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iRobot's Shape-Shifting Blob 'Bot Takes Its First Steps


This is by far one of the coolest and weirdest robot prototypes we at IEEE Spectrum have ever seen.

Meet iRobot's soft, shape-shifting robot blob. It rolls around and changes shape, and it will be able to squeeze through tiny cracks in a wall when the project is finished.

(Skip the first 1:50 minutes of the video above to see the blob in action.)

Researchers from iRobot and the University of Chicago discussed their palm-sized soft robot, known as a chemical robot, or chembot, at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems yesterday. It's "the first demonstration of a completely soft, mobile robot using jamming as an enabling technology," they write in a paper presented at the conference. 

The concept of "jamming skin enabled locomotion" is explained quite nicely in the video. The polymer used for the bot’s stretchy skin is off-the-shelf silicone two-part rubber.

By controlling the parts of the blob that "inflate," the researchers can make it roll.

The video shows the project as it was about a year ago. The current stage has a bit different design and is moving toward the ability to include sensors or even connect different blobs together, but those details are sketchy.

When asked about the usefulness of such a bot, iRobot researcher Annan Mozeika promptly answered, "to squeeze into small holes." And who wants to do that? DARPA, of course. End of questions.

Video: iRobot

Update: We corrected a typo above: silicon should be silicone -- hah!

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Researchers Developing Cockroach-Inspired Robots, Cheetah-Bots


When I think about robots, I don't automatically think of cockroaches. But the little creepy crawlies were featured in several presentations at yesterday's workshop on Biologically Inspired Robotics at the 2009 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, which officially begins today in St. Louis, Missouri.

Cockroaches in fact inspire designs for small walking, running, and crawling bots, which you can check out examples of at the website of the Center for Biologically Inspired Robotics Research at Case Western Reserve University. I learned more about roach anatomy and gaits than I ever thought I'd want to know.

The highlight (at least for me) was a debate between Case Western engineering professor Roger Quinn and Singapore's Nanyang Technological University professor K.H. Low about which cockroach was faster and smarter: the North American cockroach, or the Asian cockroach.

Low claimed the Asian cockroach was faster, since he could never catch one at home, while he caught them all the time during six years of study in Canada. Quinn begged to differ, and the ensuing discussion of roach biology entertained the laptop-bedecked crowd of about 50 for several minutes.

Unfortunately no live demonstrations could be had, but Quinn seemed excited about the possibility of a race.

Biologically inspired robotics is a hot topic at this conference, with one of 16 simultaneous tracks devoted to it, and several more touching on its themes. Other tracks will hit human-robot interaction, medical robots, legged robots, and underwater robots, to name just a few.

Sangbae Kim, an assistant professor at MIT and director of MIT’s Biomimetic Robotics Lab, is looking forward moving beyond cockroach-inspired design, and even past the gecko-inspired bots he worked on while at Stanford.

Kim's research at MIT is now focusing on "hyper dynamic locomotion." Translation? Cheetah-bot.

"You see so many robots everywhere," Kim says, "especially at conferences like these. But none of the robots can follow me, at walking speed, over rough terrain, or up stairs."

Kim thinks that kind of dynamic locomotion is "really limited still," and the robots that can crawl over rough terrain are small and often go slow. So he's aiming for a bigger, legged robot that could run fast, like a cheetah.

"Not necessarily over rough terrain," he says, "but over flat and also rough" spaces. And not necessarily even a cheetah, he says, not wanting to limit his goals. Squirrels, too, have highly dynamic behavior that allows them both to run fast and to climb, actions that can only be accomplished by two very different kinds of bots so far.

It's a good reminder that robots still can't do nearly the variety of tasks that humans and animals can. But presenters and exhibitors at this conference will set out to prove how much their robots can do.

Above is one of the videos presented today featuring a cockroach-like critter bot.

