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ALSOK's advertising robot An9-PR

ALSOK's new advertising robot

ALSOK's new advertising robot An9-PR is going on sale today. The new robot is a step away from the Japanese company's core themes of "reducing the burden of security guards" and "responding to labor shortages due to the aging society with fewer children", however the new robot's features sound quite compelling.

A 360 degree electronic billboard and three LCD touch screens as well as a voice announcement system allow to advertise products. The robot is equipped with face recognition and wireless connectivity, which also allows it to communicate with mobile phones. It is aware of its location, which means it can send you suitable coupons and other information to your mobile phone when you meet it in the cereal aisle. The robot's hands are equipped with a FeliCa smart card reader, the de facto smart card standard in Japan, paving the way for many integrated online services including electronic money. Finally, the package also includes an easy information management system to quickly update all advertising features from a remote PC.

As we've pointed out in a previous post, telepresence robots may be the next big thing and ALSOK is not taking any chances: In addition to its advertising features, An9-PR also includes live remote video and voice communication, allowing it to double as a promoter for supermarket food sampling or as a security guard.

ALSOK's three year sales target for this new robot is 50 units. The standard price for your An9-PR is set at 10,436,000 yen ($110,000).

PS: An9-PR's brothers An9-RR and security robot D1 were released earlier this year (some video action here).

Therapeutic Robots Paro and Keepon Are Cute But Still Costly

Spectrum editor and producer Josh Romero just posted this entertaining video, "The Invasion of Cute, Therapeutic Robots," on two robots that are, well, cute and therapeutic. They are Paro, a robotic seal used to treat elderly patients with dementia, and Keepon, a yellow, rubbery robot that researchers have used to interact with autistic children.

It's amazing to see how much technology goes into these little creatures.

I wrote a story about Paro early this year. The robot, invented by Takanori Shibata, a researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, uses two 32-bit RISC processors, custom actuators, and a host of sound, light, temperature, and touch sensors. It also has some AI capabilities -- it learns its name over time and changes its behavior to maximize its petting opportunities. Oh, and it's got a pacifier-shaped recharger.

Keepon, created by Marek Michalowski, a robotics Phd student at Carnegie Mellon, and Hideki Kozima, currently a professor at Miyagi University, in Japan, uses two video cameras (eyes) and a microphone (nose) as sensors, and four motors are embedded on its base. It can be tele-operated by a therapist in another room, but can also run in an autonomous mode, bouncing along to music or sounds. The idea is researchers can monitor, track, and record the children's improvement.

Still, there's room for improvement in at least one area: their price tags. Josh reports.


Teaching Robots the Rules of War

In May, we posted about a group of researchers from Georgia Tech who have been working on an “ethical governor” for military robots. Dr. Ronald Arkin, director of Georgia Tech’s Mobile Robot Laboratory, was interviewed by H+ magazine on the subject, and we’ve got some choice excerpts below:

In his recent book, Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots, Dr. Arkin explores a number of complex real-world scenarios where robots with ethical governors would “do the right thing” — in consultation with humans on the battlefield. These scenarios include ROE and LOW adherence (Taliban and Iraq), discrimination (Korean DMZ), and proportionality and tactics (urban sniper).

Arkin’s “rules” end up altering Asimov’s rules to look more like these:

1. Engage and neutralize targets as combatants according to the ROE.
2. Return fire with fire proportionately.
3. Minimize collateral damage — intentionally minimize harm to noncombatants.
4. If uncertain, invoke tactical maneuvers to reassess combatant status.
5. Recognize surrender and hold POW until captured by human forces.

Dr. Arkin and his colleagues at Georgia Tech have developed a “proof-of-concept” prototype ethical governor. His software architecture is likely years away from use on the battlefield.

h+: Some researchers assert that no robots or AI systems will be able to discriminate between a combatant and an innocent, that this sensing ability currently just does not exist. Do you think this is just a short-term technology limitation? What such technological assumptions do you make in the design of your ethical governor?

