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Darwin-OP Learns To Play Dance Dance Revolution

If you're either too old or not old enough to remember the heyday of Dance Dance Revolution (aka DDR), that's totally fine. You're not missing much. It was (is?) a video game that involves "dancing" (I'm actually making air quotes over here) by standing on various combinations of floor sensors as instructed by a video screen in time to music of dubious quality but emphatic volume.

The primary appeal of DDR, as far as I've been able to tell, is watching your friends degenerate into crazy people while playing the game, and unfortunately, robots (even the sweaty ones) can't really offer this same level of entertainment (despite their mad dancing skills). I mean, if I was a robot tasked with playing DDR, I'd probably be wondering what all the fuss was about. You see an arrow, you make the movement, what's the big deal?

For this Purdue University Darwin-OP, it's not a big deal at all. A student there has decided that his summer robotics research project is going to be to teach Darwin to play DDR, which is so far looking to be an entirely possible task, with the help of a slick custom robots-only dance pad:

At the moment, Darwin relies on a balancing bar for stability and to enable faster moves, but you hardcore DDR players should be familiar with the safety bar on the arcade machines that could be used (by crafty humans) for essentially the same purpose. In the works is tuning the robot's vision system to allow it to play DDR for real, and bar-free stability may come after that. Is anyone else thinking that Robot DDR would make a great new RoboGames event? No? Just me? Oh.

Via [ Kotaku ]

Love Is in the Water For Some Reason at RoboSub 2011

It's the 14th year of AUVSI's RoboSub competition, which of course means that all of this year's challenges are love-themed. You know, because of 14. Valentine's Day. It's the 14th. Of February. Yeah, I dunno, if it was me I would have gone for a The Hunt for Red October theme or something a little, uh, edgier.

Anyway, the competition took place from July 12 to 17 at the U.S. Navy's SPAWAR System Center down in San Diego, where nearly 30 teams (including both high school and international teams) unleashed their autonomous robot submarines against a hapless swimming pool filled with gates, buoys, paths to follow, objects to retrieve, and targets to torpedo. If you're wondering why this is so hard, here's a comment on last year's competition from the 2010 Maryland team's advisor:

Some more food for thought on how difficult the competition is: navigation for subs can’t rely on GPS (GPS signals only penetrate a few inches in the water), there’s no contact with the ground (so you can’t use encoders), and substantial random currents render dead reckoning worthless. The teams that can afford it buy a Doppler Velocity Logger (costs around $20k) to give them ground-track velocity.

Water is a difficult environment in which to maneuver. Teams must either make a vehicle that is so large that it can’t spin out of control or make a vehicle that can control its 3D orientation as well as 3D position. There is a strict penalty for large vehicles, so most teams opt for fancy control. It is worthwhile to note that in some years of this competition only a third of the teams could actually drive underwater in a straight line.

Competition objectives include not just visual tasks which are difficult underwater (light patterns caused by sunlight passing through the surface are called caustics and make shape recognition challenging) but acoustic objectives as well. The highest-scoring competition objectives require a passive sonar system.

So yeah, even tasks that would be a dead cinch for a robot driving on land is extremely difficult for a robot under the water. I'd go on about this, but it's more fun to just watch the recap vids from all three days of the competition, so here you go:

Part of the competition required each team to put up a website about their robot, and you'll find links to all of those (with tons more info) at the link below.

[ RoboSub ]

Crawler Robot on the Loose at German Lab

I love the folks at DLR, the German Aerospace Center, because I always suspected that while building some of the most incredible robots they still could find time to have fun. My suspicion is now confirmed: A DLR engineer just emailed me the video below, noting that it was made "to show that working in robotics also means a lot of fun." Indeed!

The star of the movie is the DLR Crawler, a six-legged robot that the researchers use to develop autonomous vision-based navigation. Apparently the Crawler was feeling lonely in the vast lab and set out to make friends, eventually meeting the DLR humanoid robot Justin, which was practicing its ball-catching skills, and the DLR Hand-Arm-System, which was enduring yet more torture tests in the name of science.


Image and video: DLR

Watch Festo's SmartBird Robot Soar Over TED Conference

Festo's SmartBird robotic seagull is barely four months old, but already it's flown (or we should probably assume, been flown) from Germany to Edinburgh for the 2011 TEDGlobal conference. Festo's Markus Fischer, the SmartBird project leader, presented a short talk about SmartBird, along with a couple live demonstrations of the robot, complete with a few friendly dive-bombings:

If you're looking for another TEDTalk to wile away your Monday with, allow me to recommend Kevin Slavin's fascinating presentation on how algorithms are shaping our world, which uses some vacuuming robot pics that you might recognize to illustrate how abstract programming can have tangible effects on our daily lives.

[ TEDGlobal 2011 ]

Mutant Quadrotor MAV Lifts Off After a Century of Development

Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) are way, way more useful if they can hover. Hovering capability allows MAVs to operate indoors, and to make it happen, you have to rely on platform like a helicopter (or a quadrotor) or something more exotic. This thing definitely falls into the "more exotic" category -- it's called a cyclogyro, or cyclocopter.

