Archive for October, 2011

Mini-robot helps answer giant dinosaur questions

Friday, October 21st, 2011
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When Ronald Fearing and Kevin Peterson, both engineers at the University of California in Berkeley, set out to create an addition to their previous innovations for military robotics, they didn't expect to stumble upon an ancient debate about prehistoric winged creatures. However, that's exactly what they did, according to a report in Wired.

The two main theories of the evolution of flight are the "trees-down" theory and the "ground-up" theory. The trees-down theory states that winged creatures used their wings to glide down from trees and other heights. The ground-up theory says that prehistoric birds used their wings to help them gather momentum while traversing inclined levels. Evidence via fossils has not yielded any solid conclusions.

When the two California-based engineers developed their DASH+Wings robot, a 25-gram machine, they realized it might be useful to help solve the debate.

DASH+Wings is a continuation of their six-legged robot called, DASH, an acronym for Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod, which is one of multiple devices that the group has developed for U.S. military reconnaissance. Since the small, ground-based robots have difficulty in some terrain, especially those with steep inclines, the team decided to add wings to the robot. The propulsion from flapping wings was meant to help the devices conquer difficult terrain, Wired reported.

They soon called Robert Dudley, a paleobiologist at UC Berkeley, believing that their robot may be able to help settle the dinosaur debate.

The team then ran the robot through a series of tests which monitored its ability to climb inclines, run across flat services and glide. All of these tests were performed with and without wings. The results showed that the flapping wings helped with every test, especially gliding. As a result, the robot indirectly supports the trees-down theory, Peterson asserted. However, the conclusion has still not been reached.

"This study is a beautiful example of how relatively simple bio-inspired robots can address questions that are difficult or impossible to test in living organisms,” Brandon Jackson, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Montana in Missoula, told Wired.

Although the DASH+Wings robot has wings, it can't necessarily fly as well as other robotics. The Paraswift from Disney Research and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich has the ability to catapult out of a plane and use its paraglider to safely land on the ground, according to NewScientist.

The Bandit may be able to help children with autism spectrum disorders

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011
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Typically robots are designed with a physical purpose, including manufacturing cars, performing delicate surgeries or aiding military officials perform daunting tasks behind enemy lines. However, recent innovations in robotics have led researchers to develop a sensitive side of humanoids in order to help children born with autism spectrum disorders, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Enter: The Bandit, developed by researchers and engineers at the University of Southern California.

Since many children with autism spectrum disorders have trouble reading and interpreting human expressions, machines seem to be a viable solution since they don't have any of these traits. Bandit is a simple, metallic-colored robot the size of a small child and has the hopes of winning the affection of children with mental or social disabilities, the news source reported.

Bandit has a moveable mouth and eyebrows with cameras that allow it to watch its playmates. Proximity sensors installed on its body gives it the ability to monitor how near children are and can back away if they get too close. The machine also has motor-powered arms which can mimic or lead children in a game of Simon Says. The humanoid can also blow bubbles or make sounds, depending on his current expressive mood, the Times noted.

Currently, only a few children have had the ability to play with Bandit, although the machine has shown positive results in helping them take turns and initiate playing with others. The problem isn't the technology. It just seems difficult to find parents who are willing to let their children experiment with a robotic machine.

Maja Mataric, the co-director of the Robotics Research Lab at USC, believes that Bandit could be a reality within five years. However, it is difficult to find the resources to conduct large-scale testing to see how long the benefits may last of if the social skills learned from the robot can be translated into real-life traits.

"Rigorous studies have to be conducted," Zachary Warren, the director of the Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Vanderbilt Universityin Nashville, told the LA Times. "That's how technology proves its worth."

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 1 out of every 110 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. By using developments in robotics, these children may be able to overcome some of their social handicaps that limit them from interacting with other individuals.

Meka Robotics creates anime-looking robotic head

Friday, October 14th, 2011
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Developments in the robotics industry have led engineers, researchers and innovators to come up with hundreds of different types of robots, both humanoid and non-humanoid, that can perform thousands of different acts. While some can dance and others can help deliver cargo supplies to military forces behind enemy lines, others can act as if they have a life of their own. Meka Robotics' S2 Humanoid Head is one of these developments that could one day authentically express emotions between humans and robots, according to Extreme Tech.

Meka Robotics is a San Francisco-based company that specializes in creating humanoid machines that can work around people. The company has been developing robots for about four years and recently released its S2 Humanoid Head.

