Automaton iconAutomaton

SRI Shows New 'Taurus' Bomb-Defusing Prototype at Stanford Robot Block Party

The fundamental technology behind the da Vinci Surgical System was originally developed at SRI International, and it's not like they've been sitting around building thumb-twiddling robots since then. Well, not entirely, anyway. This is Taurus, a little manipulator robot that was unveiled to the public for the first time at the National Robotics Week Robot Block Party at Stanford's VAIL automotive research lab.

When I say Taurus is little, it's because the robot was specifically designed to fold itself into a box shape that's a mere 14" wide and 5" tall [36 cm wide and 13 cm tall]. It needs to be so compact because of what its job is: Taurus is meant to be shoved into small spaces in vehicles to detect and defeat vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. It doesn't have wheels or legs or anything like that; instead, it's intended to be mounted directly onto the robotic arm of a Talon or a PackBot, which is an innovative way to go.

This approach makes a lot of sense, because as we've seen, bomb disposal robots aren't always the most, er, graceful of machines. And obviously, this can be a problem when you're working with high explosives. Using Taurus, a bomb disposal technician can see whatever they need to see in high definition 3D, and using haptic feedback gloves, clip the red wire (or the blue wire! no! the red wire!) while remaining at a safe distance. This system works well enough that users even forget that they're working via a robot.

Taurus is a prototype in active development, and systems should be in the field as early as this summer, for a cheap enough price that they should be affordable for people besides the military.

Also on display was SRI's magical wall-climbing robot that manages to stick to anything you want it to stick to using static electricity. Its plastic and carbon tread can generate an electrostatic charge even in non-conductive materials, and the robot then sticks on in the same way that rubbing a balloon against your hair causes it to stick to your head. This works on surfaces that are smooth or rough or covered with dust, and SRI's robots are currently being used in Japan to inspect buildings.

[ SRI International ]

CITEC Unveils HECTOR, the Stick Insect Hexapod

HECTOR is the University of Bielefeld's newest robot, so new in fact that it doesn't even totally work yet, which both exciting and slightly disappointing at the same time. HECTOR stands for 'hexapod cognitive autonomously operating robot,' and it's based on everybody's favorite stick-like insect, a stick insect. It's got a lightweight but strong exoskeleton, along with six legs with innovative joint drive systems that are intended to work just as smoothly as muscles do:

Each of these highly integrated drives is equipped with all the necessary sensors, the complete control electronics with its own processor as well as a sensorised elastic coupling for which a patent has been applied. This makes it possible to control each of the 18 leg joints on the basis of biologically inspired control algorithms and, for example, react by yielding during collisions or interactions with human beings.

An interdisciplinary partnership between a group researching the mechatronics of biomimetic actuators and the Department of Biological Cybernetics, HECTOR still has a ways to go before it's autonomously skittering around. That said, the tricky bits, the legs, look to be at least in the functional prototype stage, as you can see in the vid:

When completed, HECTOR will be one meter long and able to carry payloads of up to 30kg, including customized interchangeable sensor systems.


Finally, a Robot That Can Punch You in the Face

I guess not being punched is just not good enough for some people, so an Australian structural engineer named Kris Tressider has built himself a robot to fight with. It may be powered by windshield wiper motors, but in no way stops it from flailing about in a threatening manner. See for yourself: 

The robot can be adjusted in innumerable different ways, and it's not just repeating the same motions over again: it randomly throws both jabs and hooks at different speeds and from slightly different directions. And there's also this:

"A third electric motor can then be engaged via an opposing cam cable device to become berserk."


An indestructible punching robot with a berserk mode. What, besides a major motion picture, could possibly go wrong?

Kris hopes to turn Punching Pro into an actual product that you can buy and hide in the closet of whoever needs a good old-fashioned throttling; the target price is somewhere just under $1,000.

[ Punching Pro ] via [ Gizmag ]

X-47B Robot Aircraft Will Do It All With a Mouse Click

All those Predators and Reapers flying around in Afghanistan and elsewhere may be called "unmanned drones," but they're human-in-the-loop systems, reliant (more or less) on a human pilot in a trailer somewhere. While they often have the capacity to return to a specific point if contact is lost, it doesn't always go well, and sometimes it goes very badly.

The Navy is looking to give their X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) much more autonomous capability, to the point where the aircraft is entirely controllable with mouse clicks, even by someone who has no idea how to fly a plane:

Put the phrase “remotely piloted” out of your mind, says Janis Pamiljans, a Northrop vice president who handles the company’s Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) portfolio. When it gets on board an aircraft carrier, it’s going to be controlled by a “mouse click,” Pamiljans says. The click of a mouse will turn on the engines. Another will get it to taxi. Keep clicking, and the plane will “take off and come home.”

