Latest StoriesRobots
    Behind the Scenes at Kernerworks' Workshop

    What do special effects veterans do when Hollywood relies increasingly less on practical effects and more on computer generated imagery? The effects experts at Kernerworks (who have worked with Jamie and Adam in the past) turned their fabrication experience into developing and building realistic trauma mannequins the military to train field medics. These robots not only behave realistically to simulate injuries, they look incredibly lifelike as well--some even have the capability to spurt blood from their wounds. Here are some photos of our visit to Kernerworks' workshop earlier this year.

    Almost Human: Trauma Mannequins for Medic Training

    They breathe and they bleed, but they're not real human beings. These robots, built by the especial effects and fabrication experts at Kernerworks, are incredibly lifelike trauma mannequins used by the military to train field medics. We visit Kernerworks' workshop to learn how these robots are built and get a demo of their trauma simulation capabilities. See photos from our visit here.

    Testing: DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ Quadcopter Drone

    For the past week and a half, I've been testing DJI's new Phantom 2 Vision+ quadcopter. The RC quad, which was officially announced yesterday at the annual NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) convention in Las Vegas, is the first real prosumer quadcopter I've flown. And in my testing time with it, I've become completely addicted to flying it. Days and nights are now framed in my mind in terms of when I can find time to take it out to fly, and how many battery recharge cycles I can fit into an afternoon. Sunny weather is quad flying weather, and I'm constantly combing through my visual memory of San Francisco and Bay Area geography to think about where I can take the quadcopter flying.

    I wasn't kidding when I teased it in last week's podcast: not since the original iPhone and Oculus Rift have I been so impressed with a new consumer technology and its potential mass-market appeal. This isn't just an extremely fun toy for hobbyists and early-adopters: quadcopter technology is at a tipping point where it's ready for mainstream users to fly, hack, and utilize to do amazing things. We've been told that drones are going to change the world, but this is the first product I've used that really makes me believe it.

    We're going to talk about our experience with the $1300 DJI's Phantom 2 Vision+ and its underlying technologies in-depth in a video this week, but I wanted to flesh out the salient points from that conversation and explain why I'm so excited about the quadcopter. I've also included a few videos shot with the Vision+'s onboard camera, as well as some stills comparing its image quality with that of the GoPro Hero 3's 1080p video. Let's get started!

    Research Robots That Get Us Excited (and Terrified)

    Ah, robots – what would we do without them? Mechanical automation makes almost every aspect of the scientific process easier. But research robots are becoming increasingly complex and powerful. Today, we’ll spotlight ten amazing examples that will thrill and horrify you.

    In Brief: NASA's Super Ball Bot

    NASA has employed wheeled rovers and humanoid robots to assist in space exploration, but it's really neat to see them explore robotic designs that don't conform to what we typically think of when we imagine a robot. The design of rovers like the MSL Curiosity make them good for multi-purpose functions--it's basically a science lab on wheels--but are costly to launch and deploy. A new Super Ball Bot design eschews rigid form for the idea of tensegrity: a structure that can compress and unfold on command. Think of it as a smart set of motorized and interlocking tent poles that can maneuver around uneven environments and reach places deemed too dangerous for wheeled robots. NASA engineers are figuring out how to adapt their traditional robotics know-how to this design concept, but are eyeing Titan as a potential first destination for this new type of robot. The following video from IEEE Spectrum shows a prototype Ball Bot in action.

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    If Wall-E Was a Farmer: Teaching a Robot to Herd Cows

    What was most surprising about the cows last April in Camden, Australia was that they didn’t seem to care that what could have been a distant cousin to the Mars rover had strolled in from the lab and claimed authority in the paddock like it was the 4th rock from the sun. Apparently without allegiance to the humans who gave two hours a day moving them toward the milk barn or to the dogs who were cow-wranglers by trade, the robot that assumed the herding duties was simply accepted as a regular fixture in the daily routine of foraging, ambling, and evacuating milk.

    The cows’ blasé response was the best possible outcome for University of Sydney researchers from both the Australian Centre for Field Robotics and the department of Veterinary Science, who had spent months considering how to mod the general purpose bot for interaction with the slow-moving livestock. Rounding up cows to for milking isn’t a particularly difficult chore for farmers, but it occupies an hour in the morning and another in the afternoon during an already jam-packed day. And in Australia, the task is often carried out on a quad bike, which is one of the leading causes of injury on a farm.

