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Crawling iCub Is the Robot Baby You Never Wanted

As far as robot babies go, iCub is not the weirdest of the bunch. The fact that it's also one of the most capable robot babies out there doesn't necessarily help its case, though, since watching it crawl around the floor is a tad unnatural, to say the least:

iCub, if you remember, is designed to emulate a three and a half year-old child, although personally I don't know any kids that young who I'd trust with a bow and arrow (or a lit torch). In addition to these potentially destructive hobbies, and crawling, iCub is intended to explore how human cognition develops, using facial expressions and adaptive learning techniques. Sometimes those facial expressions don't work out so well, though, especially when iCub is being calibrated:

Yeah, uh, I don't know exactly what button they pushed to get iCub to look like that, but I just wish I had one attached to me somewhere. Here's a photo of iCub enjoying San Francisco, and below is one more pic of the bot looking slightly more normal, from the expo floor at the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems last week:

[ iCub ]

Asimo Can Copy Your Dance Moves

Asimo, the Honda humanoid, one of the world's most loved robots, was showing off its dance moves this week at the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in San Francisco.

The robot was here to demonstrate some new tricks it's been learning from scientists at the Honda Research Institute in Mountain View, Calif.

Victor Ng-Thow-Hing, Behzad Dariush, and colleagues work with Asimo seeking to develop robotics technologies that can assist people, especially in terms of mobility.

In one demonstration, the scientists showed how Asimo can mimic a person's movements in real time. The researchers use Microsoft's Kinect 3D sensor to track selected points on a person's upper body, and their software uses an inverse kinematics approach to generate control commands to make Asimo move. The software prevents self collisions and excessive joint motions that might damage its system and is integrated with Asimo's whole-body controller in order to maintain balance. The researchers say that the ability of mimicking a person in real time could find applications in robot programming and interactive teleoperation, among other things.

In another demo, the scientists showed how they're using gestures to improve Asimo's communication skills. They're developing a gesture-generating system that takes any input text and analyzes its grammatical structure, timing, and choice of word phrases to automatically generate movements for the robot. To make the behavior more realistic, the scientists used a vision system to capture humans performing various gestures, and then they incorporated these natural movements into their gesture-generating system.

Here's a video showing these two demos:

This was my first encounter face to face with Asimo, and upon close inspection I noticed something on Asimo's face that I didn't know it was there. Take a look at the photo below. Can you see it?

honda asimo humanoid robot smiling

Photos: Evan Ackerman; video: Erico Guizzo and Evan Ackerman

Boston Dynamics' AlphaDog Quadruped Robot Prototype on Video

Looks like one those Boston Dynamics prototype videos that we were treated to on Tuesday here at the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems has been approved for public release by DARPA. It shows Boston Dynamics' gigantic new quadruped, which is apparently not called "BullDog" as we were told a few days ago. Instead, the official name is now "AlphaDog," but it may as well be "HugeAndAwesomeDog." Seriously, check this beast out, and and make sure to listen very, very closely:

Badass. Oh, and if you were listening, you may have noticed that AlphaDog does not sound like a swarm of killer zombie bees. Amazing!

A couple notes on the video: those weights that AlphaDog is carrying in a few of the clips weigh a total of 400 pounds (180 kilograms), and the robot will be able to carry that load up to 20 miles (30 kilometers) over the course of 24 hours without having to refuel. At the end of the running demo (just after the 45 second mark), the robot collapses into the safety frame like that simply because it ran out of room, not because of any kind of mechanical problem. And notice how two people pushing as hard as they can don't phase AlphaDog in the least, and in the event that it does tip over for some reason, it has no trouble self-righting, which is a useful new feature.

As cool as BigDog was (and is), its relatively limited payload, range, and awful noise kept it from being a realistically deployable system. AlphaDog, on the other hand, looks like it's getting very close to something that we could see out in the field, using GPS navigation and computer vision to follow soldiers while carrying their gear over any kind of terrain. Boston Dynamics' schedule has the first walk-out of AlphaDog taking place sometime in 2012, when DARPA and the U.S. Marines will begin to put the robot to the test for real.

[ Boston Dynamics LS3 AlphaDog ]

Tiny Robot Makes Big Jumps with Explosive Microrockets

We've seen all kinds of crazy jumping robots, from humanoids to grasshoppers to soft and flexible spheres. But when you start making small robots, like seriously small robots (on the millimeter scale), you have to find new ways to get them to jump, and the Army Research Laboratory has teamed up with the University of Maryland to develop a couple clever ideas.

