Archive for September, 2011

Health-conscious robot helps dieters achieve weight loss goals

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011
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Robotics engineers from Intuitive Automata are hoping the no-excuses approach of Autom, a weight-loss helper robot, will be just what dieters need in the quest toward smaller waistlines and better health.

Although many consumer-directed robots have been designed for human convenience, Autom is hoping to ensure these technological breakthroughs aren't making us lazy, according to Ubergizmo. The 15-inch tall bot includes an LCD-touchscreen display which allows users to keep track of both dietary statistics and exercise habits. But this health-conscious device is much more than a spreadsheet.

Autom provides customized feedback after analyzing the data inputs. The robot provides thoughtful encouragement when users stay on track with their goals and also offers helpful advice when they stray from the agreed upon program. And according to the source, owners can download novel speech patterns online if they think the feedback has become redundant or boring.

With a price tag just under $1,000, developers are facing skepticism from a variety of angles. There are a number of similar, free online and mobile applications that provide much the same service. However, Autom designer, Corry Kidd, told CNET that there is a "psychological difference" in play when using a machine that has a variety of human characteristics.

Kidd is counting on these personal touches to make all the difference among owners attempting to lose weight. From the device's watchful eyes to its positive reinforcement, engineers believe Autom has a variety of tools and inherent capabilities that will promote healthy behaviors and help dieters achieve their goals.

According to CNET, early empirical evidence seems to support this theory. A test group of 45 American dieters had their diet and exercise habits tracked for several weeks using a variety of different methods. As compared to computer-based and pencil-and-paper methods, dieters paired with Autom stuck to their programs for nearly twice as long as the alternative methods.

Mass production is expected to go into effect early next year, and technology pundits are curious to see which early adopters will embrace the robotic health aid. Kidd revealed to CNET that several large health and pharmaceutical organizations have already expressed interest in Autom.

If successful, the device could inspire a new wave of consumer-facing applications in robotics. While the field already has a strong foothold in the manufacturing sector, inventions such as Autom can attract renewed interest in the industry as customers realize that technology can in fact have a heart and help produce meaningful changes in one's personal life.

Soldiers get battlefield backup from robotic animals

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011
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BigDog, the aptly named robotic supply carrier from Boston Dynamics, could soon become a battlefield hero as it extends and expands the capabilities of the troops it supports.

According to CNET, the 240-pound mechanical canine has been in development since 2004. Through the power of robotics engineering, BigDog can now autonomously navigate a variety of harsh terrain, including snow, mud, water and rubble, at an incline of up to 35 degrees. These capabilities are impressive enough on their own, but when the ability to effectively haul a 340-pound load was factored in as well, excitement quickly spread through the military engineering community.

The device is cleverly powered by a one-cylinder go-kart engine, according to the source. To find its way around new environments, BigDog makes use of stereo vision, GPS, LIDAR and a gyroscope. In addition to its strength and agility, it also has impressive stamina. BigDog's current distance record is nearly 13 miles without stopping or refueling, and it can reach a pace of up to four miles per hour.

Boston Dynamics has no desire to rest on any of these successes, however. According to CNET, developers are currently working on the Legged Squad Support System, yet another device that could shoulder the burden on the battlefield.

"That machine will carry 400 pounds of payload on 20-mile missions in rough terrain, where wheeled vehicles can't go," company spokesman, Marc Raibert, told the news provider. "We have a lab prototype that we will show soon, and expect the first field prototype ready in summer 2012."

Aside from BigDog, the company has also been focusing its efforts on a robotic creature built for speed. According to Wired.com, Boston Dynamics has been awarded a substantial government contract to develop Cheetah – its robotic animal prototype that is potentially capable of outmaneuvering any human.

Building off the BigDog concept, engineers gave this device a more flexible spine that will give it the agility to chase down targets and escape from potential captors. Company officials have said that Cheetah will be "faster than any existing legged robot and faster than the fastest human runners," according to IEEE Spectrum.

