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Thirty Meter Telescope Project Is Stalled, but the Robot Needed to Build It Is Ready

The prosaically named Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project, a planned observatory to be built on Mauna Kea, the Big Island, in Hawaii, is huge in every way: a reported US $1.4 billion dollar budget, a giant mirror composed of 492 smaller mirror segments, and a goal of investigating not just the stars in our Milky Way but galaxies forming at the very edge of the observable universe.

Though this project is backed by the governments of China, Japan, Canada, and India, as well as the United States, it may never be built. For its location is considered sacred by some Hawaiians, whose protests have been heard all the way to the State Supreme Court of Hawaii, which in December 2015 invalidated TMT’s previously granted building permit.

With the project suspended for over a year, involved scientist and construction companies can only keep their fingers crossed that the contested case will go their way. In the meantime, Mitsubishi Electric, which has developed the main structure of TMT, announced this week the completion of a prototype robot for a segmented-handling system (SHS) to install and replace the mirror segments. No easy task, given each hexagonal segment weighs about 250 kilograms and measures 1.44 meters across corners.

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Vibrating Bat Wings Inspire Efficient Sea-Skimming Drones

Bats were clever enough to figure out how to fly without bothering to cover their wings with feathers. Good for them. And good for us too, because bats existing have helped us realize that wings composed of thin membranes work pretty well.

A team of researchers led by Professor Bharathram Ganapathisubramani at the University of Southampton, in England, have been experimenting with adjustable bat-inspired membrane wings that also vibrate as air passes over them. They’ve mounted these wings onto a micro air vehicle that uses them (along with ground effect) to zip across water fast and efficiently.

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Video Friday: Robot Gets Coffee, Drone in a Box, and Self-Driving Chairs

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

The Future of Rescue Simulation Workshop – February 29-4, 2016 – Leiden, Netherlands
ROS-Industrial Consortium Americas – March 3-4, 2016 – San Antonio, Texas
HRI 2016 – March 7-10, 2016 – Christchurch, New Zealand
RobArch 2016 – March 14-19, 2016 – Sydney, Australia
RoboCup European Open – March 30-4, 2016 – Eindhoven, Netherlands
WeRobot 2016 – April 1-2, 2016 – Miami, Fla., USA
National Robotics Week – April 2-10, 2016 – United States
AISB HRI Symposium – April 5-6, 2016 – Sheffield, United Kingdom
Robotics in Education 2016 – April 14-15, 2016 – Vienna, Austria
International Collaborative Robots Workshop – May 3-4, 2016 – Boston, Mass., USA
ICARSC 2016 – May 4-6, 2016 – Bragança, Portugal
Robotica 2016 – May 4-8, 2016 – Bragança, Portugal
ARMS 2016 – May 9-13, 2016 – Singapore
ICRA 2016 – May 16-21, 2016 – Stockholm, Sweden


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


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Cybernetic Third Arm Makes Drummers Even More Annoying

A few years ago, we wrote about this cybernetic arm that Georgia Tech professor Gil Weinberg developed for a drummer who had his right arm amputated. This was cool enough by itself, but back in 2014, Weinberg was already thinking about the next step: “robotic synchronization technology could potentially be used in the future by fully abled humans to control an embedded, mechanical third arm.” THE FUTURE IS NOW, and so are drummers that are 30 percent louder. Hooray?

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This Is the Most Amazing Biomimetic Anthropomorphic Robot Hand We've Ever Seen

There are two generalized schools of thought when it comes to robot hand design. You have robot hands that are simple and straightforward and get the job done, like two- or three-finger grippers that can reliably do many (if not most) things well without any fuss. And then you have very complex hands with four fingers and a thumb that are designed to closely mimic human hands, on the theory that human hands were intelligently designed by millions of years of evolution, and we’ve designed all of our stuff around them anyway, so if you want your robot to be able to do as many things as possible as well as possible you want a hand that’s as humanlike as possible.

Because of the inherent complexity of a real human hand, biomimetic anthropomorphic hands inevitably involve lots of compromises to get them to work properly while maintaining a human-ish form factor. Zhe Xu and Emanuel Todorov from the University of Washington, in Seattle, have gone crazy and built the most detailed and kinematically accurate biomimetic anthropomorphic robotic hand that we’ve ever seen, with the ultimate goal of replacing human hands completely.

