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ROS Turns Four, Schedules Conference/Party for 2012

We post a lot about ROS (Robot Operating System) around here, and the reason that we do is because a lot of the coolest stuff that's happening in the robotics world right now has been made possible in one form or another by the open sourceitude of ROS. This year, ROS is celebrating its fourth anniversary, so there's gonna be a HUGE PARTY in May of 2012 right after the IEEE Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Oh, did I say party? I meant conference. Yeah, conference.

Anyway, ROSCon (see? conference!) will be a great place to learn from the best, and if you're one of those best, you've got until December 4th to submit a presentation proposal.

[ ROSCon 2012 ]

Honda Robotics Unveils Next-Generation ASIMO Robot

UPDATED: November 8, 2011, 9:15 a.m. Added video and more photos. November 10, 2011, 9:42 a.m. Updated video.

You're looking at Honda's brand new ASIMO robot, which was just unveiled today in Japan. While the new ASIMO's appearance is similar to the version of ASIMO that we've come to know and love, there are some key differences inside that promise to make this generation more autonomous and capable than ever.

Below we give you all the details, with a bunch of new pics to match. But first, here's a video of ASIMO showing off some of its new skills:

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A New Way for Robots to Balance on Two Feet

It turns out that studying how to make robots grasp objects with their hands is helping researchers figure out how to make robots balance on their feet. 

Christian Ott and his team at the German Aerospace Center's Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics have discovered a way to keep bipedal robots from falling over by using principles from robot grasping.

As shown in this video released at the 2011 IEEE-RAS International Conference on Humanoid Robots in Bled, Slovenia, the new approach allows the DLR Biped, a legged robot based on KUKA's lightweight system, to keep its feet firmly planted on the floor, even when kicked by a mean researcher or slammed with a 5-kilogram medicine ball. You try to do that!

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Creepy Crawly Slug Robot Has Tank Treads for Skin

Rescue robots don't always have to be big and burly and complicated. Usually, if you put something big and burly and complicated in an environment with lots of water and dust, all the big and burly complicated bits get decidedly less complicated by virtue of ceasing to function. You can seal up individual parts (like wheels or tracks) as best you can, but sealing up the entire robot offers even more durability. The SCV (Slug Crawler Vehicle) from the Chiba Institute of Technology in Japan relies on a flexible, waterproof "skin" to protect it from the elements while still allowing it to get around pretty well:

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Toyota's Healthcare Robots Are Ready to Help You With Absolutely Everything

Healthcare and elder care is a big concern in Japan, whose population is aging more rapidly than their current human-centric infrastructure is prepared to cope with. Companies like Toyota are hoping that robots will be able to pick up a little bit of the slack, and this week they've introduced four new robotic systems designed to help keep people healthy and independent as long as possible.

The first couple systems are designed to provide single-leg walking assistance to people who have balance issues, or even people suffering from complete paralysis in one leg. The robotic structure (it's a lot like Cyberdyne's exoskeleton) is capable of supporting the entirety of your weight on one leg, and it will swing your leg forward for you as you walk. If you can hold yourself up, the second system will provide you with visual feedback to help you get your balance back and start walking on your own.

If that's not exciting enough for you, the third system turns balance training into a game. You can play virtual games of tennis, football, or basketball, and you'll be challenged to maintain your balance while controlling your character on the screen:

The final system is more for caretakers than patients; it's a robot that helps someone transfer someone else from (say) a bed to (say) a toilet. And, well, there's a demo of that, too:

As you can see, all of these prototypes are currently operational, and Toyota is expecting commercialization to occur sometime in 2013. 

[ Toyota ] via [ Mashable ]

Using Smiles (and Frowns) to Teach Robots How to Behave

Naughty robots can now be tamed with this snazzy smile-detecting device from the University of Tsukuba AI Lab. Anna Gruebler and her colleagues have developed a wireless headband that captures electromyographic (EMG) signals from the side of the face, detecting when you're smiling with delight or frowning with disapproval.

Unlike cameras with smile-detection algorithms, this device can work in low light, while you're walking around, and when you're not looking into your computer's camera. Part of the charm, the researchers say, comes from the discreet headband design that beats traditional face electrodes and wires.