RA: I agree this discrimination technology does not effectively exist today, nor is it intended that these systems should be fielded in current conflicts. These are for the so-called war after next, and the DoD would need to conduct extensive additional research in order to develop the accompanying technology to support the proof-of-concept work I have developed. But I don’t believe there is any fundamental scientific limitation to achieving the goal of these machines being able to discriminate better than humans can in the fog of war, again in tightly specified situations. This is the benchmark that I use, rather than perfection. But if that standard is achieved, it can succeed in reducing noncombatant casualties and thus is a goal worth pursuing in my estimation.

This is pretty much exactly what we were saying back in February when the media freak-out of the week was killer robots: in a nutshell, you can program a robot soldier just as well as, and in some cases more effectively than, a human soldier in specific combat situations. We can’t do it yet, but that’s why robots currently don’t have direct unsupervised control over their own weaponry.

h+: Do you envision robots ever disobeying military orders on the battlefield to “do the right thing?” If so, under what circumstances?

RA: Asimov originated the use of ethical restraint in robots many years ago and presented all the quandaries that it can generate. In our prototype ethical governor (and in the design itself) we do provide the robot with the right to refuse an order it deems unethical. It must provide some explanation as to why it has refused such an order. With some reluctance, we have engineered a human override capability into the system, but one which forces the operator to explicitly assume responsibility for any ethical infractions that might result as a consequence of such an override.

h+: Do you ever foresee a scenario where both sides in a conflict are strictly robotic?

RA: Not really. I view these unmanned systems as highly specialized assets that will be working alongside our troops, not directly replacing them. They will conduct specialized operations (for example, building clearing, counter sniper operations, and so forth) that will provide an asymmetric advantage to our war fighters. A human presence on the battlefield will be maintained, and some would argue that it must be so for a range of reasons.

See? There’s no reason to panic, some very smart people are working on this robot ethics issue, and it’s not even an issue yet. If you just take a step back and look at it logically, you realize that just like humans, robots can be taught to follow rules, obey regulations, and make ethical decisions… And they can probably do it more strictly, and reliably, than humans can.

You can read the rest of the interview at h+, and get Ronald Arkin’s book on the subject here.

[ h+ Magazine ] via [ Boing Boing ]

High Speed Robot Hands Easily Outpace Humans

Those baseball playing robots we watched in action on Monday utilize 1000 FPS cameras and high speed motors to duplicate (and improve upon) what humans can do. But the system is capable of much more than just baseball… This video showcases just some of the talents of these robots, and it’s clearly way beyond what we’re capable of in both speed and precision.

[ Ishikawa Komuro Lab ]

Robot Takes Place of Human Driver In Vehicle Misuse Test

flossie castrol robot motorcycleFlossie, the motorcycle robo-rider developed by lubricant maker Castrol, has been the subject of much blogosphere buzz -- and way too many Terminator jokes.

Now, Flossie, meet your car counterpart, Tony.

Well, Tony is not its actual name. The robot, by Anthony Best Dynamics in Wiltshire, England, is an in-vehicle system that can steer, accelerate, brake, and change gears. I think they call it SR30. I like Tony more.

anthony best dynamics abd steering control robotThe robot driver can automatically follow a GPS-defined route stored in its memory (try that humans) or be remote controlled by operators, a feature that should be helpful during the "vehicle misuse testing." 


Check out the videos below.

And if you haven't seen Flossie in action, the video is here.

Photos: Castrol (Flossie); Anthony Best Dynamics (SR30).

Robotic Arms Help Upgrade International Space Station

Canadarm 1

CANADIAN MUSCLE: The Space Shuttle Endeavour's robotic manipulator Canadarm 1 hands off a payload to the International Space Station (out of frame), which is also equipped with a mechanical arm, the Canadarm 2. A new ISS arm, Dextre, will become operational later this year. Photo: NASA (19 July 2009)

At a moment when the world is celebrating the historic lunar landing of Apollo 11, even the crew on the International Space Station found time to pay homage. But then, it’s back to work, as the astronauts continue with their busy schedule of construction and scientific work.

For the current mission, the astronauts count on a tireless partner: the robotic manipulator Canadarm 2. With space exploration at the center of earthlings’ attention, I thought it’d be great to learn more about this amazing space telemanipulator. And I couldn’t find a better person to talk to than Alexandre Grégoire-Rousseau, a mission planning engineer at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

The goal of the current mission is, among other things, to install two Japanese modules to the ISS. This process will take 16 days and involve three robots: the Canadarm 2 on the ISS, its older brother Canadarm 1 on the Space Shuttle, and an arm on Kibo, one of the Japanese modules. A true robotic ballet in outer space!

