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Video Friday: Bacteria Driving Robot, Drone With Gun, and Freaky Snakebot

It is the height of summer (at least in my hemisphere), and many of you are enjoying a nice and relaxing vacation. But don’t get too relaxed, people: it’s not too early to start looking forward to fall robotics events. IROS 2015 will be in Hamburg, Germany this year, and it will be followed immediately by ROSCon right next door. Come the end of September, Hamburg is going to be the most exciting place in robotics. Right now, though, the most exciting place in robotics is right here, for Video Friday.

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Robotic Construction Gets Fancy at ETH Zurich's Digital Fabrication Lab

Last week, we wrote about some robots that are making construction more efficient by automating work with bricks and concrete. At ETH Zurich, the Swiss National Science Foundation (through the National Centres of Competence in Research) has just opened a Digital Fabrication lab that’s exploring what else is possible with construction autonomy, and they’ve come up with some very cool ideas.

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ReWalk Robotics's New Exoskeleton Lets Paraplegic Stroll the Streets of NYC

Yesterday, a paralyzed man strapped on a pair of robotic legs and stepped out a hotel door, joining the flow of rushing pedestrians on a sidewalk in midtown Manhattan.

The user, Robert Woo, was demonstrating a new exoskeleton unveiled this week, the ReWalk Personal 6.0 from Israel’s ReWalk Robotics. He got a few curious looks as he strode forward in his sleek black gear, but the fast-walking New Yorkers didn’t slow down or clear space for him.

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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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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

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Erico Guizzo
New York, N.Y.
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Evan Ackerman
Berkeley, Calif.
 
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Jason Falconer
Canada
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Tokyo, Japan
 

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