Pictured above is a four millimeter-long robot, complete with a power source, an integrated control system, and light sensors. To move, it relies on on the rapid conversion of stored chemical energy to gas in a chemical reaction, which is just a fancy way of saying either "rocket motor" or "controlled explosion." Underneath the robot is a small chip of nanoporous silicon that gets infused with a sodium perchlorate oxidizer, and when a current heats up the chip, it ignites, propelling the robot upward. Initial tests have yielded a jump height of about eight centimeters, which doesn't sound like much, but the robot is so small that it's still outjumping its own size by a factor of 20.

The other jumping bot that these researchers have come up with is a bit more traditional, using microfabricated elastomer springs to store up energy and release it all at once to make a jump. This method may be a bit less violent than the rocket-powered bot, but the spring robot depends on an external power source (a dude pushing the spring down with tweezers). With this human help (which will eventually replaced by micromotors to wind the spring up) it can jump really, really high, at about 80 times its own height. You can see both of these robots in action in the video below: 

The next step for these robots is to tweak them to be able to jump more than once, and in the direction that you want them to go. Oh, and to figure out how to get them to land properly, and then do productive stuff once they return to Earth. For the chemical jumping robot, adding little nozzles to the chemical engine should solve the steering problem while also quadrupling its effective power by directing the thrust more efficiently. Stitching an array of about 100 of these engines together along the bottom of a microbot could allow for a whole series of jumps (and even jumps followed by mid-air rocket pulses to keep flying), ultimately resulting in a range of some 65 meters, which works out to be a staggering 16,000 times the length of the robot itself. Not bad at all.

Ultimately, the idea is that these bots will be fast and cheap to manufacture, easy to deploy, and expendable enough that it'll be possible to use swarms of them for things like surveillance and monitoring and terrorizing your imagination.

"First Leaps Toward Jumping Microrobots" by Wayne A. Churaman, Aaron P. Gerratt, and Sarah Bergbreiter from the Army Research Laboratory and the University of Maryland Microrobotics Lab was presented this week at the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems.

[ UMD Microrobotics ]

Boston Dynamics' Bigger BigDog Robot Is Alive

UPDATE 9/28 10:55 a.m.: Looks like the embargo on the videos was broken. At least one person has posted videos on YouTube. We're including these vids below.
UPDATE 9/28 12:26 p.m.: Videos were removed. Sorry, folks, we'll have to wait for the official vids.
UPDATE 9/30 4:05 a.m.: Video of Boston Dynamics' new, bigger quadruped, called AlphaDog, is here. Vid of Petman still not available.

boston dynamics ls3 bulldog robot quadruped

Boston Dynamics, the company that brought the world the beloved BigDog quadruped robot, is now showing off its newest beast.

Think BigDog on steroids. The new robot is stronger, more agile, and bigger than BigDog. The official name is LS3 (Legged Squad Support System), but it seems that the Boston Dynamics guys are calling it BullDog instead.

Marc Raibert, the flower-patterned-shirt-wearing founder and president of Boston Dynamics, discussed the LS3 project in a keynote talk today at the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems.

Boston Dynamics, based in Waltham, Mass., has made significant progress in transforming the DARPA-funded LS3 robotic mule project into reality.

boston dynamics ls3 quadruped robot bulldog

boston dynamics ls3 cad image

Like BigDog, the new robot is designed to assist soldiers in carrying heavy loads over rough terrain. But whereas the original BigDog could carry a payload of 340 pounds (about 150 kilograms) and had a range of 12 miles (20 kilometers), LS3 can carry 400 pounds (180 kilograms) and will have a range of 20 miles (about 30 kilometers).

It's also quieter, and the Boston Dynamics engineers are teaching it some new tricks: It will be able to jump over obstacles, right itself after a fall, and navigate with greater autonomy than its predecessor.

Raibert awed the audience with some amazing videos of the LS3 robot mule navigating rough terrain, trotting, and getting shoved (without losing its balance) not by one but two people at the same time! Alas, we can't show you the videos yet. Raibert told us that he's still getting permission from DARPA to make them public. So in a week or two we'll have them for you.

Raibert also talked about Boston Dynamics' humanoid project, called Petman. It's an adult-sized humanoid that the U.S. Army, which funds the project, will use to test chemical suits and other protective gear.

boston dynamics petman humanoid robot

Petman is another amazing Boston Dynamics creation. Raibert again stunned the audience with some really impressive videos of the humanoid walking, kneeling, squatting, and even doing push-ups!

This is the first time I see a machine performing movements like that. They look remarkably human, yet there's something uncanny valley-esque to them. No wonder Petman creeps out even Raibert himself. And you guessed it: The videos are embargoed as well; we hope to have them here soon.