Fundamentally, a cyclocopter is similar to a helicopter in that it creates lift through rapidly moving airfoils. Unlike a helicopter, a cyclocopter's airfoils rotate around a horizontal axis, continually changing their pitch in order to generate thrust in one single direction:

It's certainly not a simple system, which is why this idea (which has been around in the form of various prototypes for nearly a century) only got off the ground to make a first untethered flight just recently, thanks to a lot of hard work from Moble Benedict and his team at the University of Maryland. They've been developing a cycloidal rotor system made of carbon fiber and titanium that's so far been applied to both a quad cyclocopter and a twin cyclocopter, and they've successfully gotten the two rotor version (with a supplemental tail rotor) into an untethered and more or less stable hover:

You're probably wondering what the advantages of such a complex system are, and luckily, there are a few. Primarily, it's suggested that a cyclocopter would be more efficient than a helicopter, able to generate more thrust for a given amount of power. It's also thought that cyclocopters will prove to be more maneuverable, since the thrust can be vectored very rapidly. On the downside, you've got the overall complexity of the system to deal with, and the weight of the rotors might cancel out any efficiency gains.

There are definitely a lot of questions about the feasibility of a design like this, but in order to figure it out, the best thing to do is just build them and see what happens, and from the sound of things, the UMD team is finally cashing in on about a century worth of speculation.

[ Paper (*.PDF) ] Via [ UMD ]

iRobot Partners With InTouch, Ava to Start Caring About Your Health

Back in October of 2009 when iRobot first announced their new healthcare robotics unit, I posted my prediction about what kind of platform we might expect to see:

Here’s my guess: a small mobile platform that integrates the telepresence features of the ConnectR with some kind of simple artificial intelligence that could locate and recognize people, deliver reminders and information based on natural language voice queries, and summon help in an emergency. It would be connected to the internet and could integrate with, say, a doctor’s office or a pharmacy to provide prescription schedules and monitor drug interactions.

Turns out I wasn't far off with my telepresence concept. Just yesterday, iRobot announced a new partnership with InTouch Health (a remote presence telemedicine solution provider) to "explore potential opportunities for healthcare applications on iRobot platforms such as the iRobot Ava mobile robotics platform."

There aren't any details about what Ava will actually be doing (beyond nebulous statements like "we will revolutionize how people communicate and deliver information through remote presence"), but if anything, Ava is going to be capable of much more than I suggested in my original prediction, which was based on the relatively limited ConnectR platform. In retrospect, this is likely a big part of the reason why iRobot canceled ConnectR in the first place in favor of what would become Ava, but I digress.

It seems likely that Ava is going to start off in a hospital setting, cruising around and letting doctors interact with patients via telepresence. This isn't the first step towards robots replacing human doctors or anything, but if there's a specialist that you want to see who lives across the country, telepresence is far more effective than a phone call. As far as when we can expect Ava to start making house calls, well... Telepresence is one of the few robotics markets that consumers (or small businesses) could actually get involved in, so it's certainly possible that some of the telepresence technology embodied in Ava might eventually end up in some kind of Ava / ConnectR love-child. Now there's a mental picture for you.

[ iRobot ]

Robot Film Festival: Watch All the Films

robot film festival poster

This past weekend, a crowd of robot geeks, artists, and filmmakers converged on the futuristic-looking 3-Legged Dog studios in downtown Manhattan for the world's first Robot Film FestivalIEEE Spectrum photo editor Randi Silberman Klett and I were left dazzled by all the robots and people and the more than 50 short films screened, which had the effect of discharging an electrical assault on the audience's brain interfaces; the films made people laugh, cry, cringe, but above all think about what it means to build robots and share our world with them.

robot film festival crowd

The organizer, roboticist Heather Knight of Marilyn Monrobot [photo, below], and her coproducers -- Magic Futurebox, Beatbots, and Science House -- did a fantastic job in putting together a robotics extravaganza that included not only screenings (Spike Jonze's "I'm Here" opened the festival) but also live performances, a make-your-own-robot-film workshop, and a robot-themed BBQ. The whole thing culminated in the Bostker Awards Ceremony, with robots and humans parading on the red carpet and 3D-printed bot statuettes awarded for categories like "Best Robot Actor" and "Most Uncanny."

robot film festival heather knight

If you couldn't attend, don't worry: The organizers have posted all videos on their Vimeo channel. Below, I've embedded my favorite films and the ones that won Botsker awards, plus some live performances. Enjoy!

