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This 3D rendering shows the robotic blimp and tubular docking station that researchers at Inria and CNRS are developing to explore the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.

Robotic Blimp Could Explore Hidden Chambers of Great Pyramid of Giza

Last month, the ScanPyramids project, led by a team of researchers from the University of Cairo’s Faculty of Engineering in Egypt and the HIP Institute in France, announced that they’d used muon imaging to discover a large void hidden deep inside the Khufu’s Pyramid (also known as the Great Pyramid of Giza, since it’s the big one). Nobody knows what’s inside, or if there’s anything inside at all, or even if maybe that’s where the Stargate is stashed. Obviously there’s a lot of interest in what may or may not be hiding out in here, and it could help solve mysteries like how and why exactly the pyramids were built.

The problem is that (understandably) we’re not going to just start blowing holes in the Great Pyramid to see what’s going on. In 2002, Egyptologists used a custom exploration robot (made by iRobot, in fact) to explore a small shaft leading out of the Queen’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid that was sealed by a door. Rather than try to open the door, likely destroying it in the process, the robot drilled a tiny hole just large enough to poke a camera through in an effort to do the minimum amount of irreversible damage to the only wonder of the ancient world that we’ve got left. All that they found on the other side was another door, but the point is that if we want to explore the pyramid, we’re going to have to do it through holes that are as tiny as possible.

French research institutes Inria and CNRS are working with ScanPyramids to develop an exploration robot that can squeeze through a tiny hole while still maximizing the amount of exploration that it can do once it’s through. The concept that they’ve come up with is a robotic blimp that can be stuffed through a 3.5-centimeter hole, unfold and inflate itself, and then explore large areas before deflating and escaping again.

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Centimetre Robots

Video Friday: ROS 10 Years, Robotic Imaginations, and Centimetre Bots

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next two months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

IEEE IRC 2018 – January 31-2, 2018 – Laguna Hills, Calif.
HRI 2018 – March 5-8, 2018 – Chicago, Ill.

Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

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Review: Ohmni, a Telepresence Robot for the Rest of Your Family

Most telepresence robots are designed for business use. They’re expensive, but the argument is that they work significantly better than a phone call and they pay for themselves since you don’t have to spend so much time and money traveling instead. We’ve reviewed telepresence robots in the past, and while in our experience the being-better-than-a-phone-call thing is definitely true, it’s still difficult for most people to justify getting one for personal use.

OhmniLabs, a Silicon Valley robotics startup with CMU roots (they’re advised by Manuela Veloso) wants to make telepresence robots easy and affordable enough that people start using them to stay connected with their families. In order for that to work, their telepresence robot (called Ohmni) is designed to be as independent as possible—you can send it to someone who isn’t at all comfortable with tech, and they can take it out of the box, turn it on, and it’ll just work. It’s potentially ideal for family members who you don’t live close to, or elderly family members who you like to talk to (and check up on) regularly. It seems like a good idea in theory, so we decided to give it a try.

Rather than doing this review myself, I had OhmniLabs ship a robot to my partner’s grandfather, Gerry. In his late 80s, he lives in an apartment in New Jersey with 24/7 care. Gerry is mostly confined to a wheelchair and has a mild form of dementia, although he’s able to chat with people and loves to talk with his family.

Despite living over an hour away, my partner’s father makes the drive to visit Gerry several times a week, supplemented with phone calls several times a day. It’s a big time investment, which he is of course happy to make, but I wanted to see to what extent Ohmni would be able to make Gerry feel more connected while perhaps making the distance less of an issue. And for other people in Gerry’s family, located farther away, Ohmni might give them a chance to interact with him more often, and in a more engaging and fulfilling way.

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NASA JPL is developing AI-powered drones that are fully autonomous

JPL's AI-Powered Racing Drone Challenges Pro Human Pilot

As drones and their components get smaller, more efficient, and more capable, we’ve seen an increasing amount of research towards getting these things flying by themselves in semi-structured environments without relying on external localization. The University of Pennsylvania has done some amazing work in this area, as has DARPA’s Fast Lightweight Autonomy program.

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, they’ve been working on small drone autonomy for the past few years as part of a Google-funded project. The focus is on high-speed dynamic maneuvering, in the context of flying a drone as fast as possible around an indoor race course using only on-board hardware. For the project’s final demo, JPL raced their autonomous drones through an obstacle course against a professional human racing drone pilot.

