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GRASP Lab pico drone can fly through obstacles

The Secret to Small Drone Obstacle Avoidance Is to Just Crash Into Stuff

Roboticists are putting a tremendous amount of time and effort into finding the right combination of sensors and algorithms that will keep their drones from smashing into things. It’s a very difficult problem: With a few exceptions, you’ve got small platforms that move fast and don’t have the payload capability for the kind of sensors or computers that you really need to do real-time avoidance of things like trees or power lines. And without obstacle avoidance, how will we ever have drones that can deliver new athletic socks to our doorstep in 30 minutes or less?

At the University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP Lab, where they’ve been working very, very hard at getting quadrotors to fly through windows without running into them, Yash Mulgaonkar, Luis Guerrero-Bonilla, Anurag Makineni, and Professor Vijay Kumar have come up with what seems to be a much simpler solution for navigation and obstacle avoidance with swarms of small aerial robots: Give them a roll cage, and just let them run into whatever is in their way. Seriously, it’ll be fine!

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Russia's humanoid robot Fedor

Video Friday: Russian Android, Swarm User Interface, and Robot Drone Man

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. After two weeks of amazing videos from IROS, we’re back with our regular Video Friday edition.

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!):

ICSR 2016 – November 1-3, 2016 – Kansas City, Kan., USA
Social Robots in Therapy and Education – November 2-4, 2016 – Barcelona, Spain
Distributed Autonomous Robotic Systems 2016 – November 7-9, 2016 – London, England
HRI 2016 – November 15-17, 2016 – Cancun, Mexico
AI-HRI – November 17-19, 2016 – Arlington, Va., USA
Humans, Machines, and the Future of Work – December 05, 2016 – Houston, Texas, USA
RiTA 2016 – December 11-14, 2016 – Beijing, China
WAFR 2016 – December 18-20, 2016 – San Francisco, Calif., USA

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

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Harvard's self-folding origami robots

Swarm of Origami Robots Can Self Assemble Out of a Single Sheet

One of the biggest challenges with swarms of robots is manufacturing and deploying the swarm itself. Even if the robots are relatively small and relatively simple, you’re still dealing with a whole bunch of them, and every step in building the robots or letting them loose is multiplied over the entire number of bots in the swarm. If you’ve got more than a few robots to handle, it starts to get all kinds of tedious.

The dream for swarm robotics is to be able to do away with all of that, and just push a button and have your swarm somehow magically appear. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting close: At IROS this month, researchers from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard presented a paper demonstrating an autonomous collective robotic swarm that can be manufactured in a single flat composite sheet. On command, they’ll rip themselves apart from each other, fold themselves up into origami structures, and head off on a mission en masse.

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Georgia Tech robot moving furniture

You Can't Stop Robots With Furniture Barricades Anymore

It used to be that even sophisticated mobile robots could be easily defeated by using (say) a table to block its way. The robot would sense the table, categorize it as an obstacle, try to plan a path around it, and then give up when its planner fails. This works because robots generally don’t know what most objects are, or how they work, or what you can do with them: They just get turned into obstacles to be avoided, because in most cases, that’s the easiest and safest thing to do.

You can’t normally use a table across a hallway to deter a human, because humans understand that tables are physical objects that can be moved, and the human will just pull the table out of the way and keep on going. Even if the table doesn’t behave exactly the way we’d expect it to (like, one of the wheels is stuck), we can adapt, and figure it out. 

At IROS 2016 in South Korea, Jonathan Scholz from Google DeepMind and collaborators from Georgia Tech presented a paper on “Navigation Among Movable Obstacles with Learned Dynamic Constraints,” which gives mobile manipulators this same capability. They can recognize objects in their way, and get inventive with physics-based tricks to get where they need to go.

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Kengoro humanoid with robotic toes

Video Friday: Robot Toes, Wolverine Haptic Hand, and More From IROS 2016

This week we continue with our selection of awesome robot videos from IROS, which took place last week in South Korea. We’re posting the vids along with the titles, authors, and abstracts of their respective papers. If you have questions about these projects, let us know and we’ll try to get more details from the researchers.

