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Will We Redesign Our Homes for Robots?

The reason that so many people are fixated on building and programming humanoid robots is simple: we live in a world designed for humanoids. If we were all turtles, roboticists would have a much easier time of it, but unfortunately, we're bipeds with sharp eyes and a good sense of balance. Much effort has been expended trying to get robots to be able to cope with the wild diversity and (if we're being honest) rampant randomness and disorder in our lives, but a much simpler solution that will get capable and reliable robots into our homes far sooner is to just make some little tweaks here and their to help them do their jobs, which used to be our jobs.

Designer Diego Trujillo Pisanty‘s With Robots project imagines how robot friendliness might alter the design and functionality of our stuff. In the above picture, for example, sheets have been printed with optical tags at their folding points to assist a robot with making the bed. Here are four other examples, along with Pisanty's captions:

Setting the table is another task robots might be doing, having everything ready for when the owner comes home. The plate does not require a “plate tag” printed on it, the tag has been replaced by a notch on the edge indicating that this object is a plate. The notch also doubles as a holding point, it makes us wonder on the shape of the tool the robot uses to manipulate this object. The edges of the table are marked telling the machine where the limits are. In the scene presented the robot has made a mistake and placed all the cutlery rotated by 90 degrees.

Concentrating a bit more on how robots manipulate objects, a cup with a robot friendly handle was made. This object reveals a lot about the relationship between humans and robots, it creates a tension between the robotic and the human handle. The handle could become a design feature or it could be badly received, considered ugly and uncomfortable. The cupboard in which these cups rest have also been altered in order to accommodate the robot. Not only are there tags marking the position of objects but the doors have also been removed as they were not fit for A.I.

Cooking robots have been a promise for more then 60 years, ranging from Falks robotic toaster to the Jetsons’ Rosie maid-bot. How desirable is robot precision in the kitchen? The situation presented shows how meat has been precisely cut into cubes without leaving any cut marks on the chopping board. The board its self has notches to facilitate robot interaction. In the background the meat package can be seen, it too has been labelled to suggest that the robots operate beyond a single house.

Every living space is different, not only in the architectural layout but also in the tasks that the tenants require robots to do. For this reason robots ship only partially programmed so that through a learning algorithm they might adapt to the home they operate in. To accelerate the learning process special learning tools have been designed to help the robot integrate to a 3D environment. The picture on this page shows a living room after a robot self-training session. We can see it has now mastered the physics of equilibrium. It is also evident that it has mistaken one of the house’s dinner plates which it has broken with robotic precision to complete it’s piece. This scene intends to make us think of what the tenants would think when encountering such a display. It also tries to show what it would feel like to have objects that are useful only to robots in our house.

As far fetched as some of this seems, if you think about it, redesigning out homes this way may make a lot of sense. Would you tolerate sheets or dishes with specific patterns on them if it meant you never had to set the table, clear the table, or wash dishes ever again, for example? And there's really no reason why we'd even have to be aware of such aesthetic compromises, as long as markings are in UV or something. A fringe benefit would also be that implementing the changes pictured above would lower the stress levels of roboticists by about 100%.

Actually, several real-world robots are (or were) using household tags like this to make their jobs easier. The short-lived Ubot vacuuming robot relied on special flooring with embedded ultraviolet barcodes to do its localization, and more recently, Bosch has been using a t-shirt covered in optical tags to help it learn how to fold. Ubot never really took off and Bosch isn't planning on forcing us all to wear betagged clothing, but you know what, if it meant that I never had to do laundry or pick up after myself, I'd seriously consider changing my style to something a little more more robot-friendly.

[ With Robots ] via [ @heatherknight ] and [ bldg ]

This Could Be Your Very Own Keepon

We've been wondering how BeatBots' new My Keepon toy is going to compare to the original (especially considering that it's on the order of a thousandth the cost of a research Keepon), but this picture seems to show the forthcoming toy and I'll be honest: on the outside, I can't tell the difference.

As far as what the toy will be able to do, we've got more info on that as well:

My Keepon has two modes, selected with buttons on his "stage."

Dance mode:

My Keepon dances like no other toy! A built-in microphone and state-of-the-art beat detection allows My Keepon to dance in time with the rhythm of clapping, patting, or your music. With an uncanny sense of timing and incredibly fluid movement, My Keepon will have you mesmerized as he grooves to any style. My Keepon will never dance the same way twice, so you will never tire of watching (or joining in).

