DARPA ARM Robot Can Now Change Your Tires

DARPA's Autonomous Robotic Manipulation program is gunning for AAA

2 min read
DARPA ARM Robot Can Now Change Your Tires

Last time we saw DARPA's Autonomous Robotic Manipulation testbed robot, it grabbed one of our cameras by the face. That was fun, but it's not especially practical. Now, this—this is practical: using some low-cost (sub-$3,000) hands from iRobot and Sandia National Labs, the robot can now autonomously use tools to mostly change a car tire.

A bit of an abrupt ending, perhaps, but as far as roboticists are concerned, if bolting a wheel onto a car is just unbolting it run backwards, solving one means they've solved the other. For the record, though, they're still working on getting the bolts threaded back onto the nuts.

There are two things going on here that are worth getting excited about. Thing one is that the ARM robot is learning to work in unstructured environments, which is a fancy way of saying that it's got a chance of being able to do stuff outside of the lab it was born in, potentially in either direct sunlight or partial shadow (but probably not both, let's not get crazy here), and without the assistance of a Vicon motion-capture system. Thing two is that the robot is learning to deal with high-level commands, which is what it's going to take for anybody who's normal who isn't a roboticist to get a robot to complex task. A high-level command is a command like "robot, change my tire" or "robot, clean my house" or "robot, get me a sandwich."

Now, seeing as that first "D" in "DARPA" is for "Defense," the agency is hoping that the robot can help out with a range of potentially dangerous Department-of-Defense-type applications, including defusing improvised explosive devices and searching bags. That's great, but for our part, we're just waiting for the day when all cars come with a tire-changing robot as standard equipment.

[ DARPA ARM ] via [ New York Times ]

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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