Those who have programmed robotic manipulators would have their brains tingling while hearing Grégoire-Rousseau describe how the arms work and all the challenges involved. Each mission requires that the planners prepare new control algorithms and trajectories for the different payloads.

“Every two-week mission takes two to three years to plan,” he says. “Fifty percent of our time is to define the actual mission scenario; the other 50 percent is to think about the what if’s.”

One interesting challenge is that, whereas industrial manipulators are bolted to factory floors that remain stationary, the Canadarm 2 is attached to the ISS, which floats in space. That means the dynamics of the arm is coupled with the ISS’s dynamics. Move the arm and conservation of momentum may cause the space station to move too. Grégoire-Rousseau says they haven’t had problems lately, because the ISS is getting heavier.

“Still,” he adds, “it is sometimes necessary to activate the gyros or in rarer cases the thrusters of the Station to maintain its attitude while the arm is moving around.”

The arm was originally designed for assembly tasks. But since it became operational, mission planners have come up other uses, such as positioning cameras for inspection or moving the astronauts around when they are out of the ISS. In fact, during the current mission, the Canadarm 2 will also be used to move an astronaut who has to replace electronic components on the ISS as part of an extra-vehicular walk.

Direct mechanical interactions between robots and humans is an area that receives a lot of attention from Grégoire-Rousseau’s team and other research labs on Earth. It’s a hot topic in robotics and presents many challenges related to control and safety. Just think that the ISS crew is maneuvering a 17.6 meter long manipulator … in free space. No need to say that a failure could have dramatic consequences up there.

To ensure flawlessness, astronauts plan a lot, train a lot, and operate very slowly to make sure that they have time to react. Many layers of safety wrap the operations. The arm can detect faults and stop its own operation, execute pre-planned parameterized trajectories, or follow joystick commands from the astronaut watching it on video displays from inside the ISS. Teams in Houston and at CSA’s headquarters near Montréal continuously monitor the telemetry information sent back to Earth.

But it seems that the best is still to come in terms of robotics and the ISS. Dextre, whose official name is the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, is a torso with two smaller arms that will be added at the end of the Canadarm 2. Dextre was assembled on site last spring, and it’s docked and tested, ready to come into action around October of this year. The main innovation in Dextre? It comes from the use of force-torque sensors, which will enable fine manipulation.

“Dextre could insert a DVD into a player”, Grégoire-Rousseau says. “Its capabilities will significantly reduce the number of necessary extra-vehicular astronaut walks.”

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

Astrobotic Technology Reveals Robot Design To Survive Moon's Extreme Heat

astrobotic rover

astrobotic rover

Exactly 40 years ago, a human-made artifact touched down on the moon. Today, a space technology company unveiled the machine they hope will replicate the feat.

Or at least the machine's latest version. Astrobotic Technology, in Pittsburgh, is developing a lunar robot, which they hope to put on the moon sometime in 2011.

Spectrum wrote about Astrobotic's efforts, led by famed Carnegie Mellon roboticist William "Red" Whittaker, in our Mars special issue. The article described how Red and his team plan to win the US $20 million Google Lunar X Prize by being the first to land a robot on the moon and beam back photos and video.

Their robot is going through several design iterations, and the version revealed today addresses a hot topic, so to speak: the robot's ability to survive the scorching temperatures of the moon's equator -- over 130 degrees Celsius at local noon.

How will it do that? David Gump, the company's president, explains:

The robot beats the heat by keeping a cool side aimed away from the Sun to radiate heat off to the black sky. It travels toward or away from the sun (generally east or west) without turning its radiator into the light. Only the solar cells on the hot side ever face the sun. The robot can travel north and south by tacking like a sailboat.


The fundamental innovation developed at Carnegie Mellon is the rover’s asymmetrical shape. On the cold side, there’s a flat radiator angled up to the black lunar sky as well as a vertical panel for the logos of the corporations sponsoring the expedition. On the hot side, a half-cone of solar cells generates ample electrical power to power the wheels, run the computers and energize the transmitter beaming back stereo HD video to Earth.