By the way, if you like robot dogs, Boston Dynamics is hiring. Check out all robotics projects at the company in the slide below.

boston dynamics robotics projects

Images: Boston Dynamics

Robot Birds and Octoroaches On The Loose at UC Berkeley

No matter how fancy and complicated we make robots, nature always has us beat. Is there anything more capable, more efficient, and more utterly indestructible than a cockroach? Of course not. Not yet, anyway. UC Berkeley's Biomimetic Millisystems Lab is trying to harness all the cleverness of birds and insects to create an entirely new generation of little robots with insect-like capabilities, and one of their most recent creations is called "Octoroach." OCTOROACH!

Octoroach has eight compliant legs and is small enough and light enough to rest comfortably on your palm. Batteries, sensors, and navigation are all completely integrated. Eventually, Octoroach and robots like it are destined for the military, to provide that last 100 meters of vital close-up surveillance. And if 100 meters ends up being too far, you can just drop off your robo-roaches using robo-birds like this one:

This is BOLT, which stands for "Bipedal Ornithopter for Locomotion Transitioning." It's got a pair of little legs under its wings, and it can skitter around on the ground and over obstacles, saving energy by not having to fly unless it has to. Berkeley is also working on a second ornithopter called iBird, which is capable of flying towards a reflective target completely autonomously.

Check out all of these robots in action in the following demo, which was presented during a technical tour of UC Berkeley as part of this year's IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems:

[ UC Berkeley Biomimetic Millisystems Lab ]

George Devol: A Life Devoted to Invention, and Robots

george devol unimation unimate

George Devol was only 9 years old when the word "robot" first appeared, in 1921, introduced in Karel Capek's play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The robots in the play had a human form and were manufactured in vats like beer. In contrast, the robots that Devol would invent decades later were electromechanical machines -- the first digitally operated programmable robotic arms -- and they would start a revolution in manufacturing that continues to this day.

Devol, who died August 11, 2011, at the age 99, was a prolific inventor and entrepreneur. His work led to the development of the first industrial robot, called Unimate [photo above], a precursor of the machines that now automate assembly lines all over the world. But the industrial robot was only one of his contributions. With over 40 patents under his belt, Devol spent his lifetime transforming ideas into real products.

george devolI was fortunate to speak to Devol several times, in person and by phone, and in his conversations he was always humble, perceptive, and interested in the future. He enjoyed talking about his inventions, but never made boastful claims. Above all he seemed excited by all the technology coming along that he might still use. Being in his presence, I felt like I was interacting with one of those minds that only come along very rarely, a world-changing inventor like Edison or Tesla.

Born into wealth in Louisville, Kentucky, George Charles Devol, Jr. became interested in electricity and machines at an early age. He attended Riordan Prep and gained some practical experience helping run the school's electric light plant. But he didn't go to an engineering school upon graduation. He started a company.

It was a time when the age of electric motors and generators, control engineering, electrical transmission, and radio technology was in lift off. The first sound films, known as "talking pictures" or "talkies," cried for better sound integration, and Devol saw an opportunity. He used his experience with vacuum tubes, photocells, and circuits to form United Cinephone Corp., in 1932, trying to gain a position in film sound.

But the competition drove him to other pastures. Using the photocells and vacuum tubes he knew so well, he ended up creating one of the technological marvels of the modern world: the automatic door. He licensed the technology to a firm called Yale & Towne, which commercialized it as the "Phantom Doorman" photoelectric door.

Devol went on to work with color printing presses and packaging machines, and eventually develop an early form of bar coding, and later, digital magnetic recording. He was moving ever closer to robots.

In 1939, Westinghouse displayed Electro the robot at the New York World’s Fair. It was a large clanking, talking theatrical fulfillment of all those pulp and science fiction images that dominated the newsstands -- some of which were read by Devol.

In fact, in 1941 Isaac Asimov coined the word "robotics" in his story "Liar!" in Astounding Science Fiction magazine. Asimov told me in great detail when we met one evening in New York why he coined the word. He was tired of listing all the activities around robots such as design, construction, operations, manufacturing, etc. He wanted a word to cover all of this. He did not know at the time that Devol was already the living embodiment of robotics.

During the World War II period, Devol worked at Sperry Gyroscope, where he helped develop radar systems and microwave test equipment. Later he organized General Electronics Industries in Greenwich, Conn., which would become one of the largest producers of radar and counter-radar devices.

After the war, he worked on several other inventions. He was part of a team that developed the first microwave oven product, the Speedy Weeny, which automatically cooked and dispensed hotdogs.

