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When Drone Delivery Makes Sense

When Amazon first announced its PrimeAir drone delivery service, we were skeptical. And we are still skeptical. Google's announcement of Project Wing did very little to reduce our skepticism about delivery drones operating in urban, densely-populated areas (where people want to receive packages quickly). If anything, it made us more skeptical, since what is apparently Google's best solution to the last 50 feet problem (dangling a package from fishing line) seems, uh, sketchy, at best.

We'd certainly love for Google or Amazon to make urban drone delivery work. We don't think they'll do it anytime soon, but we'd be ecstatic to be proven wrong by some ingenious implementation of technology. In the meantime, however, logistics company DHL has demonstrated one of the specific situations in which drone delivery is actually a good, realistic, achievable thing. Here's why.

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Robot Octopus Takes to the Sea

Early last year, we wrote up some betentacled research from Greece that explored what gaits were most effective at propelling a robotic octopus through water. The researchers commented that they were working on adding another physical feature flaunted by the biological version of the octopus: a web between their tentacles, which they hypothesized might help swimming speed or efficiency. Now the researchers report that the addition of a soft and supple silicone web has nearly doubled the speed of the roboctopus, and not satisfied with that, the scientists have also taught it to crawl, carry objects, and swim free in the Aegean Sea.

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Flying LampshadeBots Come Alive in Cirque du Soleil Performance

ETH Zurich's Flying Machine Arena has spawned all kinds of mind blowing quadrotor tricks over the years, so it's not at all surprising that it's also spawned a spin-off performance company to take some of those tricks out into the world for the rest of us to enjoy. Verity Studios is combining ETH Zurich's experience with precision flying robots with the wild imaginations of creatives like Cirque du Soleil, starting with a short film called "Sparked" featuring a swarm of quadrotors with lampshades on their heads. 

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Robots Use RFID to Find and Navigate to Household Objects

Vision is, in theory, a great way for robots to identify objects. It works for us humans, so all of the stuff that we have to deal with regularly tends to have distinguishing visual characteristics like pictures or labels. Robot vision can certainly work as a way to identify objects, but it's not easy, and often requires a ridiculous amount of computing power, whether it's on the robot or off in the cloud somewhere. And even then, if the object you want to find is facing the wrong way or behind something else, you're out of luck. So when you think about it, there are two essential pieces to identifying things, and localization is a big one. Vision is often bad at this.

Another, much easier way of identifying objects is with RFID tags, because you can use a dirt cheap sensor that's super reliable and doesn't give a hoot what orientation an object is or how bad the lighting is or anything else. The other nice thing about RFID tags (besides the fact that they're dirt cheap and printable and will never give you false positives) is that you can detect them from far away, also using them for localization at the same time. If you know what you're doing.

Some researchers at Georgia Tech (including Travis Deyle, who writes his own robotics blog) totally know what they're doing, and have published a paper detailing an efficient, reliable way to perform long-distance localization that's basically (and I'm quoting the press release here) "the classic childhood game of “Hotter/Colder."

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Video Friday IROS 2014: Humanoid Eyes, Drones With Arms, and Printable Robots

The 2014 IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) just ended here in Chicago, and we've spent all week checking out the bleeding edge of robotics research. We've started to post some of the most interesting stuff, and we'll have lots (lots) more for you over the next several weeks, but for now, we're utterly exhausted.

So for Video Friday, we selected 10 of our favorite videos presented at the conference. We're posting each with its title above and paper abstract below. Again, we'll have plenty more dedicated in-depth IROS posts for you coming up, but while we fly back to base to recover, these vids should tide you over. Enjoy!

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Tiny Humanoid Robot Learning to Fly Real Airplanes

As much trouble as humanoid robots are to build and control, we keep on trying to make it work because it's easiest to operate in a human environment if you can do the same things that a human can. There are some good arguments for why it makes a lot more sense to modify our environments to better suit robots, but the fact is, if you can pull it off, humanoid is still the best way to go.

Even for flying airplanes.

If this sounds crazy to you, it sounded crazy to us too, until we saw it basically working at an IROS presentation.

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Fable Wants to Make Modular Robotics Easy for Everyone

Modular robotics is tremendously exciting, because instead of being constrained to one specific design that can do a limited number of things, a robot that's modular can be reconfigured (on the fly, even) to do whatever you want it to do, provided you have the hardware and software experience to make it work. For most of us, that whole "having hardware and software and experience" has kept modular robots from being something that we can really take advantage of, but over the last few years, user-friendly systems like Cubelets and MOSS have made it possible to build robots from modular parts without any programming at all.

Fable is a new kind of modular robot under development at the Technical University of Denmark that takes a slightly different approach: it's based on large, self contained modules that work independently or together and are programmable at several different levels of abstraction. It's a little bit freaky looking, but offers a combination of simplicity and the potential for complexity that seems very compelling.

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This Soft Robot Uses Explosions to Jump

Every time we show up to one of these IEEE robotics conferences, we're excited to see things that are new and amazing. We never know what it's going to be, exactly, but this robot right here is the perfect example: something crazy and innovative that also manages to push the bounds of robotics research, with the added bonus that it uses explosions to move. And it looks really, really weird.

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MIT Cheetah Robot Bounds Off Tether, Outdoors

On Friday, we posted a video of Sangbae Kim (from the MIT Biomimetic Lab) getting drenched in the name of ALS. The robot doing the drenching was MIT's Cheetah, but it was much, much different than than the version of Cheetah that we were familiar with from last year, and we speculated that the new version might be out running untethered.

We were wrong: it's not running untethered, it's bounding untethered. And unconstrained. And outdoors!

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Clearpath Hits Husky With Shrink Ray, Announces Jackal UGV

Last year, Clearpath Robotics thought to themselves, "Hey, Husky is cool, but let's make something bigger, because bigger is awesome." So they made Grizzly, an 850-kilogram super size, super strength unmanned ground vehicle (UGV). This year, Clearpath Robotics thought to themselves, "Hey, Husky is cool, but let's make something smaller, because smaller is awesome." So they made Jackal, a 17-kilogram bite size, affordable little UGV that won't utterly destroy your research lab if you try to drive it indoors.

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Automaton

IEEE Spectrum's award-winning robotics blog, featuring news, articles, and videos on robots, humanoids, automation, artificial intelligence, and more.
Contact us:  e.guizzo@ieee.org

Editor
Erico Guizzo
New York, N.Y.
Senior Writer
Evan Ackerman
Berkeley, Calif.
 
Contributor
Jason Falconer
Canada
Contributor
Angelica Lim
Tokyo, Japan
 

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