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Sony's New Drone: a Modern Take on a Familiar Design

Last month, Sony Mobile announced a partnership with ZMP to build drones. Or rather, “to collaborate on the development and launch of enterprise solutions using autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles for image capture combined with cloud-based data processing.”

Okay then.

To me, this kind of sounds like Sony mostly just not wanting to be left out of this whole drone thing that everybody seems to be so excited about, so they figure they’d better come up with some drones that can, you know, do some… stuff (they mentioned “solutions that meet needs including measuring, surveying, observing, and inspecting”). Having said that, if Sony can develop a reliable and streamlined real-time cloud interface for drones, that would be pretty cool.

The partnership between Sony and ZMP is called Aerosense, and yesterday, they released a flight test video of their new fixed-wing VTOL drone.

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Video Friday: Giant Fighting Robots, Glass 3D Printer, and 10 New Robots from Fetch

Once again, the biggest thing that happened in robotics this week was apparently something about a giant robot duel, despite the fact that we posted some absolutely excellent stuff about robot arms control and simulated evolution in leafcutter ants. But, it’s basically impossible to compete with giant robot duels, so that’s what we’re starting with today.

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Ban or No Ban, Hard Questions Remain on Autonomous Weapons

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

Last month, over 1,000 robotics and artificial intelligence researchers signed an open letter calling for a ban on offensive autonomous weapons, putting new energy into an already spirited debate about the role of autonomy in weapons of the future.

These researchers join an ongoing conversation among lawyers, ethicists, academics, activists, and defense professionals on potential future weapons that would select, engage, and destroy targets without a human in the loop. As AI experts, the authors of the letter can help militaries better understand the risks associated with increasingly intelligent and autonomous systems, and we welcome their contribution to the discussion.

By calling for a ban on autonomous weapons, the letter raises a host of complex issues, and it will take continued engagement by scientists to help address them. In this article, we discuss some historical precedents for weapons bans, as well as some of the specific challenges that an effective restriction on lethal autonomous weapons would face.

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Robots Discover How Cooperative Behavior Evolved in Insects

Insects like bees, termites, and ants have somehow figured out a whole repertoire of extraordinarily complex cooperative behaviors, which is all the more remarkable considering that their brains are the size of, uh, something very small. They team up to build structures, forage for food, and move enormous amounts of material relative to their size. All of this cleverness has evolved over time, Darwinian selection-style, but without waiting around for however many millions of years that took, it’s hard to see it in action.

In a paper published this month in PLOS Computational Biology, researchers used identical simulated robots to watch behavioral evolution in action, and remarkably, the robots were able to figure out how to organize themselves into a system of specialized division of labor completely on their own.

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This Robot Submarine Inspects the Worst Pools Ever

I’ve been swimming in a lot of weird places. Some of them have even been a little dangerous. But I would never, ever, ever go swimming inside of the core of a nuclear reactor, operating or otherwise. Neither would anyone else in their right mind, but it is the job of human inspectors to go out on catwalks over reactor vessels and dip long poles with cameras attached into the water to inspect the vessel’s interior to make sure that nothing evil is leaking out.

This is not a particularly safe nor fun activity, but you know who doesn’t care about safety or funness? Robots.

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What Boston Dynamics Is Working on Next

It’s almost impossible to get information out of Boston Dynamics (especially after this happened). Infuriatingly (for us), the way the company does PR is to just upload awesome videos on YouTube, sit back, and let millions of people be amazed by their newest robotic innovation while we desperately try to get a post up that says something more relevant than “go watch this video right now.” We even showed up at Boston Dynamics ourselves once, and mostly all that we learned was that Marc Raibert is an enigmatic guy on a pogo stick.

Raibert, and other people from Boston Dynamics, do speak at conferences sometimes, but usually they don’t talk much about future projects, and they almost always ask that anything new (or any outtakes that they might show, which are unfailingly hilarious) isn’t recorded.

Earlier this month, at the FAB 11 Conference at MIT, Raibert gave a 7-minute presentation as part of a panel on “Making Robots,” which also included Sangbae KimRuss TedrakeRadhika NagpalMick Mountz, and Gil Pratt. Raibert’s presentation featured some video that we’d never seen before as well as tantalizing hints of what Boston Dynamics has been working on.

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Video Friday: Erica the Android, Autonomous Drifting, and Birds Don't Like Drones

Now that it’s solidly in the middle of August, it’s a perfect time to remind you of some of the robotics events coming up at the end of the summer. First, there’s RoboBusiness in San Jose, Calif., September 23 and 24, featuring high profile keynotes from IBM’s Rob High (CTO of the Watson program) as well as Google’s Ray Kurzweil. Immediately afterwards, you’ll want to hop on a plane to Germany, for IROS 2015, in Hamburg, Germany, followed by ROSCon right next door. And if that’s not enough robotics for you, well, you should probably get therapy.

To get your fix today, though, we have plenty of robot videos, none of which require international travel.

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Chinese ‘Unmanned Factory’ Replaces 600 Humans With 60 Robots

According to an article in the People’s Daily, the “official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party” (so emphasis on that “according to”), the Changying Precision Technology Company in Dongguan, a sprawling industrial city north of Shenzhen, has replaced some 600 human assembly line workers with 60 robots, resulting in a fivefold reduction in manufacturing errors and an increase in production of over 250 percent.

This is the first unmanned factory in Dongguan,” the article says, and the initial step of a comprehensive industrial automation plan for the region called the “Robot Replace Human” program.

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MIT Finally Does Some Useful Research With Beer Delivering Robots

I have this suspicion that if it weren’t for beer, robotics research would be years, perhaps decades, behind where it is now. This is because beer is the answer to the question that everyone always asks about researchers about their robots, which is: “That’s cool, but what does it do?” If you can somehow answer that question with, “It brings me beer,” people immediately understand the value and importance of your research (and by extension robotics in general), no matter what it actually is.

Having said that, getting robots to deliver beer does in fact involve a lot of complex issues, including navigation, perception, grasping, and human-robot interaction. And once you’ve solved all of those, you still have to get groups of robots working together if you’re trying to deliver beer to all of your friends at the same time, which you totally should be. At MIT, they’ve developed a new kind of multi-robot task planner that enables beer deliveries to consistently occur even under uncertainty, and that’s a thing that the world obviously, desperately needs. 

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Why Roboticists Should Join the Trillion-Dollar Driverless Race

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.

There’s certainly a lot of questions about autonomous vehicles and how to regulate, insure, and make them safe as we start putting them on the street. But for me what is certain is that we’ll be able to sort through those issues, and a future of robotic cars cruising through our neighborhoods is ultimately inevitable. The fact is, removing the driver is as revolutionary today as removing the horse at the turn of the last century. The industrial revolution made affordable automobiles a reality. Now, technologies like cheap 3D sensing, ubiquitous connectivity, and novel AI algorithms will put self-driving cars on the road within the next decade.

To get to that future, however, I believe we’ll need an incredible amount of innovation—the kind of inventiveness and persistence we usually see in small, fast, nimble startups. These are the companies, I think, that will build the technologies needed for our future robot cars. So if you work in robotics and you’re not paying attention to autonomous vehicles, you’re ignoring a huge opportunity; in fact, you might be snubbing a trillion-dollar market.

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