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AR Drone Quadricopter Merges Augmented Reality and Robotics (Video)

There are plenty of flying robots out there (up there?) -- DIY drones, quadrotor squads, autonomous UAVs, and little robo-insectoids -- but Parrot's AR Drone is perhaps the first to combine robotics with the emerging, and heavily hyped up, field of augmented reality, or AR. The quadricopter vehicle carries two cameras and can stream video to an iPhone via Wi-Fi. On the phone, the live video is overlaid with flight controls and additional graphics for a variety of games. Watch the video above and then tell us: Would you buy one?

Robotics Startups Getting Good News

Though the past year has not been great for venture funding and many companies -- including robotics companies -- have been faced with serious financial challenges, the robotics startup community seems to be a bright spot, with many millions of dollars being poured into early-stage companies. These are just the ones I know of:

Heartland Robotics - Heartland, one of the recent iRobot spinoffs that's focusing on collaborative industrial robots, had an early Series A round in 2008 and a supplementary $7M round in the fall of 2009. They're backed by Jeff Bezos's personal investment fund as well as Charles River Ventures.

Harvest Automation - Harvest, known for a long time as "Q Robotics," also includes some iRobot alumni. As you may recall, they're building small robots that help move potted plants around massive commercial nurseries. A few weeks ago they announced a successful $4M Series A round with funding both from Life Sciences Partners and MidPoint Food & Ag fund LP, which, in stark contrast to historical robotics investors, focuses primarily on agricultural companies. It's interesting to see venture funding for robotics start to move to these industry-specific investors.

iWalk -- We discussed iWalk, Hugh Herr's MIT Media Lab spinoff that's designing robotic prosthetic devices, in September when they received their $21M series B funding from General Catalyst Partners.

CyPhy Works -- the iRobot spinoff (previously The Droid Works) has continued in the proud tradition of most of Massachusett's robotics companies, relying on government SBIRs to build up their company. CyPhy Works got a piece of last year's economic stimulus package for some navigation system work and in December won a $2.4M grant to develop small tethered UAVs for bridge and building inspection.

CasePick Systems --  CasePick is an interesting one. Located just outside of Boston, they've been pretty quiet and stealthy, but through rumor mills and recruiters I've managed to put together some pieces. They're doing warehouse automation, in the realm of their neighbor to the north Kiva Systems, but rather than focus on delivering racks, they're moving around massive cases of product in distribution centers. Rather than venture funding they have a single investor -- who I don't know -- who has put a massive amount of money toward CasePick so that they can solve their warehouse logistic problems.

Cardiorobotics -- because the only thing scarier than open heart surgery is snakes, the Pittsburgh-based company has decided to combine the two, developing a snake-like robot called the CardioARM for minimally invasive heart surgery. This earned them an $11.6M Series A round, announced yesterday, from Eagle Ventures, The Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, and the Slater Technology Fund.

I've heard from founders of the first generation of robotics companies that finding venture funding in the 90s for technology like this was next to impossible. It was too risky; no one had proven that robots, outside of industrial manufacturing environments, were viable technology. One founder even recalled being turned down by a VC firm's intern -- they weren't even deemed important enough to meet with an actual partner. To see so much activity among robotics companies in what was otherwise a down year is pretty exciting.

FIRST Robotics Competition Inspires Next Generation Engineers

“I want supernerds everywhere!”

Thus spoke Woodie Flowers at this year’s kickoff of the FIRST robotics competition for high school students, on 9 January.

By now, over 1800 high school teams are already deep into planning—and probably already building—for their six-week robot design challenge. As I wrote in IEEE Spectrum’s online commentary about the kickoff event, it was exciting to be there after having participated in FIRST myself for three years of high school.

One thing was obvious: the 18-year-old FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competition is living up to its name: inspiration.

Flowers, who is the FIRST national advisor and pretty much a FIRST mascot as well, proudly reported during the kickoff that 10 percent of this year’s freshman class at MIT is made up of FIRST alums. Four FIRST alums who spoke at the event included a web developer, a NASA flight controller, a math and science teacher, and a representative from Engineers Without Borders, which works to bring clean water and other sustainable engineering projects to developing countries.  Most commented that they wouldn’t have thought about careers in engineering if not for joining their high school FIRST teams.

