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Video Friday: RHex Pronking, LS3 Goes to Hawaii, and RoboBoat 2014

Video Friday is almost always a nice refreshing dash of randomness. We collect videos all week, and then jam 'em in here for you to check out, without much in the way of foresight (or afterthought). Some weeks, all we can find are drones, drones, drones. Other weeks, like this week, it's more about the ground robots, and we've got some fantastic vids to share today, including new tricks from RHex and LS3 out exploring Hawaii.

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Prototype Platform Perceives Pristine Peppers, Precisely Picks a Perfect Peck

Fruit and vegetable harvesting is a task that's ripe for automation. But harnessing the fruits of robotic labor requires more than a succession of terrible puns: there are reasons why we don't have industrial scale robotic harvesting systems yet, especially for high value crops with strict ripeness requirements that are easily damaged by handling.

While several robotics companies have taken intermittent stabs at getting robot harvesters to work on both specific and generalized crops with mixed results, a huge (and well funded) research project from the European Union has recently come to fruition (I'm done now, I swear!) with Clever Robots for Crops: "a highly configurable, modular and clever carrier platform that includes modular parallel manipulators and intelligent tools" to efficiently and reliably harvest fruits and veggies.

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Cynthia Breazeal Unveils Jibo, a Social Robot for the Home

Cynthia Breazeal, the famed roboticist at MIT’s Media Lab and a pioneer of social robotics, is unveiling her latest creation today. Unlike her previous robots, created for research and used in settings like classrooms and hospitals, her newest robotic device is designed for people to use at home. Breazeal hopes users will find the robot, called Jibo, so fun and friendly that it will become "part of the family."

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How Squishy Would You Like Your Robot?

Most robots are rigid. Rigid is easy to design, easy to construct, easy to calibrate, and more reliable for all of those dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks that robots excel at. When robots make fundamental structural compromises to rigidity, they do it in complicated ways, like with series elastic actuators or hydraulics. It's worth it, though, because adding squishiness can make robots both more capable and safer to be around through passive compliance.

Taking this concept to the extreme has resulted in some incredibly squishy robots, including soft robots that can walk, and other soft robots that can roll. But in both of these cases, embracing squishy properties means giving up rigidity. MIT has been working on a structure for a robot that offers both: squishy when you want it, and rigidity when you don't.

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NASA Testing New Robots in Microgravity Before Sending Them to Space

At ICRA in 2012, researchers from JPL presented a paper on a new type of robotic gripper that uses microspines to adhere to rough surfaces in microgravity. In a follow-up paper at IROS 2013, the gripper made an appearance on a JPL robot, which was really cool to see. And now that it's 2014, it's time for the next step: seeing how a gripper designed for microgravity actually works in microgravity. To do that, NASA is sending it up on some parabolic test flights, along with several other robotic systems destined for space.

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'Gobble Hawk' Wins NASA High-Altitude UAV Design Competition

NASA is very proud of the Global Hawk UAVs that it uses for environmental monitoring missions like keeping track of hurricanes, among other things. We should know: we visited them last year. But Global Hawks are super expensive (between $130 and $220 million each, depending on whether or not you factor R&D cost into the mix), and while they have relatively long range and endurance, they can only stay up for about a day (28 hours) at a stretch.

So NASA wants more options, and it has turned to students for ideas. In a press release today, they've announced the winners of a competition to design high endurance uncrewed aerial systems for hurricane tracking. Coming out on top: Virginia Tech's "Gobble Hawk." Heh.

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SupraPed Robots Will Use Trekking Poles to Hike Across Rough Terrain

Last year at the Stanford-Berkeley Robotics Symposium, we saw some tantalizing slides from Oussama Khatib about a humanoid robot that used trekking poles to balance itself. We were promised more details later, and the Stanford researchers delivered at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) this year, where they presented the concept of SupraPed robots.

The idea is equipping robots with a pair of special trekking poles packed with sensors that, according to the researchers, "transforms biped humanoids into tripeds or quadrupeds or more generally, SupraPeds." By using these smart poles to steady themselves, the robots would be able to navigate through "cluttered and unstructured environments such as disaster sites."

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'MacGyver' Robots Use Their Environment to Solve Problems

MacGyver could make a rocket-powered harpoon gun/zip line out of some moth balls, cleaning fluid, rope, pulley, and an old telescope. Robots can't do that. But hey, neither can you. What you can do is use objects in your environment to help you complete tasks that you wouldn't otherwise be able to do on your own, and robots are learning how to do the same thing.

Yes, this means that soon they will be unstoppable. And there's video to prove it.

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Can a 'Dropship Quadcopter' Deploy Rovers on Mars?

The most ludicrous way of getting a robot to the surface of Mars is maybe stuffing it inside a giant inflatable bouncy ball and dropping it from a parachute. And that is only slightly more ludicrous than attaching it to a rocket-powered hovercrane (a rocket-powered hovercrane!!!) and then lowering it to the ground with some sort of ridiculous cable contraption.

NASA has done both of these things. Successfully.

So, the bar is very high for finding ludicrous ways of getting robots to the surface of Mars, and the European Space Agency (ESA) has taken on the challenge with a quadcopter that can safely drop a rover down onto the Martian surface while hovering.

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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.
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Evan Ackerman
Berkeley, Calif.
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Tokyo, Japan

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