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Neato XV-11 Update: Your Vacuum Just Got Smarter

The Neato Robotics XV-11 robot vacuum comes with a USB port for downloadable updates. And why shouldn't it? It's a robot, and one of the great things about robots is that you can teach them new stuff and make them smarter. While it's one thing to talk about firmware updates and new features in the abstract (which we hear a lot), it's quite another to put time and energy into developing them, and it's something else entirely to then offer said upgrades to your customers for free. This is what Neato has decided to do with the 2.1 version of their vacuuming software.

All you have to do is plug your robot into a computer (PC only, for now) with a regular old USB cable, download a little piece of software, and when the upgrade finishes, your vacuum will all of a sudden be intelligent enough to do the following:

  • Clean one specific 4' x 6' area with a new "spot cleaning" mode

  • Detect when it's tangled in carpet fringes, stop its brush, and back away

  • Clean faster and more reliably with many small navigation enhancements

  • Perform a "wiggle" while docking to ensure a good charging connection, even with dirty contacts

  • Understand English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Chinese, and Japanese

These improvements were designed and implemented through rigorous in-house testing as well as feedback from users. The changes to the docking procedure, for example, are a response to a problem that a few people encountered in some very specific situations that Neato nonetheless put some hard work into figuring out how to fix.

I'm a big fan of companies who stand behind their products to the extent that they're willing to continue to make them better even after you've already bought one. And this upgrade isn't just fixing a bug or patching a security hole, there are entirely new features that you get without having to buy anything. Neato says that this type of support for their robots is likely to continue, which is great news, since I'm still waiting for the upgrade that lets my XV-11 use its laser to keep my cat from clawing the drapes. ZAP.

[ Neato Software Update ]

$500 RC Truck Is an IED Detecting Robot That (Should Be) Affordable for Everyone

Robots like iRobot PackBots are great tools for (among other things) detecting IEDs, and they've managed to save the lives of countless soldiers, often by sacrificing themselves. Not every soldier (or even every squad) gets a PackBot, though, since the robots cost a lot of money: this 2010 contract suggests that we're looking at over $125,000 for a new iRobot PackBot 510 system.

At this rate, it's gonna be a while before every soldier can rely on a top of the line EOD robot, but in many cases, a top of the line robot (that costs a hundred thousand dollars) is overkill, or at the very least, not strictly necessary to still provide a valuable contribution to a squad of soldiers. Take the RC truck in the above picture. It's pretty fancy, as RC trucks go, with a top speed of 60 mph and costing several hundred dollars. That wireless surveillance cam may have added another couple hundred or so. The system was shipped to Afghanistan by the brother of a soldier stationed there, who used it scout for IEDs from the distant safety of an armored Humvee. A couple weeks ago, the little truck was vaporized when it managed to set off a 500 pound IED that might have otherwise been triggered by the Humvee itself, and this is the fifth IED that the truck has detected, although the first one that it's actually set off.

Here's an excerpt from an ABC News email interview with the soldier who was using the truck:

In his email, Chris Fessenden said the little truck has successfully found four IEDs since he first got it.

"We do mounted patrols, in trucks, and dismounted by foot," he wrote. "The funny thing is the Traxxis does faster speeds than the trucks we are operating in under the governing speed limit... so the traxxis actually keeps up with us and is able to advance past us and give us eyes on target before we get there."

"Is it a toy?" he wrote. "Yeah it is...is it fun... absolutely... but the guys here take the truck very seriously when out on [a] mission."

$500 is really, really cheap, especially when you consider how many lives this little thing has saved. Would it be too much to ask for the military to spend a relatively infinitesimal amount of money and just ship a bunch of these direct to Afghanistan? Apparently it is, because the guys who had the idea originally have set up a charity specifically to send as many toy trucks to Afghanistan as they possibly can. Feel free to donate here.

[ ABC News ] via [ Hackaday ]

PR2 and TurtleBot Team Up to Bring You Drinks

PR2 and TurtleBot robots at Bosch

I love how so much of what's recognized as practical robotics research nowadays seems to be largely motivated by programmers who are hungry, thirsty, bored, and too lazy to do anything about it themselves: "well, I could go get myself a drink, or instead I could just program this robot to get me one instead! Yeah, let's do that!"

In practice, of course, there's no laziness involved, and the problems tackled by these demonstrations are complex and highly relevant to everything from object recognition to grasping strategies to autonomous navigation. So what if successful completion of a task happens to involve a tangible reward for those hard-working roboticists? They've absolutely earned it.

This latest hackathon from Bosch's research lab in Palo Alto, Calif., involves a PR2 and a TurtleBot joining forces to take drink orders over the internet. The Bosch PR2, named Alan, is tethered to a ceiling-mounted power plug, so he's in charge of handling the fridge, choosing the right drink, and picking it up, while the TurtleBot (named BusBot) takes care of the actual delivery:

It does kinda look like the guy who gets the drink at the end is not the same as the guy who ordered the drink in the first place, but that's understandable. I'm sure to a robot, all us biological meatbags look pretty much the same.

