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Robo-Air Blower Makes Ping-Pong Balls, Apples Defy Gravity

You might have seen this demo in a classroom or science museum: a jet of compressed air keeps a ball floating above the ground, seemingly defying gravity. Now a pair of grad students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have taken the trick to the next level. The result will blow your socks off.

Aaron Becker and Robert Sandheinrich, with help from professor Timothy Bretl, built a computer-controlled air jet system that can make spherical objects like ping-pong balls not only float in place but also move along complex trajectories -- even performing some acrobatic maneuvers like passing through wire loops. Their robotic air blower can also sort balls of different weights and precisely propel balls toward a target. And it can lift an apple and non-spherical objects like a water bottle. Did we mention it works great as a high-speed onion peeler?

The system consists of a gimbaled air jet with two degrees of freedom. The air jet is supplied up to 620 kPa through a DC motor-controlled valve. Stereo vision cameras track the objects, and a control algorithm uses the position data and a fluid dynamics model to adjust the air jet, varying its speed and direction to keep the object in equilibrium.

Making a plastic ball "levitate" using compressed air is an old trick (the fast moving air creates a low pressure zone around the ball that traps it), but the UIUC guys had to solve a number of hurdles in engineering their system. The design of the control system, in particular, was a big challenge because the dynamics of the air flow can exhibit chaotic behavior, which is hard to model, and also because adding more than one ball changes the flow field in complex ways. Still, the system can manipulate spheres of various sizes (12 to 97 mm in radius and 2.6 to 188 g in mass).

Now, what would you do with such a thing? The students, who presented their work at this year's IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems [full paper here], say that non-contact manipulation with an air jet could be used in applications that involve sorting small parts or handling flexible, delicate objects such as clothes, paper, and sliced fruit. Whether or not industry will adopt their invention, one thing is certain: they had a lot of fun building it.

Video: Aaron Becker and Robert Sandheinrich

Robot Manipulation Challenge: Clean Up Dining Table, Load Dishwasher

Robots with nimble hands already help us assemble cars, harvest fruits, and even disarm bombs. Now when will they be ready to assist us with another life-changing task: loading a dishwasher?

Nobody really knows. To find out, a group of roboticists is organizing the Mobile Manipulation Challenge, to take place at the 2010 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation. Research groups are invited to bring their robots to Anchorage, Alaska, next May to show their skills at moving around cluttered spaces and manipulating objects autonomously.

This is the third edition of the challenge. The first two were more in the format of open demonstrations. This time the tasks will be standardized. They were chosen to be complex and compelling: the robots will have to "clear up a room that has been used as a toddler's playground" (talk about clutter) and "clear a dining table and place all the dishes in a dishwasher tray."

To learn more about the challenge, I talked with Matei Ciocarlie, a researcher at Willow Garage who is helping organize the event.

Automaton: What is the goal of the Mobile Manipulation Challenge?

Matei Ciocarlie: First I want to emphasize that it is a challenge, not a competition. There won't be any winner or loser and no big fat prize will be awarded. This event is about sharing knowledge. The main objective is to assess the state of the art in mobile manipulation, which is a harder question than it seems. Everybody uses its platform in its own environment so it is hard to really understand where this complex field really is.

Automaton: The challenge brings up the theme of standardization, which many people in the robotics community believe is necessary to popularize personal robots. Where will standardization come from in robotics?

Ciocarlie: In terms of software, it is clear for me that it will come from open source, which is the whole idea behind our effort at Willow. In terms of hardware, standardization is desirable, but we have to be carefull not to adopt standards that will hinder creativity. We have to find the right balance, at the right time. It is still not clear for me if people will join the early winners to make de facto standards or if they'll come from something like an ISO or IEEE committee.

Automaton: What is so difficult in mobile manipulation?

Ciocarlie: In terms of challenges faced by the robots, I'll let the event answer the question. Speaking about mobile manipulation in general, I believe that the complexity and multi-disciplinary nature of the field requires us to share the work so we can move forward more rapidly than what we're doing right now. Achieving this kind of collaboration is a challenge that we have to solve. And finally, organizing the event is a challenge in itself. Bringing complex and heavy lab prototypes to Alaska is not easily done, and it shows the dedication of the participants to move towards robots that can leave the lab and advance towards industrialized products.

