It always seems to surprise inventors when robot owners find themselves unusually attached to their 'bots. Here's a quick roundup of links on the subject...
Roombas fill an emotional vacuum for owners -- groan. The article talks about Roomba owners' relationships to their robots and how fond they become of them, a trend that "suggests there's a measure of public readiness to accept robots in the house" -- good news for any budding consumer roboticists out there.
PackBot on the front lines -- I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this before, and it is an older aticle, but I was reminded again at an event where Helen Greiner spoke earlier this week ... soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are considering their robots members of their teams, giving them names and wanting them fixed (even when obliterated by IEDs) instead of replaced.
And of course, Forecast: Sex and Marriage with Robots by 2050 -- this somewhat overplayed article is based on someone's PhD thesis, so take it with a grain of salt. I love the line that "the state of Massachusetts will be the first jurisdiction to legalize marriages with robots," though as a resident of that fine state, I would like to believe that has less to do with our politics than it does with the incredibly high density of robotics companies and research institutions just in the area.
the OmniTread serpentine robot. Borenstein thinks this could be a new way to find people in collapsed buildings or otherwise disaster areas. The snake configuration lets the robot slither through small holes as well as get over tall obstacles and across extreme terrain. Controlling one, however, requires more than a flute and a basket.
"We currently need three operators," Borenstein told New Scientist. "Each operator controls two joints of our six-joint OmniTread. Typically all joints need to be controlled at all times."
People already love their robots. People already have sex with robots. It’s no stretch of the imagination, therefore, to see humans falling in love with and marrying robots in a few decades, argues David Levy in his Ph.D thesis entitled “Intimate Relationships with Artificial Partners.” Levy explains that humans are already getting quite comfortable interacting with non-human objects, and when you examine the psychological reasons for both love and sex, there’s no real reason why they wouldn’t apply equally to human-human relationships as well as human-robot relationships. His thesis was based on some 450 papers on psychology, sexology, sociology, robotics, materials science, artificial intelligence, gender studies, and computer-human interaction. If the current trends in robot development continue (both in software and, uh, hardware), sooner or later you’re going to end up with a robot that looks and acts arguably just like a human. And even if it’s not just like a human, that may not make a substantial difference when it comes to relationships.
This is basically just what I argued in the article I wrote a few weeks ago about one of the Arse Elektronika talks I attended. It’s funny… A lot of readers were unhappy with the subject matter presented at Arse Elektronika. But when you repackage the concepts that the Arse Elektronika conference was about into an academic format like a Ph.D thesis, it somehow becomes legit. In a lot of ways, the porn industry is way ahead of the game, if for no other reason than they have substantial financial motivation to make sex with robots a mainstream reality. It’s going to happen to society at large at some point in the future, but it’s going to happen FIRST (probably sooner than you might think) in the porn industry, and that’s where we’re going to see the ethical issues initially emerge.
NASA today announced the recipients of their SBIR ("Small Business Innovation Research") grants, among which were quite a few robotics projects. Lots of them have to do with power sources or sensors, but one I found particularly interesting is the DC brushless motor that can withstand the harsh atmosphere of Venus. From the proposal:
Honeybee Robotics proposes development of high temperature scoop and joint; and continued development of an extreme temperature brushless DC motor and a resolver. All hardware will be demonstrated in simulated Venus surface conditions. During Phase I, a first-generation prototype BLDC motor and resolver were designed, built and tested in Venus-like conditions (460oC temperature, mostly CO2 gas environment). The Phase I tests demonstrated the feasibility of the design through verification that the motor and the resolver can operate at 460oC for an extended period of time. A further developed and optimized version of this motor and resolver could be used to actuate sample acquisition systems, robotic arms, and other devices outside of an environment-controlled landed platform on the surface of Venus.
460 deg C? For the non-metric among us, that's 860 deg F. Wow.
The rest of the robotics-related SBIR grants can be found here and here.
Even if you can't make it to the event, definitely check out the major itself. This is a really great new program built not only on what broad theoretical background roboticists will need to really make a difference, but on the practical, hands-on experience for students to prepare themselves for the workforce. (And both Erico and I are bigfans of that!)
An article in today's WaPo discusses some odd dragonflies seen in New York City recently, which some of the witnesses say look "large for dragonflies" and suspiciously mechanical. Speculation is that they're robotic bugs spying for the US government -- of course, there's other speculation that they're just plain dragonflies, too. Don't be misled by the photo in the article (reproduced here); that's a picture from a lab at Harvard.
But after all the apparent warnings for the tinfoil hat brigade, the article does a nice of highlighting some of the ongoing research into robotic insects. Here's an interesting bit:
In one approach, researchers funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are inserting computer chips into moth pupae -- the intermediate stage between a caterpillar and a flying adult -- and hatching them into healthy "cyborg moths."
The Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems project aims to create literal shutterbugs -- camera-toting insects whose nerves have grown into their internal silicon chip so that wranglers can control their activities. DARPA researchers are also raising cyborg beetles with power for various instruments to be generated by their muscles.
"You might recall that Gandalf the friendly wizard in the recent classic 'Lord of the Rings' used a moth to call in air support," DARPA program manager Amit Lal said at a symposium in August. Today, he said, "this science fiction vision is within the realm of reality."
