Automaton iconAutomaton

Textron's T-Ram is the Suicidal Mini-UAV You've Always Wanted

The U.S. Air Force has been looking for what they're calling a "Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System" to be fielded with special ops units next year. If the name of the program doesn't explain it, the above pic should: they essentially want a mortar round with wings, a camera, and a little engine. In other words, a surveillance UAV that can suicidally attack targets on command.

There are several systems with this capability currently in the works, but the operational requirements and principles are all the same. LMAMS needs to weigh three kilos or less, including the vehicle and the launching system. It needs to be able to deploy and fire in under 30 seconds, reach an altitude of 100 meters, and acquire and track a human-sized target in a further 20 seconds. At that point, the drone can either dive at its target, landing within a one meter radius and exploding its small (but still quite lethal) warhead, or it can loiter for up to 30 minutes, sending back live video.

Now, this seems like a fairly dangerous little robot to have around, but before you get all worked up about killer robots and stuff, remember that these special ops units already have tools to deal with situations that the LMAMS is designed for: namely, blindly chucking dumb mortars and grenades at things, calling in air support, or putting themselves in harms way to get a better view of their target. All the LMAMS does is to reduce risk and collateral damage. Or at least, that's the idea, but whether it'll work in practice remains to be seen.

The UAV in the picture is Textron Defense Systems' T-RAM, which stands for Tactical Remote Aerial Munition. You can watch it in action in the video below, which features a soundtrack that's inappropriately Indiana Jonesish: 

[ Textron Systems ] via [ Aviation Week ]

Micro Energy Harvesters Will Make Cyborg Insects Unstoppable

Cyborg insects have been flying under remote control for over two years now, but the strict weight limits imposed by the fact that you're trying to turn a bug into a functional UAV means that their usefulness is still somewhat constrained. A rhinoceros beetle, for example, can manage to haul about 30% of its own weight as payload. This works out to be somewhere around 2.5 grams, which is not a whole heck of a lot, and if you're eating up a significant portion of that space with a battery, it doesn't leave much room for (say) a camera or missiles.

One option is a small nuclear battery, but a much more elegant solution (with less potential for creating a giant mutant cyborg insect of doom) is to simply harvest power directly from the insect itself. Researchers from the University of Michigan and Western Michigan University have developed a prototype insect energy harvester, pictured above, made of a piezoelectric material that converts wingbeats into electricity. By mounting one of these piezoelectric springs on each wing, simulations show that over 100 microwatts (μW) can be harvested, which is significantly more than the maximum of 80μW it takes to control the insect itself.

While this level of power isn't going to be able to charge those miniaturized laser cannons that I'm reasonably sure DARPA is working on, it does significantly reduce the energy drain on any auxiliary power system that might have to be carried along anyway. And as with all electronics, efficiency will only go up as mass goes down, until ultimately power will only be limited by the lifespan of the insect and the amount of tasty fruit that you can get your bug to chow down on in the middle of a mission.

[ Paper (*.PDF) ] via [ NBF ]

Video Friday: PowerGloves, MAVs, and Self-Assembling Robots

This very cool demo comes from a company called AnthroTronix. Their AcceleGlove uses accelerometers to detect hand movements, and it's precise enough to get a little robot to pick up a ball in its gripper:

AirBurr, or the original AirBurr at least, is from 2009. It's got a rotor like a helicopter plus control surfaces like an airplane, and since the whole thing is completely enclosed, it can bounce off walls and land and take off on its own, ideal for indoor flying:

Any doubts that AeroVironment's hummingbird MAV could fly outside of a staged demo were erased when it took off from a table at an AUVSI press conference:

Noisy little bugger, but very clever.

This TEDTalk from MIT's Skylar Tibbits shows several examples of how robots (and structures in general) can be programmed to be self-assembling and self-reconfiguring:

We've seen a few things like this before, and those chains at the end of the talk remind me of Cornell's stochastic self-reconfiguring robots from a few years ago.