Devices such as these were once restricted to the realm of television and movies, but through the power of robotics engineering, these imaginative ideas have now come to life. And although they have been primarily designed to benefit the military, the same creative minds that came up with the designs may well be able to suggest alternative uses in the future.

Innovation First International Appoints STEM Education Veteran Joe Astroth as Executive Vice President and Chief Education Strategist

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Former Chief Education Officer of Autodesk Seeks to Expand Global Reach of co-curricular VEX Robotics Program in Classroom & Afterschool Competition

GREENVILLE, Texas – Sept. 22, 2011 – Innovation First International (IFI) announced today that it has named senior global executive and non-profit education entrepreneur Joe Astroth, Ph.D., as executive vice president and chief education strategist. A recognized leader in the world of STEM education, he joins the company from Fortune 1000 company Autodesk, where he served as a senior executive for more than a decade.

In his new role, he will provide executive leadership for educational initiatives across IFI’s businesses, and will focus on gaining additional support from public and private partnerships that further the integration of VEX Robotics in the education market – both in the classroom and as an extracurricular activity. He will report to Tony Norman, co-founder, president and chief executive officer of IFI.

“Joe Astroth brings an extraordinary blend of industry, academia, management and senior leadership experience that will help guide our aggressive growth goals for VEX Robotics and its related programs,” said Tony Norman, president and chief executive officer of IFI. “He has a unique combination of business and educational experience, and most importantly, a proven track record for launching innovative platforms on a worldwide scale that make him a one-of-a-kind asset as we continue to expand our national and global programs, partnerships and co-curricular robotics footprint.”

Dr. Astroth has more than 20 years of executive management experience, with success in consumer and enterprise software focused on the design, engineering, mapping and navigation markets. A proven entrepreneur and visionary leader, he has an established track record of creating successful new business ventures. He has extensive international experience having carried out effective business activities in over 30 countries, with an emphasis on China and India.

He comes to IFI from Autodesk, where he re-established the company’s presence in the global education market. Under his leadership, his team built an online Education Community that has grown to over 3 million members, and developed a scalable, online, secondary STEM curriculum.

Earlier in his career he was a part-time technology consultant and full-time professor at the University of Missouri, where he co-founded a research institute focused on computer cartography, remote sensing and geographic information systems. Dr. Astroth completed his doctoral work at The University of Chicago. He is a highly visible member of several industry organizations and current member of five Board of Directors and Executive Advisory Boards including Project Lead the Way, The Olin College of Engineering and the College of Design and Innovation, Tongji University, Shanghai, China.

About Innovation First International, Inc.
Innovation First International was founded on the belief that innovation very early in the design process is necessary to produce simple and elegant product designs. Innovation First began developing electronics for unmanned mobile ground robots and is now an industry leader in research and development for the hobby, competition, education and toy markets.

Innovation First International’s three main subsidiaries, VEX Robotics, Inc., Innovation First Labs, Inc. (makers of HEXBUG® Micro Robotic Creatures), and RackSolutions, Inc. span the education, consumer and business-to-business markets. The VEX® Robotics Design System is the leading platform for middle school and high school education and competitive robotics. Leveraging the company’s core competency in electrical and mechanical engineering, the RackSolutions® division works closely with all major computer OEMs to provide custom mounting solutions and industry-wide rack compatibility for data installations of all sizes.

In the 2009 the company added offices in Hong Kong, China and the United Kingdom to better serve the global marketplace. This network was expanded to Canada in 2010 with the addition of an office, warehouse and distribution center located in Toronto. With an advanced in-house metal fabrication plant, distribution center and corporate office located together in a 13-acre complex in Greenville, Texas, the company is poised to continue on a rapid growth path. Please visit www.innovationfirst.com for additional information.

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Download a PDF of this press release.

