Intuitive Surgical is a California-based company that makes teleoperated robots for minimally invasive surgery. Using a remote haptic interface, a surgeon can perform surgery using the robotic interface while small end effectors do the actual work inside a patient across the room (or on another continent). These interfaces are incredible -- they give the operator a lot of feedback for accurate control, and at the same time filter out the slight shakiness inherent in even the most steady of human hands. Children's Hospital Boston has become one of the foremost users of the DaVinci robot, with a great overview here.
This video of one of the robots creating an origami crane really wowed me -- be sure to watch it all the way through for the last few seconds. It's a great demonstration of how capable this technology is.
As a side note (and a little bit of a plug), anyone attending the Boston FIRST Regional on March 7th will have a chance to operate a DaVinci robot (an incredible opportunity) and hear a short presentation by Dr. Hiep Nguyen, Children's head of robotic surgery.
The word "robot" originated from Karel Capek's 1921 play Rossum's Universal Robots, which details the very first robot uprising. Rather than refer to mechanical men, "robot" was derived from a Czech word that means, according to different sources, labor, drudgery, forced labor, or serf. Boston-area robot geeks have the opportunity to check out a performance of RUR through the end of this week, thanks to Flat Earth Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. Tickets are $15; check out the details.
As my editor puts it, "It doesn't seem very Earth-shattering, but I do love the phrase 'meat gripper'." So without further ado, here it is -- the Meat Gripper.
Applied Robotics, a maker of "robotic end-of-arm tooling and connectivity solutions" based in Glenville, N.Y., has just announced that its Meat Gripper has been approved and certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Designed to "handle all types of meat, fish, and cheese in various forms," this pneumatic meat-loving robot is fast: the gripper opens and closes in less than 65 milliseconds -- in the blink of an eye. And connected to an Adept Quattro s650 manipulator arm, it can handle over 100 pieces of meat per minute.
Now, after making their way into car assembly lines, semiconductor fabs, and Staples's warehouses, robots can take over meat-processing plants as well.
We've covered FIRST robotics extensively in the past, so we're of course excited to talk about "Lunacy", the 2009 FRC game. In celebration of the 40th anniversary of the lunar landing, the FIRST Game Design Committee has designed the playing field to use low-friction materials that simulate the low gravity of the moon. The students' 120lb robots must propel themselves around this field while towing a wheeled goal into which other robots and human players are trying to throw "moon rocks". This is all a recipe for bumps, collisions, and, well, lunacy. Check out the game animation below.
In addition to the game -- which is new every year -- teams are also navigating a new control system based on National Instruments cRIO architecture [previously]. The requirements for their drive train -- the use of low-friction wheels on a low-friction playing surface -- also present an exciting challenge for drive train design, as the systems used on past playing fields (usually carpet) don't really translate to "moon gravity." Teams are currently about halfway through their build seasons, about the time that they're firming up game-specific mechanism designs and building the basics of their chassis. Interested in the technical discussions that these talented high schoolers are having? Check out the unofficial FIRST forums, Chief Delphi.
In this month's issue of Spectrum, Sally Adee describes the Revolutionizing Prosthetics 2009 program, a "Manhattan Project" for prosthetic arms organized by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Here's an interesting excerpt:
But the most power-efficient arm in the world is no good if you canâ''t control it. So APL [Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory] partnered with RIC [Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago] to develop a groundbreaking technique for controlling a mechanical arm with an amputeeâ''s own nervous system.
Todd Kuiken, director of RICâ''s neural engineering center, created a portal to the nervous system by rewiring the shoulder. The procedure, called targeted muscle reinnervation surgery, redirects the residual nerve bundles that once connected the spinal cord to the 70 000 nerve fibers in the arm. After an amputation, these nerves remain in place, and they continue to workâ''they just arenâ''t connected to anything functional. The pectoral muscles also remain intact, but they too are no longer driving an arm. So Kuiken surgically threaded the residual nerves from their original locations into the chest, where they innervated, or grew into, an area of pectoral muscle slightly smaller than a compact disc.
Next, Kuiken taped electrodes over the chest patch, where they could pick up the electromagnetic signals from muscles and send them to paired electrodes inside the prosthesis. There, signal-processing algorithms could translate the signals into the userâ''s intended movements. With Kuikenâ''s surgery, amputees were able to control the DARPA prototype with their own muscles, as if it were an extension of their own flesh.
Then came an unexpected and very lucky break: the researchers found that the redirected nerves restored not only muscle function but also sensation. The skin on that patch had been rewired with the nerves from the arm and hand; therefore, the patients sensed a touch on their chests as if someone were touching their missing handsâ''even if it was just a tap. The Hopkins team exploited this discovery with a device called a tactor, built at Northwestern University. By placing the tactor on the chest next to the electrodes, they created a complete feedback loop. In the end, the combination of Kuikenâ''s complex rewiring scheme and the brainâ''s natural plasticity simulated a real armâ''s ability to sense touch, heat, and cold.
With the EU's focus on renewable energy, giant wind wheels, at times arranged in huge windfarms, other times in isolation, have been sprouting across the continent. With their enormous size (individual blades reach lengths of up to 60m!), airy heights, and typically remote (offshore) locations, regular inspection of the blades is a major headache.