Touch mode:

My Keepon has an array of invisible sensors underneath his textured skin. Poke, tap, squeeze, or tickle, and My Keepon will react. You can even make it sneeze - just scratch its nose! My Keepon's mood also changes in response to your touch, with emotions ranging from curious, to excited, to sleepy, and everything in between. With My Keepon's rich nonverbal "language" and impossibly cute movements, you will love getting to know his personality and making a new best friend.

My Keepon will also be able to remember different types of interactions and change its behavior based on past history. If you don't play with it for a while, it'll let out "an occasional cry for attention." Expect to see different outfits and accessories show up at some point down the line, as well as a way for programmers to interface with the toy directly.

While we're still waiting to see exactly what it's like to interact with My Keepon, Toys R Us apparently saw it in action and immediately bought the entire first production run, so I guess that's a good sign. Unfortunately, we do now know that My Keepon doesn't include cameras due to cost constraints, and instead relies on touch sensors and sound localization to detect people.

Look for the toy in stores in October for under $50 (it's 35 quid in the U.K.). Since Toys R Us is planning a huge marketing campaign, there's absolutely no way you (or your kids) will be allowed to forget about it. And here's something else not to forget: buying a My Keepon helps fund research Keepons for autistic children. Yay!

[ My Keepon ] via [ Businessweek ] and [ Wow! Stuff ]

Zero Robotics Competition gives High School Students Control of Space Robots

What high school student could resist the opportunity to use a robot to wreak havoc aboard the International Space Station? And by wreak havoc, I mean compete with other high school students to remotely control a little floating SPHERES robot under the close supervision of a real live astronaut.

The Zero Robotics competition, hosted by NASA and DARPA in cooperation with MIT, Aurora Flight Sciences, and TopCoder, tasks teams of high school students with programming one of those cute little SPHERES microgravity satellite robots to autonomously complete a "technically challenging" three dimensional race against another robot programmed by another team. The programming can be done in a high-level graphical environment (with an instant-gratification Flash-based simulator), and as the teams get more comfortable with things, they can transition directly into C, meaning that the students may actually learn something practical. Woo!

Once the teams have tested their code out in simulation and physically in two dimensions (using robots at MIT), a full 3D simulation tournament will be held, and the top 27 teams from that event will watch live via webcast as the real SPHERES robots execute their code on board the International Space Station in December of this year.

If you want in, or if you're interested in mentoring a team, you can check out all the details and fill out an application on the Zero Robotics competition website here. The deadline is September 5.

Also, ISS astronauts, if you're reading this (you do read our blog, right?), you should totally have Robonaut pretend to juggle the SPHERES robots in microgravity and make a video. It would be awesome.

[ Zero Robotics ] via [ Whitehouse.gov ]

Gemini-Scout Will Be the First One In to Rescue Trapped Miners

Nobody wants to venture into a mine after an accident, but the people who least want to be in there are those who might be already trapped inside. Rather than ask for human volunteers to go in and check things out, Sandia National Labs has developed a robotic platform that doesn't have a choice, called Gemini-Scout.

Collapsed mines offer all kinds of obstacles that threaten to suffocate, burn, crush, drown, electrocute, or otherwise impede even the toughest of robots. With this in mind, Sandia has done their best to mine-proof Gemini-Scout, which can clamber over rubble, wade through up to 18 inches of water, and not cause huge methane gas explosions thanks to sealed and spark-free electronics.

As capable as Gemini-Scout is, it doesn't come with an attached multidimensional quantum escape tunnel or anything. While the robot is theoretically capable of dragging a human behind it, its primary mission is to scout ahead to send back video and sensor readings to help an actual rescue team safely and quickly get where they need to go. In the short term, the robot can also deliver vital supplies such as food, water, medicine, air packs, radios, and Sony PSPs to any miners who may be trapped out of immediate reach.

It sort of seems like a robot with Gemini-Scout's capabilities would be good for more than just working in mines, and that may be the case, but Sandia seems to be pretty focused on optimizing Gemini-Scout for this one task. Their primary customer at this point is the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and miners can look forward to having a robot ready and willing to help them out when Gemini-Scout enters service next year. 

