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MIT drone inside wind tunnel.

Quadrotors Learning to Surf Urban Winds for Huge Performance Boosts

Personally, I don’t believe that urban delivery drones are a.) going to happen anytime soon or b.) even that good of an idea. One of the problems (among many, which I’ve discussed in previous posts) that urban drones have to deal with is efficiency: batteries count as payload, so if you want to fly farther, you’ll be carrying less of whatever your customers are paying for. Generally, quadrotor range is measured in minutes of flight time, which equates to a given distance at a given speed. Also generally, quadrotor range does not take into account the fact that the quadrotor is flying around outdoors, where wind can be a significant factor that either helps you out our ruins your day.

At MIT, John Ware and Professor Nicholas Roy have been working on ways of helping quadrotors leverage the wind fields created by structures in urban environments to improve their energy consumption. By modeling how wind blows around dense concentrations of buildings, quadrotors can plan intelligent trajectories to seek out tailwinds and avoid headwinds, boosting their efficiency and potentially leading to both higher speed and longer range.

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Atlas humanoid robot walking on cinder blocks

Video Friday: ATLAS on the Edge, Plant-Robot Hybrid, and Kuka Smash

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

RoboBusiness Europe – June 1-3, 2016 – Odense, Denmark
Dynamic Walking 2016 – June 4-7, 2016 – Holland, Mich., USA
IEEE RAS MRSSS 2016 – June 6-10, 2016 – Singapore
CR-HRI – June 6-10, 2016 – Orlando, Fla., USA
NASA SRRC Level 1 – June 6-11, 2016 – Worcester, Mass., USA
Field Robot Event – June 14-18, 2016 – Haßfurt, Germany
EuroEAP 2016 – June 14-15, 2016 – Copenhagen, Denmark
RSS 2016 – June 18-22, 2016 – Ann Arbor, Mich., USA
European Land Robot Trial – June 20-24, 2016 – Eggendorf, Austria
Automatica 2016 – June 21-25, 2016 – Munich, Germany
ISR 2016 – June 21-22, 2016 – Munich, Germany
ICROM 2016 – June 23-25, 2016 – Singapore
The Rise of Machine Learning – June 24, 2016 – San Francisco, Calif., USA
UK Robotics Week – June 25-1, 2016 – United Kingdom
Hamlyn Symposium on Medical Robotics – June 25-28, 2016 – London, England
TAROS 2016 – June 28-30, 2016 – Sheffield, United Kingdom
RoboCup 2016 – June 30-4, 2016 – Leipzig, Germany
Amazon Picking Challenge – June 30-4, 2016 – Leipzig, Germany
IEEE AIM 2016 – July 12-15, 2016 – Banff, Canada
DLMC 2016 – July 13-15, 2016 – Zurich, Switzerland
ROS Industrial Workshop – July 14-15, 2016 – Singapore
MARSS 2016 – July 18-22, 2016 – Paris, France


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


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Micro quadruped robot

This Is the Tiniest Little Quadruped Robot We've Ever Seen

The fact that most insects (except for the really freaky ones) are very small doesn’t stop them from getting everywhere they want to, especially all of those places that you try to keep them out of. Roboticists have been experimenting with bug-sized robots, but they’re still pretty large, about the size of giant beetles or moths. Most insects are far smaller than that, which means that they experience the world much differently, and that can be a hard thing to study effectively.

At ICRA last month, Ryan St. Pierre and Professor Sarah Bergbreiter from the University of Maryland presented a paper on the gait characteristics of magnetically actuated legged robots weighing less than 2 grams, which was very cool to see. It’s only the beginning, though: robots like these are about to get way, way smaller.

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Long Range Anti-Ship Missile

Why Should We Ban Autonomous Weapons? To Survive

This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.

robots report icon

Killer robots pose a threat to all of us. In the movies, this threat is usually personified as an evil machine bent on destroying humanity for reasons of its own. In reality, the threat comes from within us. It is the threat of war.

In today’s drone warfare, people kill other people from the safety of cubicles far away. Many do see something horrific in this. Even more are horrified by the idea of replacing the operator with artificial intelligence, and dispatching autonomous weapons to hunt and kill without further human involvement.

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Asus Zenbo home robot

Asus Zenbo Attempts to Convince Us That We Need a $600 Home Robot

Joining the small army of social robots about to invade our homes (including Jibo, Buddy, Alpha, to name just a few) is, suddenly, Zenbo, a rotund little tablet-on-wheels that Asus announced this week at Computex in Taipei, Taiwan. It supposedly does all the same stuff that every other social robot does, but even knowing that, we’re still obligated to ask the question that often annoys the heck out of roboticists: yes, it’s cool, but what does it actually do that’s distinctive and unique and that I’ll care about once the initial novelty wears off?

