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Why Teaching a Robot to Fetch a Cup of Coffee Matters

In robotics, as in life, it often takes small steps to reach a big goal.

We try to post about robotics research that’s engaging and fun, and it’s easy to look at some of what we cover and wonder why it’s at all relevant. [Editor's Note: We dedicate this post to a recent commenter named David.] Being fun and being relevant are not things that are mutually exclusive, and we put a lot of energy into finding things that have a bit of both. At the 2013 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) this week, we spotted a good example of this: a presentation by Stanford researchers about a PR2 robot autonomously fetching a cup of coffee from a coffee shop. It’s a cool video to watch, and we’ll lay out for you why getting a PR2 to do this is advancing the field of robotics as a whole.

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Shrewbot Uses Whiskers to Map Its Environment

Robots that make maps tend to be highly reliant on vision of one sort or another, whether it’s a camera image or something off the end of the visible spectrum like a laser scanner. This is understandable: humans are adapted to use vision, so we understand it pretty well, and we can get a lot of useful information out of a visual image. Animals, on the other hand, take advantage of a much broader suite of senses, specialized for their environments. If you only come out at night, or if you live in a hole, vision is perhaps not the best solution for you, and a robot modeled after a shrew can now make maps using just tactile feedback from a prodigious set of artificial whiskers.

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This Robot's Acrobatic Leaps Are the Coolest Thing You'll See Today

Animals can jump. It’s one of the things that makes them so good at getting around. To be more specific, though, animals can generally jump in addition to whatever other method of movement that they employ. We’ve seen lots of robots that can run, and lots of robots that can jump, but with a few exceptions, there hasn’t been a lot of effective crossover, because building a robot that’s physically capable of doing both in a useful manner is not an easy task.

Now University of Pennsylvania researchers, presenting today at 2013 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), showed what happened when they taught their RHex legged robot to jump. The results are pretty darn amazing.

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Quadrotor With Tilting Propellers Can Twist in Midair

Conventional quadrotors are what’s called underactuated robots, which means that they can move in more ways than they have independent control over. For example, they can happily yaw around to any angle you want while otherwise stationary, but if you ask them to pitch or roll, they can’t do it without also changing their position: if you try to roll a quadrotor left, the whole robot is going to fly left, and if you try to fly a quadrotor left, the whole robot is going to roll left.

Having controls coupled together like this places some restrictions on what you can do with quadrotors, but a new design presented yesterday at the 2013 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) gets around all of that with propellers that tilt.

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MIT Robots Can Assemble Your IKEA Furniture For You

Oh, IKEA. Your modern and affordable Scandinavian-inspired furniture is full of such promise. We tell ourselves over and over again that yes, we really are smarter than a bunch of flat pack boards and fastening devices that look like they could function as legal tender on some alien planet. It’s not true, though. We’re not smarter than a disassembled Lack table, and this is why we need robots.

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Rethink Robotics Opens Up Baxter Robot For Researchers

Rodney Brooks, founder and CTO of Rethink Robotics, revealed a number of surprising things when Evan and I visited the company last year, just before it unveiled its Baxter industrial robot to the world. There was the robot itself, of course, designed to be safe, versatile, easy to program, and incredibly inexpensive—the opposite of what traditional industrial robots are. Its humanoid features were also a bit unexpected—a factory robot with a friendly face!

But another thing that surprised us was the company's emphasis on software. Rethink doesn't want to be just a robot maker. It wants Baxter to be a platform that anyone can use to improve on existing applications as well as develop completely new ones. To achieve that, Rethink needs to open up its technology, and last week the company announced a major step in that direction: a version of Baxter designed for researchers.

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IEEE Spectrum's award-winning robotics blog, featuring news, articles, and videos on robots, humanoids, drones, automation, artificial intelligence, and more.
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Erico Guizzo
 
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Evan Ackerman
 
 
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