Hackers Can Use Your Robot to Cause You Harm

rovio consoleImagine purchasing a new Rovio robot. This wheeled mobile robot sports a webcam and can be accessed easily through the internet. Often these and other robots are bought as toys, used by the owners to check on their home during a vacation, perhaps for teleconferencing, or to check on an elderly loved one.

Now imagine a malevolent hacker from Russia or China, or your next door neighbor, or a even stalker gaining access to this robot. Now they have free access to your home, roving about checking to see if the owner is home, spying on your children, or perhaps taking embarrassing video of you or your family. What if the robot is commanded to break items in your home, hide your keys, or drive under the feet of granny to harm her? Millions of these robots have been sold, meaning they are quite ubiquitous and therefore prime targets of malicious hackers.

Researchers at the University of Washington recently studied the RoboSapien V2, the Rovio, and the Spykee and found quite a few easily exploitable security flaws. Although today's robots are relatively harmless and limited, it points out how security features are generally lacking in the design. Understandable, considering how cost is very much a key factor for a robot succeeding in the market place. Yet robots in the future will be stronger, more capable, and unfortunately perhaps even more exploitable.

Security was an afterthought for the design of the internet. It doesn't need to be for the coming robot revolution.

You can find a quick summary of the findings here:

And more details in the paper, "A Spotlight on Security and Privacy Risks with Future Household Robots: Attacks and Lessons" [PDF]:

Video: UCSD Robots Climb Stairs, Hop Like Pogo Stick

The robots developed by Thomas Bewley and his team at the Coordinated Robotics Lab at the University of Califonia, San Diego, may look rather simple at first. But it turns out these 'bots are capable of impressive acrobatic maneuvers.

The Switchblade rover can balance on the tip of its treads and climb stairs by flipping itself end-over-end. iHop balances itself by using its wheels as gyros and it can hop on its pogo-stick of a leg.

Check out the video below by Spectrum's Josh Romero, showing how the UCSD engineers are giving their robots new ways to move.


Boston Dynamics Demo Shows Robot Jumping Over Fence

Boston Dyanmics to Develop Two-legged Humanoid (And a New Hopping Robot in Their Spare Time)


Nissan's EPORO robot cars mimicking fish behavior

Nissan's Robot Car Demonstrator

One of the innovations featured at this year's CEATEC exhibition, running from October 6th to 10th at the Makuhari Messe just outside Tokyo, is a new robot car concept by Nissan. At 50cm in height and with a maximum speed of approximately 1.4km/h the EPORO robots can hardly be called car demonstrators, but the small robots moving in a group of 6 showcase some interesting technology.

Equipped with laser range finders and UWB communication the robots use a swarming algorithm similar to that observed in fish. While this is hardly new - computer simulations of such swarming behaviors have been conducted since the 80s - what's interesting is the implementation of a real demonstrator by a leading car manufacturer.

Like real fish, the EPORO only relies on relative positioning which would allow the necessary scalability for such a technology to be implemented in real cars.

While Nissan has not disclosed the exact algorithm, it is based on a basic shoaling algorithm, splitting the behaviour into three modules based on distance as illustrated in the right figure above:

- AREA 1: Collision Avoidance: Change traveling direction without colliding with other fish.
- AREA 2: Traveling Side-by-Side: Travel side-by-side with other fish while keeping a certain distance between each fish (to match the speed).
- AREA 3: Approaching: Gain closer proximity to other fish that are at a distance from them.

Nissan does not necessarily plan to commercialize the little robots themselves but aims at employing the underlying technology in their future vehicles by integrating it into their Safety Shield concept, aimed at supporting drivers in all situations from normal driving to the events following a collision.

Following an earlier prototype which could just avoid collisions last year and this year's announcement of the EPORO, it will be interesting to see Nissan's next step in moving these technologies towards commercialization.

Boston Dynamics Demo Shows Robot Jumping Over Fence

Several months ago we mentioned that Boston Dynamics had received a grant to work on a new version of the "Precision Urban Hopper", a small wheeled robot designed to hop over obstacles 40-60 times its size. Working with Sandia National Labs, they've created a demonstration platform using the hopping mechanism whose demo has been making its way around YouTube. But: why is this demonstration important? 