As a reminder, we’ll return to normal Video Friday next week, so if you have video suggestions for us, send us an email or reach us on Twitter or Facebook. Enjoy Video Friday IROS 2016 Part 2!

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SRI's Abacus drive rotary transmission

SRI Demonstrates Abacus, the First New Rotary Transmission Design in 50 Years

I know, it doesn’t seem like there’s any possible way that a transmission system could be interesting enough that we’d dedicate an entire article (and video!) to it. But here we are: As soon as SRI explained how their new Abacus transmission worked, we were absolutely sure that it was cool enough to share. In a nutshell, here’s why: It’s the first new rotary transmission design since Harmonic Drive introduced its revolutionary gear system in the 1960s*, and it might give harmonic gears a literal run for their money.

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DJI Phantom 3, Roomba, Amazon Echo, Kiva, and Google Self-Driving Car

How Analog and Neuromorphic Chips Will Rule the Robotic Age

This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.

When it comes to new technologies and products, we tend to think of “digital” as synonymous with advanced, modern, and high-def, while “analog” is considered retrograde, outmoded, and low-resolution.

But if you think analog is dead, you’d be wrong. Analog processing not only remains at the heart of many vital systems we depend on today, it is now going to make its way into a new breed of compute and intelligent systems that will power some of the most exciting technologies of the future: artificial intelligence and robotics.

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Robot patrol

Video Friday: Robot Patrol, Tickling Machine, and More From IROS 2016

Goodbye, South Korea! IROS ended today in Daejeon, and we hope you’ve enjoyed our coverage so far (TurtleBot 3! Microspine gripper! Robots that sweat!). We wish we could write about every single amazing project we’ve seen there, but then we would die of exhaustion and you’d have 0 (zero) articles next year. So here’s another idea: We’re going to stuff Video Friday, both this week and next, with a massive dose of IROS videos along with their accompanying abstracts. We hope you like that better than us dying.

For you impatient types, we’ll return to normal Video Friday in two weeks, so if you have video suggestions, keep them coming as usual. Enjoy today’s IROS 2016 Special Edition Part 1.

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Kengoro humanoid robot that sweats and does push-ups

This Robot Can Do More Push-Ups Because It Sweats

When we use our muscles, they produce heat as a by-product. When we use them a lot, we need to actively cool them, which is why we sweat. By sweating, we pump water out of our bodies, and as that water evaporates, it cools us down. Robots, especially dynamic robots like humanoids that place near-constant high torque demands on their motors, generate enough heat that it regularly becomes a major constraint on their performance. One of the reasons that SCHAFT did so well at the DRC Trials, for example, was their fancy liquid-cooled motors, which could put out lots of torque over an extended period of time without overheating.

Engineers solve this heat-generating problem in most mechanical systems by using fans, heat sinks, and radiators, which means that you’ve got all of this dedicated cooling infrastructure that takes up space and adds mass. At the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) this week, Japanese researchers presented a novel idea of how to cool humanoid robots in a much more efficient way: Design them to be able to sweat water straight out of their bones.

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Turtlebot 3

Robotis and OSRF Announce TurtleBot 3: Smaller, Cheaper, and Modular

Thousands of TurtleBots are out in the world right now, providing a (mostly) straightforward and (mostly) affordable way to get started with ROS. They’re (mostly) portable and (mostly) extendable, allowing you (with a limited amount of inconvenience) to modify the robot to keep up with your needs. TurtleBot 2 is a great platform (I certainly love mine), but its size and cost usually restrict it to people who already have some ROS experience, and know that a TurtleBot is something worth investing in. For people who want to get started with ROS but aren’t prepared to make as much of an investment, there just aren’t a lot of options with the same kind of community and support that you get with TurtleBot. 

At ROSCon this past weekend, the Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF) and South Korean robot maker ROBOTIS are tackling these problems by announcing a shiny new version of TurtleBot: TurtleBot 3. TB3 is small enough to fit into a backpack, and with a single-board computer instead of a netbook and just two Dynamixel motors driving a pair of wheels, it’s both simpler than previous TurtleBots and significantly cheaper. With tons of easy options for expandability (including sensors, computers, drive systems, and more) and the kind of software support that TurtleBots are known for, TB3 seems like the best intro to doing cool stuff with ROS yet. 

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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.
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