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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 ]

$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 ]

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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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Canada
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Tokyo, Japan
 

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