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Dash Robotics Kamigami robots.

Video Friday: Swarming UAVs, Perching RoboBees, and Skydiving Kamigamis

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

RoboBusiness Europe – June 1-3, 2016 – Odense, Denmark
Dynamic Walking 2016 – June 4-7, 2016 – Holland, Mich., USA
IEEE RAS MRSSS 2016 – June 6-10, 2016 – Singapore
CR-HRI – June 6-10, 2016 – Orlando, Fla., USA
NASA SRRC Level 1 – June 6-11, 2016 – Worcester, Mass., USA
Field Robot Event – June 14-18, 2016 – Haßfurt, Germany
RSS 2016 – June 18-22, 2016 – Ann Arbor, Mich., USA
European Land Robot Trial – June 20-24, 2016 – Eggendorf, Austria
Automatica 2016 – June 21-25, 2016 – Munich, Germany
ISR 2016 – June 21-22, 2016 – Munich, Germany
ICROM 2016 – June 23-25, 2016 – Singapore
The Rise of Machine Learning – June 24, 2016 – San Francisco, Calif., USA
UK Robotics Week – June 25-1, 2016 – United Kingdom
Hamlyn Symposium on Medical Robotics – June 25-28, 2016 – London, England
TAROS 2016 – June 28-30, 2016 – Sheffield, United Kingdon
RoboCup 2016 – June 30-4, 2016 – Leipzig, Germany
Amazon Picking Challenge – June 30-4, 2016 – Leipzig, Germany
IEEE AIM 2016 – July 12-15, 2016 – Banff, Canada
DLMC 2016 – July 13-15, 2016 – Zurich, Switzerland
MARSS 2016 – July 18-22, 2016 – Paris, France
IEEE WCCI 2016 – July 25-29, 2016 – Vancouver, Canada


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


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JumpRoACH, a robotic insect from SNU and UC Berkeley.

JumpRoACH Is a Robotic Bug That Leaps and Flips Just Like an Insect

In the quest for the most capable robotic bug (which is a quest that many roboticists seem to be on, because robotic bugs are nifty), some of the most exciting designs are inspired by the dynamic, multi-modal ways in which insects are conquering the world. Combining skills like running with skills like jumping can make little robots much more efficient movers, allowing them to go farther on a charge as well as helping them surmount obstacles and rough terrain.

Most of the small jumping robots we’ve seen before use a spring mechanism with a latch on it. The latch makes the spring state binary: the spring gets all wound up, the latch holds it, and then disengages on command, releasing all of the energy in the spring in one go. You can get a lot of power this way, but it’s an all or nothing sort of thing, so the magnitude (height, distance, whatever) isn’t controllable. 

At Seoul National University, South Korea, researchers have developed a new kind of jumping mechanism for robots that can potentially scale from itty bitty hops all the way up to aircraft carrier catapult launch (or almost). In collaboration with UC Berkeley, they’ve managed to stuff this thing into a familiar hexapedal crawler that we’re all familiar with (DASH), with the end result being a running, jumping robot called JumpRoACH that only weighs 60 grams but has an incredible 1.6 meters worth of hops.

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Kuka robot arm with BioTac sensor for human-robot interaction research

Researchers Teaching Robots to Feel and React to Pain

One of the most useful things about robots is that they don’t feel pain. Because of this, we have no problem putting them to work in dangerous environments or having them perform tasks that range between slightly unpleasant and definitely fatal to a human. And yet, a pair of German researchers believes that, in some cases, feeling and reacting to pain might be a good capability for robots to have.

The researchers, from Leibniz University of Hannover, are developing an “artificial robot nervous system to teach robots how to feel pain” and quickly respond in order to avoid potential damage to their motors, gears, and electronics. They described the project last week at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Stockholm, Sweden, and we were there to ask them what in the name of Asimov they were thinking when they came up with this concept.

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Video Friday: Whiskered Robot, Haptic Jamming, and Humorous Humanoid

ICRA is almost over, and we hope you’ve been enjoying our coverage, which so far has featured robot mothszipper actuators, machine learning, and duckies. We’ll have lots more from the conference over the next few weeks, but for you impatient types, we’re cramming Video Friday this week with a painstakingly curated selection of ICRA videos—emphasis on pain: there were over 400 videos!

We tried to include videos from many different areas of robotics: control, sensing, humanoids, actuators, exoskeletons, manipulators, prosthetics, aerial vehicles, grasping, AI, VR, haptics, vision, and microrobots. There’s even a cybernetic living tree that drives around on a mobile robotic base! We’re posting the abstracts along with the videos, but if you have any questions about these projects, let us know and we’ll get more details from the authors.

We’ll return to normal Video Friday next week. Have a great weekend everyone!

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