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Mobile Robots and RFID Tags Internet-of-Things-ify the Outdoors

Most of the time, mobile robots do useful things thanks to remote sensing systems. That is, they have cameras, radar, ultrasound, LIDAR, or other ways of finding stuff about the world around them. That’s great, but there are all kinds of applications that require more direct forms of sensing: namely, sensors that are in direct contact with the thing that you want to sense. Mobile robots can carry around probes and whatnot to make measurements like this, but that’s difficult and time consuming.

For example, let’s imagine a completely hypothetical scenario: we live in California, and we’re trying to grow some food in a field, but we barely have any water. In order to grow plants most efficiently, we’d want to be able to measure moisture levels in the soil to make sure that we’re not over or under watering. Assuming that we’re looking for a better solution than a human to walk around probing the soil all the time, we could try to have a mobile robot do the same thing, but that can be tricky and probably expensive. Another option might be to put sensors in the ground all around the field, but then you’ve got to buy the sensors, power them, and do some sort of fancy wireless thing to get them all reporting back.

In a paper recently posted on arXiv, a team of researchers has proposed a hybrid approach using long-range UHF RFID sensors that are dirt cheap and require no power source, combined with a mobile robot that can talk to them. Is it the best of both worlds? Yes. And does it work? Yes. It does. Maybe.

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NASA’s TransFormers Could Make Harsh Lunar Environments Robot Friendly

Right now, planetary rovers have two options for power: a solar-based power system or a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG). Solar is common because it’s cheap, reliable, and will run almost indefinitely. RTGs are expensive and bulky, but they provide a lot of power and will do so reliably for decades.

The problem with solar power, and it’s a huge problem, is that there are all sorts of situations in which it simply does not work, nighttime being the one you’re most familiar with. In more exotic environments (like Mars) solar-powered robots have suffered from dust as well as from inadequate power during the winter, or while they’re traversing slopes that tilt them away from direct sunlight. And there are lots of places that solar-powered robots cannot go, including caves and other areas that are permanently shadowed.

Does this mean that to explore these places, we need to send in big, expensive robots with big, expensive RTGs? Maybe not. Maybe we can instead transform the areas that we want to explore into ones that are more favorable for exploration by using robots with mirrors to turn permanent night into permanent day.

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Video Friday: Your New Buddy, Atlas Fast Walking, and Robot Deception

After Pepper, Jibo, and Maya, here comes Buddy. Buddy is a mobile, social robot designed as a family companion. It was created by a French company called Blue Frog Robotics, and is now on Indiegogo. We expect to see even more personal robots like these hitting the market in the near future, and that’s a great thing, of course. The biggest question for all of these social robots, though, is whether they’re going to be able to deliver on everything that they’re promising in these promotional videos—the flawless voice recognition and user interaction, the advanced mapping and navigation capabilities, the wide assortment of “apps,” and so forth.

We want these robot buddies to be successful, but there’s a lot riding on this first wave getting it mostly right and not being a disappointment. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

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3D-Printed Explosive Jumping Robot Combines Firm and Squishy Parts

At IROS last year, we met a curious looking fleshy-appendaged explosive jumping robot from the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory. When we asked the researchers about their plans for the future, they talked about “an entirely different design, and capable of either self-righting or reliably landing upright, enabling multiple successive jumps.” Now the Harvard team, in collaboration with UCSD researchers, has completed that redesign, creating a robot that can jump and land upright, which is totally cool. What’s equally cool is how they did it: with a multimaterial 3D printer that lets them fabricate a robot with the optimal combination of soft and rigid structures.

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Inside an MRI, a Non-Metallic Robot Performs Prostate Surgery

One of the holy grails of robotic surgery is the ability to perform minimally invasive procedures guided by real-time scans from a magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, machine. The problem is the space inside MRI scanners is tight for a person, let alone a person and a robot. What’s more, these machines use very strong magnetic fields, so metal is not a good thing to place inside of them, a restriction that is certainly a problem for robots.

Now researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) are developing a MRI-compatible robotic surgery tool that can overcome those limitations. Their system isn’t made of metal, but instead has plastic parts and ceramic piezoelectric motors that allow it to work safely inside an MRI.

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Another Robot to Enter Fukushima Reactor, and We Wish It Were Modular

The search is still on for the melted fuel that is, hopefully, sitting in a death puddle somewhere at the bottom of Fukushima’s damaged nuclear reactors. After two snake robots, designed by Hitachi, explored the Unit 1 reactor back in April (with one of the robots getting stuck), the next expedition goes to Toshiba, with a “scorpion” design that will enter Unit 2 at the end of August. Hopefully it’ll work, but what this situation really needs is a modular, reconfigurable robot. Here’s why.

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Robots Build Large Structures With Brick and Concrete

It’s expensive to make things. Making food, making furniture, making electronics, making cars… It’s all a lot of time consuming labor requiring a variety of skilled and semi-skilled labor. Industrial robots have been very successful at taking over some of the semi-skilled stuff in structured environments like factories, but other than in a few art projects, it’s relatively new to see industrial arms doing productive things out in the world, like laying bricks.

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Video Thursday: Giant Robot Duel, Snake Monster on Stairs, and How Driverless Cars See the Road

We’re assuming that many of you are taking Friday off to prepare for celebrating the 4th of July. We are too, hence Video Thursday this week. If you don’t live in the United States, you should take Friday off anyway, because a celebration that involves grilling and fireworks is pretty great, whether or not you happen to observe the fact that a handful of annoyed colonies started a bit of a tiff with Britain a while back. And if you’re from Britain, well, you should just be glad that you managed to get rid of us when you did.

Anyway, let’s watch some robot videos and then get out of here and enjoy the long weekend, shall we?

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Novel Wings and Jet Thrusters for Swimming, Flying Robots

Multimodal robots are robots that are designed to be able to get around on different types of terrain. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to pretend that the word “terrain” doesn’t explicitly refer to land, because we’ll be looking at some concepts for robots that can handle both aerial and aquatic environments using flapping wings and water jets.

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Parrot Unveils a Hydrofoil Drone

Parrot, a leader in consumer drone tech, came to a New York City hotel last week to show off it’s latest products. Most of what was on offer were upgrades to Parrot’s existing rolling and flying drones, such as the Jumping Race drone that has widened wheels and can reach almost 13 kilometers per hour and jump over 75 centimeters through the air. A nice addition on the flying side is the Airborne Cargo, which has a small patch on top that allows owners to attach what are officially referred to as “toy bricks” by Parrot (read “Lego blocks”) and enhance their drone with their own creations. 

But the big draw was the drone zigzagging back and forth in a rooftop pool, and not just because it was a melting-the-tarmac-hot day in New York. This was the Hydrofoil, which as its name indicates, is a boat fitted with plastic hydrofoils projecting beneath its foam hull. As the boat increases its speed, eventually enough lift is generated from water passing over the hydrofoils to lift the hull out of the water. The result is a dramatic reduction in the drag that must be overcome when a hull normally cuts through water, producing  a corresponding jump in the speed of the boat (and the drone’s battery life). The Hydrofoil can reach over 9.5 km/h, and, based on my repeated collisions with the narrow walls of this particular pool, is pretty robust.

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