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You Probably Shouldn't Expect City Repairing Drones Any Time Soon

The University of Leeds has been awarded £4.2 million to lead part of a national infrastructure research project in the U.K. with the vision of using small robots to create “self-repairing cities.” The general idea is to create swarms of small robots that will be able to zip around cities, keeping out of the way of people while proactively identifying weak infrastructure and making repairs before anything actually goes wrong.

This award is part of a larger national initiative to explore “how new ways of using robotics and autonomous systems can restore the balance between engineered and natural systems in the cities of the future.” This sounds awesome, and technological optimism is great, but it’s also important to temper expectations with reality, and avoid getting swept up in the hype of a press release. Like, that “of the future” phrase should immediately make you suspicious, because of a.) its rampant overuse in headlines by lazy tech bloggers b.) its inherently nonspecific nature. In other words, if something sounds implausibly good, well, it probably is, especially if there’s not a lot of detail to go along with it.

We do have some details about what the robotics part of this project is going to focus on, and it’s some pretty crazy stuff that we’re guessing is never actually going to happen.

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Video Friday: Origami Drone, Tesla Autopilot Fail, and Crowdsourced Robots

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

International Conference on Social Robotics – October 26-30, 2015 – Paris, France
AUVSI Unmanned Systems Defense – October 27-29, 2015 – Washington, D.C.
Biorobots: Dissected – October 28, 2015 – San Francisco, Calif.
Humanoids 2015 – November 3-5, 2015 – Seoul, South Korea
2015 Robot Film Fest – November 7, 2015 – Pittsburgh, Pa.
Asian Robotics Week – November 12-13, 2015 – Singapore
AAAI Fall Symposia – November 12-14, 2015 – Arlington, Va.
SF Bay Area Robotics Group Meetup – November 18, 2015 – San Francisco, Calif.
Robotics Expo – November 20-22, 2015 – Moscow, Russia
World Robot Conference 2015 – November 23-25, 2015 – Beijing, China
Dronetech – November 26, 2015 – Bristol, U.K.

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

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Jazz-Playing Robot Could Teach Us About Human-Computer Interaction

Researchers are developing a jazz-playing robot that listens to a human jazz musician and responds, in real time, by playing jazz improvisation.

“Humans tend to think that art is something that only humans can make,” says Benjamin Grosser, a professor of new media in the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “I’m interested in what the boundaries of that are.”

In other words, is creativity only achievable by humans? Or, can computers also be artists?

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Robot With Tummy Full of Microbes Can Swim in Dirty Water Forever

Robots are better than animals in almost every way. Well, they’re better in some ways, I guess. I mean, robots are occasionally okay at some things. A few things. None of those things are energetic autonomy: the ability to operate continuously and indefinitely without dependence on humans for refueling. There certainly are robots that operate autonomously for long durations, and they’re either feeding off of radioactivity, or they’re relying on solar panels that don’t work half the time. A better option (at least in some situations) might be robots that forage for food like animals do, taking care of their own energy needs all by themselves.

This is only a slightly crazy idea (although at one point it was briefly the craziest idea ever), and fuel cells that are full of living microbes are a real thing. At the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, in the United Kingdom, they’ve been developing a robot called Row-bot that can swim around, harvesting energy directly from the water using a microbial fuel cell as an artificial stomach.

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Tensegrity Robot Could Be Creeping Through Your Ducts Right Now

According to the World Health Organization, there’s a 30 percent chance that the air you’re breathing right this second is terrible, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that terrible indoor air costs businesses $60 billion annually. This is an enormous amount of money: to put it in perspective, it’s something like half of what I assume the annual budget of IEEE Spectrum is.

You can blame this bad air on your heating and air conditioning system, and the fact that you probably have no idea if it’s ever been cleaned. Getting all up in them ducts by hand is an enormous and very dirty hassle which probably involves partial uninstallation of your ceiling and/or roof, or, you could design a cleverly tetrahedral tensegrity robot to do it for you.

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Dash Robotics Launches a New Toy That You Desperately Need

We love Dash Robotics because they’ve managed to take serious research robots and turn them into serious toy robots that you can actually buy and play with, which is remarkable and kind of awesome. Two years ago, Dash comfortably surpassed its crowdfunding goal to bring you one skittery little robot, and now they’ve got a brand new one that’s easier to build and program and faster than ever.

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A small black and red quadcopter

U.S. Government Plans Mandatory Drone Registration Program

During a press conference this afternoon, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced the creation of a task force to develop recommendations for a registration process for drones that operate in U.S. airspace. By 20 November, the task force will decide which drones will have to be registered and which drones will be exempt, whether you have to register drones that you already own, and how to deal with drones that you build yourself, among other things. The idea is that some sort of system will be in place by mid-December to deal with the million or so new drones that consumers will be getting over the holidays.

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Video Friday: PlantBots, Real Martians, and Drone Comms Jammer

You know what special and exciting thing we have going on today? Not a one. We’re hosting a perfectly normal, reasonable, non-crazy Video Friday, because it seems like we haven’t had one of those in a while. Besides, there are, of course, things happening soon, like the 2015 Bay Area Robotics Symposium next week, followed by AUVSI Unmanned Systems Defense 2015 the week after that. But this week, you don’t have to worry about that. All you have to do is enjoy this delicious selection of soothingly straightforward robot videos.

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Pneumatic Generator Could Make Soft Robots Useful

The adaptability and inherent safety offered by soft robots is pretty great, and we’ve seen lots of examples of all the crazy things that you can do when you don’t have to worry about giving your robot bones. Getting these boneless robots to move is tricky, but turning water into gas and then back into water again may offer a compact, efficient, and clever solution.

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Robots Learning Judo Techniques to Fall Down Without Exploding

The best and worst part of the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals was watching all of those huge expensive humanoids topple over in a series of epic faceplants. Faceplants are called faceplants because you’re planting your face into the ground as a means of breaking your fall, which usually also breaks your face, among other things. This tends to happen when you’re unprepared for falling, which with most robots, is 100 percent of the time. Now researchers at Georgia Tech want to teach humanoid robots to fall more safely with techniques adapted from judo, which might protect them enough to actually be able to get up again.

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