Last year, Gruebler proposed the device to control avatars on Second Life in a hands-free way, as in the explanation video below. More users would approach her avatar, she says, because it was smiling and looked friendly.

Their current version supports smile and frown detection at a success rate of over 97 percent and has been used to train a Nao humanoid robot in real-time, as shown in this video released at the 2011 IEEE-RAS International Conference on Humanoid Robots, in Bled, Slovenia, last week:

The trainer tries to teach the robot her preference: Give the ball or throw it. Although the Nao starts out slow and hesitant, it speeds up after acquiring experience and feedback from the trainer. Their study compared it to using a manual interface: While users made mistakes using a dial, they never confused smiling and frowning -- a natural, intuitive way to interact with a robot.

The main idea, the researchers say, is that it's similar to how parents teach and encourage babies.

The next step is to apply the device to other real-life situations. If you could train a robot with a smile or frown, what would you have it do?

Angelica Lim is a graduate student at the Okuno and Ogata Speech Media Processing Group at Kyoto University, Japan.

Giant Robotic Jumping Spider. Giant Robotic Jumping Spider!

Yeah, so this right here is a giant robotic spider. By "giant" I mean that those legs are 20 centimeters long each, and if the body adds another 20 centimeters, we're looking at a robot arachnid that's a terrifying two feet across (0.6 meters). For what it's worth, this is approximately twice the size of the largest real spider, the Goliath bird-eater, and the Goliath bird-eater doesn't even jump.

Oh yes, this robot jumps.

The neat thing about spiders (if you're into spiders, anyway), is that they're hydraulically operated. Instead of moving their limbs with muscles, they do it by increasing the blood pressure in whatever limb they want to extend. Hydraulically operated robots work the same way, except they have a hydraulic pump instead of a heart and hydraulic fluid instead of blood. This can be a very effective way of providing power to limbs, which is why Boston Dynamics uses a hydraulic system in AlphaDog and PETMAN.

Anyway, back to this freaky thing. Designed by a team at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation in Germany, this prototype robospider was 3D printed, meaning that more of them than I would personally be comfortable with can be manufactured quickly and cheaply. A hydraulic pump in the body provides fluid pressure to the limbs allowing the robot to crawl forwards and backwards, and some versions are apparently powerful enough to leap off the ground, grab you by the throat, and rip your head off. Or maybe not that last bit. Maybe.

In any case, having eight legs makes the robot exceptionally nimble, which is the whole reason for utilizing this design. The body of the spiderbot also contains the control system and a variety of sensors to enable it to perform its primary mission, which is as "an exploratory tool in environments that are too hazardous for humans." Like, I dunno, environments that are full of giant spiders?

[ Fraunhofer ] via [ Eureka

Climbing Robot Tank Can Corner Like a Gecko

This is not the first sticky-treaded robotank, but as far as I know, it's the first one that can manage to go around corners and make that tricky transition from horizontal to vertical. The somewhat unfortunately named "Tailless Timing Belt Climbing Platform" (or TBCP-11) comes from Simon Frasier University way up there in Canada. It weighs 240 grams, and has no problems climbing up whiteboards, glass, and other slick surfaces.

The sticking power of those treads comes from the same handy little Van der Waals forces that geckos use to effortlessly stick to, well, everything. Instead of tiny hairs, though, TBCP-11 uses tiny mushrooms, which provide a substantial amount of conformable surface area for the robot to use to adhere to walls.

Maximizing compliant surface area has been an issue for gecko-type (aka dry-adhesion) climbing robots for a long time; the material itself is spectacular, but the tough part is getting enough of the material to make contact with your climbing surface. For example, check out the picture of Stickybot III's toes in this article, and notice how little of the adhesive the robot is relying on to stick. This is one of the advantages of the TBCP-11: the continuous loops of adhesive material provide a lot of adhesion power.

While this robot does have some autonomous capability, it's still tethered for power, since batteries are heavy. It's going to take a little extra work to increase the strength of the adhesive so that the TBCP-11 can bring its power source onboard, and the SFU researchers are also trying to figure out how to get the thing to turn without the treads coming loose and causing the TBCP-11 to plummet to its doom.