Automaton: Why is Willow Garage involved in the organization of this event?

Ciocarlie: Robotics is such a broad field, we need to share in order to reach a critical mass faster and see robots make their way out of the labs and factories. Sharing knowledge is ingrained in our philosophy at Willow. Being part of this event is one effort among others.

Automaton: Will we see one of your PR2 [photo above] driving around and picking up objects next May in Anchorage?

Ciocarlie: I can't tell definitely, the next months will. We're working hard towards that, and keeping our grippers crossed!

Samuel Bouchard is a co-founder of Robotiq in Quebec City.

Image: Willow Garage

ECCE Anthropomimetic Robot Copies Inner Structures of Human Body

A consortium of European robotics labs is developing a humanoid robot by copying not only the overall form of the human body but also its inner structures: bones, joints, muscles, and tendons. The goal of the ECCEROBOT project is to create an anthropomimetic robot whose body moves and interacts with the physical world in the same way our flesh bodies do. The researchers used thermoplastic polymer, elastic cords, and other soft, flexible materials to build the torso, arms, and hands.

One potential advantage, according to the researchers: shake hands with ECCE and it won't crush your bones.

The result is fascinating, if a bit creepy. The robot looks eerily organic, with parts that look like bone and muscle. The researchers say that humanoids built with metal parts and electric motors and actuators have limitations in the kinds of interactions they can have with humans and the environment. Indeed, they say, these limitations may affect their ability to perceive and "internalize" the world around them.

The big challenge now is devising methods for controlling such flexible (the technical term is compliant) robots. The researchers say there's a lot of work to do in terms of understanding intrinsic movement patterns and being able to model and control these movements. Once they make progress in that direction, their ultimate goal is to use the robot's human-like characteristics to explore human-like cognitive features.

The consortium, led by the University of Sussex (UK), includes Technische Universität München (Germany), Universität Zürich (Switzerland), Elektrotehnicki Fakultet Universitet u Beogradu (Serbia), and the Robot Studio (France).

The Amazing Androids of Hiroshi Ishiguro (Audio Slide Show)

To understand how the human mind works, Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro is building androids that look just like real people.

This slide show is part of our special report "Robots for Real."

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For Willow Garage, Robotics Is Personal (Audio Slide Show)

For Silicon Valley start-up Willow Garage, the future of personal robots is bright -- and open source.

This slide show is part of our special report "Robots for Real."

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MonoCopter Modeled After Maple Leaf

Researchers at the University of Maryland studied the aero-dynamics of a maple leaf and used their findings to create and optimize a high-performance Micro Air Vehicle. Early results show that this 2 DoF MAV can potentially outperform more complicated helicopter and ornithopter style MAVs.

The following video shows the most recent work, showing its high performance and controllability.

From the creators:

The culmination of 3.5 years of research has led to controllable monocopter that can autorotate like a maple seed (Acer diabolicum Blume) and fly like a helicopter (hover and forward flight). The vehicle, invented at the University of Maryland, Aerospace Engineering Autonomous Vehicle Laboratory and Alfred Gessow Rotorcraft Center, is the smallest and most capable to date as it meets most of the challenges set forth by DARPA's nano-air-vehicle program.

The extended video goes into much more detail, prototype history, and even a demonstration of autonomous control.

The Robowranglers From Texas (Audio Slide Show)

At the FIRST Robotics Competition, the defending champion Robowranglers team learns engineering -- and life -- lessons.

This slide show is part of our special report "Robots for Real."

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Power Line Inspection Robot Balances Like Tightrope Walker

First time I see a robot balancing on a high-voltage power line like a tightrope walker!

This robot, dubbed the Expliner, was created by Japanese start-up HiBot, which spun off from the laboratory of famed Tokyo Tech roboticist Shigeo Hirose (known for his incredible snakebots).

Check out the video below showing an operator remote controlling the robot and performing some acrobatic maneuvers on a high-voltage line. Talk about unstructured environment! Read the full Spectrum article here.

Video: HiBot

MIT's Shape-Shifting Robots (Audio Slide Show)

MIT researcher Daniela Rus wants to create self-reconfiguring robots that can change their shape -- and become anything.

This slide show is part of our special report "Robots for Real."

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