Tennessee hospital brings robotics into the operating room

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011
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Saint Francis Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, is the latest healthcare provider to adopt the da Vinci Surgical System SI – a robotic revolution transforming medicine.

The $1.6 million investment will make Saint Francis the sixth hospital in the region with a da Vinci system in place. According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, doctors have already performed 10 procedures with the equipment since its installation last month.

"It's just better for the patients," hospital vice president, Marilynn Robinson, told the news source. "We're finding without any question that the length of patients' stays are reduced, and complications have been reduced."

Since its debut in 1996, adoption rates for the da Vinci system have grown steadily, aided by its approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Much of its success can also be attributed to its utility in prostate surgery and hysterectomies. The minimally-invasive techniques provide a host of benefits to patients, including less blood loss, scarring and pain along with shorter recovery times. And according to the Business Review, the intuitive controls and high-definition magnification of the surgical area make it easier for surgeons to complete delicate procedures.

"The best feature of the robot is that it allows the surgeon to have the instruments, which are our hands, and the camera, which is our eyes, in the body at the same time without compromising the ability to perform the procedure," Dr. John Wilbanks of Alabama's Shelby Baptist Medical Center told MD News.

To coincide with the debut of the da Vinci system, Saint Francis will be hosting a prostate health forum alongside members of the American Urological Association Foundation and the National Football League. According to the Memphis Daily News, industry leading urologists will be in attendance to discuss the early warning signs of prostate cancer as well as potential treatment options. The event will conclude with a question and answer session as well as the opportunity to undergo a free prostate health screening.

The hospital's da Vinci system will also be on display as doctors explain the technology and its associated benefits.

"Men with prostate cancer are having phenomenal results with it, so we definitely wanted them to have the opportunity to see it and get the experience of what it looks like and how it operates," Robinson told the news source.

Although only 150 guests are expected at the event, its impact will extend far beyond the conference hall. As more hospitals and more patients recognize the clear benefits that robotics can bring to medicine, the technology should be poised for widespread adoption and future innovations.

Robot lines up for triathlon

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011
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Hawaii's Ironman Triathlon course has humbled thousands of men and women over the years, but Japanese researchers are curious to see if their newest robot is up to the challenge.

The developers behind Panasonic's Evolta have decided to take their robotic device out of the laboratory and into the wild. According to TG Daily, the miniature robot has already tried its hand navigating the walls of the Grand Canyon and riding around racetracks in Le Mans, France. But by taking on one of the world's most notoriously grueling triathlon courses, company officials know their creation has a tough task ahead of it.

"This is a very tough course for a sportsman, but I think it is worth a challenge," developer, Tomotaka Takahashi, told the news providers. "The robot will encounter a lot of hardships on its way, but I hope it will overcome them all and succeed in the end."

The Ironman course requires competitors to swim 2.4 miles and bike 112 miles before completing a 26.2 mile run. According to the event website, this legendary endurance challenge began as a friendly competition between Navy SEALs before evolving into one of the world's most recognizable sporting events. But although Evolta will be required to complete the same course, a few considerations have been taken into consideration to accommodate the bot.

As reported by Reuters, Evolta is just one-tenth the size of an adult human. To account for this inherent disadvantage, developers are giving their device one full week to complete the mission. The robot will also have a distinct advantage over human counterparts – it has three variable body configurations that will be altered throughout the competition.

"I had to think of the ways to make it waterproof and protect it from mold as much as possible," Takashi told the news outlet.

Although some robotic creations have difficulty translating their utility outside of the laboratory, the 20-inch tall device should be a versatile and reliable addition to the consumer electronics marketplace. According to Reuters, the battery pack can be recharged successfully up to 1,800 times, and Evolta is set to go on sale in Japan at the end of October.

It will be interesting to see how customers respond to this revelation in robotics. But, as is often the case, end-users may envision and create applications for the robot that developers could never have originally imagined.

