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What Might Happen If an Airliner Hit a Small Drone?

In January, I wrote about a study from the failure-analysis company Exponent that examined the threat very small drones—ones of just a kilogram or two—could pose to aircraft if there were a collision. That study did so by looking at the kinds of damage done by birds of similar mass.

Some of the people who read that post responded that it glossed over the differences in composition between drones and birds, suggesting that drones, with their many metal parts and lithium-ion batteries, would be inherently more damaging. That seemed a fair critique to me, so I contacted George Morse, an expert on foreign-object damage to aircraft, to get his opinion.

Morse’s company, Failure Analysis Service Technology, based in Prescott, Ariz., specializes in the analysis of aviation mishaps, foreign-object damage in particular. Morse himself has done more than 4000 engine investigations, most the result of ingestion of nuts or bolts or other runway detritus rather than birds. So he’s probably in as good a position as anyone to suggest what the results might be if an aircraft were to collide with a small drone weighing a kilogram or two.

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AI Researchers Propose a Machine Vision Turing Test

Computers are getting better each year at AI-style tasks, especially those involving vision—identifying a face, say, or telling if a picture contains a certain object. In fact, their progress has been so significant that some researchers now believe the standardized tests used to evaluate these programs have become too easy to pass, and therefore need to be made more demanding.

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DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals Will Have 25 Teams, and a Surprise Task

The DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) just got bigger, more awesome, and more international. DARPA has just announced that 14 new teams from seven different countries have qualified to participate in the DRC Finals. These 14 teams join the 11 teams previously qualified during the DRC Trials.

This means a total of 25 teams will compete in what is possibly the most anticipated robotics event ever. Twenty five robots are a lot of robots. They will converge to the simulated disaster zone that DARPA will set up in Pomona, Calif., where the DRC Finals will take place in June.

In a call with reporters this afternoon, Gill Pratt, program manager for the DRC, said the tasks for the final challenge will be similar to the ones we saw at the trials. But this time the tasks will be “put together in a single mission” that teams have one hour to complete.

The robots will start in a vehicle, drive to a simulated disaster building, and then they’ll have to open doors, walk on rubble, and use tools. Finally they’ll have to climb a flight of stairs. But one more thing, Pratt said: there will be a surprise task waiting for the robots at the end.

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The Heaphy Project: Crowdsourced Robot Servants and the Willow Garage Spin-off That Never Was

Willow Garage, the now-disbanded Silicon Valley robotics incubator, unleashed some of the most impactful robot technologies of the past half-decade. Today, this formidable legacy lives on, in great part, through a host of Willow spin-offs that remain at the forefront of robotics. This article is not about them.

It’s about a Willow Garage project that was, at one point, on the verge of being spun out of the incubator, but is now all but forgotten. The project, called Heaphy, recognized that robots were still too limited in what they could do autonomously, and that instead of improving artificial intelligence, an alternative would be relying on more human intelligence.

Heaphy aimed to recruit people online and train them to operate Willow’s powerful PR2 robots to carry out everyday tasks like serving drinks and collecting trash. The remote operators would be paid for their work and could be anywhere in the world, using only a web browser to control the robots. Thus the idea of crowdsourced telerobotic labor was born.

To be sure, the notion of a stranger halfway around the world commanding a robot servant and doing your chores for you sounds like something straight out of a sci-fi movie. But as it happened, Heaphy demonstrated that that concept could potentially work in the real world.

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NASA's Super Ball Bot Could Be the Best Design for Planetary Exploration

NASA’s Super Ball Bot has to be one of the most bizarrely and effectively innovative robot designs we’ve ever come across. It’s a tensegrity structure, nothing more (and nothing less) than a bunch of rods connected by a bunch of cables. It’s almost certainly not what you picture when you think of a robot, much less a robot that’s intended to head into space. At NASA Ames Research Center, they’ve been working on this project through NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, and we have an update for you about what they’ve been up to.

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Video Friday: AI Arcade, iCub on One Leg, and Robot Head in Your Kitchen

It’s going to be a long, long time before robots are sophisticated enough that we should worry about them taking over from humans. Having said that, there are things that are simple enough for artificial intelligence systems to learn to solve faster and more effectively than humans can. Like video games. When it comes to video games, humans really are doomed, and you can watch it happen right now.

That, and other videos, because it’s Video Friday.

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Sony Halts Support for Aibo, Still One of the Best Robot Toys Ever

Sony stopped making the Aibo robot dog in 2006. In robot years, that’s ages ago. Still, many robot enthusiasts would agree that these little robotic pets remain one of the most sophisticated consumer robot toys that you can ever hope to own. In fact, after the first Aibo was released in 1999, Sony worked very hard to improve the robot with each generation.

While consumer robots ultimately weren’t profitable for Sony, the Aibo is now an icon (there’s one at New York’s Museum of Modern Art), and the company did a good job of supporting Aibo owners with accessible software and repairs. But that’s all over now. According to a Wall Street Journal story, Sony is officially discontinuing Aibo maintenance services, citing lack of available spare parts.

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Robotnik Enters Mobile Manipulator Market With RB-1

It’s a good time to be in the market for a mobile manipulator. After recent announcements by both PAL Robotics and Fetch Robotics, Spanish company Robotnik has stepped up with their take on an affordable robot that can move around and actually, you know, do things for you: RB-1.

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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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