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Pre-DRC Finals Video Post: What to Expect from the World's Most Sophisticated Robots

We’ve been collecting DARPA Robotics Challenge-related videos for the last several months, and this post is an attempt to put a bunch of them together in a way that showcases the current state of the robots of the DRC Finals just before the competition starts. Looking through these will show you how capable many of the teams are right now (or within a few weeks or so), providing a metric for where your expectations should be for the competition itself. Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future results. But as you watch, these videos will give you an idea of what’s fast, what’s slow, what robots seem to be doing well, and what robots seem to be doing amazing.

Note that these videos are at least a week or two out of date, and they’re totally biased towards teams that have been, you know, actually posting videos on YouTube, so there might be robots that are doing equally well but you won’t see them here. Nonetheless, this is the best cross-section of pre-event capabilites we’ve got, and it should give you a pretty good sense of what to expect when the Finals kick off on Friday. 

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Lockheed Martin's Team TROOPER Sets Expectations for DRC Finals

With the DRC Finals kicking off this week, competing teams have been practicing hard to get their robots ready for competition. A few weeks ago, we visited Team TROOPER at Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Laboratories (or more accurately, a nameless and windowless building in an office park somewhere near Philadelphia) to see how they’ve been preparing for the DRC Finals, and what we came back with should give you a good sense of what to expect.

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Soft Actuators Go From Squishy to Stiff (and Back Again)

Soft actuators are appealing for robotics because they’re cheap (made out of plastics or polymers and air), inherent compliant and relatively safe for humans to interact with, and able to adapt themselves to grip a wide range of objects. Being soft does tend to make them by definition bad at being hard, so for those times when you need an actuator with some stiffness, well, that’s just too bad.

Or is it?

Researchers at Technische Universitat Berlin led by Professor Oliver Brock have combined soft pneumatic actuators with a jamming system that results in a variable-stiffness actuator that’s soft when you want and hard when you want.

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Robots Learn to Push Heavy Objects With Their Bodies, Just Like You

The payload of a robot is a well-defined number that usually refers to how much mass its actuators or mobility system can comfortably support. The payload of a human works in a similar way, except that sometimes we can cheat, by offloading the mass of an object to the ground, and moving it purely by overcoming friction and shoving it along. For very heavy objects, doing this involves using the weight and stability of our whole bodies as well as our muscles, and robots are learning to do this, too.

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Video Friday: Aerial Manipulator, Car-Removal Robot, Robotic Limbs, and More From ICRA 2015

All this week, we’ve been at ICRA in Seattle. A bunch of you are probably here too, and if you’re not, we’re sorry, because it’s awesome. The last few days we’ve bounced around as many different sessions as we can, and we have all kinds of amaaazing things to write about: what you’ve seen so far is just the start.

Try as we might, we can’t squeeze everything into its own article, so for Video Friday this week, we’re going to post a heaping stack of ICRA videos along with their accompanying abstracts. For you impatient types, we’ll return to normal Video Friday not next week (because it’ll be the first day of the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals), but the week after, if we’re still alive by then.

If you have any questions about these videos, let us know: we have access to all of the accompanying papers, and if we can’t answer your question ourselves, just about all of the authors will be within (non-creepy) grabbing distance for most of today.

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Self-Healing Actuators Make Breaking Your Robot No Big Deal

Robots tend to spend a lot of the time broken. This isn’t just because they break a lot (although they do break a lot), but also because they’re usually difficult and often expensive to fix quickly. Electronics in general is also difficult and expensive to fix, which is why we have fuses: sacrificial components that take one for the team when something goes wrong. At ICRA yesterday, we saw a similar idea intended to protect actuators from damage. This mechanical fuse takes things one step further, however, by being able to heal itself, making a broken robot just like new in a matter of hours.

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Origami Robot Folds Itself Up, Does Cool Stuff, Dissolves Into Nothing

At ICRA 2015 in Seattle yesterday, researchers from MIT demonstrated an untethered miniature origami robot that self-folds, walks, swims, and degrades. That’s the title of their paper, in fact, and they delivered on all of those promises: from a flat sheet with a magnet on it, their robot folds itself up in just a few seconds, is immediately ready to zip around on land or water driven by magnetic fields, and then when you’ve run out of things to do with it, drive it into a tank of acetone and it’ll dissolve. This is the first time that a robot has been able to demonstrate a complete life cycle like this, and eventually, it’ll be doing it inside your body.

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Damage Recovery Algorithm Could Make All Robots Unstoppable

For the last three years, we’ve been watching as the hexapods created by Antoine Cully and Jean-Baptiste Mouret have been getting increasingly difficult to put out of action. Using an exceptionally clever algorithm, the robots have demonstrated that they can shrug off absurd amounts of damage, adapting within minutes to recover their mobility even if you chop a third of their legs off. 

Today, this research has made the cover of Nature, which is a Very Big Deal (at least if you’re a scholar), and it brings along with it some updates and even more potential for the future.

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Clearpath Puts Baxter on Wheels, Announces Ridgeback Mobile Base

As capable and adaptable as Baxter is, it’s not a robot that’s well known for its mobility. You can get some wheels for it, but you’re still stuck pushing it around when you want it to move anywhere. Sensing an opportunity in the forthcoming age of mobile manipulators, Clearpath Robotics is announcing Ridgeback, an “omnidirectional development platform” designed to give Baxter, or any other research robot, some much-needed mobility.

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Robotic Cockroach Launches Robotic Bird Off of Its Back

We’ve written before about the advantages of multi-modal robots: by combining two different forms of locomotion in one platform, you can take advantage of (say) the efficiency and endurance of a ground robot with the range and versatility of a flying robot. However, designing one robot that can walk and fly tends to be both complicated and inefficient, which is why hetergeneous robot teams are often more appealing. Instead of trying to cram every capability into one robot, you just use several different robots with different specializations and find some way of getting them to work together. Like this robotic cockroach that can serve as an aircraft carrier for a robotic bird.

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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.
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Evan Ackerman
Berkeley, Calif.
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