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Tiny Robot Makes Big Jumps with Explosive Microrockets

We've seen all kinds of crazy jumping robots, from humanoids to grasshoppers to soft and flexible spheres. But when you start making small robots, like seriously small robots (on the millimeter scale), you have to find new ways to get them to jump, and the Army Research Laboratory has teamed up with the University of Maryland to develop a couple clever ideas.

Pictured above is a four millimeter-long robot, complete with a power source, an integrated control system, and light sensors. To move, it relies on on the rapid conversion of stored chemical energy to gas in a chemical reaction, which is just a fancy way of saying either "rocket motor" or "controlled explosion." Underneath the robot is a small chip of nanoporous silicon that gets infused with a sodium perchlorate oxidizer, and when a current heats up the chip, it ignites, propelling the robot upward. Initial tests have yielded a jump height of about eight centimeters, which doesn't sound like much, but the robot is so small that it's still outjumping its own size by a factor of 20.

The other jumping bot that these researchers have come up with is a bit more traditional, using microfabricated elastomer springs to store up energy and release it all at once to make a jump. This method may be a bit less violent than the rocket-powered bot, but the spring robot depends on an external power source (a dude pushing the spring down with tweezers). With this human help (which will eventually replaced by micromotors to wind the spring up) it can jump really, really high, at about 80 times its own height. You can see both of these robots in action in the video below: 

The next step for these robots is to tweak them to be able to jump more than once, and in the direction that you want them to go. Oh, and to figure out how to get them to land properly, and then do productive stuff once they return to Earth. For the chemical jumping robot, adding little nozzles to the chemical engine should solve the steering problem while also quadrupling its effective power by directing the thrust more efficiently. Stitching an array of about 100 of these engines together along the bottom of a microbot could allow for a whole series of jumps (and even jumps followed by mid-air rocket pulses to keep flying), ultimately resulting in a range of some 65 meters, which works out to be a staggering 16,000 times the length of the robot itself. Not bad at all.

Ultimately, the idea is that these bots will be fast and cheap to manufacture, easy to deploy, and expendable enough that it'll be possible to use swarms of them for things like surveillance and monitoring and terrorizing your imagination.

"First Leaps Toward Jumping Microrobots" by Wayne A. Churaman, Aaron P. Gerratt, and Sarah Bergbreiter from the Army Research Laboratory and the University of Maryland Microrobotics Lab was presented this week at the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems.

[ UMD Microrobotics ]

Boston Dynamics' Bigger BigDog Robot Is Alive

UPDATE 9/28 10:55 a.m.: Looks like the embargo on the videos was broken. At least one person has posted videos on YouTube. We're including these vids below.
UPDATE 9/28 12:26 p.m.: Videos were removed. Sorry, folks, we'll have to wait for the official vids.
UPDATE 9/30 4:05 a.m.: Video of Boston Dynamics' new, bigger quadruped, called AlphaDog, is here. Vid of Petman still not available.

boston dynamics ls3 bulldog robot quadruped

Boston Dynamics, the company that brought the world the beloved BigDog quadruped robot, is now showing off its newest beast.

Think BigDog on steroids. The new robot is stronger, more agile, and bigger than BigDog. The official name is LS3 (Legged Squad Support System), but it seems that the Boston Dynamics guys are calling it BullDog instead.

Marc Raibert, the flower-patterned-shirt-wearing founder and president of Boston Dynamics, discussed the LS3 project in a keynote talk today at the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems.

Boston Dynamics, based in Waltham, Mass., has made significant progress in transforming the DARPA-funded LS3 robotic mule project into reality.

boston dynamics ls3 quadruped robot bulldog

boston dynamics ls3 cad image

Like BigDog, the new robot is designed to assist soldiers in carrying heavy loads over rough terrain. But whereas the original BigDog could carry a payload of 340 pounds (about 150 kilograms) and had a range of 12 miles (20 kilometers), LS3 can carry 400 pounds (180 kilograms) and will have a range of 20 miles (about 30 kilometers).

