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Don't Worry, Doctor Robonaut Is Here to Help

Robots are notoriously horrible at being generalists. The most efficient and effective robots have been purpose-built to do one specific task very, very well. This is why we have Roombas and not Rosies, and it's why robotic telemedicine platforms look (and let's be honest here) kind of scary, all things considered.

But, at least part of the reason that humans (as a species) are so successful is that we are generalists. And our fantasy is to be able to create robots that are generalists too, able to bring that trademark robot intelligence and speed and precision to bear on whatever task we might require. This is certainly not the easiest route to take, but under some very specific circumstances, it might be the best one, which is why NASA's Robonaut is learning to be a doctor.

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TERMES Project Concludes, Insect Robots Declare Victory

In June of 2011, we introduced you to the TERMES Project from Harvard. Modeled after some of nature's most prolific and talented builders (at least, prolific and talented relative to their size), the TERMES robots are very simple, but are capable of working together to build relatively complex structures over time, using a simple set of rules that don't require any centralized command or control. The TERMES Project has now, after four years, come to a close, with a final update and a paper in Science.

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Video Friday: Shadow Hand, Table Tennis Death Match, and Happy Valentine's Day

Today is Valentine's Day in many countries around the world. For Valentine's Day, we're posting robot videos, because we love robots. And we know you love robots too, at least a little bit, or you wouldn't be here, right? RIGHT!

Also, you should all watch WALL-E again, because it's one of the greatest robot love stories ever told. Consider it the final required video for your Video Friday.

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NASA Testing Robots for Satellite Refueling Missions

The whole concept of servicing satellites in space is just so crazy that with the very rare exception of bajillion dollar pieces of hardware like Hubble, satellites just aren't designed to be repaired or refueled. They get put into orbit, they last until they run out of fuel or suffer some other sort of basic malfunction, and then they just get forgotten about, left to one of any number of depressing fates: orbiting the Earth until the end of time, de-orbiting whenever they feel like it onto hopefully not someone's head, or having a violently destructive close encounter with a fellow satellite resulting in a chain reaction of debris that will increase exponentially until low Earth orbit turns into a shell of pointy metallic confetti that's just as deadly as you'd expect pointy metallic confetti to be.

But what if we could service satellites, hmm? NASA's been taking small steps toward the giant leap of making that possible.

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Lockheed's Robotic Trucks Pass Real-World Military Convoy Test

A few weeks ago, we posted about the U.S. Army's plan to replace thousands of soldiers with robots as a way to increase efficiency by reducing the ratio of support personnel to combat troops. By cutting the size of a brigade by a quarter and filling the gap with robots specialized in logistics, the Army hopes to become safer, more versatile, and cheaper all at the same time. To be clear, this isn't about replacing front line soldiers with armed robots: it's about, say, replacing humans who drive supply trucks with robotic supply trucks that drive themselves, and Lockheed Martin has successfully demonstrated a working system that can retrofit human-driven military vehicles for autonomous operation.

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Myo Armband Provides Effortless Gesture Control of Robots, Anything Else

At ICRA last year, JPL presented a robotic control system called the BioSleeve, which is a sensor-packed bandage that wraps around your arm and lets you control robots with movements and gestures. It's essentially a gesture recognition system that works independently of any external sensors (like cameras or motion capture systems), meaning that you can use it in a variety of positions and in just about any location that you happen to be, like outside, or in space.

The problem with hardware like this is we all know that it's going to be a long long long long looong time before something that works in a lab at JPL finds its way onto our arms as consumers. But you know what? That's perfectly fine, because a Canadian startup called Thalmic Labs has its own wearable gesture sensing peripheral that's about to hit the consumer market, and we got to check it out last month at CES.

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Dyson Commits $8 Million to Robotics Lab, We Still Want a Vacuum

To quote an article that we wrote back in 2012, "Dyson has been working on a robot vacuum, for, like, ever." It's been a solid decade at the very least. The crazy part is that they already have a robotic vacuum: the DC06. In 2001 (one year before the very first Roomba), the $6,000 DC06 featured three onboard computers, 2,000 electronic components, 27 separate circuit boards, and 70 sensory devices. It was nuts. But James Dyson himself shut it down before a commercial release because of the cost (and weight), leaving us all wondering what they've been working on since then. We don't have an answer for you on that one, but it's gotta be a good sign that Dyson has just committed to investing $8 million in a robotics vision lab at Imperial College, London.

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Video Friday: Death Defying Vacuums, Tate After Dark, and Taranis Takes Flight

What's the craziest thing you've ever done with a robot vacuum? Personally, it's this, but LG gets some points for upping the risk beyond a few scratches from a taped-on butter knife. If that's not dangerous enough for you, we've also got a new robotic drone from Britain, and a quadcopter competition where you have to sign a waiver acknowledging the potential for death. Your death. Happy Video Friday!

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Who Is SCHAFT, the Robot Company Bought by Google and Winner of the DRC?

The DARPA Robotics Challenge held its inaugural competition last December, and by most accounts (including ours), it was a success. The DRC Trials drew huge public interest, and the teams and their robots performed surprisingly well. Overall, it was a big win for DARPA and for robotics as a whole, but without question, the biggest winner of all was SCHAFT, the Japanese company that utterly dominated the competition and that had been acquired by Google just months earlier. SCHAFT put on a nearly flawless performance, ending at the top spot with the most points and, we guess, leaving Andy Rubin (the Google executive leading its robotics program) with a big smile on his face. It also left many observers curious to learn more about the company, its origins, and its robot. So who is SCHAFT?

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Marsupial Robot Team Monitors Rivers From Water and Air

I know what you're thinking right now, because I was thinking it too as soon as I saw the phrase "marsupial robot team:" you're thinking about robot koalas. Or robot kangaroos. Or maybe robot wombats. As awesome as that would be, today you're going to have to make do with something only slightly less awesome, which is this duo of a robotic boat and a hexacopter that cooperate to collect data on rivers and lakes.

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Automaton

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

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

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