Automaton iconAutomaton

ZenRobotics Makes Recycling Robots, Epic Trailers About Recycling Robots

We were wondering the other day if robots could help us clean the planet before it becomes a pile of industrial waste, as depicted in the movie WALL-E. Finnish startup ZenRobotics thinks the answer is," yes."

ZenRobotics (which I'm going to hereafter type out as "Zen Robotics" 'cause it bugs me) wants you to know that they're serious about robot recycling. They're so serious, in fact, that they've created this trailer narrated by a guy with a really, really deep voice:

If you're still wondering what Zen Robotics does, then you obviously need to watch the trailer again, because who cares? They've got a trailer! But seriously (or as seriously as this company seems to get), it seems like they want to stick autonomous robots in between our trash cans and the landfill and use them to pick out recyclables. This is not a new idea, but what Zen Robotics looks to be offering is a modular system made completely from off-the-shelf parts that can replace human workers while doing a better job (thanks to advanced sensors) with higher uptime. It'll save money in the long run, and save the Earth (or whatever) in the longer run, so why not do it?

Also, the company's website invents a new robot-related tagline every time to click on something. So far, I've seen:

"ZenRobotics - Making robots feel funky"

"ZenRobotics - Well on its way to world domination"

"ZenRobotics - Bring us the soft cushions!"

Yeah, so having a slick and funny website doesn't necessarily mean that they're saving the future with recycling robots, but it doesn't mean that they're not, and either way, I'm amused.

[ ZenRobotics ] via [ Robot Living ]

Tweenbots Now on Kickstarter

It's been nearly two years since we first met Sam the Tweenbot. If you remember, Tweenbots are little robots that are designed to do two things: look cute, and drive in a straight line. They're released into the wilds of public places, where they rely entirely on the kindness of human strangers to get them to the destination that they have written on a flag. If somebody told me that people would be this kind to a helpless little robot, I wouldn't have believed them, but boy was I wrong... Just watch the video, and if you've seen it before, watch it again, because it'll make you smile:

Yes. I very much want one. And the good news is that thanks to Kickstarter, mass production of Tweenbots is a real possibility... Kacie Kinzer needs $35k to make it happen, mostly because the Tweenbots need custom-made motor assemblies. A mere $65 will get you your own Tweenbots kit when they become available, along with access to a website to help plan, track, and share its wanderings.

[ Tweenbots ]

[ Kickstarter ]

RoboGames 2011: Humanoids

RoboGames had about a dozen humanoid-only events this year, ranging from freestyle dance-offs to weight lifting to Kung-Fu. There was a whole cadre of Aldebaran Robotics' Naos strutting their stuff, as well as a multitude of custom-made robots, many of which were designed from the ground up specifically for competitions like RoboGames.

One of the highlights was Taylor Veltrop demonstrating his hybrid Kinect and Wii control system for humanoids. It's been fascinating to watch robot control systems evolve from Waldo-type master/slave hardware just a few years ago to a full body motion-capture system where someone can just jump in and have a robot (or two) mimic their every move. You'll see that in action in this video, along with footage of several other events and a gigantic just-for-fun humanoid robot rumble:

We're putting together more tasty footage from RoboGames, but if you need your fix in the meantime, Robots Dreams has a bunch of video on their YouTube channel.

[ RoboGames ]

Mystery Robot To Be Officially Unveiled May 11

UPDATE: Mystery robot revealed! Learn everything about it here.

At RoboGames last weekend, we got a sneak peak at that mysterious new robot that's been churning through the rumor mill for the last month or so. We can't tell you everything about it, not yet, but we can tell you SOME things... Enough things to subtly suggest that this robot could have a significant place in your home in the near future.

First, an exclusive teaser video:

Now, you should understand that this robot isn't designed to be a fancy, futuristic new platform. Really, it's fairly simple: it's got a beefy computer in the base, a big battery that lets it run for eight hours, an 8" touchscreen, and a bunch of USB expansion ports. And of course, it's open source, so you can write your own apps for it.

What makes this robot different is that it's 1.5 meters [5 feet] tall, which is tall enough for you to interact with naturally, and relative to other robots this size, and it's affordable for regular people without corporate funding or grant money -- think mid-range laptop in price. So just imagine all of those handy things that your computer can do for you right now, and then imagine how many other handy things your computer could do for you if it could move around and interact with its environment like this robot obviously can.