    Kendra Kerrisk, an associate professor of veterinary science, whose work focuses the future of dairy farming, identified the cow-wrangling as ripe for automation: “In winter, it’s freezing and in summer it’s really hot and dusty. Farmers try to do the milking as quickly as possible and get the cows home faster than they’d go on their own, which is not a good situation.” See, a cow’s impressive 330-degree vision has a blind spot: the terrain just about to be explored with their hoof. Herded too quickly, and missteps could lead to stone bruises and lameness.

    A day’s most admired quality, according to a heifer, is predictability. If programed to herd at a slow, consistent pace, thought Kerrisk, a robot could give cows the time they need to change locations, while also freeing up man-hours. So Kerrisk asked the Australian Centre for Field Robotics if they’d help her use their “perception research platform” for a test run.

    Although the robot had been in agricultural service before, its previous post was in the orchard, surveying fruit trees to make judgements about ripeness and disease. Apart from getting one of its four wheels stuck in lumpy terrain or misjudging its proximity to a tree trunk (both unlikely), it was pretty low risk work. Working with cows would introduce new challenges.

    JPL's RoboSimian Disaster-Response Robot

    "Meet RoboSimian, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's official entry at the DARPA Robotics Challenge in December 2013. Also known as "Clyde," the robot is is four-footed, but can also stand on two feet. It has four general-purpose limbs and hands capable of both mobility and manipulation. It came in 5th place out of 16 entries." The New York Times has a great overview (and video) of the competition and all the robots that competed. The winner of the competition was SCHAFT, a biped robot created by students from the University of Tokyo's Department of Mechano-Informatics.

    CES 2014: Hands-On with DJI's Phantom 2 Quadcopter

    After you get enough practice flying a mini-quad the next step is something like DJI's Phantom 2 mid-size quadcopter. We go hands-on with this quadcopter at CES 2014 and learn about its flight and video recording capabilities, transmitter controls, and GPS auto-return ability.

    CES 2014: Parrot MiniDrone Quadcopter

    Even though it's technically not an automated drone, we're excited to try out Parrot's new MiniDrone quadcopter, a smaller and more nimble version of their AR.Drone. This mini-quad hovers in place and is controlled with a smartphone, and its roll frame lets it slide along ceilings and walls.

    10 Places Robots and A.I. are Hiding in Plain Sight

    Science fiction led us to believe that the world of the future would be full of humanoid robots built to serve our every whim. That’s not particularly realistic, especially the idea that robots have to look and function like humans. Robots have been employed in manufacturing and in industrial capacities for decades, but we do live among a great number of artificial beings that we don’t even notice--both physical and purely digital. Today, we’ll examine ten places robots are hiding in plain sight. They already live among us!

    The Cubli Walks and Jumps with Reaction Torque

    "The Cubli is a 15 × 15 × 15 cm cube that can jump up and balance on its corner. Reaction wheels mounted on three faces of the cube rotate at high angular velocities and then brake suddenly, causing the Cubli to jump up. Once the Cubli has almost reached the corner stand up position, controlled motor torques are applied to make it balance on its corner. In addition to balancing, the motor torques can also be used to achieve a controlled fall such that the Cubli can be commanded to fall in any arbitrary direction. Combining these three abilities -- jumping up, balancing, and controlled falling -- the Cubli is able to 'walk'." It uses spinning motors much like this MIT modular robot project. Find out more about the Cubli project on its research page.

    12 Days of Tested Christmas: Mini Quadcopter

    On the 11th day of Tested Christmas, Norm shares his pick for a great micro quadcopter that's ideal for beginners. It comes ready to fly out of the box, with an included radio transmitter, and has easily replaceable parts in case you crash it. This model has a built-in video camera, but there's also one without, for $50 less.

    DARPA's 1980s Vision for Skynet-Like AI

    Are you ready to read five chilling words? Here we go: DARPA wanted to build Skynet. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, regularly produces some of the most advanced, coolest, and creepiest technological advancements. And back in the 1980s, they spent over $1 billion on a program called SCI, or the Strategic Computing Initiative. According to Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog, that program sounds an awful lot like The Terminator's Skynet.

    Of course, DARPA wasn't scheming to build a sentient AI that would wipe out humanity. And they didn't have the technology or plans to build Terminators, either. But they were ambitious. A quote from a 1983 presentation to congress, outlining the SCI, suggests "Instead of fielding simple guided missiles or remotely piloted vehicles, we might launch completely autonomous land, sea, and air vehicles capable of complex, far-ranging reconnaissance and attack missions. The possibilities are quite startling, and suggest that new generation computing could fundamentally change the nature of future conflicts."