And finally, the week would just not be complete without a video about robots going nuts and killing all the humans they can get their steely claws on. Behold, Robotropolis!

Wales Gets Dedicated UAV Airport, Leaves U.S. in the Dust

Want to know a surefire way of creating jobs and spurring innovation in the aerial robotics market? It's easy: let people fly UAVs. This isn't something that's easily done here in the U.S. thanks to the FAA being, oh, about a decade (or two) behind the times, but over in Wales, they've already gone and given over an entire airport plus 1300 square kilometers [500 square miles] of airspace to UAV testing.

Conveniently located right off the B4333 between Blaenannerch and Aberporth (and a short distance from Brynhoffnant, Llangranog, Gwbert, and Mwnt), West Wales Airport has just been officially designated as a UAV testing area by the United Kingdom's Civilian Aviation Authority. This means that you can go out there and test your UAVs over a large area of unrestricted airspace, with civilian and military manned aircraft passing through from time to time that your robot should probably know how not to get run over by. Or vice versa, if you like to think big.

While the U.K. is taking a proactive approach to the whole UAV issue and encouraging small commercial companies to develop the technology, the FAA (which controls airspace here in the U.S.) is being a gigantic stick-in-the-mud by saying that they're, like, totally working on some rules or something, honest. Just be patient. For the next thirteen years. That's right, their target date for letting you fly an unmanned aircraft higher than 400 feet or out of visual range is apparently 2025. They hope.

I can understand why the FAA is cautious and wants to make sure that UAVs are operated reliably and safely in commercial airspace, but they can't just stick their heads in the sand for the next decade, or the rest of the world is simply going to keep making progress and small American companies who want to develop UAV technology are going to be forced to move to some unpronounceable town in Wales that's just to the northeast of Pantygrwndy.

For their part, the Welsh seem pretty excited about the prospect of UAVs being developed in their backyard: "we can do forestry, we can do whale-watching, we can do pipeline surveys or even peat bog monitoring," they say. Yes, that's right: Wales does apparently have whales. Fascinating.

Via [ Discovery News ]

Dextre Robot Repairs ISS While Astronauts Sleep

Last time a circuit breaker went bad on the International Space Station, astronauts had to go outside and swap out the old breaker box for a new one. As much as you and I would love to be tasked with a spacewalk, it's a bit dangerous, and it takes up a lot of time that astronauts could better spend doing science and fooling around. Now that Dextre the space robot is operational, though, the humans get to sleep in while the robot does the housework.

Of course, space housework is a little bit different than terrestrial housework. Your house has circuit breakers too, and you may even need to replace them from time to time, but it's likely a bit less intensive than what has to happen on the ISS. Controlled from the ground, Dextre -- which according to one of its creators could "insert a DVD into a player" -- spent Sunday and Monday nights unbolting the bad breaker box and swapping it out for a new one on a nearby spare parts pallet. It was fast, easy, and there was no need for any of the human astronauts to even bother waking up.

So on the upside, having Dextre -- and other robots -- on the station to do important work is great. But the question is starting to be, is it worth it to have humans exploring space at all? We're very fragile, and keeping us alive is a complicated and expensive chore. There is definitely something to be said for having us go out and explore our solar system in person so that we can all feel as though our species is experiencing something new, but what if we could field five or ten times as many robotic exploration missions for the same amount of resources?

In any case, it's a little bit ironic that we've now got this big and capable and impervious space robot living outside the ISS, with the primary job of making sure that the puny little humans inside stay safe and sound.

[ CSA ] via [ TFT ]

Matternet Wants to Deliver Meds with a Network of Quadrotors

The go-to way of delivering medial supplies to rural areas of developing nations is to not deliver them at all, and force sick people to hike miles through mountains and jungles to get the drugs they need. That, or some dude delivers them on a motorbike. And if the weather's been bad and the roads are washed out, well, good luck.

