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Robot gift guide

Robot Gift Guide 2016

Welcome to the fifth edition of our annual Robot Gift Guide! This year, we bring you a dozen robots that we think will make fantastic holiday gifts. Just as we’ve done in the past (for a quick trip through recent robotics history, check out the 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 editions), this year’s selection includes mostly new products released in 2016 but also some items from previous years that we still like. We tested many of these bots ourselves, and you might have seen our in-depth reviews here on the blog. And while we provide prices and links to places where you can buy these items, we’re not endorsing any in particular, and a little bit of searching may result in better deals (all prices are in U.S. dollars). Lastly, if you think we missed the best robot thing (or things) of the year, let us know in the comments.

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Root educational robot

How Root Wants to Bring Coding to Every Classroom

This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the authors and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.

The push to teach coding in U.S. schools has been growing: Thanks to initiatives like the White House’s CS for All program, computer science is now recognized as a core skill for today’s students. A new study by Gallup and Google revealed that 90 percent of parents want their child to learn CS, yet only 40 percent of K-12 school districts offer some kind of CS course. Teacher recruitment and training efforts are beginning to solve the problem at the high-school level, but in K-8 schools (where very few schools offer CS and many teachers are generalists) the challenges are different. Many teachers without much coding experience understandably feel anxious about integrating this new literacy into their classrooms.

Our team at Harvard University is hoping to change that with Root. Root is a new kind of robot that colors outside the lines of the educational robotics category by providing unique capabilities along with a programming interface that grows with its user, bringing coding to life for all ages. After nearly three years of development, Root and its companion app, Root Square, have emerged as a solution to ease teachers’ anxiety about adding coding to the lessons that they teach.

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NABiRoS humanoid robot from RoMeLa

NABiRoS Robot Makes Us Wonder Why We All Don't Walk Sideways

One of the many things that makes humanoid walking tricky is the fact that when we walk, we’re off balance almost all of the time. For some silly reason, our legs are positioned to the left and right when we spend most of our time walking forwards, which means that walking means constantly rocking sideways while also leaning in the direction we’re going. Most robots don’t try to walk like this, and the few that do tend to be very complex and difficult to manage.

At UCLA, Dennis Hong’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa) has come up with a robot design that’s a novel new take on bipedal walking. By doing away with anthropomorphic design and turning a humanoid robot sideways, they’ve been able to create a stable and agile bipedal design that’s simple and cheap at the same time.

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Keepon dancing robot

Video Friday: Self-Racing Cars, Robot Grumpy Cat, and Where's Keepon?

On a Friday morning nine (!) years ago, I published a post with just one video and one line of text on, the robotics blog I ran at the time before joining IEEE Spectrum. That was the beginning of Video Friday. 

As more and more robot video content started showing up over the years, Video Friday turned into a way to keep you updated on everything that happened all week in one efficient (and hopefully entertaining) post.

At one point Video Friday grew to include something like 30 videos (if we’ve crashed your browser, we’re very sorry!). We’ve now toned it down to around 20 videos by being slightly more selective. But we’d love some feedback on how many videos you’d like to see every week.

So, if you wouldn’t mind helping us out with this tiny little poll, we’d really appreciate it.

Definitely let us know if you have other suggestions for how we could make Video Friday better for you, either in the comments below or more directly via email or Twitter.

Also, a special shout-out to everyone who started reading on and is still reading on here. Thanks for sticking with me. Just for fun, we’ll start off Video Friday today with five videos from some very early (2007-2009) Video Friday posts. Enjoy!

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Researchers develop cockroach robot that flips itself with insect-inspired wings

Cockroach Robot Flips Itself With Insect-Inspired Wings

For the last several years, we’ve been following closely (and somewhat uncomfortably) the development of robot cockroaches. Depending on your perspective, it’s either good news or bad news that they seem to be spreading. As roboticists graduate from the original home of the robot cockroach at UC Berkeley, they’re taking roachbot research everywhere.

