hours, two humanoid robots (one of them autonomous) finished an actual 26.22 mile marathon in Osaka, Japan.

7. Dropping and then running over a grenade is usually not a great idea, even for a robot. Two things are worth mentioning here: one, it's probably human error, and two, this is exactly why they're using a robot. (Grenade drop happens around 2:50 in the video.)

6. CrabFu, master of awesomely bizarre DIY robots, turned a hamster named Princess into a walking cyborg machine.

5. IBM's Watson may be really, really smart, but it's not infallible, as it shows in this clip from its Jeopardy competition. For the record, it may have been thinking of Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, named after the Canadian WWI (?) fighter ace.

4. Northrop Grumman's X-47B robotic fighter jet took to the air for the first time, and it'll start landing on aircraft carriers in a year or two.

3. An Anybots QB rolled into a Mountain View coffee shop and ordered a scone, but the cool part is that it was more or less just business as usual for both parties involved. Maybe people are starting to get used to this whole living with robots thing.

2. Not news: the CIA had a fully operational life-size robot dragonfly. News: in 1970.

1. Yes, it is now possible to control a robotic car with your brain. Welcome to the future.


So, what do you think? How'd we do this month?

Slick Robotic System Makes UCSF's Pharmacy Safer and More Efficient

The pharmacy at UCSF Medical Center hands out something like 10,000 doses of medication per day. That's a lot of pills, and generally, it's the job of pharmacy workers to take care of all of the sorting and checking and bottling and double-checking. It's not just labor-intensive, it requires skill, and if you mess something up, you run the risk of killing someone.

With all this in mind, UCSF has invested in a team of robotic pharmacy workers which can handle prescriptions all the way from electronic orders from doctors and nurses to dispensing individual pills, arranged on a handy plastic ring in order of when they should be taken. Here's the whole system in action:

While the robotic system is obviously very efficient, efficiency is only a part of the benefit. It's easier to keep records. There's very little risk of contamination. Staff can now spend more time with patients. And mistakes with medication are few and far between. Or actually, that's an understatement, since the robots have a record of 350,000 successful medication preparations with zero screw-ups. Not bad!

The next step is to integrate the pharmacy robot with robots that can diagnose what's wrong with you and then administer medication, paving the way for robotic hospitals without a human staff. That may not be a good thing, but my guess is that it's probably an inevitability in either case.

[ UCSF ] via [ Engadget ]

Japan Earthquake: Robots Help Search For Survivors

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

quince japan earthquake rescue robot
Japan's earthquake will be a major test for search-and-rescue robots like Quince, developed by Chiba Institute of Technology roboticists, shown here during a demonstration.

Japan's leading experts in rescue robotics are deploying wheeled and snake-like robots to assist emergency responders in the search for survivors of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck the country last Friday.

Details are still scarce, but I've gotten word that at least two teams plan to use their search and rescue robots, one team in Tokyo and another in or around Sendai, the city that suffered the most damage in the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami. I'm waiting confirmation about a third team, also in Tokyo. (There is no information about the presence of robots at Japan's troubled Fukushima nuclear power plants, though that would be an ideal application for teleoperated repair and inspection robots.)

Dr. Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University, in College Station, and one of the world's top experts in rescue robotics, confirms that a team led by Satoshi Tadokoro of Tohoku University, in Sendai, and a team led by Eiji Koyanagi from Chiba Institute of Technology's Future Robotics Technology Center, have deployed, or are about to deploy, their robots.

She reports that Dr. Tadokoro is "en route" to Sendai, where he lives, with the Active Scope Camera, a remote operated 8-meter-long snake-like robot that carries a scope camera and can slither through small spaces. According to Dr. Murphy, it's "possibly the most capable robot for tight spaces." At the same time, Dr. Koyanagi will use an agile robot called Quince, which has tank-like tracks and is capable of driving over rubble and climbing stairs, around his home area in Tokyo.