The head itself has a mobility range of seven degrees, which allow it to perform the fluid motions that can mimic those of a human. The machine also has two high-resolution cameras for eyes and has moveable ears that help express its mood by making it look happier or sadder, according to Aaron Edsinger, the founder of Meka Robotics.

The robot currently belongs to a professor at the University of Texas in Austin who is studying how the machine can be controlled using torque. Additionally, the professor wanted the human head to look like an anime-looking, young, female character with red hair and green eyes.

Meka Robotics also created an arm and a torso which can be connected to the head. These elements of the robot are particularly unique because they move with fluid motions. Every joint can sense when force is being applied to it and can react accordingly. The arm's movements are soft and make it look and feel more like a human, compared to traditional stiff movements of robots, according to Edsinger.

The humanoid head, along with a torso and arms, cost upwards of $300,000, Extreme tech noted.

Although this robot looks and moves similar to a human, it cannot talk. However, at the Pasadena City College, advancements in robotics have led to a machine that can detect the 800 most common errors that English-speakers make and be able to correct them and teach them how to speak properly, according to the Pasadena Star News.

If these two innovations were to combine, life-like robots that can speak may be the next step in robotics.

Japan initiates robotics program to save lives during disasters

Friday, October 14th, 2011
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In response to the devastating tsunami that struck the country in March, Japan has announced its preparation to spend roughly $14 billion over five years on new innovations in robotics.

According to MSNBC, 2011 has been the costliest year for natural disasters in history, reportedly wreaking $265 billion in damages and overbearing the 2005 record of $220 billion worth of global damages. In response, Japanese engineers have been researching robotic aids that can be used to help reduce injuries and damage to individuals and structures in the event of such disasters.

Although Japan is well-known for its experience and knowledge in robotics, the country currently lacks military-grade machines that were able to help individuals during the tsunami. This struck a chord with many of the nation's engineers and inspired them to come up with three robotic devices that will be designed for disastrous events.

The first will be an exoskeleton suit that can be worn by trained rescuers. This device is called the HAL-5 Exoskeleton and is meant to help increase the strength and endurance of its wearer and help them perform more daunting tasks during physically demanding situations. The machine weighs roughly 50 pounds and can handle nearly three hours of continuous activities before its battery needs to be charged, according to Cyberdyne.

Engineers are also developing robots that can rescue people from under rubble, as well as machines that will be able to search for people under water.

The five-year project will begin in April 2012 and be managed by the Ministry of Science and Technology. The Fire and Disaster Management Agency and other local safety authorities will help the designers create products that would assist people during different types of natural disasters, CNET reported.

When these technologies are combined with other robotics, the lives of hundreds of people may be saved.

According to Wired, the U.S. has developed a unmanned helicopter that is specifically designed to bring cargo and supplies to areas that are difficult to access. If similar technologies are utilized in the event of a disaster, people may be able to be saved, or at least have necessary supplies brought to them so they can survive.

Robots play table tennis using complex algorithms

Thursday, October 13th, 2011
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Recent developments within the robotics industry have led engineers, scientists and software programmers to some ground-breaking innovations that can help change the world. Some humanoid robotic devices can help paraplegic individuals by allowing them to move robotic limbs, while others inventions grant robots the power of thought. Recently, researchers from Zhejiang University in East China have developed a newer humanoid machine capable of playing ping pong.

In their debut on October 9, Wu and Kong, two robotic machines, played a table tennis match at the university. Their names are derived from Sun Wukong, a character from a Chinese epic novel who represents agility and intelligence, according to Truth Dive.

The humanoids track the ping-pong balls using mounted cameras that can monitor 120 images per second. The images are then transmitted to the machine's processor unit which allows the robot to calculate where the ball will land according to its speed, trajectory and angle. The margin of error is only 2.5 millimeters for the calculations that take 50 to 100 milliseconds, the news source reported.

Although humans base their table tennis playing on intuition and experience, the robots are programmed to use complicated algorithms that generally come out to the same type of motion.

Each robot is slightly taller than 5 feet and weighs just more than 120 pounds. In their debut, the robots were dressed in traditional Chinese attire, and they each have arms, legs, eyes, ears and hair just like a human, Truth Dive noted.

"We tried to develop a robot that is capable of accurate control and instant, continuous response," Xiong Rong, the chief designer at Zhejiang University's robotics laboratory, told the news source. "Table tennis creates higher requirements for the robots in terms of reaction time, visual processing, identification and calculation."