Chen Li was a researcher at Berkeley’s Poly-PEDAL Lab and Biomimetic Millisystems Lab, where he gave little legged robots cockroach-inspired shells to help them push through obstacles. Li now has his own lab at Johns Hopkins University: the Terradynamics Lab studies “movement science at the interface of biology, robotics, and physics.” At IROS 2016, he presented a paper demonstrating a new trick for legged robots with shells: Ground-based dynamic self-righting, or flipping over using wing covers like a real insect does.

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BALLU Humanoid Blimp Robot

Meet BALLU, UCLA's Humanoid Blimp Robot

The 2016 IEEE International Conference on Humanoid Robots kicks off today. It’s taking place at the Westin Resort & Spa Cancun, which sounds awful, but at least there are some cool new robots, and one of the coolest has to be BALLU, from Dennis Hong at UCLA’s Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa). BALLU, or Buoyancy Assisted Lightweight Legged Unit (Professor Hong loves a good acronym), is a humanoid-ish robot with a body made of helium balloons and a pair of thin articulated legs. Since it weighs next to nothing, it never falls over, and can walk, hop, and perform a variety of other useful bipedal motions as long as you don’t take it outside on a windy day. 

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Researchers are developing robot-plant biohybrids

Robot-Plant Biohybrids Growing in European Laboratories

Flora Robotica is a project funded by the European Union whose goal is “to develop and investigate closely linked symbiotic relationships between robots and natural plants and to explore the potentials of a plant-robot society able to produce architectural artifacts and living spaces.” The overall idea seems to be that it would be cool to enhance the capabilities of plants by mixing in some robotics, and vice versa, combining plant growth with the structure and mobility of robots. Sure, why not?

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DLR Humanoid Robot Toro

Video Friday: Robot Dance Contest, 500 Drones Flying, and Steady Humanoid

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next two months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

HRI 2016 – November 15-17, 2016 – Cancun, Mexico
AI-HRI – November 17-19, 2016 – Arlington, Va., USA
Humans, Machines, and the Future of Work – December 5, 2016 – Houston, Texas, USA
RiTA 2016 – December 11-14, 2016 – Beijing, China
WAFR 2016 – December 18-20, 2016 – San Francisco, Calif., USA

Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

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Cyclocopter designed at Texas A&M

World's Smallest Cyclocopter Brings Unique Design to Microdrones

A cyclocopter is a weird sort of aircraft that uses airfoils rotating around a horizontal axis to generate lift and thrust. The concept was developed about a century ago, but these things are tricky to build and fly, so they haven’t, er, taken off as much as helicopters have. In fact, there’s only a small handful of research groups working on cyclocopters at all, and at the moment, they’re focusing on small scales. Professor Moble Benedict and graduate students Carl Runco and David Coleman at Texas A&M’s Advanced Vertical Flight Laboratory has been testing the smallest cyclocopter ever developed: It’s just 29 grams in mass, and could be a tiny step towards replacing helicopters and multirotors with something better.

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Echodyne's metamaterial-based detect and avoid radar sensor

Metamaterial Radar Is Exactly What Delivery Drones Need

As we’ve pointed out over the last few years, there are some issues with the idea of urban or suburban delivery drones. Besides the fact that they’re illegal right now, the biggest technological problem is that none of the delivery drones that we’ve seen so far seem to have any kind of sense-and-avoid capability that could realistically deal with the challenges of urban airspace, including everything from other drones to light aircraft to birds to trees to overhead wiring.

There are some drones that try to use cameras for this, and at least one that relies on lidar, but for reliable all-weather sensing with the kind of range and resolution that you’d need for safe autonomous flight, the best answer might be to just do what aircraft have been doing for decades: use radar.

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IEEE Spectrum’s award-winning robotics blog, featuring news, articles, and videos on robots, humanoids, drones, automation, artificial intelligence, and more.
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Erico Guizzo
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Evan Ackerman
Washington, D.C.

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