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Robot Seal Plays Basketball Better Than You

robot seal plays basketball

The furry creature above? No, it's not Paro, the Japanese therapeutic robot seal. This hoop-shooting mechatronic harp seal is a creation of Taiwanese roboticists at the Industrial Technology Research Institute. The thing is not really a fully-actuated robotic animal; it's more of a manipulator arm disguised as a stuffed plush seal, with its multi-fingered gripper freakishly sticking out of the creature's mouth, for added Uncanny Valley-esque creepiness

The researchers claim their robot can convert hoops 99 percent of the time, but keep in mind it's shooting a toy basketball at close range (the maximum distance in the experiment was 3 meters). Still, watching this bizarre bot in action is utterly entertaining.

Jwu-Sheng Hu and colleagues described their robot at the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, last October, where they presented the paper "A Ball-Throwing Robot with Visual Feedback."

It looks like a simple stunt, but there's a good deal of tech behind it. The robot uses a stereo vision system to compute the position of the hoop in three-dimensional space. Based on that position, an algorithm determines the angle and speed the robot needs to launch the ball to hit the target. After some calibration procedures, the robotic arm does the rest. Watch out, LeBron!

UPDATE: I incorrectly attributed this work to researchers at National Chiao-Tung University. The robot was actually built at Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute. National Chiao-Tung University collaborated in the project.

Image and video: Industrial Technology Research Institute

Boston Dynamics Building Fast-Running Robot Cheetah, New Agile Humanoid

boston dynamics cheetah robot
Computer model of Boston Dynamics' Cheetah robot galloping.

Boston Dynamics, best known for its BigDog bionic beast and other agile machines, is developing two new robots: one will be a super fast quadruped called Cheetah, which obviously should've been named BigCat; the other is a beautifully intricate, freakishly scary full-size humanoid called T-800 Atlas.

The Cheetah robot will have a flexible spine, an articulated head and neck, and possibly a tail. Think of BigDog, bur rather than a robot mule, Cheetah will be able to accelerate rapidly and make tight turns so it can "chase or evade," the company said in a statement.

In fact, Boston Dynamics says Cheetah will sprint "faster than any existing legged robot and faster than the fastest human runners." That's a bold claim. But seeing what the company has demonstrated with BigDog, we're excited to see this cybernetic cat stepping out of their lab.

The second robot Boston Dynamics is building, the humanoid Atlas, will have a torso, two arms and two legs, and will be capable of climbing and maneuvering in rough terrain. The robot will "sometimes walk upright as a biped, sometimes turning sideways to squeeze through narrow passages," and sometimes crawl, using its hands for extra support and balance. (I don't suppose they'll run the Cheetah running algorithms on it, or will they?)  

petman atlas boston dynamics humanoid
Atlas, a new humanoid robot that Boston Dynamics is developing, will rely on hardware built for another of the company's robots, Petman, shown here during initial assembly and testing.

Atlas will be based, in part, on Petman, an anthropomorphic robot Boston Dynamics developed for the U.S. Army. Until recently, only the robot's legs had been made public, but now the company has unveiled its full (well, headless) body [see photo above].

Atlas will be different from existing humanoids that use static techniques to control their movements, relying instead on a dynamic control approach, the company said. "Unlike Honda’s Asimo and most other humanoid robots you’ve seen, Atlas will walk like a man, using a heel-to-toe walking motion, long strides and dynamic transfer of weight on each step," said Rob Playter, the Atlas principal investigator and vice president of engineering at Boston Dynamics.

Another bold claim. So far we've seen that Boston Dynamics can make its Petman humanoid run -- and fast. But I still want to see it walking around in human spaces, negotiating obstacles on the floor, or keeping its balance when someone pokes it on the chest -- things that other humanoids, including, yes, Asimo, have demonstrated a long time ago.

The company says both robots will stand out for their use of dynamic agility, throwing or swinging their legs and arms to maintain balance and overcome obstacles. “For these programs to succeed we must develop robot hardware and software with the speed, flexibility and strength of athletes, and a more fundamental understanding of how legs work” said Marc Raibert, lead investigator of the Cheetah program and president of Boston Dynamics.

Boston Dynamics, based in Waltham, Mass., will develop the two robots as part of new contracts that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded the company. 

The company says that, in addition to military applications, Cheetah and Atlas could find uses in emergency response, firefighting, advanced agriculture, and vehicular travel in places that are inaccessible to conventional wheeled and tracked vehicles.