    Paleofuture elaborates. "The system was supposed to create a world where autonomous vehicles not only provide intelligence on any enemy worldwide, but could strike with deadly precision from land, sea, and air. It was to be a global network that connected every aspect of the U.S. military's technological capabilities—capabilities that depended on new, impossibly fast computers.

    "Most importantly, it was supposed to understand, all without human prompting."

    "But the network wasn't supposed to process information in a cold, matter-of-fact way. No, this new system was supposed to see, hear, act, and react. Most importantly, it was supposed to understand, all without human prompting."

    Economic competition with Japan, which was rapidly developing advanced computer technology, pushed DARPA forward. So did the arms race with the Soviet Union. Competition with Japan's computer development pushed DARPA forward.

    In 1984, Martin Marietta (now one half of Lockheed Martin) won $10.6 million from DARPA in a bid to build an ALV, or autonomous land vehicle. It looks exactly like what you'd expect an autonomous, computer-driven vehicle built in 1985 to look like:

    Testing: Piloting the Helimax 1SQ Mini Quadcopter

    Time for something a little bit different. When editing Terry Dunn's primer for how to get started with RC quad-rotors (which, if you haven't read yet, you should), I ended up catching the quadcopter bug. Terry's guide is great because it doesn't dump you into the deep end; he makes practical recommendations on how to get started with RC quads and the hurdles many people don't think about when shopping without prior experience. I wanted to follow his advice and do some testing of my own, using his choice of a micro quad as a means to get started. Terry put me in touch with Heli-Max, the makers of the 1SQ micro quad, and they were generous enough to send a unit out for testing. I've been flying it for about a month now, and wanted to share that experience of being a RC quad novice.

    It's worth noting that we technically have had some experience with quad-rotor aircraft before, in the form of Parrot's AR.Drone. We had a lot of fun with with the AR.Drone, but it's a fundamentally different kind of RC aircraft as something like the Heli-Max 1SQ of DJI Phantom. As Terry points out, the 1SQ is a "hobby grade" quad, meaning that it's designed to be tinkered with and repaired. You can disassemble the entire craft to swap out parts and use your own transmitter for flying. The AR.Drone--which I have to reiterate, isn't a true autonomous drone--is built for a closed system, and only works with smartphones (Android support added in the 2.0 model). That makes it more of a smartphone accessory than a hobby quad, and a $300 one at that.

    For a $130 kit, the 1SQ has a much steeper learning curve than the AR.Drone--it's not something you can give to a child and have them comfortably flying around in the first 30 minutes. It takes a fair amount of practice to be able to fly with a competent degree of precision (ie. not unintentionally crashing into the wall, floor, or ceiling), but that's kind of the point of this class of mini quad. It's a starter model to get you accustomed to how higher-end RC quads control, and to help you decide if flying quads is a hobby you even want to pursue. It's like buying a cheap Timex to see if you can commit to wearing watches before plunking down several hundred dollars on a nicer model that you may never use. (Guess what else I have on my mind these days.)

    Anyway, one of the nice things about the 1SQ is that everything you need to get started flying comes in the box. I got the RTF (Ready to Fly) V-Cam model, which means it included a basic 2.4GHz remote control transmitter and an onboard camera for taking photos and video. Helimax also sells an RTF model without the camera for $100, and a $70 SLT (Secure Link Technology) model that you can pair with your own transmitter. The $100 RTF model is my recommendation because I didn't find the camera very useful or reliable. More on that in a bit. In addition to the mini quad and the transmitter, the kit also comes with four AA batteries you need for the controller, a small 250mAh LiPo battery for the quad, USB charger for LiPo battery, 2GB microSD card, and an extra set of rotor blades. The extra blades aren't interchangeable between all of the existing rotors, since they're matched in pairs of two (on opposing sides of the X). That means you only have two extra blades for each set, and I'm already down to my last replacement after a month. Replacement blades are $7.50 for a full set on Amazon.

    Was That Robotic Telemarketer Actually a Lifelike Soundboard?

    Is Samantha West a robot? If you haven't heard of Samantha West, she's the owner of the bubbly voice that recently called TIME Washington Bureau Chief Michael Scherer's cell phone. She was selling cheap health insurance. But despite the very human inflections in her voice, her questions and responses sounded canned. When Scherer asked Samantha "What vegetable is found in tomato soup," she couldn't answer.

    TIME did some reporting, calling Samantha's number back, and confirmed she was a robot, responding with the same pleasant lines, the same pleasant laugh, and the same insistence "I am a real person." She definitely wasn't. But is Samantha West actually a robot? The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal had a different theory.