Robots demonstrate their skydiving skills

Monday, September 12th, 2011
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As technology progresses, robots seem to be adopting more human characteristics every day. A new collaborative effort from Disney Research and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology has produced a thrill-seeking robot named Paraswift.

According to NewScientist, the base-jumping bot is capable of autonomously climbing up a building, throwing itself over the side and deploying a paraglider before safely returning to the ground. During its ascent, the remote-controlled device makes use of a spinning rotor to create a vortex capable of binding it to structures.

"The big benefit of this is that you don't need to have a seal between the physical robot and the wall because the vortex forms its own seal around the low-pressure area," Disney researcher Paul Beardsley told the news source.

Paraswift is not the first robot capable of inspecting hard-to-reach places. According to the news provider, similar devices have used the power of magnetic adhesion to stick to dams, tall buildings and even wind turbines. But the obvious distinction in the latest innovation is its ability to fly.

Although originally designed for entertainment purposes, the impressive vortex utility may be useful for a variety of applications as it allows the robot to navigate challenging, not to mention vertical, terrain. By equipping Paraswift with a video camera, developers are already optimistic that the combined climbing and flying capabilities can be used to gather aerial footage for 3D modeling projects.

"For example, with Google Street View, at street level trees and pedestrians could obscure the view," Beardsley told the source.

Paraswift could solve this problem by climbing atop a building and scanning the area while bound to the structure. Or it could also gather snapshots in-flight during its descent.

In its current state, a mechanical arm triggered by remote control deploys the robot's parachute. As this occurs, the vortex is simultaneously turned off and the device begins its safe, although not yet graceful, fall to the ground. In the next generation of the device, researchers are hoping to ensure smoother flight patterns and discover a way to get the parachute to deploy automatically in case the bot accidentally slips. Several such incidents involving past prototypes have been not only disappointing but rather expensive.

Robotics designers continue to find new ways around impressive obstacles. Even gravity is now becoming a problem of the past for the latest devices. And as the technology reaches expanded audiences with engaging inventions, the feedback received may be especially valuable in the creative process and design of future innovations.

Robots running on the power of thought

Thursday, September 8th, 2011
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Swiss robotics researchers are currently testing a new line of robots that can, quite literally, read human minds. The semi-autonomous devices record brain activity and use the data to power their next movement.

According to ScienceNow, this is not the first example of brain-machine interface systems. The technology has previously been used to control cursors, prosthetics and smaller robots using the power of conscious thought. But biomedical engineer, Jose del Millan, is working on an entirely new approach to the technology.

Millan's chief goal is to develop brain-interface systems that do not require implanting chips in the body. This simpler, less-invasive strategy may have significant potential for the medical community. In particular, it may give paralyzed patients a new-found ability to communicate with others.

But before these revolutionary devices can transform industries, Millan is hard at work testing and honing the technology at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland. According to SmartPlanet, the research team is using a modified version of a commerically available robot called Robotino. The three-wheeled device is already capable of maneuvering in tight spaces and sensing obstacles with infrared sensors, but Millan and his colleagues have equipped it with telepresence capabilities.

A laptop running Skype over a wireless connection is mounted on top of the robot. This utility allows the human to see through the eyes of the robot as it makes its journey. But perhaps more importantly, it could allow bed-bound patient to communicate with other humans as their thoughts are communicated to the device through electrodes.

"This opens a new possibility for families," Millan told ScienceNow.

Paralyzed patients could potentially keep in touch with relatives at home using the robot as an intermediary. But first, researchers need to test the communication ranges that their technology supports.

According to ScienceNow, a recent six-week trial has generated impressive results. After weeks of hour-long training sessions with man and machine, several patients were able to maintain effective communication at a range of more than 60 miles. By the end of the study, they were also able to navigate the robot to targets around the laboratory for as long as 12 minutes.

As the technology matures, Millan is hoping to expand its application to tasks as complex as driving a car. Only time will tell, but this case is already intriguing and inspiring robotics engineers who could take the concept to previously unimaginable heights.

