Robot Penguins Spy on Real Penguins

To get close-up images of penguins in their natural habitats, the BBC used robotic penguin cams

1 min read
Robot Penguins Spy on Real Penguins

Scientists and filmmakers love to deploy robots in disguise to spy on real animals. They've sent drones to film herds of elephants and zebras in Africaarmored mobile robots to photograph Kenyan lions, and animatronic apes to get close-up footage of bonobos. Now the BBC has sent 50 special cameras, including robot penguins that can walk and swim, to get inside penguin colonies and capture never-seen footage of the adorable flat-footed, tuxedo-clad birds in their natural habitats.

For their documentary "Penguins: Spy in the Huddle," the BBC hired John Downer Productions to build a variety of special penguin-cams to film three different species. These spycams were not just the typical remote-controlled cameras hidden in a fancy case. One of them, the RockhopperCam, is a walking penguin bot with 20 degrees of freedom, equipped with gyroscopes, accelerometers, and high-def cameras. According to the producers, it can walk over different terrain, stand up if it falls over, and its computer is preprogrammed with 75 different "penguin motions." Other spycams included the EmperorCam, ChickCam, SnowCam, EggCam, Underwater PenguimCam, and the SnowballCam. From the trailer below, it looks like penguins are ready to welcome their robot overlords.

Image: John Downer Productions

Via [ CNET ] and [ BBC ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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