In 1954, Devol applied for a patent for a device called the Programmed Article Transfer. Looking for an entrepreneurial partner, Devol found one, at a cocktail party, by the name of Joseph Engelberger, an executive with engineering degrees from Columbia University. Engelberger, who shared an enthusiasm for science fiction with Devol, took the transfer machine to his heart, he told me during an interview in 1977.

george devol patent

george devol unimation unimate

Their device morphed from "programmed article transfer" to "manipulator" to "robot." Devol and Engelberger made this decision to help improve their marketing opportunities. Selling the concept even with a working prototype was an uphill chore. But it paid off: The robot connection gave the project an extra dose of energy that helped it succeed.

The first Unimate, a product of their new Unimation Corp., was hydraulically powered. Its control system relied upon digital control, a magnetic drum memory, and discrete solid-state control components. In 1961 the first Unimate was installed at a GM plant in Trenton, New Jersey, to assist a hot die-casting machine. Unimation would soon develop robots for welding and other applications. Patent Number 2,988,237 was the seed that spawned the robot industry.

In one of my encounters with Devol, at the 1997 Automation Hall of Fame ceremony, I presented him with an award. During the reception, Sico, an entertainment and educational robot, rolled over to Devol and said, “Father, so good to see you!” A smile broke over Devol’s kind face, and we all laughed.

In a subsequent conversation Devol told me that none of his inventions were accepted quickly or easily. His persistence -- 99 years of it -- made the world a different place. May whatever robot angels exist lift you up and let you rest in peace.

Images: Bob Malone

We're at IROS 2011!

IROS (the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems) starts today in California, and we're here all week to bring you the best it has to offer. If you're not familiar with IROS, it's kinda like the fall version of ICRA. You remember ICRA, right? San Francisco may be (slightly) less exotic than Shanghai, but that doesn't mean that the robotics presentations are going to be any less awesome. 2,459 papers were submitted to the conference this year, and there will be ten (ten) conference tracks going on all at the same time, with rapid-fire 15 minute live presentations, and we're going to do our level best to be in all ten of those places at once. And on top of that, there's workshops, demos, and an exhibit hall.

This morning we're kicking things off with a three-hour tour of the UC Berkeley robotics lab, followed by an afternoon packed full of presentations, including animal robots, robot table tennis, brain interfaces, insect robots, and something about a shape-memory alloy robotic heart. All of this, just in half of day one!

Please bear with us if our posting schedule gets a little wonky this week; we're gonna be running ourselves ragged trying to keep up with all the cool stuff that's going on. Stay tuned!

[ IROS 2011 ]

Autom Robotic Weight Loss Coach Now Available for Pre-Order


It's been a long time coming, but Intuitive Automata's Autom robotic weight loss coach is now up for pre-order on a dedicated "MyAutom" website. If you haven't been following the saga of Autom, it was first an MIT Media Lab robot with a significantly different look. Autom's developer at MIT, Cory Kidd, co-founded Intuitive Automata to help commercialize Autom based on the original MIT project, and it's starting to look like everything will be coming together within the next year. Not to get off topic or anything, but it's fantastic to see a research robot like this make the difficult jump into the consumer market. Congrats to Dr. Kidd!

Anyhow, back to the robot. We know that Autom is designed to be exceptionally interactive, crunching data on your health, diet, and exercise regimen and giving back friendly and constructive criticism. Studies have shown that people who use Autom stick with their diet and exercise routines for twice as long as people using more traditional weight loss methods. Don't ask me how, maybe it's something about those big blue eyes?

If this sounds good to you, you can be one of the very first people to have this friendly little robot helping you out every day with a deposit of $195. This is not the final price, however, it's just the pre-order deposit. The final price is the $195 deposit plus a balance of $670 when the robot ships, for a total of $865. This does seem a bit steep, although I'll admit to not being familiar with how much a typical weight loss program costs.

On the upside, Intuitive Automota seems to understand that cost is, uh, an issue, and they're planning on working with health insurance companies and employers to try and subsidize things a bit. Anyway, pre-orders are open now, and you can find out a bit more info (but not all the info you'd probably want before spending most of a grand on a weight loss robot) at the website below.

[ Autom ]

This post has been updated to reflect the fact that Autom will not require a monthly subscription fee.



IEEE Spectrum's award-winning robotics blog, featuring news, articles, and videos on robots, humanoids, automation, artificial intelligence, and more.
Contact us:

Erico Guizzo
New York, N.Y.
Senior Writer
Evan Ackerman
Berkeley, Calif.
Jason Falconer
Angelica Lim
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