Well, mostly without comment. I will briefly mention that PR2 alsospurns Bud Light, suggesting that robots do in fact have an inherent bias against beers that are terrible. And as far as Darwin goes, my guess is that he'd probably be in favor of Red Stripe but against Pabst Blue Ribbon. Nice job, Darwin: next time I throw a party, you're definitely invited.
If you want your own Darwin-OP to party with, by the way, he can be yours for a mere $12,000. Rehab sold separately.
Volkswagen announced their Temporary Autopilot (TAP) system last month, and it's just shown up on video. If anything, it works better than advertised, and includes some innovative features that do their best to keep you safe, even if you completely zone out:
As you can see, this TAP system has been integrated into a production car, and uses production-level radar, camera, and ultrasonic sensors along with by a laser scanner and an electronic horizon to do everything that it does. In other words, there's no crazy custom electronics involved, and nothing that could keep a system like this from becoming (say) an optional extra in a production car relatively soon.
A big stumbling block for this kind of thing is the issue of liability and who is (or isn't) in control of the car, and Volkswagen very deliberately includes the following in their press release:
"The driver always retains driving responsibility and is always in control. The driver can override or deactivate the system at any time and must continually monitor it.” TAP always offers the driver an optimal degree of automation as a function of the driving situation, acquisition of the surroundings and driver and system states. It is intended to prevent accidents due to driving errors by an inattentive, distracted driver. ...Drivers must still continually focus their attention on the road, so that they can intervene in safety-critical situations at any time.
In other words, this is not (not) a substitute for a human driver. It's not even really an autonomous system, in the strictest sense. It's there in case you (the human) fail at driving for whatever reason, but it's not designed to enable you to not pay attention to the road. In fact, as the video shows, the TAP forces you to pay attention using audio alerts and what looks to be a rather aggressive tap on the brakes if it thinks you're ignoring it. Overall, this is a big step, but still just a step, towards the eventual goal of complete automotive autonomy.
If you're either too old or not old enough to remember the heyday of Dance Dance Revolution (aka DDR), that's totally fine. You're not missing much. It was (is?) a video game that involves "dancing" (I'm actually making air quotes over here) by standing on various combinations of floor sensors as instructed by a video screen in time to music of dubious quality but emphatic volume.
The primary appeal of DDR, as far as I've been able to tell, is watching your friends degenerate into crazy people while playing the game, and unfortunately, robots (even the sweaty ones) can't really offer this same level of entertainment (despite their mad dancing skills). I mean, if I was a robot tasked with playing DDR, I'd probably be wondering what all the fuss was about. You see an arrow, you make the movement, what's the big deal?
For this Purdue University Darwin-OP, it's not a big deal at all. A student there has decided that his summer robotics research project is going to be to teach Darwin to play DDR, which is so far looking to be an entirely possible task, with the help of a slick custom robots-only dance pad:
At the moment, Darwin relies on a balancing bar for stability and to enable faster moves, but you hardcore DDR players should be familiar with the safety bar on the arcade machines that could be used (by crafty humans) for essentially the same purpose. In the works is tuning the robot's vision system to allow it to play DDR for real, and bar-free stability may come after that. Is anyone else thinking that Robot DDR would make a great new RoboGames event? No? Just me? Oh.
It's the 14th year of AUVSI's RoboSub competition, which of course means that all of this year's challenges are love-themed. You know, because of 14. Valentine's Day. It's the 14th. Of February. Yeah, I dunno, if it was me I would have gone for a The Hunt for Red October theme or something a little, uh, edgier.
Anyway, the competition took place from July 12 to 17 at the U.S. Navy's SPAWAR System Center down in San Diego, where nearly 30 teams (including both high school and international teams) unleashed their autonomous robot submarines against a hapless swimming pool filled with gates, buoys, paths to follow, objects to retrieve, and targets to torpedo. If you're wondering why this is so hard, here's a comment on last year's competition from the 2010 Maryland team's advisor:
Some more food for thought on how difficult the competition is: navigation for subs can’t rely on GPS (GPS signals only penetrate a few inches in the water), there’s no contact with the ground (so you can’t use encoders), and substantial random currents render dead reckoning worthless. The teams that can afford it buy a Doppler Velocity Logger (costs around $20k) to give them ground-track velocity.