A lot of the coverage I've seen has mentioned that this could be a "PackBot killer" -- suggesting that it may compete with iRobot's highly successful millitary platform, or the similar Talon robot from QinetiQ. Though the platforms have a common shape, I don't think this is the interesting thing about this. The platform is designed specifically to demonstrate the hopping mechanism, and it carries no other payload -- no teleoperated arm to disarm IEDs, no weapons, none of the sensor payloads found on the iRobot and QinetiQ packages. What I think we'll see instead is the development of this mechanism for installation on platforms like PackBot -- or, more likely, SUGV -- and a similar version of the Talon. iRobot has always had videos showing PackBots that can be thrown through a window and be able to immedately start rolling around in a building. It seems like a natural extension of this is a SUGV that can hop up through a second-story window, right itself, and perform its mission.


Boston Dyanmics to Develop Two-legged Humanoid (And a New Hopping Robot in Their Spare Time)

Project Romeo: A new humanoid personal assistant robot

Robotics in Europe is historically linked to automation, which is why comparatively few projects focus on autonomous robots. Even fewer are working on humanoids. The three notable exceptions I'm familiar with are Pal Technology's REEM-B (Spain/United Arab Emirates), Justin (Germany/Italy) and Aldebaran's Nao (France).

Now a new European (or rather French) project led by Cap Digital (a coalition of companies, labs and institutions in Paris) aims to build a new humanoid robot. Project Romeo unites more than 12 partners including 5 companies, 7 national laboratories and the Foundation Voir et Entendre (Foundation for Vision and Hearing), with the goal to produce a first robot prototype by 2010 and a second, fully functional robot by 2011. The project's goals are ambitious: The robot should be able to assist the elderly and visually-challenged people at home using gesture and voice recognition. It should be able to manipulate daily objects including doors, dishes and keys, and it should be able to help a person get up in case of a fall.

For now little technical details have been released. Aldebaran, who has taken the technical lead of the project, has revealed that the robot will stand 1.2-1.5 meter (47-59 inches) high and will be a bipedal humanoid. In a recent interview with GetRobo, Rodolphe Gelin, the Head of Cooperative Projects at Aldebaran, also mentioned that the new robot will not use the Zero Moment Point (ZMP) algorithm which keeps most current humanoids stable. Instead, the project will develop a new algorithm that allows for a faster and more dynamic walk. Finally, in addition to gesture and voice recognition the robot will also allow for musical interaction: "We think this is a new and good way for people to interact with a robot because it is still very difficult to communicate with a robot with speech," said Gelin. "Of course, we will work on the dialogue but if you rely solely on dialogue you will always be disappointed." I'm not sure if I am ready to sing a song to a robot, but I'll admit that it's an interesting idea to explore.

For now nothing is known if there are plans for a project Juliette...

Robonica Offers A New Spin on Robotic Toys

Robotic toys have yet to really catch on; the excitement of an iPod playing robot, a surveillance robot, or a dancing robot tends to wear off pretty quickly. A new company called Robonica thinks there's a better way: introducing robotic toys as the means to playing a structured game.

Long the purview of companies like Wowwee, many robotic toys suffer from the "Christmas morning problem": they're exciting for a few minutes, but then the novelty wears off. Even new companies like Bossa Nova Robotics are set up for the same problem with their robots Prime-8 and Penbo (Prime-8 is a gorilla that farts; Penbo is a penguin that pops out a baby robopenguin. Nothing gendered about that AT ALL). While they're very fancy for toys, they aren't good at holding kids' attention spans.

Which is why I was intrigued when I heard that Robonica, a company based in South Africa with a commercial office in Massachusetts, was taking a different approach: releasing a set of robotic toys designed to allow the owner to compete in a structured game or competition.