Solution? Do it all by air. The only way to do that efficiently (or at all) is to scale it way, way down from planes and helicopters to small UAVs. This is the concept behind Matternet, which seems to be both a technology and a company who wants to revolutionize the way medicine is delivered to the billion (with a "b") or so people who live completely cut off from road networks for at least some of the year. Matternet will be a network of autonomous quadrotor UAVs that use GPS and a beacon system to rapidly deliver small packages (containing drugs or medical testing supplies) to people who can't otherwise get them. Their first commercial platform (look for it in three to six months) will be able to fly 10 km while carrying a 2kg load, and it should be durable enough to make thousands of trips in variable weather. All this for only a few hundred dollars a unit. If it works out, Matternet could mean a drastic quality of life improvement for a lot (a lot) of people.

Matternet will develop in three distinct phases: phase one involves using a single UAV for point-to-point cargo transport. For example, a clinic uses a UAV to deliver drugs to an otherwise inaccessible nearby village in 30 minutes or less (or they're free). Phase two will add remote, autonomous recharging stations to allow UAVs to juice up in between deliveries, enabling them to roam farther afield and make multiple deliveries without having to return to base. Connect the dots between base stations and you have a delivery network. In phase three, all of these discrete networks grow large enough that they overlap, and it becomes possible to use a continuous chain of autonomously cooperating UAVs to transport things across entire continents very quickly and for cheap. Eventually, the idea is that Matternet turns into a sort of Internet for stuff, where you can make a request and get a physical object delivered to you. Matternet. Get it?

The obvious question now is, why stop with essential goods like medicines? Forget about the U.S. Postal Service, UPS, FedEx, and all of those short-lived microdelivery services. Autonomous UAVs are faster, cheaper, more efficient, more environmentally friendly, easier to scale, and don't arrogantly double-park all over the place. They could be the urban delivery system of the future, at least until we all get flying cars, at which point all those little flying robots and their packages will likely end up splattered across our windshields. Yay progress!

[ Matternet ] via [ CNET ]

Chatbot Tries to Talk to Itself, Things Get Weird

A chatbot is a computer program that's intended to fool us into thinking that it's human. Historically, this has been a tricky thing to do, and for the last 20 years there's been a $100,000 prize and gold medal waiting for the first computer program that can carry on a conversation indistinguishably from a human. Arguably (very arguably), this could also be the first computer program to demonstrate an artificial intelligence. 

Cornell's Creative Machines Lab decided to see what would happen if they put two chatbots face to virtual face and got them started talking to one another. Things didn't go quite as crazy as might have been expected, but a fair amount of pointless argument, passive aggression, and random hilarity did ensue:

The 2011 Loebner Prize Competition in Artificial Intelligence takes place on October 19th, and if any of the entrant programs manages to fool two or more judges comparing two or more humans into thinking that it's a human, the program will win $25,000 and a silver medal. The final $100,000 prize will go to a program that includes a completely convincing audiovisual component as well, and that too may be closer than you think.

[ Loebner Prize ] via [ Cornell CCSL ]

Video Friday: Dancing Robots and Rampant Stupidity

As often happens, it's Thursday night and I've got a slew jumble heap carefully selected assortment of robot videos that have shown up this week and I figured it would be a good idea to toss smush pile carefully present them in a post for Friday that you can enjoy without having to listen to me drone on about, you know, drones. Or whatever.

In the realm of dancing robots, researchers seem to pick the weirdest tunes to show off their latest programming tricks. I could delve into why I think that might be, but out of respect for the personal lives of all of these people who have clearly not been out of the lab since the mid-1970s, I'll keep quiet and just let you enjoy HDT Robotics' HDM robot dancing to some disco:

If that thing had a pelvis, it would be going crazy.

