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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

Intuitive Automata's Robot Helps You Lose Weight

Nearly two years ago I saw a little robot called Autom presented at a robotics panel I attended at the MIT Museum. Autom, developed at the MIT Media Lab by Dr. Cory Kidd, was designed to interact with people as they try to lose weight. While the idea seemed great, I couldn't help but notice that it looked a little ... well, creepy.



Autom, the original, and Autom, the recently designed. Note the change in footprint, increased screen size, and friendlier face.


After finishing his PhD, Kidd took the idea and turned it into a company called Intuitive Automata. They've spent the last two years working out of Hong Kong to redesign Autom and get her ready for mass production. The result is a sleek little robot with big blue eyes and a large LCD screen, meant to sit on your kitchen counter and interact with you each day. I have to say I find the new version much more personable looking.

Fundamentally, Autom is not entirely different than a lot of the online calorie and exercise tracking websites. The key difference -- the focus of Kidd's research at MIT -- was the emotional interaction component. In a demo I saw, Autom's software first asks a question; for example, "Do you want to tell me what you had for lunch today?" You then have the option to replay with something like "Sure!" or "Okay" or "Not really", each of which has a different emotional connotation -- perhaps you're particularly proud of eating well one day, or feeling guilty about sneaking a candy bar. By recognizing what appears to be your current emotional state, Autom can tailor her interactions with you to be as effective as possible in tracking your information accurately and encouraging you to do better each day. The early tests of the product showed that "people who worked with Autom stayed with their diet for twice as long as using a computer or paper-based diet log." 

Since the version developed at MIT, Autom has gotten smaller, with better custom electronics and improved software based on lots of interaction studies. Intuitive Automata is ramping its way up to a larger scale trial, aiming to eventually be able to sell these to everyone to use at home, so that you, too, can guiltily admit to an adorable robot that you succumbed to a McDonald's McFlurry craving today.

Video Montage: Robots from Olin College of Engineering

 We previously discussed some of the research activities at the small, undergraduate-only Olin College near Boston, MA. They've just released a video montage of the different robots that have been worked on over the last few years, including some new additions -- robots that have been the product of senior projects. This year in particular had two really interesting new autonomous vehicles.

One is an unmanned surface vehicle (a USV) that was developed with funding from Aurora Flight Sciences. USVs are an up-and-coming ocean technology that serve a variety of purposes: ocean monitoring, surveillance and reconnaissance, and launch platforms for other unmanned vehicles. Some take the form of a standard jetski; others, like the Olin/Aurora USV, are based on a pontoon raft platform. The video shows clips of Olin's USV being tested on a navigation course at Lake Waban in Wellesley.

The other is the Ghost Swimmer. Inspired by the original RoboTuna developed at Draper Laboratory, the Olin students are working with the consulting firm Boston Engineering to develop a new generation of robotic fish, designed it to mimic as closely as possible the movement of its tail to direct itself through the water. Though it currently spends most of its time swimming in an indoor pool, Ghost Swimmer -- currently remote controlled -- is likely to join its USV cousin in Lake Waban and eventually open water in the near future.

Thanks, Dave!


Robotics Research and Majors at Olin College of Engineering

Little Humanoid Robot Makes Coffee For Master

It's time for ... Friday afternoon YouTube robot silliness Part 2.

No big story, just a short video for your entertainment. The little humanoid is called HINA. As a friend of mine put it: "The robot is great, the music is nice and the coffee looks good."



PS: See also our previous Friday afternoon silliness.

Thanks Julien!

Personal Robots Market Will Grow To Over $5 Billion by 2015, Telepresence Next Big Thing

The global personal robots market will grow from US $1.16 billion in 2009 to $5.26 billion in 2015, according to a new study by NextGen, an arm of ABI Research.

Growth is good, but then there's some bad news: sales of such robots should decline through 2010 because of the global economic downturn.

Moving on to less gloomy news, the study says that the next phase in the evolution of the personal robots market -- currently dominated by entertainment toy robots and robotics kits and single-task robots like vaccuming and floor-washing bots -- will involve robots partially controlled by users at remote locations.

Yes, that's telepresence robots, which I sort of put down in a previous post. Guess you shouldn't turn to me for forecasts!

From their release:

In the next phase of the market's evolution, robots will be partially controlled by a user at a remote location. Telepresence robots will allow people to interact with family members at another location or to check on pets or second homes. Health personnel will monitor the elderly or infirm remotely, making sure they take their medication on time or guiding them through blood pressure or blood sugar measurements.

