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Foxconn To Replace Human Workers With One Million Robots

Foxconn, an electronics manufacturer from Taiwan with huge factories in China, generates about 40 percent of the global consumer electronics revenue by creating things like iPhones and computer components on giant assembly lines staffed by humans. Until recently, you'd probably never heard of Foxconn, but a series of worker suicides made us all take a hard look at where our electronics were coming from. Foxconn has made some improvements (including nets around tall buildings), but by all accounts, the core of the problem (the work) remains "repetitive, exhausting, and alienating."

Yesterday, Foxconn announced (at an employee dance party of all places) that they're planning on buying some robots to replace their human workforce. And by some robots, they mean one million robots over the next three years. So for every one robot Foxconn currently has working at their manufacturing plants, they're going to buy a hundred more.

At this point, it's not sounding like Foxconn is trying to augment its human workforce with robots to make things easier on the humans. Foxconn employs something like 1.2 million people, and it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that one robot could probably work as efficiently as 1.2 humans, especially considering that the robot can be less productive (even substantially less productive) if it just works more hours than a single human is capable of. I'm not suggesting that Foxconn is considering replacing the entirety of its production line -- which by the way will keep expanding at a furious pace -- with robots, but when you think about how much they spend providing food and housing for their human workers as well as the recent suicides, you can sort of see where their train of thought is heading here: This could be a shift from "mostly human" to "mostly robot," with about a million jobs in the balance.

While Foxconn's manufacturing plants are certainly not ideal places for humans to work, lots of people do currently work there, and those Foxconn employees depend on their jobs to the same extent that the rest of us do. I think we all realize that robots replacing humans when it comes to repetitive manufacturing jobs is a gradual inevitability, but it's a bit of a shock to consider a million robots over such a short span of time.

Rumor has it (and we should stress that these are rumors) that the actual robots being deployed at the Foxconn plants will come from ABB. Specifically, they'll be ABB's Frida robot, although funnily enough, ABB "insists that its robot isn't designed to replace human workers, but rather to work alongside them:"

So, in a nutshell, this might be great news for ABB. It might be good news for Foxconn. But for any of the million or so people with a job, a home, and a life at a Foxconn plant, things may be about to get even worse.

[ Xinhua ] via [ Hizook ]

Sarcos Exoskeleton Bringing Iron Man Suit Closer To Reality

sarcos exoskeleton robot suit

Ever wanted to become Iron Man? Here's some good news: Sarcos recently said that its second-generation exoskeleton robot suit, XOS 2, is now five years away from production. IEEE Spectrum contributor Susan Karlin writes:

The wearable robotics suit augments the operator's strength by using a system of high-pressure hydraulics, sensors, actuators, and controllers to bear the weight of an object, while leaving its wearer agile enough to kick a soccer ball. It's also lighter, stronger, and more environmentally resistant, and it uses half the power of the company's first exoskeleton, XOS 1, which rolled out in 2008. The XOS 2 has been nicknamed the Iron Man suit in homage to the high-tech power suit in the comics and movies.

We first wrote about the Sarcos exoskeleton more than five years ago, when it was just a prototype developed as part of a DARPA program. Since then, Sarcos, now a division of U.S. defense contractor Raytheon, has significantly improved the device. The XOS 2 exoskeleton is designed to lighten a soldier's load and help the military reduce injuries. It also lets you pretend you're Tony Stark:

Several other companies and universities are developing exoskeletons to help not just soldiers but also the elderly and other people who might need assistance to walk, climb stairs, and carry things around.

Most notably, Japanese firm Cyberdyne has created a robot suit called Hybrid Assistive Limb, or HAL, which is commercially available in Japan. Automaton writer Evan Ackerman tested the HAL system at CES in January, becoming the first man in the United States to try out the device.

Then there's U.C. Berkelely spinoff Berkeley Bionics, which last year introduced its eLEGS robotic exoskeleton, a very impressive system that is helping paraplegics to stand up and walk. The company is currently testing eLEGS with a select group of rehab centers, hoping to make it available for purchase in the next year or so.

Image and video: Raytheon

This Just In: Robots Prefer Tecate Over Bud Light

Presented without comment.

Well, mostly without comment. I will briefly mention that PR2 also spurns Bud Light, suggesting that robots do in fact have an inherent bias against beers that are terrible. And as far as Darwin goes, my guess is that he'd probably be in favor of Red Stripe but against Pabst Blue Ribbon. Nice job, Darwin: next time I throw a party, you're definitely invited.

If you want your own Darwin-OP to party with, by the way, he can be yours for a mere $12,000. Rehab sold separately.

[ Trossen Robotics ]

WANT: Volkswagen Demonstrates Production-Level Automotive Autopilot on Video

Volkswagen announced their Temporary Autopilot (TAP) system last month, and it's just shown up on video. If anything, it works better than advertised, and includes some innovative features that do their best to keep you safe, even if you completely zone out:

As you can see, this TAP system has been integrated into a production car, and uses production-level radar, camera, and ultrasonic sensors along with by a laser scanner and an electronic horizon to do everything that it does. In other words, there's no crazy custom electronics involved, and nothing that could keep a system like this from becoming (say) an optional extra in a production car relatively soon.

A big stumbling block for this kind of thing is the issue of liability and who is (or isn't) in control of the car, and Volkswagen very deliberately includes the following in their press release:

"The driver always retains driving responsibility and is always in control. The driver can override or deactivate the system at any time and must continually monitor it.” TAP always offers the driver an optimal degree of automation as a function of the driving situation, acquisition of the surroundings and driver and system states. It is intended to prevent accidents due to driving errors by an inattentive, distracted driver. ...Drivers must still continually focus their attention on the road, so that they can intervene in safety-critical situations at any time.

In other words, this is not (not) a substitute for a human driver. It's not even really an autonomous system, in the strictest sense. It's there in case you (the human) fail at driving for whatever reason, but it's not designed to enable you to not pay attention to the road. In fact, as the video shows, the TAP forces you to pay attention using audio alerts and what looks to be a rather aggressive tap on the brakes if it thinks you're ignoring it. Overall, this is a big step, but still just a step, towards the eventual goal of complete automotive autonomy.

More steps please.

[ HAVEit ] via [ Robots.net ]

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.

Watch:

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 ]

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