FIRST has in fact ballooned from hosting a single competition for high school kids to sponsoring projects for younger students as well, in the form of Lego Leagues (ages 9-14) and junior Lego Leagues (ages 6-9). These start kids out working with programmable Lego kits. In high school they can move on to the robotics competition (“the varsity sport for the mind,” as it’s advertised on the FIRST website) or a similar brain-stretching Tech Challenge, which is completed with smaller teams.

“I’ve talked about nerd pride, and nerd nouveau,” Flowers told thousands of students worldwide, via satellite feed, at the kickoff. Now, he said, it’s “supernerds.” In other words, ”people who know a lot about a lot, who think hard and creatively, who love continuing to learn. I want them in the hospital… designing legislation, serving society,” he said. Yes, he wants them everywhere.

I, for one, was inspired. And judging by the cheers from students, parents, teachers, and mentors, I wasn't the only one.

From our coverage of the kickoff:

[FIRST founder Dean] Kamen told students, "Ten years from now, you won't remember which robot won which event." But, he added, "one of those students will have done something that created a solution to a global problem, maybe because they were inspired by [FIRST]. That, the world will never forget."

I can attest to that, having graduated just over ten years ago. I don’t remember what our robot looked like, or even what it was supposed to do. I do remember my teammates and my mentors, the long nights at our sponsor company, Lennox, using power tools and designing electronics, even our team song (Tubthumping from Chumbawamba). My teammates are now engineers, doctors, and government employees, to name just a few. All are gracious professionals. Woodie Flowers would be proud.

Image courtesy of FIRST. Foreground Woodie Flowers; background Dean Kamen.

Parallel Link Robots: Manipulation Too Fast for the Eye

Last November the International Robot Exhibition (IREx) took place here in Tokyo, with more than 100,000 visitors coming to see the latest robotic creations by universities, research institutes, start-ups, and also the large, worldwide known industrial robot makers. The area of industrial robotics was very large, as usual, and apart from the choreography of massive assembly and welding robots, I was not expecting to see anything new. I was wrong! It turns I was quite amazed by the superfast parallel link manipulators presented there.

These manipulators, like the ABB IRB 360 shown in the video below, are able to move so fast and with such a degree of accuracy that it becomes difficult to follow them by eye. 


The features that impressed me the most were the links made of carbon fiber, to reduce inertia and increase operational speed, and the link mechanisms installed to control the orientation of the end-effector.

In the video above we can see the ABB IRB 360 operating with a high-speed vision system to collect parts and arrange them according to the colors, forming pre-defined patterns, rotating each part so that they be aligned.

The task of destroying the pattern and placing the parts randomly on the conveyor belt for the robot to assemble them, however, was still done by a human (not shown in the video). Some things are better left to humans...

UPDATE: The IRB 360 is also a skilled pancake handler!

IREx: Where Are the Humanoid Robots?

Once hailed as the future of robotics, humanoid robots were conspicuously absent from the International Robot Exhibition (IREx) in Tokyo last November. Only one booth still presented them as "the future," but without any practical uses. Apparently, some roboticists regard applications as part of "future work."

Humanoid robots for drilling holes and holding cases of nuts and bolts

Another booth, in the university area, had a humanoid secretary to greet their visitors. I was really scared, and only managed to take its picture after assuring myself that it was not a moving corpse, but only a practically unintelligible machine. With such a morbid "receptionist," I completely failed to pay attention to the other research on display at that booth!

Not your usual receptionist

One fresh look at humanoid robots was the cardboard robot, which does not intend to perform any task that is better done by humans. Instead, it is a cleverly-built structure made of layers of cardboard and servo motors, that functions as a mobile mannequin. Low cost is definitely one of its main features, and the fact that it is meant only to display clothes in shop windows allows it to be very lightweight.

