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Flying Inventory Assistants Are a Good Use for Drones

It’s starting to seem like “throw a drone at it” is the solution that everyone wants to somehow solve every single problem everywhere, ever. And in most cases, it’s not going to work anytime soon, for reasons that we continue to belabor. This is not to say that drones aren’t valuable tools that can solve many problems: the key is to find a problem that needs a drone, as opposed to having a drone and then desperately looking for some problem for it to solve.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics, in Dortmund, Germany, may have found one of these problems: taking inventory in a warehouse. To do this efficiently, you need a mobile antenna that can navigate in three dimensions, and autonomous flying robots certainly fit the bill.

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2014 Robot Gift Guide

It’s December! You’ve been saving money all year by eating uncooked bricks of ramen noodles and drinking off-brand sodas because they’re cheaper than water. It’s all about to pay off, since you can buy yourself all these robots. All. Of. Them.

This guide includes new products released in 2014, as well as robots from previous years that we still like. And if you need even more ideas, our guides from 2013 and 2012 are still definitely worth a look, as they contain many robots that are still incredibly awesome, just not incredibly new.

The 2014 guide is by no means exhaustive: we write about a lot of robots around here. But we’re limiting ourselves to things that you can plausibly purchase right now (or soon), which means that things like Kickstarter are out of the running. And while we provide links to places where you can get these robots, we’re not endorsing any in particular, and a little bit of searching may result in better deals. (All prices in US 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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Video Friday: Terrible Robots, Dash vs. Dog, and the Age of Machine Consciousness

Dear reader. This is your editor. This morning I found a note from Evan saying that, after working on this Video Friday post until 5 a.m., writing up an insane number of videos, he was too exhausted and unable to finish the post. Evan collapsed. Conked out. Shut down. I know, I was very worried too. This was serious. What a terrible thing to happen. A Friday without Video Friday?! So I am going to finish this post for you. You will not be let down. You will have Video Friday today!

How’s Evan? Oh, dude is fine. He just needed some sleep and will be back next week. 

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Toshiba Android Will Take You for a Trip Down the Uncanny Valley

All aboard for another trip down the Uncanny Valley!

At the CEATEC Japan electronics trade show in October, Toshiba trotted out what it calls a “lifelike communication android,” though perhaps the term lifelike is a bit generous. The android, named Aiko Chihiro, is similar to others we’ve seen at labs and trade events. While certain parts of the robot look quite good, such as the hair, I found that, as I watched Aiko move, it didn’t take long for my Uncanny Valley instincts to kick in.

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Thymio Robots Turn Barcodes Into Light Paintings

We may have taken some time off last week to be thankful for the fact that birds are edible, but the rest of the world had better things to do. Over in Switzerland, Thymio has been spending some quality time learning how to do light paintings. We covered this before, when Mariane Brodier got the little mobile robots to make art, but now they can produce top-quality 8-bit video game characters, among other things. And it’s easy enough that even you (and your robot) could do it.

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NTSB Decision Defining "Aircraft" as Anything That Flies Lacks Common Sense

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board, a U.S. agency better known for investigating aircraft accidents, overturned an early decision in a much-publicized case involving drone operator Raphael Pirker. The previous ruling threw out the US $10,000 fine the Federal Aviation Administration imposed on Pirker for operating his camera-equipped drone in what the FAA considered a careless and reckless manner. In its recent deliberations, the NTSB didn’t weigh whether Pirker had been careless or reckless. But it affirmed that the operator of a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)—or indeed of any aerial device used carelessly or recklessly—was subject to FAA fines.

Wait. Any device?

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SpaceX Planning to Land Autonomous Reusable Rockets on Drone Ships

In a relentless effort to make orbital deliveries safer and cheaper, SpaceX has been working towards a rocket system that’s completely reusable. The vision is to create a version of the Falcon 9 that can be launched into space, and then return to Earth, landing itself vertically with pinpoint accuracy. SpaceX has been making steady, incremental progress, with the addition of landing legs, guidance wings, and several tentatively successful landings out in the ocean. The next step is to try to get a Falcon 9 to land itself on something solid, and there’s no safer place to do this than a drone ship out in the ocean.

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Video Friday: Robots at Sea, Humanoids at RoboCup, and D-RHex on Sand

Next week is Thanksgiving—a U.S. holiday—which means that Video Friday may take a little bit of a break. And taking a break means that the next Video Friday will inevitably be twice as large, so it’s not like you’ll be missing anything. But in the meantime, let’s give thanks for (among many other things) the fact that robots exist, and that they're awesome, and that nearly another year has gone by without them somehow managing to destroy us all.


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IEEE Spectrum's award-winning robotics blog, featuring news, articles, and videos on robots, humanoids, automation, artificial intelligence, and more.
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Erico Guizzo
New York, N.Y.
Senior Writer
Evan Ackerman
Berkeley, Calif.
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