For anyone in the Boston, Mass area, you might be interested in this event at MIT tomorrow (Wednesday) night, a session called "Robots: The Next Wave of the Robot Revolution" that will "explore the advancing robot invasion across all of those sectors." There's a panel of speakers from a few robotics companies, networking receptions, and recruiting (I'll be there representing Bluefin). There's a small registration fee, though it's free for students.
STriDER is a three-legged robot that walks by ... uh, well, the best way to understand its patent-pending "tripedal gait" is to watch the videos below. Basically the robot steps forward by swinging one leg between the other two while flipping over its top body and then doing the same with another leg and so forth. Wicked!
To learn more about the robot, Automaton went straight to the source: Dennis Hong [right], director of the Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa) at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, who leads the team developing STriDER (if you're wondering, that's short for Self-excited Tripedal Dynamic Experimental Robot).
Next, a Q&A with Hong on STriDER's development and applications, and also videos showing the robot's first step and hypotrochoid-based joint mechanism.
Automaton: I see STriDER is taking its first steps -- it looks very cool. When we'll see the robot walking around?
Hong: We now have two working prototypes. STriDER 1.0 was designed to only take a single step -- it was a prototype to study the passive dynamic motion of its single step gait. STriDER 2.0 is designed to be walking around, and it does. The body of STriDER 1.0 was too heavy with too many motors. The three abductor joints which align the two stance legs so that the swing leg can swing between them were controlled by three DC motors. This motion really is a single degree of freedom motion, thus theoretically they could be replaced with a single motor. In STriDER 2.0, we have developed an ingenious mechanism that utilizes an internal gear set with three pin-in-slot joints to replace the three motors with a single one, using a mathematical curve called the hypotrochoid curve. We are in the process of redesigning and remaking it using advanced carbon fiber composite materials.
Automaton: I think many people will wonder about this: Why three legs?
Hong: One of the problems of legged robots in general is the complexity of the mechanical design and the control of its many motors. Six legged hexapods or four legged quadrupeds have so many active joints (motors), controlling them and coordinating their motion is a challenge. On the other hand, two legged bipedal robots have less number of active joints (motors), but they are inherently unstable with only two legs. If you look at a camera tripod, it has three legs -- a statically stable structure with the minimum number of legs!
However, the problem of trying to walk with three legs is that, every time it takes a step, the legs will be entangled up. STriDER prevents this from happening by flipping its body 180 degrees every time it takes a step ("tripedal gait," patent pending).
The main benefits are:
* very energy efficient with its actuated passive dynamic motion
* tall by nature -- great for deploying sensors such as cameras. It can see above bushes etc.
* statically stable with three legs, unlike unstable bipedal robots -- think camera tripod
* Kinematically simpler and needs minimal control compared to other type of legged robots
* can change directions easily, simply by changing the sequence of the swing leg (a very unique property of STriDER)
Automaton: And what about applications?
Hong: STriDER is not being developed to perform manipulation tasks or for carrying payloads. Its purpose is for deploying sensors to difficult to access areas. Since STriDER is tall by nature (STriDER 1.0 is about 1.8 meters tall) it is great for deploying cameras, whereas most other autonomous robots (which often resemble a small remote controlled car) cannot see above bushes etc. STriDER is as tall as a human being. This is one of its main advantages over other type of robots.
Automaton: Now, I don't recall seeing anything that moves like that. What's the inspiration?
Hong: Interestingly, STriDER's walking gait is more closer to that of a human walking than most bipedal humanoid robots you see today which actually resemble humans. STriDER uses the concept of "actuated passive dynamics," which means that the swing leg simply swings between the two stance legs, not actively controlled nor actuated. The "control" is automatically done by design, utilizing the built-in dynamics of the system (with the right mass properties and dimensions). This is how we humans walk -- we do not actively control our knees when walking, we just let it swing.
So even though STriDER does not resemble any kind of biological organisms on earth, it is still truly a "biologically inspired" robot, where all the principles and physics of human walking can be applied. "Bio-inspiration" is not the same thing as "bio-mimicry." Bio-inspired robots does not have to resemble its biological counterpart in appearance, as long as it shares the same guiding principles of how it operates. STriDER is an excellent example of this.
What conferences can professional roboticists attend? How can a high school student in Des Moines get involved with a robotics team? What engineering camps can a middle schooler attend? The just-launched RobotEvents.com has put together calendars and directories of all the events your inner robot geek could possibly want to see. Alternatively, those seeking to promote their robotics-related organizations, competitions, and off-season events can advertise them (for a fee) on the site. This is a really nice way to bring all the cool stuff together in one place -- and check out the neat fundraising plan they recommend to teams trying to raise money!
The Futurist article, which includes a photo of an Omnibot carrying snacks to a smiling couple [right], makes for an entertaining read, saying at one point that "future robots will be complete home-entertainment centers, able to sing and dance and tell jokes..."
Well, unfortunately a future of pervasive snack-fetching, dancing robots roaming around the house is is not quite here yet. It appears that one big obstacle has been making the darned machines autonomous, capable of doing things -- entertaining the kids, loading the dishwasher, or whatever -- all by themselves.