Robotic mannequin

Finally, the humanoid that left the strongest impression was perhaps one that was supposed to play table tennis. It was modeled after an athletic human body, with well-defined muscles and even sunglasses!

Table tennis humanoid robot: motionless

Alas, in the four days of exhibition, I only saw the robot moving in the videos that the company was showing -- the robot moved quite violently to hit the ball with the paddle, which caused it to oscillate wildly, probably eliminating any chance of image processing with the mounted cameras to try to catch the next ball.

The fact that I was exhibiting another robot just across from this booth provided me with a vantage point to keep an eye on this bot. But on the stage it remained motionless, indifferent to the efforts of its exhibitors, who tried to get it to work. It was only in the last day that the robot finally moved, although in an unexpected way. It fell on the wooden stage with a loud thud, in front of many visitors, plunging like a big piece of ham.

During those four days, I could think of a few robotic mechanisms that might be able to play table tennis in a more reliable way, without the need to look like a human being. But maybe I'm just being too hard on these human-shaped bots, and some day one of them will prove me wrong ... in a table tennis match. What you think?

Photos: Paulo Debenest

4 Ways To Climb a Wall, Robot Edition (Video)


Spectrum has recently profiled Israeli roboticist Amir Shapiro, who develops bio-inspired robots at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Beersheba, Israel. I asked Shapiro if he had any videos of his wall-climbing bots. I'm glad I asked. He's just posted the clip above showing four of his creations: 1. A magnetic robot capable of climbing on metal surfaces; 2. A snail-inspired robot that secrets hot melt glue to stick to walls; 3. A robot that has 3M sticky tape on its wheels and can climb on smooth surfaces like a whiteboard or glass; 4. A four-legged wall bot that uses claws made of fishing hooks to climb rough surfaces like a cat or rodent. Fore more about Shapiro's work, visit his sites: and

National Instruments Introduces LabVIEW Package for Robotics Design

national instruments labview robotics starter kit

A long time ago in a galaxy far away, two friends and I -- all EE undergrads -- set out to transform an RC car into a line-following mobile robot. We wanted to control it remotely from a PC, where we could implement PID and various other controllers. It took us long nights in the lab writing C code, soldering digital potentiometers to the remote control, and tweaking the finicky analog video camera. In the end -- after major repairs following an incident in which the robot hit a lab bench and exploded into pieces -- the little bot worked, making three nerds very happy.

As I look back, over 10 years later, it was a lot of work for a simple bot, and I can only imagine what it takes to build much more complex robotic systems. Wouldn't it be nice if there existed a robotics development platform with a graphical interface and support to standard sensors and actuators? You could simply connect a set of blocks representing the robot’s parts on a screen, then concoct a control strategy, put the hardware together, and click "Run."

On Monday, National Instruments announced one such platform. It's called LabView Robotics. In addition to LabView, the popular data-acquisition application, the package includes a bunch of tools specific to robotics. It can import codes in various formats (C, C++, Matlab, VHDL), offers a library of drivers for a wide variety of sensors and actuators, and has modules for implementation of real-time and embedded hardware. NI says engineers could use the package to both design and run their robotic systems. 

Meghan Kerry, an academic product marketing engineer at NI, tells me that developing a relatively complex robot is becoming just too complicated, involving lots of software development, modeling and simulation, hardware integration, and so forth. "A roboticist needs to be an expert in all of those areas or manage a team of experts," she says. NI, she adds, wants to make design simpler and faster, so "a roboticist doesn’t have to spend time with things like developing drivers and can focus on the robot's algorithms and intelligence."

Now, I haven't tested LabView Robotics, so I don't have a detailed, first-hand review to report. The product is aimed at industry and academic users; a full license costs US $15,000, or you could get a $2,000 starter kit [photo above] that includes evaluation software, RIO hardware, sensors, motors, and other parts. What I find most interesting is the fact that the new package is an open platform, so users can easily share designs and code. If lots of people begin to do that, a huge resource for robotics projects could emerge. Bet you could even find a recipe for a line-following robot to be built in 15 minutes.