Images: Boston Dynamics

World's First Robot Marathon Ends With Great Finale

vstone humanoid robot marathon

Marathon runners require long hours of training, plenty of water, and an iron will. In the world's first bipedal robot marathon, the key ingredients seemed to be line-tracking algorithms, batteries, and lots of compressed air coolant.

The 42.195-kilometer race (the length of a real marathon) took place in Osaka, and a little humanoid robot called Robovie-PC was the big champion. It crossed the finish line on Saturday, after a grueling 54 hours, 57 minutes and 50.26 seconds -- more than two days running non-stop on the track. Only 1.73 seconds later, another contestant, Robovie-PC Lite, completed the race. The robot naming isn't a coincidence: The two robots were the submissions of Vstone robotics company, which organized the event with the city of Osaka.

It was an exciting ending. Watch:

What makes a winning robot? Team Vstone used line-tracking to navigate the track, taking advantage of the rule allowing autonomous navigation. The other four teams, including two student teams from Osaka Institute of Technology, patiently controlled their bots using game controller-like remotes. A dedicated human presence was also necessary to support the "runners": When batteries ran low, teams rushed in to swap them for fresh ones. Periodically, teams also needed to spray overheating motors with cans of cool, compressed air. Falling, however, was not a problem -- all robots had to be designed with an automatic "getting up" feature.

At an average speed of 0.7 km/h, the robots were about as exciting as watching a tortoise cross the Sahara. However, these endurance races highlight the requirements for long-running, autonomous robots. Robots -- that don't have their own dedicated pit crew -- need autonomous navigation, automatic recharging, and low-maintenance actuators. The bipedal aspect was also important; stairs and raised sidewalks are constant reminders that our world is designed for two-legged humans.

The Japanese government is aiming for robots to take care of their nation's aging population. But if we want robots to take care of us, instead of the other way around, we'll first need to see a robot marathon where no human intervention is required. So what we saw here were the first steps -- literally.

Image: Vstone Co.

Angelica Lim is a graduate student at the Okuno and Ogata Speech Media Processing Group at Kyoto University, Japan.

F16 Demolition Robot Cuts Through Concrete Like Butter

f16 stanley demolition robot

Need to destroy something? Get a F16. No, not that F16. The F16 demolition robot from Stanley Hydraulic Tools. Unveiled this month, this electrically-driven hydraulic monster comes with five different attachments: shear, breaker, grapple, drop hammer, and our favorite, a concrete-cracking claw. Sure, it's more of a remote-controlled shrunk excavator than a robot. But who cares? It can tear down walls and cut steel like butter. Can we bring this guy to RoboGames?

 Via [ ConstructionWeekOnline ]

Urban Robots Could Use Manholes to Navigate

GPS is generally the standard to which all other localization technologies are compared, and in most outdoor environments, it's hard to beat for accuracy, precision, and reliability. It's funny, then, that the times you need GPS the most (in places like downtown New York or San Francisco) usually end up being the times that GPS utterly fails due to tall buildings blocking out the sky.

Robots have this same problem, so researchers have been trying to find other ways that a robot can localize itself where GPS is intermittent. A common strategy is to use wheel odometers or inertial measurement units to "guess" where the robot has gotten to since its last external position fix, but accuracy still relies on landmarks to help correct for errors. So let's see, what are some things that are easy to find in urban environments and don't go anywhere? You probably weren't thinking "manhole covers," but yeah, it's manhole covers.

The reason manhole covers might be a good idea is because they have well-defined locations and because they're fairly large and made of metal they're pretty easy for a robot to spot, even if it's dark or rainy or snowy or whatever. With sensitive enough sensors, a robot could detect all the dents and wear that make each cover unique, and fix its position within inches. Sounds great, and it works in tests along with a database of pre-scanned manhole covers, except that generally, you tend to find manhole covers in the middle of the street, implying that a system like this would be best for autonomous cars as opposed to other robots that might not do as well running into traffic to determine their position.

And, yes, that's a picture of a manhole robot. That shoots manholes. Thank you, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

[ Abstract ] VIA [ New Scientist ]

Automaton Nominated for National Magazine Award

willow garage pr2 with ieee spectrum automaton tshirt
PR2 robot with Automaton t-shirt. Robots love Automaton. Automaton loves robots.

Good news, everyone! We're thrilled to report that Automaton is a finalist in this year's National Magazine Awards for Digital Media, aka the Digital Ellies. The Ellies are the magazine industry's answer to the Oscars -- but with more scruffy people with unstylish hair.

Automaton is in good company, with Salon, Sports Illustrated, Sunset, and Tablet as the other finalists in the blogging category. This means that robotics as a subject is competing with politics, sports, and food, which is what the other blogs cover. Thankfully, SI doesn't have a blog on swimsuit models!