Here's a video of the Active Scope Camera:

Here's a video of Quince:

Dr. Murphy, an IEEE Fellow whose team has taken robots to disaster sites like the World Trade Center after the September 11, 2001 attacks and New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, tells me that robots have been used in at least one previous earthquake, the 2010 Haiti disaster. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, she says, used a SeaBotix underwater remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, to investigate bridge and seawall damage as part of the U.S. assistance to the Haitian government.

For a disaster like the Japan quake, she says several types of robots could prove useful, including:

• small unmanned aerial vehicles like robotic helicopters and quadrotors for inspection of upper levels of buildings and lower altitude checks
• snake robots capable of entering collapsed buildings and slithering through rubble
• small underwater ROVs for bridge inspection and underwater recovery
• tether-based unmanned ground vehicles like sensor-packed wheeled robots that operators can drive remotely to search for survivors

As it happened, Japan's leading rescue robotics experts, a cadre led by Dr. Tadokoro, who heads the International Rescue Systems Institute, were actually in the United States when the earthquake hit! The 21 faculty and students and their rescue robots were in Texas participating in an exercise and workshop that CRASAR organized. The group headed back to Japan on Friday as soon as they heard the news.

Dr. Murphy, who leads the volunteer search-and-rescue robotics group Roboticists Without Borders, part of CRASAR, says the Japanese welcomed her group's assistance; she's now on standby awaiting a formal request. CRASAR's robotic arsenal includes the AirRobot and iSensys helicopters, a VideoRay ROV for underwater inspection, a AEOS water vehicle with a sonar suited for bridge inspection, and several ground robots like the Inuktun VGTV, a tracked vehicle that can change its shape.

Active Scope Camera japan earthquake robotLike most search and rescue robots, the systems the Japanese are deploying are designed to go where humans can't easily reach. According to a 2007 paper, the Active Scope Camera is a snake-type of robot whose body is covered by "cilia," small filaments that vibrate, allowing the robot to crawl at a speed of 4.7 centimeters per second, climb over obstacles, follow walls, and make turns in tight spaces.

Quince is a mobile robot equipped with four sets of tracked wheels, some of which can move up and down to allow the robot to negotiate obstacles. It carries cameras as well as infrared and carbon-dioxide sensors for detecting the presence of survivors trapped under rubble.

Our thoughts go to the Japanese people affected by this tragedy. We hope emergency personnel can locate all survivors as fast as possible -- and if robots can help, great.

Image: Chiba Institute of Technology; videos: DigInfo and Chiba Institute of Technology

Adept Quattro Crushes Humans at iPhone Game

We know the Adept Quattro is fast and precise, but that doesn't minimize the craziness of videos like this one:

Yeah, I think we need a whole new category on the app store for games that humans are better at than robots. Like, "guess the emotion" or "reasons not to enslave humanity." Although, for the record, fast humans can finish this game in about 10 seconds, which is more than a little bit impressive on its own.

For more vids of robots going wild with speed and precision, check out this post (and this post)

[ Adept Quattro ] via [ @RobotDiva ]

Teaching Robots To Interact Better With Humans

The 6th annual ACM/IEEE Conference on Human-Robot Interaction just ended in Switzerland this week, and Georgia Tech is excited to share three of their presentations showcasing the latest research in how humans and robots relate to each other. Let's start from the top:

How Can Robots Get Our Attention?

Humans rely on lots of fairly abstract social conventions when we communicate, and most of them are things that we don't even think about, like gaze direction and body orientation. Georgia Tech is using their robot, Simon, to not just try to interact with humans in the same ways that humans interact with each other, but also to figure out how to tell when a human is directing one of these abstract social conventions at the robot.

It's a tough thing, because natural interaction with other humans is deceptively subtle, meaning that Simon needs to be able to pick up on abstract cues in order to minimize that feeling of needing to talk to a robot like it's a robot, i.e. slowly and loudly and obviously. Gesture recognition is only the first part of this, and the researchers are hoping to eventually integrate lots of other perceptual cues and tools into the mix.

More info here.

How Do People Respond to Being Touched by a Robot?