Photo: National Instruments

UPDATE: Here's a video showing some robots NI engineers have been testing:


Robot Babies Are Always A Mistake

diego-san baby robot

I know the following about these images: they come from the November 2009 edition of Kokoro News (which is in Japanese). The guy in the picture is Dr. Javier Movellan, and the robot next to him is “Diego-San.” They’re from the Machine Perception Laboratory at UCSD. Since I can’t read Japanese, I don’t know what this robot is for or why on Earth it has a gigantic baby head. I also don’t know why these pictures were included in the article:

diego-san baby robot

Look, we’ve been over this before… You don’t. Make. Robot. Babies. Humans are hardwired to respond in a particular way to other humans in general, but more specifically when it comes to babies, and we can instantly tell when something’s wrong and it’s like a punch to the gut. Like, it’s not just mildly creepy, it’s seriously #@$*%^ up.

diego-san baby robot

I’m quite sure that Diego-San is an incredible robot doing incredible research, and hopefully we’ll get more details on that, but seriously now, whoever put that head on there needs to get out of the lab a little more.

If anyone cares to translate the article and let us all know what’s going on with this thing, there’s a PDF at the read link below.

[ Kokoro News (PDF) ]
[ UCSD Machine Perception Laboratory ]

Neato Robotics Challenges iRobot (Update: CES Video)

Update (Jan 7, 2010): Added hands-on video from CES.

Out of nowhere last week, a very quiet Silicon Valley startup called Neato Robotics announced the official release of the XV-11, a robotic vacuum cleaner. Priced at $399 and officially for sale in February, the XV-11 is clearly positioned to bite off a chunk of the iRobot Roomba's marketshare.

I'm kind of kicking myself right now for not having paid more attention to these guys before. While researching Willow Garage a year or two ago, I came across Neato because of some overlap in the original technical contributors. However, their website, though it said they were working on home robots, gave no indication that they were on a serious commercial path any time in the near future. Now with a press release, fleshed out leadership team, and brand new website, Neato has come out with guns blazing. Color me pleasantly surprised.

Their leadership team includes a CEO who previously led mobile navigation development at Agilent, among other technologists and engineers with backgrounds that do include robotics. Some of the original team I had come across -- though it's unclear how many still remain -- had come out of the Stanford AI lab, which also spawned Willow Garage.


The oddly shaped XV-11 supposedly does better with corners than "traditional round robots", by which I wonder if they mean the Roomba


The biggest difference between the XV-11 and the Roomba is that the XV-11 actually maps the room it's cleaning using SLAM. Roomba, which uses something of a random walk algorithm for coverage, is very different (and this is often the biggest cause of confusion in users who wonder why Roomba keeps going over one spot but ignores others). To achieve accurate SLAM, XV-11 has an onboard laser rangefinder to build a map of its surroundings. This, by the way, is a big deal for hobbyists who will be looking for cheap navigation solutions.


How will it end up comparing? That remains to be seen; there are lots of questions about battery life, quality of the vacuum and sweeping system, and usability that have to be tried out. Hopefully we'll be able to give it a shot when it becomes available early next year. In the meantime, I'm excited to see how the first American-designed competitor to the Roomba pans out.

NRL's UAV Sets 26-Hour Flight Endurance Record

The Naval Research Laboratory of Washington, DC, reports that their Ion Tiger, a hydrogen-powered fuel cell UAV, has recently accomplished a 26 hour endurance test flight.

The Ion Tiger, as Automaton has reported in the past, is being used as a technology demonstration platform for their latest PEM fuel cell technology. It weighs approximately 37 pounds and carried a 5-pound payload during the test.

"NRL has now demonstrated that PEM fuel cell technology can meet or surpass the performance of traditional power systems, providing reliable, quiet operation and extremely high efficiency. Next steps will focus on increasing the power of the fuel cell to 1.5 kW, or 2 HP, to enable tactical flights and extending flight times to 3 days while powering tactical payloads."

Follow the link to the NRL press release for more information.

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