Humanoid robot goes for a stroll

This is Digit, a new bipedal bot from Agility Robotics, out for a stroll in its hometown of Albany, Oregon. Next year, you'll be able to order your own Digit, but the price hasn't been announced yet. From Agility Robotics:

Although still in testing, Digit is strong enough to pick up and stack boxes weighing up to 40 lb (18 kg), as well as durable enough to catch itself during a fall using its arms to decelerate. In addition to the physical changes, the control system for Digit has been overhauled to enable advanced behaviors such as stair climbing and footstep planning, all controlled through a robust API that can be accessed both onboard the robot and via a wireless link... Out-of-the-box, Digit will be up and walking within five minutes, even for users who are not legged locomotion control researchers.

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Swidl: robot picks up gooey spills without losing their shapes

Swidl is a robot that can quickly slide its thin flat tongue underneath gooey spills without disrupting their shapes. I can't begin to imagine a purpose for it other than forensic-grade vomit archiving (the given example is ... meat towels?) but it's amazing to watch in action. Thluuuuuuuup! Read the rest

Brains of people with extra fingers could inspire new robotic control systems

One in 500 people are born with polydactyly, extra fingers or toes. Researchers at University of Freiburg in Germany, Imperial College London and Université de Lausanne / EPFL in Switzerland studied two people with well-formed usable sixth fingers between the thumb and first fingers on both hands to understand how their brains deal with the "extra workload" of controlling those digits. According to Imperial College bioengineer Etienne Burdet, high-resolution functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) revealed that "the polydactyl individual's brains were well adapted to controlling extra workload, and even had dedicated areas for the extra fingers. It's amazing that the brain has the capacity to do this seemingly without borrowing resources from elsewhere." From Imperial College London:

Polydactyl participants also performed better at many tasks than their non-polydactyl counterparts. For instance, they were able to perform some tasks, like tying shoelaces, with only one hand, where two are usually needed... (See video above.)

The international team of authors say the findings might serve as blueprint for the developing artificial limbs and digits to expand our natural movement abilities. For example, giving a surgeon control over an extra robotic arm could enable them to operate without an assistant...

However, (lead author Carsten Mehring of Freiburg University) warned that people with robotic extra limbs may not achieve as good control as observed in the two polydactyl subjects. Any robotic digits or limbs wouldn’t have dedicated bone structure, muscles, tendons or nerves.

In addition, subjects would need to learn to use extra fingers or limbs, much like how an amputee learns how to use a prosthetic arm.

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Stop saying "robots are coming for your job"; start saying "Your boss wants to replace you with a robot"

Tech reporter and sf writer Brian Merchant (previously) calls our attention to the peculiar construction of the problem statement in articles about automation and obsolescence, in which "robots are coming to steal your job." Read the rest

Pogoing robot looks like it's having fun bouncing through an obstacle course

Salto is a single-legged, hopping robot that its UC Berkeley inventors compare to a "hyper-aggressive pogo-stick." Previously, Salto was constrained to a highly-structured indoor environment with a motion caption system. Now though, roboticists Justin Yim and Eric Wang have imbued Salto with the onboard smarts to bounce freely through the world albeit still under human control. From UC Berkeley:

Salto’s single, powerful leg is modeled after those of the galago, or Senegalese bush baby. The small, tree-dwelling primate’s muscles and tendons store energy in a way that gives the spry creature the ability to string together multiple jumps in a matter of seconds. By linking a series of quick jumps, Salto also can navigate complex terrain — like a pile of debris — that might be impossible to cross without jumping or flying.

“Unlike a grasshopper or cricket that winds up and gives one jump, we’re looking at a mechanism where it can jump, jump, jump, jump,” (UC Berkeley robotics professor Ronald) Fearing said. “This allows our robot to jump from location to location, which then gives it the ability to temporarily land on surfaces that we might not be able to perch on.”

From IEEE Spectrum:

...The researchers expect that “higher precision estimation and control can enable jumping on more finely varied surfaces like stairs, furniture, or other outcroppings” as well as “soft substrates like upholstery or natural foliage.”

The researchers tell us that Salto’s hardware is capable enough at this point that aside from potentially upgrading the motor or battery for more jumping power or run time, the focus now will be on new behaviors, although they’re toying with the idea of adding some kind of gripping foot so that Salto can launch from, and land on, tree branches (!).

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Watch a robot solve a Rubik's cube in less than half a second

We previously posted about a robot that solved a Rubik's Cube in .637 seconds. Read the rest

Vintage found photos of robots

Esteemed collector of vernacular photography Robert E. Jackson curated this delightful collection of snapshots depicting the history of our robotic future. See more: "15 Fabulous Vintage Snapshots Of Robots"

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Cute, floating cube robots arrive at the International Space Station

A few days ago, two little robots arrived at the International Space Station to help astronauts with simple tasks. Called Astrobees, the cube bots are 12" x 12" x 12" and propelled around the microgravity environment by small fans. The bots are named Honey and Bumble. A third, Queen, remains on Earth. From NASA:

Working autonomously or via remote control by astronauts, flight controllers or researchers on the ground, the robots are designed to complete tasks such as taking inventory, documenting experiments conducted by astronauts with their built-in cameras or working together to move cargo throughout the station. In addition, the system serves as a research platform that can be outfitted and programmed to carry out experiments in microgravity - helping us to learn more about how robotics can benefit astronauts in space.