[ SFU ] via [ Vancouver Sun ]

Dear Reader, I Have News for You: Robots Are Boring

This is a guest post. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the blogger and do not represent positions of Automaton, IEEE Spectrum, or the IEEE.

Automaton readers, I have news for you: Robots are boring.

There you have it. Yes, I said boring. Now let me explain what I mean.

Today, the tech press -- this blog included -- does a decent job covering robotics. They report on the latest quadruped or humanoid, tell us all about self-driving cars and robots that can fetch beer, and post videos of cats riding Roombas and quadrotors playing ping-pong. Cool.

But here's the problem: That's just part of the story. In fact, a small part. If we want to achieve a true robotics revolution, the reality is that the robots I mention above and others that the press likes to cover are not going to be enough. We need robots that can do everyday jobs, performing basic tasks over and over, safely and reliably. In other words, we need robots that will become so enmeshed in our lives that people stop paying attention to them: They will be ... boring.

I find that the tech press and people in general are not so inclined to become “excited” about boring robots. They should.

To make an analogy, consider the air travel industry. Today, the press no longer cares for successful round trips or tout the “miracle” of flying; instead, flying is an everyday routine that helps millions of ordinary people build business relationships, visit family and friends, journey around the world. What was once considered the epitome of human dreams and desires is now a commoditized, uninteresting service that people take for granted, with the only things we care about being paying less and avoiding hassle.

I won't say I didn't wish flying was a better experience. But the great thing about what happened to air travel is that it became accessible to millions of people. And that's the true commercial flight revolution. What about a true commercial robotics revolution? To get there what we need is for robots to become as routine and uninteresting as passenger flight has become in the past century.

Robots today are like the first airplanes. They are as remarkable a technical endeavor as flight once was, and current demonstrations are as entertaining (and unproductive) as the first airplane stunts once were: They're great to watch, but true global change lies in the hands of real products that are safe, affordable, and -- that's right -- boring.

adept mobile robots mt 400

Let me shamelessly plug my own employer here. I work for Adept Technology, based in Pleasanton, Calif., the biggest U.S. industrial robotics company. Some of our robots have been featured in the tech press, because, yes, they make for cool videos. But let me introduce you to a “very boring” autonomous mobile robot platform called the Adept MT400 [photo above].

This is a small mobile vehicle designed for human environments. Basically it just roams around, commanded through push buttons, sensors, tablets, or smartphones, while avoiding bumping into people and objects. We're offering this little guy for third-party developers, including end-users, integrators, researchers, and entrepreneurs, who are interested in developing applications for it.

Back to the air travel analogy, we're like an aircraft manufacturer looking for an airline -- a partner to build a service that can attract customers and become a promising business.

The MT400 is just one example, of course. What we need from robotics companies and roboticists everywhere are more boring robots: Robots that would be most appreciated when they complete a task in a manner that is smooth and economical; robots that investors and companies can trust building business models around.

What will the future look like when, similar to flying, robots become boring enough for companies to create services that help millions and millions of people? I don't know for sure, but I do know it won't be boring.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know.

Erin Rapacki is a product marketing manager at Adept Technology. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Photo illustration: Street crossing photo: neovain via Flickr; robot photo: Adept Technology. Photo of MT400: Adept Technology

Robotic Venus Flytrap Spells Doom for Robotic Flies

Man, just when we were getting close to making actual robot insects, some thoughtless researchers had to go and invent a robotic insect-eating plant. Sigh. The artificial venus flytrap in the pic (which can apparently be abbreviated "VFT") is a creation of Mohsen Shahinpoor from the University of Maine.

Like a real VFT, this artificial plant has an intelligence of sorts, in the form of ionic polymeric metal composite trigger hairs on the inside of its polymer leaves. When something (like a tasty insect) touches on one of the hairs, a copper electrode triggers the leaves to snap shut in 0.3 second, and a series of teeth interlock to keep whatever the robot has caught from escaping.

For now, this robot flytrap only snacks on the old-fashioned biological sorts of flies. It also doesn't currently have the infrastructure required to turn said flies into robot food, but that's just a matter of hooking up a microbial digester like this one to turn bugs into robot fuel.

[ Paper ] via [ PopSci ] and [ DVICE ]

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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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Berkeley, Calif.
 
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