It's also quieter, and the Boston Dynamics engineers are teaching it some new tricks: It will be able to jump over obstacles, right itself after a fall, and navigate with greater autonomy than its predecessor.

Raibert awed the audience with some amazing videos of the LS3 robot mule navigating rough terrain, trotting, and getting shoved (without losing its balance) not by one but two people at the same time! Alas, we can't show you the videos yet. Raibert told us that he's still getting permission from DARPA to make them public. So in a week or two we'll have them for you.

Raibert also talked about Boston Dynamics' humanoid project, called Petman. It's an adult-sized humanoid that the U.S. Army, which funds the project, will use to test chemical suits and other protective gear.

boston dynamics petman humanoid robot

Petman is another amazing Boston Dynamics creation. Raibert again stunned the audience with some really impressive videos of the humanoid walking, kneeling, squatting, and even doing push-ups!

This is the first time I see a machine performing movements like that. They look remarkably human, yet there's something uncanny valley-esque to them. No wonder Petman creeps out even Raibert himself. And you guessed it: The videos are embargoed as well; we hope to have them here soon.

By the way, if you like robot dogs, Boston Dynamics is hiring. Check out all robotics projects at the company in the slide below.

boston dynamics robotics projects

Images: Boston Dynamics

Robot Birds and Octoroaches On The Loose at UC Berkeley

No matter how fancy and complicated we make robots, nature always has us beat. Is there anything more capable, more efficient, and more utterly indestructible than a cockroach? Of course not. Not yet, anyway. UC Berkeley's Biomimetic Millisystems Lab is trying to harness all the cleverness of birds and insects to create an entirely new generation of little robots with insect-like capabilities, and one of their most recent creations is called "Octoroach." OCTOROACH!

Octoroach has eight compliant legs and is small enough and light enough to rest comfortably on your palm. Batteries, sensors, and navigation are all completely integrated. Eventually, Octoroach and robots like it are destined for the military, to provide that last 100 meters of vital close-up surveillance. And if 100 meters ends up being too far, you can just drop off your robo-roaches using robo-birds like this one:

This is BOLT, which stands for "Bipedal Ornithopter for Locomotion Transitioning." It's got a pair of little legs under its wings, and it can skitter around on the ground and over obstacles, saving energy by not having to fly unless it has to. Berkeley is also working on a second ornithopter called iBird, which is capable of flying towards a reflective target completely autonomously.

Check out all of these robots in action in the following demo, which was presented during a technical tour of UC Berkeley as part of this year's IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems:

[ UC Berkeley Biomimetic Millisystems Lab ]

George Devol: A Life Devoted to Invention, and Robots

george devol unimation unimate

George Devol was only 9 years old when the word "robot" first appeared, in 1921, introduced in Karel Capek's play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The robots in the play had a human form and were manufactured in vats like beer. In contrast, the robots that Devol would invent decades later were electromechanical machines -- the first digitally operated programmable robotic arms -- and they would start a revolution in manufacturing that continues to this day.

Devol, who died August 11, 2011, at the age 99, was a prolific inventor and entrepreneur. His work led to the development of the first industrial robot, called Unimate [photo above], a precursor of the machines that now automate assembly lines all over the world. But the industrial robot was only one of his contributions. With over 40 patents under his belt, Devol spent his lifetime transforming ideas into real products.

george devolI was fortunate to speak to Devol several times, in person and by phone, and in his conversations he was always humble, perceptive, and interested in the future. He enjoyed talking about his inventions, but never made boastful claims. Above all he seemed excited by all the technology coming along that he might still use. Being in his presence, I felt like I was interacting with one of those minds that only come along very rarely, a world-changing inventor like Edison or Tesla.