Robotics mixes work and play for improved education

Thursday, September 8th, 2011
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Robotics education has come a long way in recent years. The technology is no longer considered a luxury reserved solely for small, after-school clubs. These days, teachers are increasingly willing and able to brings robots into the classroom. This expanded audience is bringing renewed attention to the robotics industry and giving students a creative way to engage with science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

According to USA Today, much of the credit for this phenomenon can be attributed to several public sector initiatives. The importance of STEM education has been underscored in the halls of Congress and town halls across the country. Earlier this year, the National Research Council released a new report detailing a new educational framework that could fuel the progress of millions of students.

"Science, engineering and technology permeate nearly every facet of modern life, and they hold the key to meeting many of humanity's most pressing current and future challenges," the report stated. "Yet too few U.S. workers have strong backgrounds in these fields, and many lack even fundamental knowledge."

The framework is focused around the appreciation and application of fundamentally sound scientific and engineering practices. The program also prides itself on fostering the development of critical thinking such as observing cause and effect relationships. This theoretical knowledge will no doubt provide for a well-rounded education, but the inclusion of hands-on learning experiences has shown perhaps the most significant potential in recent years.

One unique success story is high school sophomore Kelly Carlson of Arizona. In a recent interview with AZCentral, Carlson opened up about her experience with robotics.

"It started out with me being interested in engineering," Carlson told the news source. "Through Mesa Public Schools, you can take engineering classes through Project Lead the Way, so I signed up for that for my freshman year."

Carlson's teacher soon introduced her to a local robotics competition, and within months they were developing their own team of students from around the district. After a few challenges during their early competitions, the team is looking forward to next semester's event schedule. But Carlson is looking even farther down the line and already has dreams of becoming an aerospace engineer.

Stories such as these are welcome news for robotics engineers as they can can rest assured that their industry will be placed in capable hands. By providing engaging and creative ways for students to learn valuable technical skills, a steady stream of robotic innovations are sure to continue in the coming decades.

Household chores become easier with robots

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011
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California-based startup company, Willow Garage, has recently unveiled a new robotic creation that can chip in with chores around the house. The PR2 robot is still in the prototype stage, but the device is already capable of folding laundry, setting a table and baking a batch of cookies.

Although finding a convenient way to outsource mundane domestic responsibilities is a dream scenario for a number of people, the underlying technology for a robotic housekeeper has been slow to develop. Industry experts are following the Willow Garage process closely to see if innovations are arriving faster than previously assumed.

"The technology is much closer than most people think," Stanford professor Andrew Ng told the San Jose Mercury News. "We're not yet there, but I think that in less than a decade the technology will exist to have a useful household robot."

The company remains in stealth mode, but investors are reportedly excited about the early success and sheer volume of robotics developers associated with the project.

"We're trying to build a personal robotics industry," Willow Garage CEO, Steve Cousins, told the news source. "We want to serve as a catalyst."

The firm is guided by the idea that a lack of standards has been a significant inhibitor for the industry. A lack of hardware and software compatibility often leads researchers to begin a new project from scratch with proprietary resources. This not only delays projects, it has also reduced the motivation for collaborative efforts.

But one of the largest obstacles still facing the company may be making the technology affordable for consumers. Early models of PR2 were priced at approximately $400,000, according to GizMag. In an effort to reduce costs, Willow Company recently decided to offer PR2 SE, a one-armed version of its predecessor with a $285,000 price tag.

To generate interest and support for the product, the company has decided to released two dozen PR2 models to commercial and academic research institutions. The company also plans to host community conference calls twice monthly and maintain a strong presence at industry events to encourage collaboration and constructive feedback processes.

If successful, this project may be much more important for robotics developers than consumers who ultimately own a PR2. Willow Garage's wider mission of open-source robotics technology and cross-team interaction may yield impressive creations that come to market much faster.