Last year, our Robots for Real show was a finalist in the podcast category, so this marks the second year in a row that IEEE Spectrum has been recognized with a Digital Ellie nomination. The 2011 winners will be announced at the Digital Ellies ceremony in New York City on March 16. Fingers, human and robotic, crossed!

I just want to say thanks to you, our readers, and to all roboticists and their robots for keeping us inspired about the possibilities of science and engineering.

Image: Willow Garage

Hughes Mobot Gets Frisky With the Ladies in 1964

Need someone to zip up your dress? In 1964, the Hughes Mobot was there to help.

Hughes Aircraft's Mobot, aka Mobot the Magnificent Monster (seriously), was originally designed for the Atomic Energy Division of the Phillips Petroleum Company in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a remote manipulator.

A 150-meter [500-foot] cable led back to a control console, where a human operator could safely direct remote cleanup operations of radioactive material and other nasty stuff. Mobot had two manipulator arms along with two cameras, which are the things that look vaguely like water-cooled machine guns but aren't. Sad.

Reuben Hoggett, who maintains the awesome Cybernetic Zoo ("a history of cybernetic animals and early robots"), unveiled a trove of Mobot material, including the photos you see here.

Apparently, this degree of usefulness wasn't good enough for Life magazine, which decided that Mobot (and its delicate touch) would be better off helping women put on makeup and get dressed. Or is it undressed? Feel free to use your imagination on that one.

Images: Cybernetic Zoo

VIA [ Cybernetic Zoo ]

How Robonaut 2 Will Help Astronauts In Space

robonaut 2 nasa humanoid robot space shuttle ISS

Robonaut 2 is ready for lift-off!

Tomorrow is a huge day for robotkind. If all goes as planned, at 4:50 p.m. EST, the space shuttle Discovery will blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying aboard a crew of astronauts and also NASA's Robonaut 2, which will become the first humanoid robot in space.

The shuttle's destination is the International Space Station, ISS, where Robonaut 2 will become a permanent resident and work alongside humans as a robotic helper. Astronauts will mount the robot on a fixed pedestal inside one of the ISS labs and use it to perform tasks like flipping switches and holding tools.

robonaut 2 nasa space shuttle gm international space stationSo no, Robonaut won't be fixing meals for the human crew. The main goal is to find out how manipulation robots behave in space -- and also give crew members a second pair of hands. NASA hopes the experience will allow it to upgrade the robot in the future, so it would be able to support astronauts in more complex tasks, including repairs and scientific missions outside the ISS.

The robot can perform tasks autonomously or under remote control, or a mix of both, Nic Radford, the Robonaut deputy project manager, told us. Astronauts on the station will operate the robot using a laptop, he said, though it can also be "joysticked" and directly controlled from Earth, with a few seconds of delay.

Sending Robonaut to space is a great feat for NASA, but it raises the question: Is this another step in using robots to replace humans in space exploration? In my opinion, using teleoperated and semi-autonomous robots makes a lot of sense. Robotic explorers have already demonstrated that unmanned missions offer formidable rewards, with immensely smaller costs and risks than manned ones. Of course, NASA enjoys cheering for its robots, but it's quick to point out that robots are not a replacement for humans in space, but rather "companions that can carry out key supporting roles."

That might be the case for now, as robots still can't match human manipulation and other capabilities. But robots are catching up fast. One of Robonaut 2's key features is its dexterous, humanlike arms and hands. Each arm is about 80 cm [31 in] long and can hold 9 kg [20 lb] in Earth's gravity. Each hand has 12 degrees of freedom: 4 DOFs in the thumb, 3 DOFs in both the index and middle fingers, and 1 DOF in the other fingers. The fingers are articulated and driven by tendons, just like human hands, and Robonaut is able to use the same tools that human astronauts use.

NASA developed the robot in a joint project with General Motors. The goal was to build a robotic assistant that could work side by side with humans, whether they are astronauts in space or workers at GM manufacturing plants on Earth.

At the IEEE Humanoids conference last December, I spoke with GM researcher Muhammad E. Abdallah, who explained how Robonaut's hands work:

The Robonaut's hands work a bit differently than similar humanlike robot hands. Existing tendon-driven robotic fingers typically control their joints using tension controllers on each tendon. In other words, desired joint torques are translated into desired tendon tensions. The problem is that, in this approach, there's a coupling between the tendon and joint displacement that results in disturbances in the movement of the fingers. NASA and GM engineers solved the problem by implementing a joint-based torque control method. It decouples the tendon effects and is faster and more reliable than traditional methods.