Roboticist Rodney Brooks Talks Robots at Maker Faire

On May 30th and 31st, the 2009 Bay Area Maker Faire brought together scientists, engineers, and hobbyists of every type to one of the biggest DIY events in the world. Robotics, of course, has become a popular hobby among the DIY crowd, with technologies like the Arduino board enabling anyone to build their own little automaton. To discuss the robotics industry on a larger scale, Dr. Rodney Brooks gave a half hour talk to the Makers about changing demographics, Moore's Law, and American manufacturing, and what they all might mean for us robot geeks over the next 50 years.

Brooks is, of course, not only a well-known roboticist from MIT, but also the co-founder of a number of companies, most recently iRobot and Heartland Robotics. Heartland, as we discussed when it was announced, is tackling the problem of manufacturing robots. Brooks's Maker Faire talk does a nice job of outlining the challenge Heartland and other similar companies are facing.


Former CSAIL director and iRobot CTO launches new robotics startup

Researchers Propose InterGalactic Positioning System (IGPS)

GPS revolutionized robotics on Earth, but it fails to work for robots deep in space. To solve this problem, two astronomers have published a paper to show how you can locate your position anywhere within the galaxy by using no less than 4 pulsars of known locations.


Fully relativistic coordinates have been proposed for (relativistically) running a "GPS" system. These coordinates are the arrival times of the light signals emitted by four "satellites" (clocks). Replacing the signals emitted by four controlled clocks by the signals emitted by four pulsars defines a coordinate system with lower accuracy, but valid across the whole Solar System. We here precisely define this new coordinate system, by choosing four particular pulsars and a particular event as the origin of the coordinates.


Similar to the idea for the Pioneer 10 and 11 plaques, these four pulsars would form a rough tetrahedron centered on the Solar System.



With the co-ordinate system established, any interplanetary spacecraft could then use the signals from these pulsars to determine its position in this co-ordinate system to within a few nanoseconds, which corresponds to about a metre.


Follow the link to learn more:

Willow Garage PR2 robot navigates through office, plugs itself into electrical outlet

Willow Garage, a California startup working on an open-source personal robot, celebrated another milestone last week. Its PR2 mobile robot successfully navigated through the company's cramped office, opening doors and entering rooms and plugging its power cord into nine wall outlets -- using its own nimble arm and hand!

See the video below that shows the various situations the robot faced, including avoiding human officemates who got on its way. The PR2 looks like one persistent robot -- when it failed to pick up its plug, it repositioned itself and tried again until it was able to complete the task. But it's also clever: when it reached a locked door, it didn't try to stubbornly open it over and over -- it figured it had to ignore that room and move on.

Willow Garage designed the PR2 as a platform to help roboticists conduct research and develop applications in mobile manipulation in real human environments. At some point the company plans to provide PR2 units to other organizations, which will have to make their PR2-based work available under an open source license.

Visit their wiki page to learn more about their open source Robot Operating System and computer vision package OpenCV.

The Automaton Team

Automaton is IEEE Spectrum's robotics blog. But wait. What's IEEE and Spectrum anyway? The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) is the world's largest professional technology society, with nearly 400,000 members in over 150 countries. The IEEE organizes hundreds of technical conferences and publishes dozens of journals.


Published monthly, Spectrum is the flagship publication of the IEEE. It goes to all members and covers all areas of electrotechnology. With Automaton, we hope to expand our coverage of robotics, which we believe will play an ever more important role in people's lives. Meet the team:


erico guizzo

Erico Guizzo, an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum, in New York City, has written and edited articles on surgical robots, exoskeletons, autonomous underwater vehicles, AI, and industrial automation. Originally from Brazil, he has a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and a master's degree in science writing from MIT. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife and daughter.


mikell taylor

Mikell (pronounced "Michael") Taylor was diagnosed with acute robotics geekiness at a young age. Her current treatments include designing and building robots for Bluefin Robotics in Cambridge, Mass., volunteering for the FIRST robotics competition, and watching her Roombas clean her apartment. When not geeking out, Mikell likes learning foreign languages, getting lost in big cities, and becoming a Guitar Hero.


markus waibel

Markus Waibel studied physics and has since been edging his way towards robotics. He has started a popular podcast on robotics and AI, coded a simulator for swarm robots, experimented with artificial ants, and now just finished his PhD in evolutionary robotics. Originally from Austria, Markus has traversed the Alps on skis and now lives in Lausanne, Switzerland.


john palmisano

John Palmisano is the author of the popular robotics website Society of Robots. He first started building robots while studying mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. After graduation, he spent the next three years as a research engineer studying the design of robotic pectoral fins for UUVs at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. John is currently living in Bangkok, Thailand, pursuing his Thai language hobby.



AuAu, Automaton's robot-logo, was created by Fabio Miranda, a computer science professor at Senac, in Sao Paulo, Brazil.


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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.
Senior Writer
Evan Ackerman
Berkeley, Calif.
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Angelica Lim
Tokyo, Japan

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