Born into wealth in Louisville, Kentucky, George Charles Devol, Jr. became interested in electricity and machines at an early age. He attended Riordan Prep and gained some practical experience helping run the school's electric light plant. But he didn't go to an engineering school upon graduation. He started a company.

It was a time when the age of electric motors and generators, control engineering, electrical transmission, and radio technology was in lift off. The first sound films, known as "talking pictures" or "talkies," cried for better sound integration, and Devol saw an opportunity. He used his experience with vacuum tubes, photocells, and circuits to form United Cinephone Corp., in 1932, trying to gain a position in film sound.

But the competition drove him to other pastures. Using the photocells and vacuum tubes he knew so well, he ended up creating one of the technological marvels of the modern world: the automatic door. He licensed the technology to a firm called Yale & Towne, which commercialized it as the "Phantom Doorman" photoelectric door.

Devol went on to work with color printing presses and packaging machines, and eventually develop an early form of bar coding, and later, digital magnetic recording. He was moving ever closer to robots.

In 1939, Westinghouse displayed Electro the robot at the New York World’s Fair. It was a large clanking, talking theatrical fulfillment of all those pulp and science fiction images that dominated the newsstands -- some of which were read by Devol.

In fact, in 1941 Isaac Asimov coined the word "robotics" in his story "Liar!" in Astounding Science Fiction magazine. Asimov told me in great detail when we met one evening in New York why he coined the word. He was tired of listing all the activities around robots such as design, construction, operations, manufacturing, etc. He wanted a word to cover all of this. He did not know at the time that Devol was already the living embodiment of robotics.

During the World War II period, Devol worked at Sperry Gyroscope, where he helped develop radar systems and microwave test equipment. Later he organized General Electronics Industries in Greenwich, Conn., which would become one of the largest producers of radar and counter-radar devices.

After the war, he worked on several other inventions. He was part of a team that developed the first microwave oven product, the Speedy Weeny, which automatically cooked and dispensed hotdogs.

In 1954, Devol applied for a patent for a device called the Programmed Article Transfer. Looking for an entrepreneurial partner, Devol found one, at a cocktail party, by the name of Joseph Engelberger, an executive with engineering degrees from Columbia University. Engelberger, who shared an enthusiasm for science fiction with Devol, took the transfer machine to his heart, he told me during an interview in 1977.

george devol patent

george devol unimation unimate

Their device morphed from "programmed article transfer" to "manipulator" to "robot." Devol and Engelberger made this decision to help improve their marketing opportunities. Selling the concept even with a working prototype was an uphill chore. But it paid off: The robot connection gave the project an extra dose of energy that helped it succeed.

The first Unimate, a product of their new Unimation Corp., was hydraulically powered. Its control system relied upon digital control, a magnetic drum memory, and discrete solid-state control components. In 1961 the first Unimate was installed at a GM plant in Trenton, New Jersey, to assist a hot die-casting machine. Unimation would soon develop robots for welding and other applications. Patent Number 2,988,237 was the seed that spawned the robot industry.

In one of my encounters with Devol, at the 1997 Automation Hall of Fame ceremony, I presented him with an award. During the reception, Sico, an entertainment and educational robot, rolled over to Devol and said, “Father, so good to see you!” A smile broke over Devol’s kind face, and we all laughed.

In a subsequent conversation Devol told me that none of his inventions were accepted quickly or easily. His persistence -- 99 years of it -- made the world a different place. May whatever robot angels exist lift you up and let you rest in peace.

Images: Bob Malone

We're at IROS 2011!

IROS (the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems) starts today in California, and we're here all week to bring you the best it has to offer. If you're not familiar with IROS, it's kinda like the fall version of ICRA. You remember ICRA, right? San Francisco may be (slightly) less exotic than Shanghai, but that doesn't mean that the robotics presentations are going to be any less awesome. 2,459 papers were submitted to the conference this year, and there will be ten (ten) conference tracks going on all at the same time, with rapid-fire 15 minute live presentations, and we're going to do our level best to be in all ten of those places at once. And on top of that, there's workshops, demos, and an exhibit hall.