Table tennis isn't the ultimate goal for the research team, but is just a way to demonstrate the nearly endless possibilities of the robotics industry. One day, they hope to have a more practical benefit to society by possibly creating a wave of new jobs.

Similar robotics innovations are being created every day. In Japan, researchers have developed a robot that can actually think for itself. If the machine is given a command that it doesn't understand, its processor can access the internet and conduct research to find out what the command is and how to fulfill it, according to AFP.

Combining calculated reactions with the ability of thought, robots will likely soon be able to learn how to perform a variety of tasks that may improve the lives of the humans they serve.

Robotic deer aim to minimize after-hour hunting

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011
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Animal poachers continue to be a problem across the globe, including in the United States, as hunting becomes more popular among individuals. In Salt Lake City, hunting after hours is becoming a growing, and dangerous, problem. As an attempt to lower the number of poachers and issue citations for those that disobey the law, engineers in the robotics industry have created robotic deer to mimic the movements of real dear, according to the Huffington Post.

Government officials around the nation have been using machines like this to help uphold the law. Several of the deer have needed to be replaced since they have been shot more than 1,000 times.

"It's a time of year when some [Utah residents] can't resist the sight of a big buck on the side of the road – even if shooting hours are over for the day," Amy Canning, a spokeswoman for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, told the news source.

The law states that hunting is not allowed between 30 minutes after sunset until 30 minutes before sunrise.

Government officials will often set up the robotic deer in an area where the animals are commonly seen and camp out in a bush nearby that is out of danger and sight. These officials will wait until someone comes to shoot the deer, whether with a bow or a gun, until they expose themselves. To make the deer look as life-like as possible, the trap-setters will robotically move the machine's tail and head to mimic the motions of a real animal, the news source reported.

No matter what hunting device is used, the hunters will be charged with a class B misdemeanor and be punished with a fine up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail.

Not only does shooting deer on the side of the road potentially land individuals in jail, but it also negatively impacts the hunting community as a whole.

"If somebody gets caught shooting the deer from the road, it ruins their reputation as a hunter," Lieutenant Bill Bruce of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources told the news source. “Their name goes up on the wall of shame among local hunters."

Advancements in the robotics industry have been able to help law enforcement officials in a number of ways. In Wilmington, North Carolina, officials had a machine break a window during a gunfight to ensure that nobody got hurt, according to the Star News. With robotics becoming more prevalent among law enforcement, fewer individuals are likely to be injured in dangerous situations and the law can be upheld.

First unmanned robo-helicopter can help bring supplies to soldiers behind enemy lines

Monday, October 10th, 2011
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Although military conflicts remain an unfortunate reality, there has been a wave of recent technological innovations designed to spare human lives on the battle field. Military engineers are now looking for ways to evolve beyond traditional military supply vehicles and remove soldiers from the equation. Thanks to the defense company, Lockheed Martin, and its collaboration with the Connecticut-based aerospace agency, Kaman, delivering goods to soldiers in combat behind enemy lines may become easier with the next few years.

Enter: The K-MAX helicopter.

This helicopter demonstrates some of the newest developments in the robotics industry as it can be flown without a human pilot in the cockpit, according to a report from Wired. Although this isn't the first unmanned helicopter to be deployed by the United States military, it is the first robotic helicopter designed solely for cargo operations and missions. The K-MAX is strong enough to carry more than 2 tons when it is at 15,000 feet, or it can transport 3 tons when it is flying at sea-level.

Traditionally, it has been difficult for human-operated vehicles to get behind enemy lines to bring supplies or medical aid to wounded soldiers. This is largely due to challenging terrain that lacks landing strips large enough for commercial airline jets but instead only allows small helicopters to bounce around from one destination to another, the news source reported.

Additionally, the desert environments can be awful on helicopters as the dust can interfere with the vision of the pilots, according to Wired. However, with unmanned helicopters, vehicle technicians can simply punch in a destination and the robot will travel on its own.

It's not like these helicopters are going into a friendly environment, either. They are flying into a war zone and are forced to evade rocket-propelled grenades and other obstacles. By having a robotic device fly into the danger zone, the human toll of a potential attack will greatly be reduced.

This also isn't the only robotic device to bring in cargo and supplies to the military. The BigDog developed by Boston Dynamics is a ground cargo-carrier that can haul up 240 pounds of supplies, but can only travel up to slightly fewer than 13 miles, according to CNET. With both of these unmanned robotic devices together, the ability to bring necessary supplies to soldiers beyond enemy lines may be able to be done with less assistance from humans.