Autonomous capability won't just make the UCAS easier to use, it'll also make it much more reliable, by being able to take advantage of skills like these that no human can possibly hope to match.

By 2014, the robotic aircraft will be all checked out on carrier landings and mid-air refueling. Although it's specifically designed for combat (with a stealthy profile and 2000 kg weapons payload), Northrop isn't committing itself as to whether the 100% autonomous flights will also include 100% autonomous weapon releases. That kind of thing tends to make people awfully nervous, but really, it's not significantly different than launching a cruise missile, which is itself an armed flying robot, albeit a slightly more suicidal one.

The X-47B had its first flight in February, and has apparently had enough time since then to turn the event into a passably hip music video:

[ X-47B ] Via [ Danger Room ]

Boy Scouts Get New Robotics Merit Badge

The Boy Scouts have been around for long enough that they still have merit badges for things like basket weaving, but as a forward-looking organization, they've adapted by dropping (say) the rabbit raising badge and implementing badges for slightly more relevant skills like, you guessed it, robotics! The new robotics merit badge, pictured above, will be awarded to scouts who design, build, and demonstrate a robot of their own creation.

Ken Berry, assistant director of the Science and Engineering Education Center at the University of Texas at Dallas, helped make the badge possible, and expects at least 10,000 scouts (out of the 2.7 million scouts in the US) to qualify for the badge next year. 

"There's a low floor and a high ceiling with regard to robotics," [Berry] said. "It's very easy to get into, and you can go a long, long way."

While that's true in principle, I don't necessarily agree in practice. Since robotics isn't generally taught in elementary and middle school, or even high school here in the U.S., it can be a tough thing to get an introduction to, and even tougher to find a support system for. That's why it's especially good for an organization like the Boy Scouts to step up and tackle robotics head-on with a sexy new merit badge featuring one of our favorite Mars rovers, as long as they're prepared to back it up with resources when necessary.

[ NASA ] via [ NPR ]

Next Weekend: RoboGames

If you're within 20,000 kilometers* of San Mateo, you owe it to yourself, your parents, your kids, and everyone else you know to come to RoboGames. I mean, let's face it, if you're reading this blog you have at least a passing interest in robots, and if you have at least a passing interest in robots, how could you not have a fantastic time at what is officially the world's largest robot competition. And besides, RoboGames this year will be hosted by Mythbuster extraordinaire Grant Imahara, who knows a thing or two about robots himself.

This year, you can expect to see 600 competitors and their robots participating in nearly 70 different events, from bot hockey to MechWars to autonomous firefighting to heavyweight combat between 220-pound juggernauts. And there will be a lot of heavyweight combat... Organizers are expecting approximately 3.4 tons of robots in that one single event, although they probably won't all be in the arena at once. Sad.

Also, uh, there will be some people giving talks. People like me. And you wouldn't want to miss your chance to see a robot blogger's embarrassed mumbling live, would you?

RoboGames runs April 15-17 in San Mateo, CA. And guess what? Through April 13, Spectrum readers can get 20% off the ticket price by going here and using coupon code "Spectrum."

[ RoboGames 2011 ]

*If you happen to be located approximately 1,700 km off the southeast coast of Madagascar, we'll cut you some slack this year. Otherwise, you're totally close enough to make it.

JPL Animation Shows Off New Mars Rover's Harrowing Travel Plan

This video shows how the Mars Science Laboratory rover (aka "Curiosity") is planning to get from here to the surface of Mars. Since MSL is too large for airbags and Mars doesn't have enough atmosphere for a parachute to do the whole job, the only option is a rocket-assisted landing. The "sky-crane" system in the video above has never been used for a mission before, and I can't even imagine how agonizing it's going to be waiting to find out whether everything went successfully when touchdown happens in August of 2012.

Boing Boing recently had the chance to send a photographer to JPL to check out the more or less completed rover before it's sent of to Florida next month to prepare for its November launch. Here are a couple of my favorite pics:

Check out that beastly robotic arm and the friendly looking head. So cute!

That, uh, fetchingly ample rear end contains a radioisotope thermal electric generator, which is capable of producing power for a minimum of 14 years, which means MSL should still be wandering around by the time humans make it to Mars to personally congratulate the robot on doing such a bang-up job.

Swing by Boing Boing for the rest of the set, taken by photographer Joseph Linaschke.