Following a two and a half year research project researchers at Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation IFF have now unveiled a rope climbing robot which can independently inspect blades on all types of wind energy converters. The 16 DOF robot platform autonomously maneuvers up and down ropes lowered next to the blades. Its inspection system uses an infrared radiator to heat rotor blades in combination with a high-resolution thermal camera as well as an ultrasonic system to regularly monitor the rotor bladesâ'' condition and detect any external or internal signs of damage.
Unfortunately the press release does not mention projected costs for the robot nor when you can expect to see one on a wind turbine near you. Some technical information is available in a short project description (PDF).
iRobot has put up their own YouTube channel, which they are calling iTube -- which I think is a sadly generic Web2.0 name, but oh well. The implementation is much better: the channel is going to have both amusing videos of iRobot products in action and videos of iRobot employees making announcements and answering questions about their designs. (Though I must point out a disturbing lack of Roomba Cat on that channel) On the "amusing" side, I've been giggling for a while over the flying PackBot.
I'm imagining one of those engineers going back to HQ insisting, "As God as my witness, I thought PackBots could fly..."
I'll have my iRobot fangirl hat on this week, since iRobot is supposed to be launching (in the non-flying sense) a new home robots product at CES that starts tomorrow in Las Vegas. Stay tuned!
In a recent blog post we've asked if autonomous battlefield robots can behave more ethically than humans. But today's weaponized robots are not the only ones that raise ethical concerns. The development of miniature robots will soon allow surveillance to move out of the cyberspace, bringing privacy concerns to a new level.
A video released by the Air Force Research Laboratory and published via the Chicago Tribune now shows how the military envisions the future use of micro air vehicles (MAVs) for both, surveillance and direct attack missions using chemical or explosive payloads.
The video shows a swarm of MAVs being dropped out of a high flying airplane and then goes on to explain how the MAVs could be hidden in plain sight, for example disguised as flies or doves. It envisions MAVs forming sensor networks to enhance their sensing and operating capabilities, and harvesting their energy from the environment including power lines to extend their mission time indefinitely.
More and more colleges and universities are jumping on the robotics bandwagon, and Olin College of Engineering is doing its best to fight its way to the front. Olin, my alma mater, is a small undergraduate-only, innovative, young engineering school focused on project-based engineeering education, located near Boston, Massachusetts. And as several of the professors have realized, robotics projects are one of the best ways to provide hands-on design opportunities for mechanical, electrical, and software engineers alike. Olin has started up a thriving undergraduate research program in field and biomimetic robotics and some enterprising students have designed a robotics engineering curriculum to strengthen their education as roboticists. Read on after the jump for more information on the cool robots to be found in Olin's halls.
Olin College has three majors: electrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering, and general engineering. While both ECE and ME majors can be a path to the robotics industry -- I'm an ECE myself -- students can choose to concentrate within the general engineering degree. There are tracks for Engineering with a Computing concentration (similar to software engineering), Engineering with a Systems concentration (systems engineers are often well-suited to building robots), and lately, Engineering with a Robotics concentration. The Robotics concentration blends coursework in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and software engineering, along with an upper-level elective designed to get students an in-depth look at robotics. In the course, outside speakers are occasionally invited in to inform students of the latest happenings in industry and academia that are driving robotics research and development. The students spend two weeks at each of various modules -- computer vision, for example, and control systems -- then move on to a large final project throughout the second half of the semester. Later, throughout their senior year at Olin, students can choose one of the industry-sponsored capstone (SCOPE) projects that focuses on engineering; in the past, robotics projects have been sponsored by Draper Laboratory, John Deere, ROCONA, Vision Robotics, SAIC, and Boston Engineering. One SCOPE project was also a part of an entry into the DARPA Urban Challenge.
The Intelligent Vehicles Laboratory
The IVL is focused on field robotics. These robots are usually big, powerful, and sponsored by industry. Olin students and professors have been working on underwater robots, ocean surface robots, apple-picking robots, crop-spraying robots, tractor vision systems, and autonomous cars. The crop-spraying robot, for a company called ROCONA in California, is already in active use. Olin students built the electromechanical systems on MIT's DARPA Urban Challenge vehicle, which placed fourth in the final competition.
This shows a test of one of the early robotic snakes built to study the "gaits" that snakes use to move.
The Biomimetic Robotics Laboratory
Biomimetic: imitating nature. I'm pretty confident that the Biomimetic lab exists solely because professor Gill Pratt wanted a place to house his python (named Monty, of course). Regardless of how it was started, though, Monty inspired several models of robotic snakes, and the bio-inspired research has now expanded to bluefin tuna fish. Professor Pratt has also built a pair of robotic legs -- called M2 -- as part of a research project that spun out of MIT's Leg Lab.
Olin is a purely undergraduate institution, not a research university, so the amount of research (and number of grad students) is drastically different from what you might find at MIT or Stanford. However, every student working on robots and interacting with professors at Olin is an undergraduate, which is a truly unique opportunity you don't find at many schools. I'm personally impressed with the success and variety of research programs the professors have gotten running in just a few short years -- Olin has only been open since 2002, and when I graduated in 2006 there were only a handful of mostly non-working robots sitting and standing in a single classroom.