Robotics Update—2.20.2012 Edition
By Mark Devlin
February 20, 2012
Sci-Fi-to-Reality: Pentagon Project ‘Avatar’
Okay. So I’m probably the only geek on the planet who’s not a fan of James Cameron’s Avatar film. Sure, the effects were impressive—for about 20 minutes. Was it innovative? I don’t think so. Hooking someone up to computers to live a virtual life (or, in the case of Avatar, also fight a virtual war) was done ages ago, for example, in the wonderful, 1983 sci-fi flick, Brainstorm…
According to this well-done article at Wired’s Danger Room, DARPA’s $2.8 billion budget for 2013 reveals a $7 million project called Avatar…
According the agency, “the Avatar program will develop interfaces and algorithms to enable a soldier to effectively partner with a semi-autonomous bi-pedal machine and allow it to act as the soldier’s surrogate.”
These robots should be smart and agile enough to do the dirty work of war, Darpa notes. That includes the “room clearing, sentry control [and] combat casualty recovery.” And all at the bidding of their human partner.
Okay, I’m really not a bad mood, but this isn’t like the Avatar movie. As implied above, it’s a little closer to the (really bad) flick called Surrogates. (Hey. I get it. Even Bruce Willis has to pay the bills.) It seems to me that Project Avatar is really sophisticated, full-body remote control of a robot—nothing more. That’s certainly cool in a limited sense, but don’t expect brain interfaces and VR for a (relatively) paltry $7 million.
It’s Nice to Work at Microsoft: A Robot for Dogs
Microsoft developer Jordan Correa and his wife work all day. Their dog is bored while they’re gone. Solution? Build a robot for the dog; more specifically, DarwinBot, a…
…telepresence robot using Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio, a Kinect and a pile of other parts. Jordan can connect to his pup by dialing into the bot via Skype, allowing him to bark commands, pilot it around the house with an Xbox 360 controller and even play catch using the integrated ball launcher.
…according to this brief at Engadget.
Yes, this is an impressive demonstration of both Microsoft’s tools and Jordan’s skills. I have a several issues with the whole approach, however (and no, I’m really not in a bad mood)…
1. Get a cat to play with the dog. Doing so requires much less development, is much more fun for the dog, and it’s cheaper (unless the resulting destruction is significant).
2. Maybe you shouldn’t get a dog, Jordan, if you and the wife are gone for 8-10 hours a day (or longer. C’mon, you work for Microsoft).
3. Be careful giving your dog a robot. Who knows? The dog might end up ignoring you and your wife at the end of the day, ultimately preferring the robot. Or, was that the plan all along, Jordan? Huh? Was it?
4. This might work for you, Jordan. For everyone else stuck in offices all day, however, employers might frown upon Skyping with pets from work. “Say hi to my boss, Skippy!” Woof.
Robots Manufactured as Pop-Up Books
Many robots are getting smaller. So small that ‘students were dipping tiny wires into superglue and using microscopes to ensure they aligned parts correctly.’ That’s what doctoral candidate Pratheev Sreetharan of Harvard says about assembling the Monolithic Bee (Mobee) micro aerial robot in this PopSci article. (Source: Science Daily and Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.)
Similar to the process used to make printed circuit boards, the new, pop-up book-inspired assembly uses 18 layers of laser-cut materials to create the structure. Here’s another clip…
The entire assembly has 137 folding joints. The assembly scaffold, which has folds of its own, performs 22 origami-style folds, [results] in a fully formed robot you can pop out and turn on.
While it’s doubtful that assembly robots, for instance, will ever be made this way, the effort is nonetheless an interesting, real, new way to think and stay outside of the box (or the pop-up book).
Coffee Ground-Filled Balloon = Throwing Robot Gripper
Now here’s something you don’t see every day…
…a unique robot gripper that’ll conform or ‘jam’ into a solid mass to pickup simple to complex objects. Better yet, its conformability eliminates the many calculations involved with mostly-mechanical grippers.
According to this brief at IEEE Spectrum, the methodology is too coarse for high-precision manufacturing, but…
…could be useful for tasks like sorting objects into bins in a factory or throwing away trash in a home." It's obviously good enough for winning games of mini-basketball and playing horizontal darts, and it's kinda fun to picture what other tasks a talented throwing robot might do around the house: say, making a sandwich, or unloading the dishwasher, handy stuff like that.
Jordan, I think you’ve been beaten by something brilliantly simple. Then again, you could add this to DarwinBot.
Here’s more on the jamming gripper from Cornell.
Laney, the Real-Life Canine Inspiration for Military Robot Dogs…
…has passed at the age of 12 years old.
According to this brief at Gizmodo…
Laney belonged to Dr. Alan Rudolph, a zoologist who worked at the turn of millennium for Darpa, the Pentagon's blue-sky research agency. Back then, Rudolph specialized in bridging the gaps between the animal world and the military one (.ppt). He recruited honeybees as bomb-sniffers and helped teach machines to climb like geckos and fly like hummingbirds. He even oversaw the construction of "brain-machine interfaces" which allowed robotic limbs which to be controlled by thoughts.
In the spring of 2001, Rudolph watched Laney run full-tilt over fallen trees, across streams, and up and down steep embankments and said to his wife, “We should really build something like that.”
Laney didn’t even have (or apparently need) a robot companion. I’m looking at you, Jordan.