Pretty cool, uh?

Launch is scheduled for May 2011, and the robot is expected to explore the site of the Apollo 11 landing, which I'm sure will make for some exciting videos of flags, footsteps, and more. (By the way, if you're wondering, the Apollo 11 crew left before local noon, so Armstrong and Aldrin didn't have to worry about the extreme heat.)

Check out the photos above. Doesn't the side view look like a ... high-tech baby stoller?

Photos: Astrobotic Technology

Important Announcement: Flesh-eating Robot Does Not Actually Eat Flesh

We have previously established my disdain for hyped-up reporting of robotics that focus more on the apocalyptic implications of robots than on their actual applications. Imagine my excitement when I saw the headline "Upcoming Military Robot Could Feed On Dead Bodies" from Fox News last week, which quickly propagated throughout my email inbox and RSS feeds. (Fox News has since removed that article in favor of a revised one)

This stemmed from articles that covered two areas. One was the announcement by Robot Technology Inc and Cyclone Power Technologies of a military robot called EATR -- an admittedly ominous choice of acronym -- that is designed to be fueled by "biomass and other organic substances". The other was a quote from P.W. Singer in his recent book, Wired for War, that described organic fuel sources as "grass, broken wood, furniture, [and] dead bodies." When Popular Science combined these two pieces of information in one article, the organic matter hit the fan.

A drawing of EATR from its creator, Robot Technology Inc. Observe the large, gnashing jaws that will devour you without regard for your humanity. Personally, I'm terrified.


In response, Cyclone was forced to issue a second press release assuring people that the robot was only designed to consume plant matter, not dead bodies, to fuel itself.

Despite the far-reaching reports that this includes “human bodies,” the public can be assured that the engine Cyclone has developed to power the EATR runs on fuel no scarier than twigs, grass clippings and wood chips – small, plant-based items for which RTI’s robotic technology is designed to forage. ... “We completely understand the public’s concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission,” stated Harry Schoell, Cyclone’s CEO.

There's a lot more to be said about Singer's book and the way the media has received it -- usually in tandem with alarmist headlines -- but I'll leave it at this. I think it's shameful any technology company has to make a press release establishing that their product does NOT eat humans.


The New "Terminator" And The Most Recent Fears of Robot Uprising

The Droid Works Receives First SBIR for 'Indoor UAV' Research

droid works Last Februrary Helen Greiner, a co-founder of iRobot, launched a stealth startup company called The Droid Works. With only a skeleton website and very little information released, all she would say is that she planned to focus on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Speculation abounded. We here at Automaton guessed she'd be working on small or "micro" UAVs, given the dominance in the large UAV space by big defense companies who build things like the Predator and Reaper drones, as well as the prime opportunity to bring micro UAV research out of research labs. Turns out we were right!

Last week the National Science Foundation announced it had awarded a Small Business Innovation Research grant to the Droid Works to create technologies that will allow small UAVs to navigate inside buildings.

This technology, applied to emergency response situations, will save the lives of police officers, victims, and suspects. Emergency response teams have been slow to adopt unmanned systems to aid in hostage situations, search and rescue, fire fighting, and armed standoffs.

The full text of the award is here.

The SBIR is a great opportunity for Greiner's company; government research grants like this from organizations like the Office of Naval Research, DARPA, and the NSF have been the genesis of the majority of robotics companies on the East Coast and in Pittsburgh whether or not they're still in the military space now. The next generation of startups have begun to move away from the government SBIR model as venture funding availability has increased; look at recent non-military startups like Kiva SystemsHeartland Robotics, or Harvest Automation. However, the Droid Works is likely to stay in the military space, given Greiner's original involvement with the government and industrial side of iRobot, so this route makes a lot of sense for them.

But it is worth noting that some potential changes to the SBIR program being discussed this week in Congress may change the game for new companies. With changes in elgibility criteria, startups that might otherwise have relied on SBIRs to get going may find themselves having to seek other options.

Previously: Former iRobot Chair Launches Droid Works

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