Via [ Sandia ]

Weird UAV Demos: Lockheed Martin's Samarai and Aerovel's Flexrotor

I love weird UAVs. I don't mean "weird" in some kind of bad way, but more like, "different" and "creative" and "unexpectedly awesome." These two flying robots, Lockheed Martin's Samarai and Aerovel's Flexrotor, both display innovative and unique designs that highlight some of what's possible when you combine robots and imagination. And, you know, funding.

When we last talked to Lockheed Martin about their Samarai project, they were hard at work making their spinning maple seed-inspired robot into a practical surveillance flyer. Last year, the Samarai project's principal investigator, Kingsley Fregene, explained to us what exactly this design has to offer:

"The Samarai is inherently stable in hover, mechanically simple and has very few moving parts. This makes it a very robust aerodynamically clean airframe, just like nature’s samaras. It does not depend on fragile feathers, delicate wings or precision moving parts to operate. This design was chosen because of its versatility, ease of operation, multiple launch and recovery options (even in tight spaces) and its ability to hover and take-off/land vertically. The rotation of the entire aircraft offers opportunities to achieve omni-directional sensing in a much simpler, lighter-weight and cheaper package."

From the sound of things, those opportunities have been largely realized, since according to Lockheed Martin's press release, they just finished 3D printing a Samarai vehicle last week (!) that flies using a grand total of two moving parts and can stream back live 360 degree video without needing a gimbal.

There's been a video floating around this past week of the Samarai drone in action, but it's from last year. This video, however, shows the latest version being demoed at AUVSI, which just opened its doors for the 2011 expo yesterday. Apparently, this was the very first time that Samarai had been demoed to the public, and the fact that it was flown without a tether shows that Lockheed has either a.) a reckless disregard for spectator safety or b.) a lot of faith in their ability to control a robot that flies while spinning in circles really fast:

No decapitations! Brilliant!

Samarai's hover capability makes it a great surveillance bot, but the big trade-off is range, since helicopters (and helicopter-like robots) are simply not as efficient as aircraft that can utilize static wings for lift. This is the idea behind vehicles like the V-22 Osprey: It's a helicopter when you want to hover or land, and the rest of the time, it's an airplane. Aerovel's Flexrotor aircraft has taken this idea and condensed it into a "tabletop-sized" surveillance drone that can take off vertically, transition to forward flight, and then land vertically again on a specially built platform:

Slick. In this way, Flexrotor offers all those useful VTOL features, along with an endurance of 36 hours and a range of up to 3,000 kilometers. It's hard to say whether this technique is better or worse than some of the other innovative fixed-wing drone capture solutions that we've seen, but the fact that hovering is useful in many other situations makes Flexrotor potentially much handier to have around.

[ Lockheed Martin Samarai ]

[ Aerovel Flexrotor ]

MABEL Bipedal Robot is Fast Enough to Run You Down

It was only a year ago that the University of Michigan's MABEL biped robot was breaking its ankles trying to walk over rough terrain. Now the robot is defying death once again by becoming the world's fastest bipedal robot, with the ability to sprint at up to 10.9 kph. More specifically, MABEL is the world's fastest "kneed" bipedal robot, which just means that it's the fastest robot that can run in a similar manner to us humans, leaving those Toyota robots (4.3 kph) and ASIMO (3.7 kph) in the dust.

MABEL is capable of such blistering speeds thanks to an innovative mechanical design which, although it may not look like it, incorporates a lot of the characteristics of a human runner. For example, MABEL has a torso that's substantially heavier than its legs, just like a human, and it's also got a system of springs that act like tendons. This gives MABEL a very human-like, bouncing gait, and the robot spends 40% of its time running in a "flight phase" with both feet off the ground, similar to humans:

For reference, MABEL's top speed of 3 meters per second probably isn't enough to catch a tolerably in-shape human, as Olympic sprinters can run at up to 10 meters per second over short distances. But the thing about robots is that they're determined, so in the end, it's a good thing that MABEL is tethered to that pole. And that it doesn't have any arms to grab you with. Or any vision sensors, either. So even if you can't run, at least you can hide.

For now. 