The ability to control torque is important for Robonaut, and other humanoid robots, for that matter, because its hands will interact with unexpected objects or items slightly out of position. Industrial robots, by contrast, interact with known objects in well-defined spaces. Robonaut's hands mimic human hands in their ability to adapt to variation -- a capability that NASA demonstrated by having different people shake hands with the robot.

But the robot is more than just arms and hands, of course. Robonaut 2 weighs in at 150 kg [300 lbs] and if you're wondering, it has no legs -- it will remain stationary inside the ISS, although NASA researchers have been experimenting with robotic legs and wheels. Built primarily with aluminum with steel parts, it carries over 350 sensors and has a total of 42 degrees of freedom.

Behind its helmet visor are four visible light cameras: two provide stereo vision for the robot and remote operators, and two work as auxiliary cameras. A fifth infrared camera is housed in the mouth area for depth perception. Because the head is full of cameras, the robot's computer system -- 38 PowerPC processors -- are housed inside the torso. Or as NASA puts it, Robonaut 2 "thinks with its stomach -- literally." See this cool infographic that prepared:

Get a detailed look at Robonaut 2, NASA's first humanoid robot to fly to space, in this infographic.

In a second phase of the Robonaut project, at an undecided date, NASA will be making the unit mobile using a leg-type system, giving it the ability to move around inside the ISS. The third phase will feature a robot that will perform missions outside the space station. Robonaut is also a part of Project M, which wants to put a humanoid robot on the moon in 1,000 days -- beating Japan’s proposed goal of 2015.

For now, all eyes will be locked on the space shuttle at Cape Canaveral. It's been a long wait for this launch. And once Robonaut arrives at the ISS, it might take several months until astronauts unpack it and bring it to life. Still, I find the idea of a robot in space -- a staple of science fiction -- truly exciting. What do you think? Is this the beginning of a new era in robotic space exploration?

PS: Watch the "movie trailer" NASA prepared about the "new recruit."

Images: NASA; videos: IEEE Spectrum and NASA; infographic:

Robot Knifefish Can Swim In Any Direction

Bio-inspired robots are an awesome idea, since they take aspects that evolution has been refining for however many bajillions of years and put them into practice giving robots new capabilities. Northwestern University has created a robot called GhostBot modeled on the black ghost knifefish, which uses one single horizontal fin to propel itself forwards, backwards, and even straight up:

Pretty cool, right? Here's how it works:

Observations revealed that while the fish only uses one traveling wave along the fin during horizontal motion (forward or backward depending on the direction on the wave), while moving vertically it uses two waves. One of these moves from head to tail, and the other moves tail to head. The two waves collide and stop at the center of the fin.

The team then created a computer simulation that showed that when these “inward counterpropagating waves” are generated by the fin, horizontal thrust is canceled and the fluid motion generated by the two waves is funneled into a downward jet from the center of the fin, pushing the body up. The flow structure looks like a mushroom cloud with an inverted jet.

To get a sense of the potential of this kind of mobility system, check out a video of the actual fish:

That's a pretty impressive adaptation, if you ask me, and effectively puts conventional thrusters to shame.

[ Northwestern ] VIA [ Fast Company ]

Stochastic Robots Assemble and Disassemble Themselves

"Stochastic" is another way of saying random, and stochastic robots are robots that harness the powers of randomness to construct themselves. It's a fairly simple idea that can result in fairly complex objects: you've got some number of different modules, which can come together to form a robot. Instead of putting the modules together and building the robot directly, you instead just toss all of the modules and shake it really really hard. As the modules randomly run into each other, each is programed to latch on if it happens to bump into a module that it's supposed to be next to in the final design. And if you do this for long enough, eventually you'll end up with a fully assembled robot. Or that's the basic idea, anyway.

The following video demonstrates an interesting application of this concept. Along with lots of assembling modules come a few disassembling modules, whose job is to break up the assembled robots. This creates a system that's sort of a robotic chemical reaction, and by adjusting how long the disassembling bots take to recharge themselves, the overall number of functional robots can be controlled:

One application for these types of robots might be in the medical field, where building a robot inside someone's body could prove to be much more effective than building one outside. All you have to do is inject a bunch of little modules into the bloodstream, they'd randomly whirl about and run into each other and grab on where appropriate, and in a little bit you'd have your robot. You could even program the modules not to assemble themselves until they reached a certain place in the body, and while such precision might take a while (or a whole bunch of injections), the potential is there for extremely precise treatments and repairs.

[ Nils Napp ] VIA [ Autonomous Robots Blog ]



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

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