Robonica was born out of frustration – frustration with the inability of the current generation of radio-controlled and robotic toys to provide any form of structured and interactive play, and frustration with the increasingly anti-social and intangible realities of video games.

On 28 September they'll be releasing Roboni-i, a 2-wheeled programmable robot that can not only wander around autonomously responding to stimuli -- roughly the capability of many Wowwee-type toys -- but can also become a playable virtual avatar in a structured MMO (massively multiplayer online) environment. The gaming structure can also be exported to local, in-person competitions and tournaments using the physical robots.



What's fascinating to me about this is that it's taking the best business models of video and tabletop games and combining them with these robotic toys that have a lot of potential but are lacking a true niche. Compare this to something like Dungeons and Dragons or Magic: The Gathering, or video games like World of Warcraft and Halo. The structured social and competitive network encourages gamers to buy the required "hardware" -- whether it's collectable cards or robots -- and makes it worth having. And no one can question the success of these MMO models.

Wowwee's Robosapien and Bossa Nova's Prime-8 do have "suggested" games and built-in communication capabilities with other robots in the line; in fact, Prime-8 is fundamentally not all that mechanically different from Roboni-i. But what they're lacking is an overarching game structure. There's a difference between saying your robot is capable of playing laser tag with other robots, versus marketing a robot as an avatar in a highly integrated virtual and real world infrastructure to play that laser tag.

Now, Robonica is really a pioneer in this realm, so it's easy to question whether or not people are actually willing to drop money on these little robots just to play a game made up by the vendor. Then again, in elementary school I was dropping embarassing amounts of money on small circular pieces of cardboard just to play a loosely structured game, so I can see a programmable robot being a far more attractive investment. Most other robotic toys are running between $50 and $100; Robonica hasn't released its pricing yet, but I'll be curious to see where they end. With the programmability and accessories for the gaming, I could easily see it falling closer to the $250 of a LEGO Mindstorm kit.

Attack of the Robot Bears

When designing a robot designed to interact with people in difficult environments, it is a real challenge to make the robot accessible and friendly to humans. Too humanoid and you run the risk of entering the Uncanny Valley; too mechanical, and it's not comforting at all. Two different companies, Vecna Robotics and Japan's RIKEN, have decided that teddy bear-like robots are the way to go.

The BEAR -- Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot -- has been around for a few years and has even put in some conference appearances, but I haven't seen it move before. Vecna -- who has also just won some funding for continued research on its robot -- recently released a video showing testing of the BEAR alongside computer animation of its intended battlefield role. But the BEAR is also designed to be capable of lifting humans, an application which Vecna says it would like to market to hospitals and nursing homes, where lifting patients is one of the most difficult and common problems encountered by healthcare staff.


By the way, Vecna has an entire YouTube channel, if you want to keep up with future BEAR videos.

The more recently announced robot is the RIBA -- Robot for Interactive Body Assistance. Developed jointly by a research lab and a company in Japan, the RIBA isn't designed for military applications like the BEAR, but does share the healthcare application and the teddy bear face. It can lift a 61kg (135 lbs), compared to the BEAR's theoretical 500 lbs.


RIBA, I think, has the "teddy bear" thing going on a little better than the BEAR robot does, but I'm not feeling too warm and fuzzy about either of them. Are comforting character faces the way to go? Should we try harder to make humanoid robots friendly-looking? Or is there a better direction go to?

Robot Pillow Makes Me Uncomfortable

I’m all for emotional support robots, especially soft and fluffy ones that look like baby seals. This robot pillow, though, goes a little too far. It’s called Funktionide, and was designed by Stefan Ulrich after a two month research project by our favorite German bio-inspired robotics company, Festo.

The “Funktionide” is an autarkic amorph object whose intention is to provide the user with a atmosphere of presence thus counteracting the feeling of loneliness.

Firstly, if this thing crawled into bed with me, it would cure my loneliness but probably not with a sense of what you’d call relief. Maybe, terror. And secondly, inventing words isn’t fair.

[ Funktionide ] via [ Eggshell Robotics ]

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