For the moment, you'll have to just have to keep using your imagination as to exactly what this robot will be capable of, but we'll have more details (all the details) for you on May 11th.

Earth Day: 5 Robots That Can Help Make the Planet Greener

planet earth day nasa

Today is Earth Day, and one of my coworkers was telling me about all the little things we can do to help preserve the beautiful place we all live in. That got me thinking, naturally, on things that robots could do to help preserve the planet. Let's not be disingenuous: robots, like all technologies, are not a panacea. More automation could mean less carbon emissions and less waste, but it could also mean the opposite -- it all depends on how we use it. Below I'm listing five robotic technologies that could potentially help to make the planet greener. If you have more robots to add to the list, or if you disagree that robots are Earth-friendly creations, leave a comment below.

1. Recycling robots. Waste is a huge problem all over the world, and many people do their share by separating plastic, paper, glass, and other trash, which is then collected, resorted, and (hopefully) recycled. To me it looks like a hugely inefficient process screaming for more automation. The only project I've heard of in this area is an Italian mobile robot called Dustbot [photo below], which picks up trash at people's homes and brings it to a recycling facility. It's cute, but just a prototype. If we don't want to end up in a landfill of a planet as depicted in WALL-E, we need much better recycling bots.

2. Telepresence robots. Air travel is responsible for a sizable fraction of the world's carbon emissions. It's also costly. That's why many corporations have reduced business trips and embraced videoconference meetings. Now there's another option: telepresence robots. The idea is simple: You embody a robot, controlled over the Net, that acts as your proxy at a remote location. And you can choose from many different types of body. You can be the skinny Anybots QB [video below], or the large-headed Willow Garage Texai, or you if you have US $200,000 to spare you can even get an android copy of yourself.

3. Harvesting robots. Agriculture has become highly industrialized and wasteful, with bad results for the environment and for us, who literally eat the fruits of this process. Could more automation improve this scenario? I don't know. I want to believe that robots could replace some of today's wasteful practices with more efficient ones that would save energy and fuel, cut down on fertilizers and pesticides, and as a result make crops more sustainable. (How harvesting robots would impact labor is another issue that only adds complexity to this problem.) Companies trying to bring robots into the field include Vision Robotics, which is developing an autonomous grape-vine pruner [video below], and Harvest Automation, which has created a small mobile robot that picks up and moves potted plants in nurseries.

3. Personal mobility vehicles. The greenest mode of transportation is -- you guessed it -- walking. But we can't walk everywhere, of course. At the same time, using a car to drive for short distances is very wasteful. That's why we need a way of going places that doesn't involve using our legs or our gas-guzzling automobiles. Enter the personal mobility vehicle -- a small machine designed to take a single person for short rides. The Segway was the first in this category, but unfortunately many cities banned it from the streets. We still think, though, that these vehicles will play an important role in reducing our dependence on cars (laws and pedestrians can't get in the way of the future!). Our favorite prototype? Take a look at Honda's futuristic unicycle called U3-X [video below].

5. Autonomous cars. As cool as machines like the U3-X above might be, commuting on a unicycle might not work for everyone. But if we're going to continue using cars, can we at least make them smarter? We're not just talking about driverless cars, vans, and even buses that researchers have recently demonstrated. Sure, these autonomous vehicles could in principle help us drive a bit more efficiently by finding the best routes and optimizing acceleration and braking of the vehicles. But we also need smarter cars that interact with each other and the road, so everyone moves along smoothly and safely. One example is the European project SARTRE [video below], which is studying whether autonomous convoys of vehicles improve safety and save fuel.

Image: NASA

This Begging Robot Can Have All My Money

Seriously, how could you walk past this adorable little robot and not give it everything you have in your pockets? This is DONA, an "Urban Donation Motivating Robot," which wanders around public spaces and proceeds to look cute until people give it money. 'Cause, you know, robots have to make ends meet too. And from the looks of it, it totally works:

Good thing DONA doesn't take credit cards over the internet, or I'd be flat broke right now.

[ Dona ] via [ Yanko ]

Robot Video Roundup

Here's a bunch of nifty robot vids that I haven't had a chance to post about yet, so I thought I'd toss 'em all up for you in bite-size format. Enjoy!