[ Bosch RTC ]

Hexapod Robot Plays Beethoven

chiara piano playing robot

Just like humans, every robot comes with its own unique musical stylin'. Well, mostly unique. Except for the ones that are made from all the same parts with identical programming. But this hexapod, Chiara, has certainly found a comfy little niche for itself in the robotic classical piano world, by plonking away at some Beethoven. I love how this video takes us through the thought process of the robot (or whatever you want to call it), from raw vision to blob detection to kinematics. Have a listen:

Chiara itself is an open source educational robot developed by Carnegie Mellon University. It runs a free programming language called Tekkotsu, and this particular demo was put together by Ashwin Iyengar, a high school student. Nicely done, Ashwin, and good choice of music.

[ Chiara ]

[ Tekkotsu ]

You (YOU!) Can Take Stanford's 'Intro to AI' Course Next Quarter, For Free

stanford artificial intelligence ai course

Stanford has been offering portions of its robotics coursework online for a few years now, but professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig are kicking things up a notch (okay, lots of notches) with next semester's CS221: Introduction to Artificial Intelligence. For the first time, you can take this course, along with several hundred Stanford undergrads, without having to fill out an application, pay tuition, or live in a dorm.

This is more than just downloading materials and following along with a live stream; you're actually going to have to do all the same work as the Stanford students. There's a book you'll need to get. There will be at least 10 hours per week of studying, along with weekly graded homework assignments. The professors will be available to answer your questions. You can look forward to a midterm exam and final exam. If you survive, you'll get a certificate of completion from the instructors, along with a final grade that you can compare to the grades of all those supersmart kids at Stanford.

You won't technically earn credits for the course unless you're a Stanford student, but for all practical purposes, you'll be getting the exact same knowledge and experience -- transmitted directly to you by none other than two living Jedis of modern AI. Thrun, director of the Stanford AI Lab, led the team that won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, and, more recently, he helped develop the Google self-driving car. Norvig, a former scientist at Sun and NASA, is now director of research at Google and co-author of the leading textbook on AI.

Here's how it will all work: Anyone can sign up for the course online. It starts on October 2nd and lasts 10 weeks. Each 75 minute lecture (there are two per week) gets videotaped and chopped up into 15 minute chunks that you can stream whenever you want, and homework, quizzes, and exams are all digitized and completed over the internet. Professor Thrun gave us a few more details:

Grading will be automated. But we are recording video specifically to help students who got the answers wrong. We will use the exact same questions for everyone, including the Stanford students. In this way we can actually compare how well everyone is doing.

We will use something akin to Google Moderator to make sure Peter and I answer the most pressing questions. Our hypothesis is that even in a class of 10,000, there will only be a fixed number of really interesting questions (like 15 per week). There exist tools to find them.

As of yesterday, which is only the third day that the course has been available, over 10,000 students are already signed up, and since enrollment is open until September 10th, it's entirely possible that a couple hundred thousand people could end up taking this course. Sounds daunting, but professor Thrun is optimistic about the whole thing:

I am very excited. Teaching many students online has always been my dream. This quarter I get to affect more students than in my entire career before. And yes, we are already beyond my expectations, just 3 days in.

You can sign up for yourself at the link below, and keep up to date through the class Twitter feed here.

[ Introduction to Artificial Intelligence ]

RIBA II Healthcare Robot Gets Bigger Muscles, Cuter Ears

We first met RIBA (or, RIBA-I as we should start calling it) back in 2009, although the assistive robot has been around since 2004. Developed in a partnership between RIKEN (a natural sciences research institute in Japan) and Tokai Rubber Industries, RIBA's job is to lift people when asked nicely. Seems trivial, yes, but if you don't have a robot bear around to help you out, you either need to use an awkward and uncomfortable piece of machinery or have a person do it, and if you haven't noticed, we humans are hefty and getting heftier. This is especially problematic for healthcare workers who have to lift patients frequently, and often get injured doing so.

RIBA is snuggly soft to make lifting comfortable and fun, and the pronounced bearishness is there to help patients relax. This new and improved robot (RIBA-II) features springs to help it lift more weight, and it responds to both touch and voice commands:

So let's just run the numbers real quick on RIBA's increasing buffness: in 2006 RIBA could lift 40 pounds, in 2009 RIBA could lift 135 pounds, and RIBA II is now up to 175 pounds. Let's see, that would mean that RIBA will be cracking the 1,000 pound mark by around 2040, which might just be enough to keep up with the pace with which we humans are packing on weight. But it's gonna be close.

[ Press Release ] via [ Reuters ]

PR2 Successfully Bakes Giant Cookie From Scratch

This is it, folks. The epitome of robotics. After some practice runs, PR2 has successfully managed to bake itself a cookie completely from scratch:

Not being a baker, I'm not sure if it's normal for the cookie to look more or less the same coming out of the oven as it does going in. But whatever, it's got chocolate and sugar and butter in it, and we can just act all snooty and say that the cookie has been "deconstructed" by the robot in a spectacular show of culinary skill.