This expands on previous Georgia Tech research that we've written about; the robot in the vid is Cody, our favorite sponge-bath robot. While personally, I take every opportunity to be touched by robots whenever and wherever they feel like, other people may not necessarily be so receptive. As robots spend more time in close proximity to humans helping out with tasks that involve touch, it's important that we don't start to get creeped out or scared.

Georgia Tech's research reveals that what humans perceive a robot's intent to be is important, which is a little weird considering that intent (or at least, perceived intent) is more of a human thing. Cody doesn't have intent, persay: it's just got a task that it executes, although I suppose you could argue that fundamentally, that constitutes intent. In this case, when people thought that Cody was touching their forearm to clean it, they were more comfortable than when they thought that Cody was touching their forearm (in the exact same way, mind you) just to comfort them. Curiously, people also turn out to be slightly less comfortable when the robot specifically states its intent before performing any actions, which is the opposite of what I would think would be the case. Geez, humans are frustratingly complex.

I definitely appreciate where Georgia Tech is going with this research, and why it's so important. As professor Charlie Kemp puts it:

"Primarily people have been focused on how can we make the robot safe, how can we make it do its task effectively. But that’s not going to be enough if we actually want these robots out there helping people in the real world."

More info here.

Teaching Robots to Move Like Humans

This is all about making robots seem more natural and approachable, which is one of those things that might seem a little less important that it is, since by virtue of reading Automaton, you might be a lot more familiar (and comfortable) with robots than most people are. The angle Georgia Tech is taking here is to first try and figure out how to quantify what "human-like" means, in order to better determine what movements are more "human-like" and what movements are less "human-like."

Making more human-like movements is important for a couple reasons. First, it's easier to understand what a robot wants or is doing when it makes movements like a human would. And second, one of the most identifiable things about robots is the fact that they're all robot-y: they tend to make precise and repetitive movements, which might be very efficient, but it's not very human. Humans are a little more random, and giving robots some of that randomness, researchers say, may help people "forget that this is a robot they’re interacting with."

More info here.

Thanks Travis!

Clear Your Schedule: National Robotics Week is Just One Month Away

Last year, we had a blast at the first annual National Robotics Week, where we got the world's first look at Stickybot III, got some tasty chocolate from Willow Garage, and tried to best an Adept Quattro at pick and place robot with a Wiimote (we failed).

Once again, National Robotics Week is much too badass to be constrained by one single week, which is why it's nine days long, running from the 9th to the 17th of April. Sponsors include heavyweights like iRobot, Adept, National Instruments, and Microsoft. As far as what you personally can get out of it, well, just check on this handy map for special events in your area.

Part of the point of National Robotics Week is to spread the word about how robotics is playing an increasingly important role in our lives, and how that makes robotics education even more important. If you're reading this blog, you're probably more familiar with the epic awesomeness of robots than most people you know, so don't just go to an event: take someone else who isn't familiar with robots along with you, and show them why robotics is the future.

[ National Robotics Week ]

Robot's Magic Wheels Transform Into Legs

Wheels are great for moving fast and efficiently, but bad for negotiating terrain. Legs are great for negotiating terrain, but not as good for moving fast and efficiently. To create a robot that can move fast when it needs to but can also adapt to get around complex surfaces, a group from National Taiwan University's Bio-Inspired Robotic Laboratory (BioRoLa) created Quattroped, a robot that can turn its wheels into legs: 

How awesome is that, right?! It would probably be most accurate to say that the bot's wheels transform into not legs but whegs, several varieties of which we've seen over the last couple years. Whegs function similarly to legs, except that they move in a circle instead of back and forth, making them more effective at clambering over obstacles. And as you can see in the video, the bot can even "walk" by moving alternate pairs of whegs.

Quattroped is equipped with GPS, a vision system, and laser ranger, and the team is actively working to integrate more sensors to improve the perceptual capabilities of the robot. On the software side, it's running National Instruments' LabView, and while a remote PC is involved for control and data logging, most of the processing is done on the robot itself.

This is an amazingly adaptable platform, and besides the additional complexity in the wheel hubs and some minimal compromises on wheel strength, this type of thing seems like an obvious way to give mobile robots significant additional capabilities.

[ National Instruments ]



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