An entirely different (and more mature) style altogether is demonstrated by Azusa Amino's Toko Toko Maru robot, which took first place in the Robo Japan 2 Dance Contest on Sunday. Robot-Dreams brings the video:

And finally, we come to the rampant stupidity, and boy is it rampant. But that's the way we want it, because in October is another Bacarobo competition, where the stupidest, most useless robot wins a huge wad of cash. It's sort of like the Antimov Competition, except with more uselessness and less flaming death. Here's a video of some highlights from last year, which you'll enjoy slightly more if you can speak Hungarian:

Bacarobo 2011 takes place October 30 in Budapest.

Toshiba Smarbo Vacuum Has Twice the Smarts, but Does It Matter?

This is a new vacuuming robot from Toshiba, called the Smarbo. Few of the specs will surprise you: it's got 38 sensors, obstacle detection, edge detection, and a mapping camera (kinda like LG's RoboKing) that lets it recognize where it's been and clean rooms in an efficient, single pass pattern. What caught our eye was the "double brain function," which (if Google Translate is to be relied upon, never a good idea) seems to suggest that this vacuum is smarter than normal.

But do we really care?

Progress is always good, and a faster and more efficient robot is usually a better robot. But when we're talking about an autonomous vacuum, there's a question as to whether or not a marginal improvement in efficiency derived from a more computationally intensive algorithm will really make a difference in your life. As I see it, a robot vacuum can operate in one of two ways: pseudo-randomly, like a Roomba, or using a mapping pattern, like a Neato. iRobot's method involves multiple cleaning passes to clean better (maybe) at the expense of efficiency, while Neato's method covers most areas of your floor approximately once. Obviously, the Neato is much faster, so if speed is what you want, go with a vacuum that makes a map.

But there's a limit to the amount of cleverness you can use to improve that "approximately once" coverage method. Or perhaps I should say, you can throw as much CPU cleverness as you want at the problem, but returns diminish rapidly unless the speed or single-pass coverage area of your robot also increases. Again, I'm not trying to harsh on progress, but on some level a "smarter" robot vacuum is sort of like a camera with 12 megapixels instead of 10: looks good on paper, but will you ever really notice and are you willing to pay a premium for it? Perhaps not.

What I do like is Toshiba's "careful" cleaning method, which is sort of like a compromise between efficiency and multiple passes. If you set the Smarbo to clean carefully, it'll do a single pass while mapping the room, and then go back and do a second, orthogonal pass, like so (bottom left):

Pretty cool. Maybe something Neato could implement in their next tasty little software upgrade? Eh? Yeah? Anyway, unless you live somewhere besides the U.S., much of this rant discussion was to some extent pointless, since the Smarbo is not a vacuum that you'll ever be able to purchase, likely because some of its major components look like they were more or less lifted straight from the Roomba. If you're in Japan, though, you can pick up the Smarbo for about $1,175 starting October 1.

[ Toshiba ] via [ TechCrunch ]

Steel Continues to Get Real as Robot Boxing Movie Looms

So this Reel Steel movie thing (aka what happens when you mix Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots with eighty million dollars and Hugh Jackman) is apparently still on track for an October release. Far be it from me to suggest that a movie which mixes robots with violence might ever end up becoming popular, but this featurette should give you enough of a taste of the action to decide whether or not you'd like to invest a couple hours in it:

I'd like to reiterate that the most interesting part about this entire production (so far) is that they actually went out and built nineteen eight-foot tall boxing robots for the humans to interact with during close-ups and whatnot. The rest of it's CGI, but happily there some real robots in there somewhere, presumably with parts made out of real steel. Yeah, I went there.

The film is due out on October 7, and DreamWorks has already started on the sequel, which may or may not be called Real Steel 2: Stainless Is Painless.

[ Reel Steel ] via [ io9 ]



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

Erico Guizzo
New York, N.Y.
Senior Writer
Evan Ackerman
Berkeley, Calif.
Jason Falconer
Angelica Lim
Tokyo, Japan

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Automaton newsletter and get biweekly updates about robotics, automation, and AI, all delivered directly to your inbox.

Load More