Obviously, there's still a bit of optimizing to be done with BakeBot here, and I'm sure that the students at MIT CSAIL are already putting in lots of overtime running this routine over and over again to try out new algorithms (and recipes). We can all be thankful that they're making this delicious sacrifice in a noble effort to extend the baking capabilities of robots everywhere while keeping their chocolate cravings at bay. Robotics sure is tough, isn't it?

[ MIT CSAIL ]

Foxconn To Replace Human Workers With One Million Robots

Foxconn, an electronics manufacturer from Taiwan with huge factories in China, generates about 40 percent of the global consumer electronics revenue by creating things like iPhones and computer components on giant assembly lines staffed by humans. Until recently, you'd probably never heard of Foxconn, but a series of worker suicides made us all take a hard look at where our electronics were coming from. Foxconn has made some improvements (including nets around tall buildings), but by all accounts, the core of the problem (the work) remains "repetitive, exhausting, and alienating."

Yesterday, Foxconn announced (at an employee dance party of all places) that they're planning on buying some robots to replace their human workforce. And by some robots, they mean one million robots over the next three years. So for every one robot Foxconn currently has working at their manufacturing plants, they're going to buy a hundred more.

At this point, it's not sounding like Foxconn is trying to augment its human workforce with robots to make things easier on the humans. Foxconn employs something like 1.2 million people, and it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that one robot could probably work as efficiently as 1.2 humans, especially considering that the robot can be less productive (even substantially less productive) if it just works more hours than a single human is capable of. I'm not suggesting that Foxconn is considering replacing the entirety of its production line -- which by the way will keep expanding at a furious pace -- with robots, but when you think about how much they spend providing food and housing for their human workers as well as the recent suicides, you can sort of see where their train of thought is heading here: This could be a shift from "mostly human" to "mostly robot," with about a million jobs in the balance.

While Foxconn's manufacturing plants are certainly not ideal places for humans to work, lots of people do currently work there, and those Foxconn employees depend on their jobs to the same extent that the rest of us do. I think we all realize that robots replacing humans when it comes to repetitive manufacturing jobs is a gradual inevitability, but it's a bit of a shock to consider a million robots over such a short span of time.

Rumor has it (and we should stress that these are rumors) that the actual robots being deployed at the Foxconn plants will come from ABB. Specifically, they'll be ABB's Frida robot, although funnily enough, ABB "insists that its robot isn't designed to replace human workers, but rather to work alongside them:"

So, in a nutshell, this might be great news for ABB. It might be good news for Foxconn. But for any of the million or so people with a job, a home, and a life at a Foxconn plant, things may be about to get even worse.

[ Xinhua ] via [ Hizook ]

Sarcos Exoskeleton Bringing Iron Man Suit Closer To Reality

sarcos exoskeleton robot suit

Ever wanted to become Iron Man? Here's some good news: Sarcos recently said that its second-generation exoskeleton robot suit, XOS 2, is now five years away from production. IEEE Spectrum contributor Susan Karlin writes:

The wearable robotics suit augments the operator's strength by using a system of high-pressure hydraulics, sensors, actuators, and controllers to bear the weight of an object, while leaving its wearer agile enough to kick a soccer ball. It's also lighter, stronger, and more environmentally resistant, and it uses half the power of the company's first exoskeleton, XOS 1, which rolled out in 2008. The XOS 2 has been nicknamed the Iron Man suit in homage to the high-tech power suit in the comics and movies.

We first wrote about the Sarcos exoskeleton more than five years ago, when it was just a prototype developed as part of a DARPA program. Since then, Sarcos, now a division of U.S. defense contractor Raytheon, has significantly improved the device. The XOS 2 exoskeleton is designed to lighten a soldier's load and help the military reduce injuries. It also lets you pretend you're Tony Stark:

Several other companies and universities are developing exoskeletons to help not just soldiers but also the elderly and other people who might need assistance to walk, climb stairs, and carry things around.

Most notably, Japanese firm Cyberdyne has created a robot suit called Hybrid Assistive Limb, or HAL, which is commercially available in Japan. Automaton writer Evan Ackerman tested the HAL system at CES in January, becoming the first man in the United States to try out the device.

Then there's U.C. Berkelely spinoff Berkeley Bionics, which last year introduced its eLEGS robotic exoskeleton, a very impressive system that is helping paraplegics to stand up and walk. The company is currently testing eLEGS with a select group of rehab centers, hoping to make it available for purchase in the next year or so.

Image and video: Raytheon

This Just In: Robots Prefer Tecate Over Bud Light

Presented without comment.

Well, mostly without comment. I will briefly mention that PR2 also spurns Bud Light, suggesting that robots do in fact have an inherent bias against beers that are terrible. And as far as Darwin goes, my guess is that he'd probably be in favor of Red Stripe but against Pabst Blue Ribbon. Nice job, Darwin: next time I throw a party, you're definitely invited.

If you want your own Darwin-OP to party with, by the way, he can be yours for a mere $12,000. Rehab sold separately.

[ Trossen Robotics ]

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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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