This morning we're kicking things off with a three-hour tour of the UC Berkeley robotics lab, followed by an afternoon packed full of presentations, including animal robots, robot table tennis, brain interfaces, insect robots, and something about a shape-memory alloy robotic heart. All of this, just in half of day one!

Please bear with us if our posting schedule gets a little wonky this week; we're gonna be running ourselves ragged trying to keep up with all the cool stuff that's going on. Stay tuned!

[ IROS 2011 ]

Autom Robotic Weight Loss Coach Now Available for Pre-Order


It's been a long time coming, but Intuitive Automata's Autom robotic weight loss coach is now up for pre-order on a dedicated "MyAutom" website. If you haven't been following the saga of Autom, it was first an MIT Media Lab robot with a significantly different look. Autom's developer at MIT, Cory Kidd, co-founded Intuitive Automata to help commercialize Autom based on the original MIT project, and it's starting to look like everything will be coming together within the next year. Not to get off topic or anything, but it's fantastic to see a research robot like this make the difficult jump into the consumer market. Congrats to Dr. Kidd!

Anyhow, back to the robot. We know that Autom is designed to be exceptionally interactive, crunching data on your health, diet, and exercise regimen and giving back friendly and constructive criticism. Studies have shown that people who use Autom stick with their diet and exercise routines for twice as long as people using more traditional weight loss methods. Don't ask me how, maybe it's something about those big blue eyes?

If this sounds good to you, you can be one of the very first people to have this friendly little robot helping you out every day with a deposit of $195. This is not the final price, however, it's just the pre-order deposit. The final price is the $195 deposit plus a balance of $670 when the robot ships, for a total of $865. This does seem a bit steep, although I'll admit to not being familiar with how much a typical weight loss program costs.

On the upside, Intuitive Automota seems to understand that cost is, uh, an issue, and they're planning on working with health insurance companies and employers to try and subsidize things a bit. Anyway, pre-orders are open now, and you can find out a bit more info (but not all the info you'd probably want before spending most of a grand on a weight loss robot) at the website below.

[ Autom ]

This post has been updated to reflect the fact that Autom will not require a monthly subscription fee.

YES: Let iCub Carry the Olympic Torch!

Dr. James Law, a researcher at the Department of Computer Science at Aberystwyth University, has had an absolutely fantastic idea: he's nominated the iCub robot to carry the Olympic Torch as part of the 2012 Olympic Games, which will be held in London (that's in England, folks) starting next summer.

Dr. Law is proposing that iCub be included in the torch-carrying relay in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing, one of the guys who arguably invented the computer and whose test for artificial intelligence robots are continually striving to pass. This is a great idea, but I think that iCub should be part of the torch relay on its own merits: it'll be a first for robots and great publicity for engineering education and all that. Or at least, it'll be great as long as iCub doesn't faceplant in a puddle and snuff the torch out.

The only problem with this idea is that the short-sighted and obviously outdated nomination rules specify that all nominees have to be at least 12 years of age, which would mean that iCub wouldn't technically qualify. On the upside, nowhere does it say that nominess have to be human, so maybe iCub has a shot at this after all.

[ Nomination ] and [ Aberwystwyth University ] via [ New Scientist ]

Robot Operating System Making Its Way Into Industrial Robotics

Motoman SIA20D industrial robot manipulator

There are a lot of contenders in the race to become the dominant software platform for robots. One of the factors that will determine the winner is, of course, achieving critical mass. By making your software open source, you can reduces barrier to acceptance to a minimum, helping it to spread faster. This is what is happening with ROS, the Robot Operating System created by Silicon Valley robotics firm Willow Garage.