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Hamlet iCub: To be, or not to be

Hamlet iCub and Other Humanoid Robots in Photos

As part of the IEEE RAS International Conference on Humanoid Robots in Birmingham, U.K., last month, the awards committee decided to organize a fun photo contest. Participants submitted 39 photos showing off their humanoids in all kinds of poses and places. I was happy to be one of the judges, along with Sabine Hauert from the University of Bristol and Robohub, and with Giorgio Metta, the conference’s awards chair, overseeing our selection. All photos were posted on Facebook and Twitter, and users were invited to vote on them. Sabine and I then looked at the photos with the most votes and scored them for originality, creativity, photo structure, and tech or fun factor. Here are the winners of the two categories, “Best Humanoid Photo” and “Best Funny Humanoid Photo,” and all the amazing submissions.

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Mars 2020 rover

Video Friday: Pepper at Work, Robot Muscles, and NASA's Next Rover

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next two months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

IEEE IRC 2018 – January 31-2, 2018 – Laguna Hills, Calif.
HRI 2018 – March 5-8, 2018 – Chicago, Ill.

Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

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Robot gift ideas: Hexa spider robot; Lego Boost; Kamigami; Anki Cozmo; Mayfield's Kuri social robot; Husarion ROSbot; Jibo social robot

Robot Gift Guide 2017

Any time of year is the perfect time to buy a robot for yourself or someone who needs more robots in their life, but this particular time of year is even more perfect than most: The holidays are approaching, all kinds of things are on sale, and nobody will ask questions if a whole bunch of new robots suddenly show up in your house. To help you decide which robots to buy for yourself and which to buy for yourself and for other people, we’ve put together a brand-new edition of our annual Robot Gift Guide. It’s stuffed with giftable robots ranging from affordable to ridiculous, and we promise that if you don’t find something you like, we’ll feel bad about it and be sad.

Also, don’t forget that we’ve got robot gift guides going back like five years (here: 20162015201420132012), and since we try to mix them up every year, they’re great places for even more ideas for robots that are probably way cheaper now than when we first posted about them. And remember: While we provide prices and links to places where you can buy these items, we’re not endorsing any in particular, and a little bit of searching may result in better deals (all prices are in U.S. dollars).

And if you have some good robot gift ideas that you’d like to share, post a comment to help the rest of us find something perfect.

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The smallest, most controllable cybernetic insect we've seen so far

Controllable Cyborg Beetles for Swarming Search and Rescue

Robotics tries very hard to match the agility, versatility, and efficiency of animals. Some robots get very close in a few specific ways, but we’re still chasing the dream of robots that can match our biological friends. One way of getting around this problem is by leveraging biology in the design of robots (and we do see a lot of bioinspiration in a variety of applications), but a more direct approach is to just make the robots themselves mostly biological. We’ve reported on this in the past in the context of flying insects, but this new cyborg beetle from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore is the smallest (and most controllable) yet.

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Toyota T-HR3 humanoid robot

Toyota Gets Back Into Humanoid Robots With New T-HR3

Toyota has announced the T-HR3, a brand-new, third-generation humanoid robot. It’s 1.5-meter tall, weighs 75 kilograms, and has 32 degrees of torque-controlled freedom plus a pair of 10 fingered hands. At first glance, it appears to be very capable, with excellent balance and coordination, and Toyota has decided to approach autonomy by keeping a human in the loop inside of a sophisticated, immersive “Master Maneuvering System.”

As with most flagship robotics projects from large Japanese companies, Toyota has done a very good job of not telling anyone about it until they’re good and ready, meaning that all we have to go on at the moment is a press release and some basic specs and videos. We’ve got those to share, along with some thoughts on what this robot is all about, below.

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iRobot is testing software that will be able to make sense out of all the rooms in your house

iRobot Testing Software to Make Sense of All Rooms in a House

Based on conversations we’ve had with iRobot CEO Colin Angle, we’re expecting that within the next six months or so, robot vacuums will be able to understand our homes on a much more sophisticated and useful level than ever before. Specifically, they’ll be able to generate maps that persist between cleaning sessions, and these maps will allow the robots to identify and remember specific rooms and adjust their cleaning behavior accordingly. (Neato is also implementing this kind of capability.) For example, if your robot vacuum knows where your kitchen is, it can respond to commands like “Go clean the kitchen,” or autonomously clean there as often as it needs to.

At IROS in September, we got a bit of a sneak peak into how iRobot is going to make this happen, and how much of a difference it can make to the speed and efficiency of home navigation. It’s a big difference, and it can even work on your older (and affordable) Roomba that only has bump sensors on it.

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

Erico Guizzo
New York City
Senior Writer
Evan Ackerman
Washington, D.C.

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