-Survivor Buddy

Like Taurus, Survivor Buddy (from Texas A&M and Stanford) is designed to augment existing robotic platforms to give them additional capabilities. Specifically, it's a little moving screen that can help make people who are trapped in uncomfortable places feel a little better without having to rely on the steely inhuman gaze of a rescue robot:

 -LEGO Sorting LEGO Delta Robots

While I'm a proponent of the big tub o' mixed up LEGO bricks, I recognize that sometimes organization can be important. And what better way to organize LEGO bricks than with a LEGO brick organizing robot made out of LEGO bricks?

Lots more info here.


PhillieBot was created by students at UPenn's GRASP Lab in a month and a half of spare time work. It's specifically designed to to lob a game-opening pitch at around 60 kph "to ensure safety," but such speeds are, well, kinda tame. I'd say, if you're gonna make a pitching robot, you might as well just give it a baseball cannon and impress the crowd, especially if the Philly Phanatic is attempting to catch the ball projectile.

The Philadelphia Enquirer has more.

-PR2 Solves a Rubik's Cube

Yes, we have seen many a robot solve a Rubik's Cube, but this is the University of Ulster's brand new PR2, so I think they deserve to show it off a bit:

Robotic Aerial Vehicle Captures Dramatic Footage of Fukushima Reactors

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

A robotic aerial vehicle hovering at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant has captured close-up video and photos that reveal the extent of the destruction in greater detail than previously seen.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the plant's operator, is using a T-Hawk [photo below], a remote operated flying machine created by U.S. firm Honeywell, to get a closer view of the severely damaged reactors.

honeywell t-hawk fukushima nuclear plant japan emergencyThe T-Hawk, known as a micro air vehicle, or MAV, uses a ducted-fan propulsion system that allows it to hover in place like a helicopter and fly into tight spaces where other aircraft can't go.

Last Friday, TEPCO workers, with assistance from Honeywell employees trained to pilot the T-Hawk, used the vehicle to survey the reactor buildings of Units 1, 3, and 4. TEPCO released the images the next day.

"What these images show is that the magnitude of the hydrogen explosions was incredible," said Stewart B. Minahan, executive director of operations for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group.

Minahan, who has 35 years of experience with boiling water reactors, say the images are "very clear," and although they don't provide any new insight into the disaster, they show details that he hadn't seen before.

One of the elements most clearly visible is a round yellow structure sitting on the operating floor of Unit 4. The structure, Minahan says, is the drywell dome, the top part of the reactor's containment structure. When a boiling water reactor is in refueling mode -- as it was the case with Unit 4 -- workers use a crane to remove the dome and place it over concrete blocks on the floor. It's also possible to see fuel-handling machines, used to move fuel from the reactor into spent fuel pools.

But he says no parts of the reactors themselves are visible. "In my opinion, it will be hard to see them," he says. "These buildings had multiple floors, which collapsed because of the explosions."

TEPCO has used manned helicopters, high-altitude drones, and ground robots to obtain images of the facility. But the T-Hawk, because pilots can hold it in place and use its camera to zoom in on features, is giving TEPCO a better look of damages in and around the buildings.

Developed as part of a DARPA project, the machine is currently used in Iraq and Afghanistan for surveillance, route planning, and other missions. It weighs in at 7.7 kilograms (17 pounds), and pilots can control it manually or set up autonomous flight paths from up to 9.6 kilometers (6 miles) away and for up to 40 minutes at a time.

Honeywell, based in Morris Township, N.J., said in a release that three of its employees have flown five missions so far, capturing hours of video and dozens of photos. There are two T-Hawk units flying in Fukushima and two as back-up. Honeywell said that, in addition to cameras, they are carrying radiation sensors, though TEPCO hasn't yet released any data from them.

Below, some of the images (all taken on April 15) made public:

Unit 3, roof of reactor buildingfukushima dai-ichi nuclear power plant emergency damage

Unit 4, upper side of spent fuel pool, reactor buildingfukushima dai-ichi nuclear power plant damage emergency

Unit 4, seashore side of reactor buildingfukushima dai-ichi nuclear power plant emergency damage

Unit 4, operation floor of reactor building 2
fukushima dai-ichi nuclear power plant damage emergency

Below, videos taken on April 15 [Editor's note: TEPCO says the videos show Units 1, 3, and 4, but they appear to show only Unit 4; the videos have no audio]:

This story was updated April 21.