[ Mars Science Laboratory ]

More Video Craziness With da Vinci Surgical Robots

Ever wondered just how surgeons (and grad students) train on da Vinci surgical robots? Apparently, here's how it works:

It's worth mentioning, I think, that had a human not been in the loop here, the robot could almost certainly gotten that wishbone out much, much faster. In fact, I personally challenge robots everywhere to perform the fastest flawless game of Operation ever and post it on YouTube. Aaaaand, GO!

Travis over at Hizook found a couple more da Vinci robot vids, too:

If you're wondering what the point of these videos are, well, besides being funny, the da Vinci systems (and robotic-assisted surgeries in general) are gaining popularity mostly just because they're cool. Such surgeries aren't always better for patients; although the incisions are significantly smaller, robot-assisted surgeries can take up to twice as long as conventional surgeries. There's also the several thousand dollar premium that patients (or their insurance companies) pay. Still, it's hard to beat the appeal of being operated on by a robot, apparently:

But now, patient after patient was walking away. They did not want [conventional] surgery. They wanted surgery by a robot, controlled by a physician not necessarily even in the operating room, face buried in a console, working the robot’s arms with remote controls.

“Patients interview you,” said Dr. Cadeddu, a urologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. “They say: ‘Do you use the robot? O.K., well, thank you.’ ” And they leave.

But anyway, the point is that surgical robots are now sexy. They bring in business. And after you've just spent a couple million on your brand new surgical robot, more business is definitely what you're looking for, so putting up YouTube videos showcasing your new medical marvel is definitely a good idea.

Interview: iRobot's Colin Angle on Robotics Industry, Remote Presence Robots

colin angle irobot

At the InnoRobo conference in Lyon, France, last month, I got a chance to speak with Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot -- in a very candid interview about his view on the robotics industry, his vision for AVA, a new robot platform his company is developing, and how he sees things shaping up in the coming years.

Cool over function

In keeping with a presentation Colin gave earlier in the day, he started off our conversation with a discussion on how there have been hundreds of millions of dollars spent on making cool demos – but relatively little in the way of solving high value business needs.

To illustrate his point, he mentioned the incredible effort that has been undertaken on the development of humanoid robots. He calls this an exercise of “cool over utility." As he explained it, the challenge of having to build a system that supports the model of bipedal legs and actually executing walking and balancing has been a costly adventure. Even the most exciting systems often have a team of scientists walking behind them, and the systems have a mean-time to failure of about 45 minutes, with limited performance – all to the cost of millions of dollars.

Compare that to the iRobot Warrior, which Colin feels is the first practical human-sized robot ever designed. Handling drops of up to 6 meters [20 feet], it's able to carry payloads of over 90 kilograms [200 pounds] and navigate rough terrain to go where human-sized systems should go -- in other words, the Warrior shows you don't need bipedal systems to solves a high-value mobility problem.

irobot ava robotThoughts on remote presence

So, in keeping with my focus on remote presence systems, I steered the conversation to remote presence and how he saw their AVA prototype [photo right] potentially accomplishing this. Colin quite nicely broke down the problem and how AVA is an attempt to resolve the puzzle.

First and foremost, he wants to deliver an experience better than being there yourself -- regardless of the travel time. He wants to mimic "presence" in such a way that the experience for you (the pilot) is rich, deep, and intuitive. And keeping with many people in this space, he does not feel that remote-controlled webcams or the Cisco telepresence solutions are solving this.

To achieve ubiquitous remote presence, a remote controlled webcam is not effective since there is limited ability for the pilot to truly understand the environment. While a person could learn the environment over time (e.g., where the offices are, where the conference rooms are), wouldn't it be better to have the remote presence system know the entire layout and allow you to request the place to go and simply take you there? Cisco telepresence solutions are not effective in other cases simply due to the very nature of the systems themselves -- limited in freedom, tied down to a single location, and very limited in being able to represent you outside of the magic screen.

Colin's vision is the ability to have a surrogate "you" -- one that could, in any location, be able to be present and do things that you normally would do. Go to the room you wish to go, carry on a conversation outside of a room, be aware of who is around, where they are spatially and go to them with minimal effort.