(via Space.com)

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A new robotic arm design for future home robots that do our chores

Remember UC Berkeley researcher Pieter Abbeel's fantastic towel-folding robot? Now, Abbeel and his team have prototyped a new kind of robot arm design meant for the home and other human environments. Compared to robot arms common in factories, this manipulator, called Blue, is less expensive ( Read the rest

Watch Toyota's robot basketball player hit three-pointers

Toyota Engineering Society's CUE 3 is a 6'3" humanoid robot reportedly hits free throws with nearly 100 percent accuracy. From the AP:

(The robot) computes as a three-dimensional image where the basket is, using sensors on its torso, and adjusts motors inside its arm and knees to give the shot the right angle and propulsion for a swish...

Stanford University Professor Oussama Khatib, who directs the university's robotics lab, said Cue 3 demonstrates complex activities such as using sensors and nimble computation in real-time in what he called "visual feedback."

To shoot hoops, the robot must have a good vision system, be able to compute the ball's path then execute the shot, he said in a telephone interview.

"What Toyota is doing here is really bringing the top capabilities in perception with the top capabilities in control to have robots perform something that is really challenging," Khatib said.

"Toyota robot can’t slam dunk but it shoots a mean 3-pointer" (AP/Asahi Shimbun)

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Robot tells a lie

This robot is luckier than I am. I'm usually asked to click every image with a traffic light in it to prove I'm not a robot.

Not today from r/funny

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This sushi-making robot can churn out 2400 nigiri balls and 200 sushi rolls in an hour

One of the many amazing things about Japan is their abundance of robots, from a robot-staffed hotel to robot waiters to robots that teach English to children. This cool robot, made by the sushi-robot company AUTEC, can make 2400 nigiri rice balls and 200 sushi rolls per hour.

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Exquisitely engineered "soft" robotic arm is powered by air

Several years ago, I wrote a feature for Bloomberg Businessweek about soft robotics, "in which steel skeletons and power-hungry motors make way for textiles." The idea is that soft robots, often powered by compressed air in pneumatic "muscles," are more flexible, lighter weight, and much safer for their human workmates. Above is video of automation robotics firm Festo's BionicSoftArm. From their description:

Whether free and flexible movements or defined sequences, thanks to its modular design, the pneumatic lightweight robot can be used for numerous applications. In combination with various adaptive grippers, it can pick up and handle a wide variety of objects and shapes. At the same time, it is completely compliant and poses no danger to the user even in the event of a collision.

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Jibo the social robot announces that its VC overlords have remote-killswitched it, makes pathetic farewell address and dances a final step

Jibo was a "social robot" startup that burned through $76m in venture capital and crowdfunding before having its assets sold to SQN Venture Partners late last year. Read the rest

Japan's robot deity delivers Buddha's teaching

This is the Android Kannon, a robotic manifestation of the Buddhist bodhisattva associated with mercy. Read the rest

This robot plays Jenga to demonstrate the future of manufacturing

MIT researchers developed a robot that can play Jenga based on a novel approach to machine learning that synthesizes sight and touch. From MIT News:

Alberto Rodriguez, the Walter Henry Gale Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, says the robot demonstrates something that’s been tricky to attain in previous systems: the ability to quickly learn the best way to carry out a task, not just from visual cues, as it is commonly studied today, but also from tactile, physical interactions.

“Unlike in more purely cognitive tasks or games such as chess or Go, playing the game of Jenga also requires mastery of physical skills such as probing, pushing, pulling, placing, and aligning pieces. It requires interactive perception and manipulation, where you have to go and touch the tower to learn how and when to move blocks,” Rodriguez says. “This is very difficult to simulate, so the robot has to learn in the real world, by interacting with the real Jenga tower. The key challenge is to learn from a relatively small number of experiments by exploiting common sense about objects and physics.”

He says the tactile learning system the researchers have developed can be used in applications beyond Jenga, especially in tasks that need careful physical interaction, including separating recyclable objects from landfill trash and assembling consumer products.

“In a cellphone assembly line, in almost every single step, the feeling of a snap-fit, or a threaded screw, is coming from force and touch rather than vision,” Rodriguez says.

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This walking microrobot is smaller than an ant's head

The 3D-printed robot above weighs just one milligram and is only 2.5mm at its longest point. Designed by University of Maryland mechanical engineer Ryan St. Pierre and his colleagues, it is likely the smallest walking robot in the world. Video of the microbot scurrying along is below. From IEEE Spectrum:

Like its predecessors, this robot is far too small for traditional motors or electronics. Its legs are controlled by external magnetic fields acting on tiny cubic magnets embedded in the robot’s hips. Rotating magnetic fields cause the magnets to rotate, driving the legs at speeds of up to 150 Hz. With all of the magnets installed into the hips in the same orientation, you get a pronking gait, but other gaits are possible by shifting the magnets around a bit. Top speed is an impressive 37.3 mm/s, or 14.9 body lengths per second, and somewhat surprisingly, the robot seems to be quite durable—it was tested for 1,000,000 actuation cycles “with no signs of visible wear or decreased performance.”

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