[ MABEL ] via [ University of Michigan ]

Swarmanoid Robot Teams Up with Itself to Steal Your Books

I don't know what it is that Swarmanoid actually does with the books that it steals, but the robot (or, a piece of the robot) has been pilfering them since back in 2009. At least stealing books is better than stealing kids, which is what Swarmanoid's predecessor did to keep itself busy. It's tough to call Swarmanoid a robot (singular), since it's made up of a swarm of dozens of separate robots, but it's equally tough to think of it as separate robots, since the individual members of the swarm depend on each other so heavily.

Putting grammar aside, the Swarmanoid swarm consists of three discrete types of robots, all of which we've been introduced to before: Foot-Bots can grab onto other robots and move horizontally. Hand-Bots have manipulators and a freakin' sweet magnetic grappling hook that lets them move vertically. And Eye-Bots can fly, perch on ceilings, and direct the movements of the Hand-Bots and Foot-Bots with their cameras.

We've been watching these swarm-bot modules evolve since 2007, and the following video (which won an award for best video at the 2011 Artificial Intelligence Conference last week) is the first that we've seen showing all of the bots seamlessly and autonomously cooperating to execute a task:

While trying to manage so many robots all at once may seem needlessly complicated, a swarm of robots has all kinds of advantages: swarms are adaptable, scalable, resilient, cost effective, and very efficient at any task that involves being in more than one place at once, like search and rescue (or search and steal). There are downsides, too, like having to recharge each and every one of these little guys, but with some epic amounts of cleverness by robotics researchers, robot swarms are getting to the point where they're able to pretty much take care of themselves, and after that, the sky's the limit.

Unless you have an Eye-bot, in which case it isn't.

[ Swarmanoid Project ] and [ AAAI Video Competition ] via [ Hizook ]

Video Friday: Surface Control, Research Robotics, and My Robot is Better than Your Robot

 microsoft surface robotics control

A bunch of cool robot vids have shown up in the last few days, so I thought I'd toss 'em all up for you to enjoy since it's Friday and you're probably not going to be doing anything especially productive anyway.

Microsoft Surface is one of the coolest interfaces I've ever had the pleasure of fondling, and it makes one heck of a robot control system:

Get Microsoft Silverlight

[ Microsoft Research ] via [ Engadget ]


You may think of research robots as tools (and even as simply a means to an end), but they think of you as a friend:

This film by David Lu, which premiered at the Robot Film Festival last month, reminds us all: be nice to your robots. They love you.

[ Researchin' ]


While celebrities agree that science in general is pretty cool, they also agree robots are by far the coolest. Two things: how do I get this song as a ring tone, and who the heck is this "Justin Bieber" fella?

According to the Facebook page, "i.am. FIRST: Science is Rock and Roll" is a back-to-school special that blends entertainment, science, technology, AND ROBOTS. And also lack of understanding about period use, it looks like. You can tune in on ABC this Sunday at 7, and "Justin Bieber" will apparently also be involved, for whatever that's worth.

[ FIRST Robotics ]

Willow Garage Introduces PR2 SE, Half the Arms at Half the Price

Yesterday, Willow Garage announced the availability of an entirely new robot. Or maybe not an entirely new robot. The PR2 SE is essentially the same as a PR2, except that (as you may have noticed from the picture) it's only got one arm.

Despite having only half the armament of the original PR2, the SE boasts the same overall capabilities, along with an "updated sensor suite" that includes an integrated Microsoft Kinect. Lack of an entire arm may seem like a fairly significant issue for a robot, but many things that you can do with two arms you can also do with one, it just may take longer or require a bit more creativity.

If you do end up desperately needing another arm for your SE, you can buy one as an upgrade from Willlow Garage. Or you could build a slightly less fancy version on your own. Or, you could get yourself a LASER CANNON and bolt that in instead! YEAH! And anyway, as long as you make sure that the robot is only visible from the right side in your lab, you'll be able to fool people into thinking that you've got an original PR2, and at the end of the day, that's what really counts.

Taking a big chunk out of the robot also takes a big chunk out of the price, which is the whole point of the SE version. The base price of the new PR2 SE is $285,000, and with Willow's 30 percent open source discount award, that comes down to just under $200,000. This is half the price of the fully armed and operational regular PR2, which costs $400,000 if you buy it straight up. So If my calculations are correct, this means that I should be able to get a PR2 with zero arms for free, right? Please...?

[ PR2 SE ]

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 ]

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Automaton

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

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Erico Guizzo
New York, N.Y.
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