Images: TEPCO; Honeywell. Videos: TEPCO


Videos of PackBot Robots Inside Fukushima Reactors Released
Wed, April 20, 2011

Blog Post: Tokyo Electric Power Co. has released multiple videos showing two iRobot PackBots navigating inside the dark, highly radioactive buildings

Robots Enter Fukushima Reactors, Detect High Radiation
Mon, April 18, 2011

Blog Post: Two iRobot PackBot robots have entered Unit 1 and Unit 3 and performed radioactivity measurements

Can Japan Send In Robots To Fix Troubled Nuclear Reactors?
Tue, March 22, 2011

Blog Post: It's too dangerous for humans to enter the Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear plant. Why not send in robots?

Robot Surveys Damaged Gymnasium Too Dangerous for Rescue Workers
Fri, March 25, 2011

Blog Post: Researchers used a remote-controlled robot to enter a partially collapsed building and assess damages


Videos of PackBot Robots Inside Fukushima Reactors Released

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency. For more details on how Fukushima Dai-1's nuclear reactors work and what has gone wrong so far, see our explainer and our timeline.

A few days ago, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the operator of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, sent iRobot PackBots into three reactor buildings at the complex. Now TEPCO has released multiple videos showing two PackBots navigating inside the dark, highly radioactive buildings.

It's quite a sight to watch the robots negotiating steps, rolling over debris, and pointing their cameras to sensors and other equipment inside the badly damaged buildings. In the first video below, you can see one of the robots using its manipulator arm to close a heavy door. The last video shows what appear to be sensor readings that reveal low oxygen levels and high radioactivity.

[Note: the videos have no audio.]

Videos: TEPCO


Robotic Drone Captures Dramatic Footage of Fukushima Destruction
Wed, April 20, 2011

Blog Post: Video and photos taken by a Honeywell T-Hawk micro air vehicle show damage with unprecedented detail

Robots Enter Fukushima Reactors, Detect High Radiation
Mon, April 18, 2011

Blog Post: Two iRobot PackBot ground robots have entered Unit 1 and Unit 3 of the Fukushima nuclear power plant and performed radioactivity measurements

Can Japan Send In Robots To Fix Troubled Nuclear Reactors?
Tue, March 22, 2011

Blog Post: It's too dangerous for humans to enter the Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear plant. Why not send in robots?

Robot Surveys Damaged Gymnasium Too Dangerous for Rescue Workers
Fri, March 25, 2011

Blog Post: Researchers used a remote-controlled robot to enter a partially collapsed building and assess damages

Bilibot Brings an Arm to the Affordable ROS Platform Party

Hot on the heels of Willow Garage's TurtleBot announcement comes news of the commercial availability of Garratt Gallagher's Bilibot ROS development platform that we heard about back in February. We've got some details on the final specs, which include:

  • An iRobot Create

  • A Kinect, modified to run off of a battery

  • All the mounting hardware, wiring and electronics needed to put it all together

  • A fairly beastly computer with a 3.1 GHz Intel i3 processor and 4 gigs of RAM

  • Ubuntu and ROS pre-installed

The biggest news is, as you may have noticed from the picture, the addition of a functional, powered arm (!). It has a one foot reach, and thanks to the inclusion of some actual geared motors (not servos), it can lift three pounds 17" into the air. Just imagine the possibilities...

Well, okay, so you'll have to imagine some possibilities besides grapes, but three pounds is an awful lot for such a little bot.

Now, you might think that TurtleBot and Bilibot are poised to duke it out in the affordable ROS platform arena, and while I for one would pay to see that actually happen, that's not the way it's going down. It's important to keep in mind that this isn't really a competition between the two robots, since ultimately, the goal is to make ROS and a physical, hackable ROS platform easily available to anyone who wants one to mess with. You can think of TurtleBot and Bilibot as different flavors of the same concept, and Garratt and Willow Garage have even been collaborating on some of the common software.

If you just can't wait another second, you can order an armed Bilibot right now for $1,200, which includes your choice of five colors plus custom engraving. This first batch is being more or less hand-built, so some bulk discounts will hopefully be appearing in the near future that might help bring that price down a bit. Either way, I'd say it's a pretty sweet deal, and we're all looking forward to seeing what's possible when clever people start doing clever things with this robot.

[ Bilibot Developer Edition ]

Thanks to Travis over at Hizook for the tip!



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