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Video Friday: Mini Surgical Robot, Precision Drones, and Bioinspired Robotics at Harvard

This week's best robot videos are here

5 min read

Video Friday: Mini Surgical Robot, Precision Drones, and Bioinspired Robotics at Harvard
Image: Virtual Incision

When you have a brand new robot to show the world, it’s not always easy to come up with a demo that will attract attention, especially if your robot does stuff that’s (and forgive us for saying this) inherently kind of boring. Don’t get me wrong: robots that do boring things are very important, because otherwise humans would be doing those things instead.

PRENAV (which I’m going to call Prenav so that I don’t get a headache) is introducing an aerial robot that can inspect tall structures, and what’s impressive about it is that it can (through the assistance of another robot on the ground) localize itself with centimeter-level accuracy. To demonstrate how well this works, Prenav stuck some lights on its drone and photographed it while it flew around. The timelapsed footage is amazing.

Be amazed, and then watch some other videos, it’s Video Friday.

In order to fly with this amount of repeatable precision, Prenav has a robot on the ground that uses a camera and laser rangefinder to scan the structure or area that the drone will be flying around. Then, custom software plans a flight path for the drone, which relies on the ground robot to keep its position as it generates a 3D model of the structure.

Prenav plans to use this system for infrastructure inspection, specifically of tall and awkward things like wind turbines and cell towers. They’ve got over $1 million in seed funding so far, and lots of other (but secret) plans for how their technology could be used.

[ Prenav ]

Virtual Incision’s miniaturized surgical robot is the most adorable surgical robot I’ve ever seen:

It’s designed primarily for colon resection procedures, which are used to treat patients with diverticulitis, Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease, colon cancer, and other diseases. If I’m reading this right, the entire robot gets stuck inside your abdomen for the procedure:

In contrast to today’s large mainframe-like robots that reach into the body from outside the patient, Virtual Incision’s less-invasive robot platform design features a small, self-contained surgical device that is inserted in its entirety through a single incision in the patient’s abdomen. Designed to utilize existing tools and techniques familiar to surgeons, Virtual Incision’s robot will not require a dedicated operating room or specialized infrastructure, and, because of its much smaller size, is expected to be significantly less expensive than existing robotic alternatives for laparoscopic surgery. Due to these technological advances, the system could enable a minimally invasive approach to procedures performed in open surgery today.


The robot has to pass an in-human feasibility trial before it’s ready for deployment, but the Virtual Incision just raised $11 million, so that’s probably going to happen.

[ Virtual Incision ]

Researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) and The University of Sydney have developed a world-first radio-tracking drone to locate radio-tagged wildlife.

The robot consists of an off-the-shelf drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The custom-built miniature receiver and antenna provide real-time information on radio-tracked wildlife, which are mapped live on a laptop. Lead researcher Dr Debbie Saunders from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society said the drones have successfully detected tiny radio transmitters weighing as little as one gram. The system has been tested by tracking bettongs at the Mulligan’s Flat woodland sanctuary in Canberra.

And here is an adorable bettong:

[ ANU ]

I’m not entirely sure why, but this is supremely satisfying to watch:

[ ABB ]

A group of NASA interns from different colleges across the nation came together during Summer 2015 with one goal: the successful flight test of PRANTDL-2. This student-produced video details the students' journey from fabrication to flight test of the PRANDTL-2 subscale aircraft. The students also worked on preparing the successor aircraft, PRANDTL-3, for flight tests later this year.

[ NASA ]

Baxter was designed for manufacturing, but as a research robot, it’s so easy to program and use that places like CMU are getting very creative with teaching the robot to help people:

CMU researchers are experimenting with Baxter for several applications, with visions of a smart city future in mind. For example, to assist blind travelers Baxter is being used to provide vocal directions reinforced with physical directional gestures on the traveler’s hand. The robot can also help users select the correct bus ticket, a task that can be difficult when tickets to different destinations are physically identical in every way except for text and color. The research team is also making great inroads into multi-robot skill coordination, a scenario in which Baxter communicates with mobile robots to help guide travelers along their journeys.

[ CMU ] via [ Rethink Robotics ]

Here is a disturbingly silent overview of robotics at IIT:

[ IIT ]

It’s round three of RoboHub’s Robot Launch competition, and here are three more projects that we think are pretty interesting:


Our mission is simple, create well built and cost effective scanning LiDAR. Carefully designed for indoor/outdoor environments.

Underwater GPS

This project proposes a solution for accurate, low-cost underwater localization. Furthermore, this type of positioning system can contribute to increase the autonomy of underwater vehicles, allowing low cost deployments.


Mecademic designs and manufactures desktop high-accuracy robot arms for research, education, and industrial and laboratory automation.

Definitely check out the rest of the projects (and vote for your favorite!) at the link below.

[ RoboHub ]

Boeing has a Compact Laser Weapons System that seems to excel at torching hapless drones:

Obviously, drones should all come with skins made out of mirrors. Suck it, lasers.

[ Boeing ]

More drive thru robot pranking? Sure, why not:

[ YouTube ]

Joel Gibbard’s $1500 open source prosthetic hand has just won a James Dyson award for the U.K., and is moving on to the finals of the competition where it could grab $45,000. 

[ Open Bionics ] via [ Telegraph ]

The Bioinspired Robotics platform at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering looks into Nature to obtain insights for the development of new robotic components that are smarter, softer, and safer than conventional industrial robots. By looking at natural intelligence, collective behavior, biomechanics, and material properties not found in manmade systems, scientists at the Wyss Institute and around the world are building new kinds of robots that can co-exist and coordinate with humans. In the future, researchers envision humans and robots will interact in ways we never previously imagined.

[ Wyss Institute ]

Robin Murphy is the director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M. She gave a talk at TEDWomen 2015 back in May on “robots that fly, tunnel, swim and crawl through disaster scenes, helping firefighters and rescue workers save more lives safely — and help communities return to normal up to three years faster.”

[ TED ]

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