Robot Film Festival Welcome by Josh Ventura

Interrogation Robot by Mike Winter

The Machine by Rob Shaw, Bent Image Lab [Botsker Award for Best Picture]

Absolut Quartet by Jeff Lieberman, Dan Paluska, Noah David Smith, Willie Mack [Botsker Award for Best Robot Actor]

Data the robot comedian and its creator Heather Knight

Keepon Dancing to Spoon's "Don't You Evah" by Jeff Nichols, Wired, BeatBots

Operation da Vinci by Kelleher Guerin, Carol Reiley, Tom Tantillo [Botsker Award for Audience Award]

Chorebot by Greg Omelchuck [Botsker Award for Ethics and Impact]

Robot Cowboy by Dan Wilcox

Saturn by 1stAveMachine [Botsker Award for Most Uncanny]

Out In The Street by Mark Simpson, Nick Paroz, Sixty40, Superfad [Botsker Award for Best Story]

Moonrush by Jonathan Minard, Michael Pisano, Ben Saks, Phil Kibbe [Botsker Award for Visionary Future]

Waiting for Name Assignment by Alvaro Galvan, Carmen Simón Rubio [Botsker Award for Best Human as Robot]

Bio-inspired Flying Robots by Sabine Hauert, EPFL [Botsker Award for Scientifically Hardcore]

Photos: Randi Silberman Klett/IEEE Spectrum

Unstoppable Robot Eats Landmines for Breakfast

The Digger D-3 is the most recent addition to my own personal list of robots not to stand in front of. It's a mine-clearing robot, and not the sort of mine-clearing robot that pokes around with a metal detector. Instead, it's the sort of mine-clearing robot that just sucks it up and tells the landmines to bring it.

At the front of the D-3 is a giant spinning metal pulverizer thing of death, which has tungsten hammers that beat down a quarter meter into the ground, turning everything they touch into mulch. This includes landmines, and although the mines do tend to blow up before getting shredded, the robot hardly seems to notice:

An operator commands this beast from a safe distance using a remote control unit. The hull of the robot is made up of hardened steel plates in a "V" shape to help limit any damage from antitank mines and unexploded shells of sizes up to 81mm, and the D-3 has been able to successfully ingest mines containing as much as 8 kilograms of explosive, which is nothing to sneeze at. The only potentially vulnerable spots are the air intakes, which are themselves protected from flying shrapnel by special grates. At full throttle, the D-3 can reliably clear a comforting 100 percent of landmines from the ground at a rate of 1,000 square meters per hour [about 10,000 square feet per hour], while also divesting the land of any unwanted shrubbery and unlucky mole colonies.

Despite all the protection, machines do break down on occasion, and Digger has taken the somewhat unusual step of making the robot as easy as possible for other people to repair. The guts of the robot are straightforward to access, the armor has been designed to be easy to weld, and Digger even provides plans so that if you have the means, you can build your own spare parts. The reason for doing this is that Digger wants the D-3 to be able to make a difference in far-flung communities crippled by the threat of landmines, and to do that, you need an extremely reliable robot.

The future for the D-3 likely lies in some form of limited autonomy, but don't worry: The people who actually end up using this thing don't like the idea of it being fully autonomous any more than you do. Expect it to eventually be able to obey pretty specific instructions like "go here," as opposed to commands like "hey, why don't you find a spot where you think there might be landmines, beat it into a pulp, and come back when you're done."

[ Digger D-3 ] via [ Robots Podcast ]

Smithsonian Snaps Up Nine Historic Robots from Sandia National Labs

While thinking about robotics as a still-emerging field, as we do, we don't often stop to consider how even the relatively recent past has a significant historical relevance. Fortunately, this is the job of the Smithsonian Institution, and they seem to be very proactive about it, having just acquired nine robots from Sandia National Labs for their permanent collection.

The robots in the above picture include MARV (Miniature Autonomous Robotic Vehicle), a design from 1996 that used mostly commercial parts and measured only about one inch square [about 6.5 square centimeters]. MARV was one of the first robots to really tackle miniaturization head on, and it inspired all kinds of tiny little descendants, including Sandia's own dime-sized tank.

Also heading to the Smithsonian are SIR, a robot that could navigate through a building autonomously in 1985 (on the left), Dixie, a reconnaissance robot from 1987 (at the back), and some of those crazy hopping robots.

It's fun to think about what robots that we have around us right now are likely to find a place in the Smithsonian's collection within a decade or two... After five seconds of thought (which means I'm missing all kinds of slightly less obviously but equally worthy choices), I'd have to put my money on a Roomba, PR2, Keepon, a Predator, and Wall-E. What do you think?

Via [ Sandia ]

Stanford's 'JediBot' Tries to Kill You With a Foam Sword

If there was one bad thing about those lightsaber-wielding robots from Yaskawa that we saw at ICRA, it was that you couldn't bust out your own lightsaber and jump in the middle of the fight. A paper also presented at ICRA showed us robots swinging swords in simulation against humans, but without much in the way of physical combat. Now a student project at Stanford has put these two brilliant ideas together and come up with "JediBot," a robot arm that will actually try to kill you with a foam sword:

"The robot applies quite a bit of force." Get it? Force? Yeah!

This project was part of Stanford's three and a half week long "Experimental Robotics" course, which, from the sound of things, is basically just an excuse for students to mess around with robots to get them to do cool stuff. Also developed as part of the course were a robot that plays golf, several robots that draw, and a robot that can make hamburgers and then drown then in ketchup for you:

[ Stanford Robotics ] via [ Stanford News ]



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