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The Economics of Drone Delivery

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. This post was originally published at the Flexport Blog.

Two years ago, Jeff Bezos promised that Amazon would soon deliver packages by drone. “I know this looks like science fiction,” the Amazon CEO told Charlie Rose on “60 Minutes” as he stood with several Amazon drones. “It’s not.”

Bezos’s primetime announcement sparked a lot of interest—and a media consensus that it was a publicity stunt to get Christmas shoppers thinking about Amazon. After all, federal law prohibited commercial drones from flying over populated areas, and airplanes were already experiencing close calls with hobbyists’ drones.

But the drone community is not acting like the prospect of delivering packages by drone is a pipe dream. Amazon just released an update of its Prime Air program. Executives at Google Wing claim they will deliver packages in 2017 via drone. Walmart has asked the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to test drone delivery, and venture capitalists have invested in drone delivery startups.

So what makes the drone community believe deliveries are a good idea? Assuming the technology works, do the economics make sense?

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Get Back to Work: Amazon and Airbus Want Your Robots

Hopefully, you’ve had some time off from robots over the last week or two. It’s been nice, hasn’t it? But your robot misses you, and it’s time to get back to work. And for 2016, how about you start training your robot to do something useful for a change, like transferring items from shelves to totes or drilling holes in airplanes. Both Amazon and Airbus have announced challenges for 2016. If your robot is talented enough, you could win a bunch of money, but more importantly, you could end up with serious attention from an enormous company that wants to do stuff with your robot.

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Why Co-Bots Will Be a Huge Innovation and Growth Driver for Robotics Industry

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.

Collaborative robots (also called co-bots) are designed to work alongside human workers, assisting them with a variety of tasks. Because co-bots are affordable, highly adaptable, and almost plug-and-play, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are eager to adopt this technology, and some analysts (myself included) expect this segment will see massive growth in the next few years.

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Disney’s VertiGo Combines Car, Helicopter to Drive Up Walls

For robots, multimodal is the way to go, when going involves getting to as many places as you possibly can. Designing a robot with the ability to deal with a variety of terrains or conditions usually requires some creativity, and in the past, some of the most creative designs have come from ETH Zurich and Disney Research, like this wall-climbing base-jumping tornado-powered robot called Paraswift.

As cool as Paraswift was, since it depended on suction to climb walls, it couldn’t deal with rough surfaces that prevented a solid vacuum seal. This led the Disney Research/ETH team to try something else, and that something else is a new robot called VertiGo, which is a sort of hybrid helicopter-car-thing that can drive on the ground and then transition to climb up vertical walls.

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Video Friday: Happy Robot Holidays!

UPDATED 12/23/15: More robot holiday videos added!

Happy holidays from all of us here at IEEE Spectrum. This week, we’ve collected a whole bunch of holiday-themed robot videos from around the Internet. If we missed yours, send it to us, or post a comment and we’ll add it. We’re going to take some time off over the next week, but we’ll be back in force with January, with in-depth coverage of whatever robots happen to show up at the Consumer Electronics Show, which kicks off the first week of 2016. We’ll also take a look back at 2015, and let you know what our plans are for the next year. Have a safe and fun December, and we hope you get all the robots you’ve ever wanted.

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Google and Johnson & Johnson Conjugate to Create Verb Surgical, Promise Fancy Medical Robots

This week, Google’s Verily (formerly Google Life Sciences) and Ethicon, a Johnson & Johnson medical device company, announced the formation of a startup called Verb. What is Verb? Something about medical robotics, I guess:

“In the coming years, Verb aims to develop a comprehensive surgical solutions platform that will incorporate leading-edge robotic capabilities and best-in-class medical device technology for operating room professionals.”

Sounds good to me! But seriously, that’s not much to go on, so let’s see what we can piece together from the press releases put out from the various companies involved.

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Next Monday, Mandatory Drone Registration Begins

Late last month, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft System Registration Task Force Aviation Rulemaking Committee (FAAUASRTFARC) released a report consisting of a set of recommendations on how the FAA should implement mandatory registration of consumer drones. You can read all about that here. The key word there (besides FAAUASRTFARC) is “recommendations,” meaning that how the FAA would in practice set up drone registration was still a bit of a mystery. Yesterday, the FAA announced the actual rules that pretty much everyone who flies a drone will have to follow. The good news is that the FAA took most of the committee’s suggestions, but the bad news is that it didn’t take all of them.

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Review: iRobot Roomba 980

The Roomba 980 caught our attention when it was announced back in September because it’s the first iRobot vacuum robot in a very long time to incorporate a major upgrade to its cleaning technique. For generations, Roombas have used a sensor-driven pseudorandom coverage method to bounce around a room, cleaning every part of your floor an average of three times, from several different angles. This is an effective way to clean, but it’s not particularly efficient, and it’s often difficult for Roomba to cover an entire level of a home with multiple rooms.

What’s new about the Roomba 980 is that it can localize: it builds a map of its environment (your house) and then intelligently navigates to make sure that it covers every spot. Previous Roomba models can typically clean up to three rooms on a single charge; they can’t handle more than that because, once they go back to the charging dock, they don’t have a map to know where to resume from. Roomba 980 solves that problem: it can make its way from room to room, beeline back to its charging dock when its battery gets low, and then continue right where it left off. For the first time, you can rely on your Roomba to clean your entire single-level floor without supervision or assistance, which is incredibly awesome.

It’s no surprise that the most sophisticated Roomba ever is the most expensive: it costs just shy of US $900. Is it worth the premium? We’ve spent some time with the Roomba 980, and we have a full review for you to check out. We also spoke with Melissa O’Dea, Roomba 980 product manager at iRobot, to learn more about how the robot’s navigation system works.

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Video Friday: Laser SnakeBot, Million Object Challenge, and Karma Is Coming

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your ready-for-the-holidays 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!):

RoboUniverse San Diego – December 14-16, 2015 – San Diego, Calif., USA
ASSISIbf Winter School – January 12-14, 2016 – Lausanne, Switzerland
ASU Rehabilitation Robotics Workshop – February 8-9, 2016 – Tempe, Arizona, USA

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

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ROS, the Robot Operating System, Is Growing Faster Than Ever, Celebrates 8 Years

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.

Eight years ago, Morgan Quigley, Eric Berger, and Andrew Ng published a paper that was not about ROS. It was about STAIR, the STanford Artificial Intelligence Robot, which used a library called Switchyard to pass messages between software modules to perform complex manipulation tasks like stapler grasping. Switchyard was a purpose-built framework that was designed to be modular and robot-independent, and it was such a good idea that in 2009, “ROS: An Open-Source Robot Operating System” was presented at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Japan. As of this month, the paper introducing ROS has been cited 2,020 times, an increase of more than 50 percent over last year.

The popularity of one single paper is only a minor indicator of the popularity of the robot operating system that it introduced. At eight years old, ROS is growing faster than ever, and helping the robotics community to grow along with it. We’re especially excited to see how brand new startups have been taking advantage of the open source nature of ROS to help them develop useful, reliable robots that are creating entirely new markets. In 2015 alone, more than US $150 million in VC funding (that we know of) was invested in businesses that utilize ROS.

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