How AVA fits in

Colin was amused that people thought the AVA was iRobot's effort into robotic telepresence -- he sees the AVA as a "generic platform" for supporting all of the robotic functions that are necessary for enabling remote presence that iRobot is known for (“Do what iRobot is great at”). For instance, as we discussed the functional components of AVA, he pointed out the various features that the robot platform supports:

  • Downward facing IR for cliff detection

  • Braking systems to ensure the system is not going to fall

  • Small physical footprint (on the order of a human) to ensure fast turning radius and strong stability

  • Bumpers and upward facing sonar for detection of objects that could potentially collar the head of the device

  • Two PrimeSense sensors to enable a better understanding of the world through 3D mapping both of the navigation environment (downward facing) and the environment in front (on the camera assembly)

  • A LIDAR component that he wants to reinvent to bring the cost down (most expensive piece of the system)

  • Control surfaces for participants to move the system without physically pushing the system (through the bumper pads on the neck) to improve management of the system

  • Telescoping neck (via lead-screw) to ensure a lower center of gravity for movement/motion while affording a variable height for engagement with participants either standing or seated

  • Positioning control for the neck/head component

  • Supports adding manipulators on the system through a rail mechanism on the back of the neck of the AVA

A platform for application development

Colin said that iRobot's primary focus is on the "robotic functions" for a "generic platform" -- to help others overcome the liability issues. iRobot has done a lot of work -- through their previous designs and their own operating system (AWARE2) -- to make as safe and reliable platforms as possible. Rather than trying to make a specific platform for remote presence, Colin said that it is iRobot's intent to build the platform and let developers/designers create a solid system.

I got somewhat confused here -- it sounded like he was suggesting that iRobot would not compete in the application development and would not build a system for specific purposes -- like remote presence. And, when I pressed, he clarified that iRobot would not get in the way of something like Pad-to-Internet-to-Pad communications (e.g., FaceTime, qik, Skype), but in terms of building a navigation interface (e.g., a web front-end for piloting the system) for the pilot to interface with AVA, iRobot might offer a solution. Like Apple, iRobot's solutions for various applications could sit alongside of any other third-party solutions -- enabling these developers to build a better interface/application that would interface as well with AWARE2 and control the AVA platform. Here's how he put it:

Yes, it is our intention to develop apps for AVA alongside other developers, as we need to, as you say, “prime the pump”. As we look at the way things are likely to play out, iRobot is committed to being best in the world at autonomy/navigation software, platforms, manipulation, and the integration of 3rd party hardware – while we aspire to be a one of many application developers.

But for remote presence, the idea of having a tablet with a camera and a large screen (like the Motorola Xoom or the iPad 2) connecting to the AWARE2 API would easily support the creation of a remote presence system and allow the developers to rapidly iterate versions. And with an extendable head and telescoping neck, the placement of the pilot's face would be an easy effort and allow for remote presence to potentially become true.

Other juicy bits

From other conversations, I learned that there are a number of the AVA prototypes out in the market space already -- in the midst of prototype development for various problems. I could see the vision Colin has allows for an augmented reality for the pilot -- being able to have a click-and-response action within the view of the remote presence system (e.g, open doors, tag people in a meeting, set vision points to track where people are and respond to them rapidly by turning the head). How this comes about will be an interesting exercise in the coming years.

This article appeared originally at Pilot Presence.

Sanford Dickert is a technologist and product manager focusing on the intersection of engineering, collaboration, and team dynamics. He's held numerous senior positions in engineering, product development, and digital marketing. He writes about remote presence systems at Pilot Presence.

Robots Play Soccer, Make Cereal at RoboCup German Open

The RoboCup German Open 2011 wrapped up last weekend, and we've got a couple video highlights to share from the event.

This first clip is from the RoboCup@Home competition, which aims to develop service and assistive robot technology that will eventually make its way into your home. Here, Dynamaid and Cosero, two robots from Team NimbRo at the University of Bonn, team up to autonomously to make breakfast (of a sort):

RoboCup is perhaps best know for soccer, and the Darmstadt Dribblers (we've been big fans for years) took first place in the Kidsize soccer competition, defending their 2010 title. The 3v3 fully autonomous matches feature thrills, spills, violence, dives, and unprecedented speed and skill... Those robots are as good or better at aiming for the corners than most humans I know. In the first half of the match, stick around until the very end to see some tricky ball-handling skills:

And in the second half, check out one of the bots go from left footed to right footed and score, and make sure to hang on until minute nine to witness the first ever successful goalkeeper save and throw in a regulation robot soccer match:

Remember, the goal of RoboCup is to field a team of human robots capable of defeating a world-class team of humans at full field soccer. Obviously, we're not there yet, but the magnitude of improvements that we've seen over just the last two or three years has me convinced that the 2050 target is, if anything, pessimistic.

[ RoboCup German Open ]

[ Team NimbRo ]

[ Darmstadt Dribblers ]



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

Erico Guizzo
New York, N.Y.
Senior Writer
Evan Ackerman
Berkeley, Calif.
Jason Falconer
Angelica Lim
Tokyo, Japan

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Automaton newsletter and get biweekly updates about robotics, automation, and AI, all delivered directly to your inbox.

Load More