    "I wondered: where could I buy such an interactive voicebot?" he writes. "This query led me down a strange rabbit hole. And along the way, I discovered that Samantha West may be something even stranger than a telemarketing robot. Samantha West may be a human sitting in a foreign call center playing recorded North American English through a soundboard."

    The Mechanical Turk.

    Madrigal decided to look for a way to buy a robot like Samantha West, if such a thing exists. If Samantha is a voicebot, he reasons, we'd be getting way more calls like this way more often, because as soon as a new, efficient type of spam is possible, it's widely used. With some smart Googling he landed on the phrase Outbound IVR, or interactive voice response. He also discovered outbound IVR is usually pretty simple--the kind of robotic voice that calls you up and tells you you have an appointment, but not one that can hold a whole conversation.

    After talking to some sources in the outbound IVR business, the conclusion seemed obvious: Samantha West was not a robot. She was too fast, and too good at responding correctly, even with a limited dialogue set. Check out Madrigal's full article for a great quote section from someone in the industry, who lays out exactly why Samantha couldn't be a robot.

    Photo credit: Flickr user spikenzie via Creative Commons

    So Samantha West isn't a person, but she's not a robot, either. What is she? The most logical answer: She's both. Samantha West is likely a person in a foreign country, or someone with a foreign accent, using a soundboard with pre-recorded responses to interact with customers. They understand English well enough to process what people are saying more quickly than a machine could, but they respond with the pre-recorded voice because most Americans will likely respond more positively to the recorded voice than one with a strong accent.

    And, in many situations, the soundboard will be good enough. They won't always need to deviate from the script. It's a more logical explanation, and perhaps a bit sad, since it implies there's a higher success rate selling insurance with a canned voice than a real person speaking with an accent. It's also a little disappointing, because it means Samantha West almost certainly isn't a robot. And how cool--if scary--would that have been?

    In Brief: Google Acquires Boston Dynamics

    This came as a pretty big surprise last Friday night. The New York Times revealed that Google had acquired robotics company Boston Dynamics, the makers of experimental robots that have walked, galloped, and sprinted far beyond the mechanical capabilities of what we've come to see from other research robots (sorry, Asimo). You've probably seen their awesome and just-a-little-terrifying YouTube videos. This acquisition looks to be one of the seven companies that Google bought up as part of its new efforts to create "the next generation of robots", a project led by Android (the smartphone OS) creator Andy Rubin. The Times' earlier report indicated that Google's interest in robotics was to improve industrial manufacturing capabilities like electronics assembly, though Boston Dynamics' expertise has so far been in creating mechanical platforms for military and field use (it has numerous DARPA contracts). Google has said that it will honor those existing military contracts, but had no current plans to become a military contractor on its own.

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    Prosthetic Hand Lets Its Wearer Experience Touch

    An experimental new prosthetic limb has given wearers the ability to experience the sense of touch from the prosthetic, reports Technology Review. Normally, prosthetic limbs can help amputees regain some of the abilities of a lost limb. But touch is not among those abilities, because the prosthetic doesn't interface with the nervous system like a flesh-and-blood limb. This prototype prosthetic hand, however, created by researchers at the Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Case Western Reserve University, can convey a sense of touch in 20 different spots on the hand.

    "It does this by directly stimulating nerve bundles—known as peripheral nerves—in the arms of patients; two people have so far been fitted with the interface," writes Technology Review. "What’s more, the implants continue to work after 18 months, a noteworthy milestone given that electrical interfaces to nerve tissue can gradually degrade in performance."

    The prosthetic is the first of its kind to create lasting nerve stimulation over such a long period, and may also have set a record for the number of distinct touch sensations it can recognize. It uses a piece of technology called a cuff electrode, which holds a bundle of nerve fibers. "A total of 20 electrodes on the three cuffs deliver electrical signals to nerve fibers called axons from outside a protective sheath of living cells that surround those nerve fibers," explains Technology Review.

    Other experiments with nerves penetrate the sheath to make contact with the electrons, which offers the potential for a "higher resolution" touch sensation, but is more likely to degrade the signal path. This experiment's approach proves the value of an alternative method, given its 18 months of functionality.

    One test subject was able to successfully pluck the stems from cherries without applying too much pressure to them, as seen in the video below. He also experienced a variety of sensations with the prosthetic that were produced by modifying electrical signals, ranging from the soft sensation of a cotton ball to the rough texture of sandpaper.

    Inside Adam Savage's Cave: The Robugtix T8 Spider!

    We're back in Adam's cave to check out his latest obsession, a robot spider with incredibly realistic movement. Adam shows off the special box and platform he built to tinker and calibrate the spider, and then sends it crawling around the pool table in his shop. It's not for the arachnophobic!