Research labs across the world are adopting ROS at fast rate. And because these labs are packed with some of the freshest and most clever minds in robotics, the ROS community is constantly adding more capabilities to the software. ROS now offers many advanced packages for robot vision, navigation, and mobile manipulation, among others.

Some robotics companies understood the potential of riding this wave of innovation, and now several commercial products use ROS as middleware. These include Aldebaran’s NAO humanoid and Meka Robotics' systems. Starting with basic ROS functions, these companies have built their own custom systems specific to their products.

As I considered the evolution and adoption of ROS, I thought that it would be great to have not only start-ups and research labs but also industrial robot companies embracing ROS. (That would be good for ROS too, of course, because the industrial segment is still a big chunk of the robotics market.) But could that ever happen?

In industrial robotics, I feel that lots of people are constantly reinventing the wheel, with different robot manufacturers developing their own proprietary operating system and controller. The result: You can't program a robot from one manufacturer and reuse that same program on a robot from another manufacturer. Furthermore, if you want to develop an add-on component or peripheral for a robot, you need to establish a relationship with the robot's maker; in other words, you need "permission" to get access to the "black box" that is their robot controller.

Maybe things work this way because industrial robotics have traditionally been a slow-moving, conservative, and expensive business. And it's also been tied to manufacturing, where everybody is trying to keep their edge on new ways to make better products at better prices using advanced technologies. As I pointed out in an article about the stagnation of industrial robotics, the proprietary operating system is an important piece of the business model that industrial robot makers rely on. For this reason, I thought that having a major industrial robot manufacturer adopt ROS would never happen.

Well, I was wrong. It was a nice surprise to hear that the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), a private R&D organization based in San Antonio, Texas, announced recently that they've reached an agreement with Motoman, one of the largest industrial robot makers in the world, to develop a ROS interface for the Motoman SIA20 7-axis robot [CAD image and photo above]. By making its robots compatible with ROS, it seems that Motoman is betting that all those tools developed by the ROS community will become very enticing for its customers. And if customers demand that those capabilities be available, relying on a proprietary system doesn't make help you.

This could be the beginning of something big. If more industrial robotics companies adopt ROS, this could enable a lot of technology transfer from the research world to real-world applications. And then, after we get every robot on ROS, imagine we could connect them through the Net so they could share a common knowledge base.

Now you’re ready for a real robot revolution.

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

Mint Plus: Mintier and Slightly More Sinister

There was something particularly fetching about the design of the original Mint robotic sweeper. It was clean. It was simple. It was white. All that has just been thrown out the window with the new Mint Plus, which has most decidedly gone over to the dark side.

Besides being blacker than Darth Vader's coal cellar (he's got one of those up on the Death Star, right?), the Mint Plus 5200 series has as a bunch of new features that mostly justify its $100 price bump. First off, the place where the microfiber cleaning pad mounts to the robot (check it out in our review if you're not familiar) now contains a liquid reservoir that keeps the pad moist while the robot cleans up to 350 square feet.

The other big change is that Mint's NorthStar cubes have been upgraded to NorthStar2, which endows each cube with some sort of unique identifier that Mint can detect to allow it to move from room to room. With a dry cloth, this gets you up to 2,000 square feet of cleaning. To make it that far, Mint's battery has been increased by 25%, and there's an optional new TURBO CHARGE CRADLE which allows Mint to be charged in two hours instead of four but sadly does not increase Mint's speed to turbo.

And finally, Mint Plus is smart enough to resume cleaning after you pause it to change its cleaning cloth, retaining its room map and moving on to all the places it hasn't hit yet after you put it back down and tell it to resume.

Besides all this additional mintiness which is now virtually certain to freshen your breath as well as your floors, the Mint Pro looks to have all the upsides of the original Mint (most notably simple, effective, silent hard-floor cleaning), along with the one obvious major downside: no carpets. Oh well, all you lucky people with your hardwood floors can just fork over the $299 for the Mint Pro and go about your happy, carpet-free lives.

[ Mint Plus ]



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