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Video Friday: NOVA's Rise of the Robots, Gecko-Toe Grippers, and Why They Automate

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

The Future of Rescue Simulation Workshop – February 29-4, 2016 – Leiden, Netherlands
ROS-Industrial Consortium Americas – March 3-4, 2016 – San Antonio, Texas
HRI 2016 – March 7-10, 2016 – Christchurch, New Zealand
RobArch 2016 – March 14-19, 2016 – Sydney, Australia
WeRobot 2016 – April 1-2, 2016 – Miami, Fla., USA
National Robotics Week – April 2-10, 2016 – United States
AISB HRI Symposium – April 5-6, 2016 – Sheffield, United Kingdom
Robotics in Education 2016 – April 14-15, 2016 – Vienna, Austria
International Collaborative Robots Workshop – May 3-4, 2016 – Boston, Mass., USA
Robotica 2016 – May 4-8, 2016 – Bragança, Portugal
Advanced Robotics Systems and Competitions – May 6, 2016 – Bragança, Portugal
ARMS 2016 – May 9-13, 2016 – Singapore


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

* This post is generated by a spreadsheet. Seriously.

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AAAI Video Highlights: Drones Navigating Forests and Robot Boat Swarms

Last Friday, we posted a bunch of videos from the AAAI Video Competition. There are lots of good videos (really, they’re all good), and we didn’t want to play favorites or otherwise influence your votes, so we didn’t add much in the way of commentary or anything like that. But it’s been almost a week, and a few of those videos are certainly worth taking a closer look at. 

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Exoskeleton Makes Robotic Roach Flexibly Squishy

Last July, we wrote about a pair of papers from UC Berkeley that explored what happens when you put rigid shells on top of the skittery little legged robots that they’ve been working on over there for like a decade now. As it turned out, the shells offered some environmental protection, while also enabling the robots to autonomously negotiate obstacles that they’d have gotten stuck on otherwise. But real insects use their exoskeletons for much more, and by taking inspiration from that most noble of beasts, the mighty cockroach, UC Berkeley has developed a legged robot that can flatten itself out to slide through the narrowest of gaps. 

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Earthbound Robots Today Need to Take Flight

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.

The DARPA Robotics Challenge this past summer showcased how far humanoid robots have come—but also how far they have yet to go before they can tackle real-world practical applications. Even the best of the DRC behemoths stumbled and fell down, proving, as IEEE Spectrum noted at the time, that “not walking is a big advantage.”

There is, in fact, a new not-walking way for robots to perform many kinds of tasks better and faster: the dexterous drone.

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Study: Nobody Wants Social Robots That Look Like Humans Because They Threaten Our Identity

Everybody knows that anthropomorphic robots that try to look and act like people are creepy. The Uncanny Valley, and all that. There’s been a bunch of research into just what it is about such androids that we don’t like (watch the video below to get an idea of what we’re talking about), and many researchers think that we get uncomfortable when we begin to lose the ability to confidently distinguish between what’s human and what’s not. This is why zombies are often placed at the very bottom of the Uncanny Valley: in many respects, they directly straddle that line, which is why they freak us out so much.

Most of the time, robots (even the weird ones) don’t end up way down there with the zombies, because they’re usually a lot more obviously not human. The tricky part about robots, however, is that they can manifest “human-ness” in ways that are more than just physical. When robots start acting like humans, as opposed to just looking like them, things can get much more complicated. This is increasingly relevant with the push towards social robots designed to interact with humans in a very specifically “human-y” way.

In a recent paper in the International Journal of Social Robotics, “Blurring Human–Machine Distinctions: Anthropomorphic Appearance in Social Robots as a Threat to Human Distinctiveness,” Francesco Ferrari and Maria Paola Paladino from the University of Trento, in Italy, and Jolanda Jetten from the University of Queensland, in Australia, argue that what humans don’t like about anthropomorphic robots is fundamentally about a perceived incursion on human uniqueness. If true, it’s going to make the job of social robots much, much harder.

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