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Five Myths and Facts About Robotics Technology Today

Ever faster processors, cheaper sensors, abundant open-source code, ubiquitous connectivity, and the advent of 3D printing are some of the forces behind the recent proliferation of robots. As I see things, these forces will only get stronger, and as more robots become part of our lives—in homes, offices, factories, hospitals, and many other places—we'll inevitably face challenges involving our adoption and use of robots.

Some observers are voicing their fears about a decline in human-human interaction, while others warn of an irreversible and senseless loss of jobs, with robots taking over tasks that, they argue, should not be performed by machines (such as caring for the elderly). Trade-offs will certainly be part of our growing reliance on robotics and automation. And it will be up to us to manage these trade-offs, just as we have with other technologies such as electricity, the automobile, aviation, nuclear power, computers, and the Internet.

As a VC looking for investment opportunities in robotics, I talk to lots of different people about their views on the future of this industry. Many times what I hear from these people are totally contradictory, so I often have to come up with my own conclusions. Below I present a list of what I consider are five pressing issues concerning robotics—and I identify each as a myth or a fact. My hope is that they can provoke some thought and debate among engineers, policy makers, consumers, and investors. Let me know what you think.

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Video Friday: Ice Bucket Challenge With Robots, Dancing Drones, and Automata Movie

We just finished putting together our preliminary calendar for the 2014 IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), which kicks off less than a month from now in Chicago. As per usual, we have several hundred robotics papers that we want to check out, but at least this time, we'll have a TEAM there to tackle them all. And the format of IROS this year will be a bit different, with lightning-style preview talks accompanied by massive interactive sessions instead of the traditional powerpoint talks. It's gonna be awesome. But we're not there yet, so first, videos.

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FlipBot Is Why Your Car Needs a Tail

Cars are almost, but not quite, entirely incapable of acrobatics. We need to solve this. I'm not sure why we need to solve this, but we do, and the good news is roboticists are on it.

Following up on some work from last year on putting actuated tails on ground vehicles (inspired by other tailed robots like UC Berkeley's Tailbot), researchers from the University of Cape Town, in South Africa, have put a tail on a small RC car and gotten it to do a barrel roll.*

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NASA Training 'Swarmie' Robots for Space Mining

The absolute least efficient way to get air, water, and fuel into space is the way that we currently do it: by packing as much of it as we can into rockets on Earth, and then firing it off into orbit. If this is how we have to get supplies to the moon, or Mars, it's going to be ludicrously expensive and time consuming.

A much better solution is to extract everything that we need from wherever we are: where there's ice (the moon, Mars, and asteroids all have it), there's water, air with a bit of work, and with a bit more work, rocket fuel. Plus, there are likely other valuable resources scattered around all over the place, like minerals and metals. So, great, let's get on it! But first, we've got to find the stuff. And how is NASA going to do that? Robots.

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VertiKUL UAV Explores Practicalities of Delivery Drones

We’ve been skeptical about delivery drones ever since Amazon made it sound like delivery drones were 1.) easy and 2.) right around the corner. Realistically, there’s a huge amount of stuff that has to happen before delivery drones can work in practice; a lot of it is regulatory, but there are technical problems to be solved as well. Researchers at KU Leuven, in Belgium, have been working on some of these, including landing pads, cargo compartments, and range extension.

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Video Friday: George Takei Meets Baxter, Jibo Origins, and Underwater Cake

What with Savioke's secret project now out in the open, we're in desperate need of new mystery robots to obsess over. It's just not any fun being a robot journalist if there isn't something going on that nobody will tell you anything about, besides telling you that they can't tell you anything about it. It gives us a reason to live.

So please, please, please, for our sanity, send us anonymous emails, blurry cell phone pictures, anything we can fret and lust over. It would make us so happy.

Thank you.

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A Thousand Kilobots Self-Assemble Into Complex Shapes

When Harvard roboticists first introduced their Kilobots in 2011, they'd only made 25 of them. When we next saw the robots in 2013, they'd made 100. Now the researchers have built one thousand of them. That's a whole kilo of Kilobots, and probably the most robots that have ever been in the same place at the same time, ever [UPDATE: Some readers wrote in to say they disagree that this is the most robots in the same place at the same time ever. Rod Brooks says he was once in a warehouse in China with more than a thousand Roombas in storage. “Admittedly, they are in boxes rather than out running around and cooperating,” he says, “but it was a lot of robots!” Another reader claims that SRI has more than 1024 microrobots operating simultaneously. If you know of other massive robot swarms like that, let us know.]

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NASA Funds Robotic Tumbling Cubes for Space Exploration

NASA wants to go to an asteroid. Great! And once NASA gets there, then what? Exploration, of course, since that's what NASA does. But the microgravity (or minigravity?) environment is a challenging one to get around in. There's likely not enough gravity to use wheels or treads to drive across an asteroid, and moving from place to place using thrusters would be complicated and dangerous and suck up a lot of fuel. If you've taken the time to glance at the picture at the top of this article, you know one potential solution: robotic tumbling cubes that can move by themselves, as if by magic. That's because their motion is driven entirely from the inside.

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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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