Water is a difficult environment in which to maneuver. Teams must either make a vehicle that is so large that it can’t spin out of control or make a vehicle that can control its 3D orientation as well as 3D position. There is a strict penalty for large vehicles, so most teams opt for fancy control. It is worthwhile to note that in some years of this competition only a third of the teams could actually drive underwater in a straight line.
Competition objectives include not just visual tasks which are difficult underwater (light patterns caused by sunlight passing through the surface are called caustics and make shape recognition challenging) but acoustic objectives as well. The highest-scoring competition objectives require a passive sonar system.
So yeah, even tasks that would be a dead cinch for a robot driving on land is extremely difficult for a robot under the water. I'd go on about this, but it's more fun to just watch the recap vids from all three days of the competition, so here you go:
Part of the competition required each team to put up a website about their robot, and you'll find links to all of those (with tons more info) at the link below.
I love the folks at DLR, the German Aerospace Center, because I always suspected that while building some of the most incredible robots they still could find time to have fun. My suspicion is now confirmed: A DLR engineer just emailed me the video below, noting that it was made "to show that working in robotics also means a lot of fun." Indeed!
Festo's SmartBird robotic seagull is barely four months old, but already it's flown (or we should probably assume, been flown) from Germany to Edinburgh for the 2011 TEDGlobal conference. Festo's Markus Fischer, the SmartBird project leader, presented a short talk about SmartBird, along with a couple live demonstrations of the robot, complete with a few friendly dive-bombings:
If you're looking for another TEDTalk to wile away your Monday with, allow me to recommend Kevin Slavin's fascinating presentation on how algorithms are shaping our world, which uses some vacuuming robot pics that you might recognize to illustrate how abstract programming can have tangible effects on our daily lives.
Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) are way, way more useful if they can hover. Hovering capability allows MAVs to operate indoors, and to make it happen, you have to rely on platform like a helicopter (or a quadrotor) or something moreexotic. This thing definitely falls into the "more exotic" category -- it's called a cyclogyro, or cyclocopter.
Fundamentally, a cyclocopter is similar to a helicopter in that it creates lift through rapidly moving airfoils. Unlike a helicopter, a cyclocopter's airfoils rotate around a horizontal axis, continually changing their pitch in order to generate thrust in one single direction:
It's certainly not a simple system, which is why this idea (which has been around in the form of various prototypes for nearly a century) only got off the ground to make a first untethered flight just recently, thanks to a lot of hard work from Moble Benedict and his team at the University of Maryland. They've been developing a cycloidal rotor system made of carbon fiber and titanium that's so far been applied to both a quad cyclocopter and a twin cyclocopter, and they've successfully gotten the two rotor version (with a supplemental tail rotor) into an untethered and more or less stable hover:
You're probably wondering what the advantages of such a complex system are, and luckily, there are a few. Primarily, it's suggested that a cyclocopter would be more efficient than a helicopter, able to generate more thrust for a given amount of power. It's also thought that cyclocopters will prove to be more maneuverable, since the thrust can be vectored very rapidly. On the downside, you've got the overall complexity of the system to deal with, and the weight of the rotors might cancel out any efficiency gains.
There are definitely a lot of questions about the feasibility of a design like this, but in order to figure it out, the best thing to do is just build them and see what happens, and from the sound of things, the UMD team is finally cashing in on about a century worth of speculation.
Back in October of 2009 when iRobot first announced their new healthcare robotics unit, I posted my prediction about what kind of platform we might expect to see:
Here’s my guess: a small mobile platform that integrates the telepresence features of the ConnectR with some kind of simple artificial intelligence that could locate and recognize people, deliver reminders and information based on natural language voice queries, and summon help in an emergency. It would be connected to the internet and could integrate with, say, a doctor’s office or a pharmacy to provide prescription schedules and monitor drug interactions.
Turns out I wasn't far off with my telepresence concept. Just yesterday, iRobot announced a new partnership with InTouch Health (a remote presence telemedicine solution provider) to "explore potential opportunities for healthcare applications on iRobot platforms such as the iRobot Ava mobile robotics platform."
There aren't any details about what Ava will actually be doing (beyond nebulous statements like "we will revolutionize how people communicate and deliver information through remote presence"), but if anything, Ava is going to be capable of much more than I suggested in my original prediction, which was based on the relatively limited ConnectR platform. In retrospect, this is likely a big part of the reason why iRobot canceled ConnectR in the first place in favor of what would become Ava, but I digress.
It seems likely that Ava is going to start off in a hospital setting, cruising around and letting doctors interact with patients via telepresence. This isn't the first step towards robots replacing human doctors or anything, but if there's a specialist that you want to see who lives across the country, telepresence is far more effective than a phone call. As far as when we can expect Ava to start making house calls, well... Telepresence is one of the few robotics markets that consumers (or small businesses) could actually get involved in, so it's certainly possible that some of the telepresence technology embodied in Ava might eventually end up in some kind of Ava / ConnectR love-child. Now there's a mental picture for you.
This past weekend, a crowd of robot geeks, artists, and filmmakers converged on the futuristic-looking 3-Legged Dog studios in downtown Manhattan for the world's firstRobot Film Festival. IEEE Spectrum photo editor Randi Silberman Klett and I were left dazzled by all the robots and people and the more than 50 short films screened, which had the effect of discharging an electrical assault on the audience's brain interfaces; the films made people laugh, cry, cringe, but above all think about what it means to build robots and share our world with them.
The organizer, roboticist Heather Knight of Marilyn Monrobot [photo, below], and her coproducers -- Magic Futurebox, Beatbots, and Science House -- did a fantastic job in putting together a robotics extravaganza that included not only screenings (Spike Jonze's "I'm Here" opened the festival) but also live performances, a make-your-own-robot-film workshop, and a robot-themed BBQ. The whole thing culminated in the Bostker Awards Ceremony, with robots and humans parading on the red carpet and3D-printed bot statuettes awarded for categories like "Best Robot Actor" and "Most Uncanny."
The Digger D-3 is the most recent addition to my own personal list of robots not to stand in front of. It's a mine-clearing robot, and not the sort of mine-clearing robot that pokes around with a metal detector. Instead, it's the sort of mine-clearing robot that just sucks it up and tells the landmines to bring it.
At the front of the D-3 is a giant spinning metal pulverizer thing of death, which has tungsten hammers that beat down a quarter meter into the ground, turning everything they touch into mulch. This includes landmines, and although the mines do tend to blow up before getting shredded, the robot hardly seems to notice:
An operator commands this beast from a safe distance using a remote control unit. The hull of the robot is made up of hardened steel plates in a "V" shape to help limit any damage from antitank mines and unexploded shells of sizes up to 81mm, and the D-3 has been able to successfully ingest mines containing as much as 8 kilograms of explosive, which is nothing to sneeze at. The only potentially vulnerable spots are the air intakes, which are themselves protected from flying shrapnel by special grates. At full throttle, the D-3 can reliably clear a comforting 100 percent of landmines from the ground at a rate of 1,000 square meters per hour [about 10,000 square feet per hour], while also divesting the land of any unwanted shrubbery and unlucky mole colonies.
Despite all the protection, machines do break down on occasion, and Digger has taken the somewhat unusual step of making the robot as easy as possible for other people to repair. The guts of the robot are straightforward to access, the armor has been designed to be easy to weld, and Digger even provides plans so that if you have the means, you can build your own spare parts. The reason for doing this is that Digger wants the D-3 to be able to make a difference in far-flung communities crippled by the threat of landmines, and to do that, you need an extremely reliable robot.
The future for the D-3 likely lies in some form of limited autonomy, but don't worry: The people who actually end up using this thing don't like the idea of it being fully autonomous any more than you do. Expect it to eventually be able to obey pretty specific instructions like "go here," as opposed to commands like "hey, why don't you find a spot where you think there might be landmines, beat it into a pulp, and come back when you're done."