Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

Cornell researchers have made a little robot that can express its emotions through touch, sending out little spikes when its scared or even getting goosebumps to express delight or excitement. The prototype, a cute smiling creature with rubber skin, is designed to test touch as an I/O system for robotic projects.

The robot mimics the skin of octopi which can turn spiky when threatened.

The researchers, Yuhan Hu, Zhengnan Zhao, Abheek Vimal, and Guy Hoffman, created the robot to experiment with new methods for robot interaction. They compare the skin to “human goosebumps, cats’ neck fur raising, dogs’ back hair, the needles of a porcupine, spiking of a blowfish, or a bird’s ruffled feathers.”

“Research in human-robot interaction shows that a robot’s ability to use nonverbal behavior to communicate affects their potential to be useful to people, and can also have psychological effects. Other reasons include that having a robot use nonverbal behaviors can help make it be perceived as more familiar and less machine-like,” the researchers told IEEE Spectrum.

The skin has multiple configurations and is powered by a computer-controlled elastomer that can inflate and deflate on demand. The goosebumps pop up to match the expression on the robot’s face, allowing humans to better understand what the robot “means” when it raises its little hackles or gets bumpy. I, for one, welcome our bumpy robotic overlords.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

Making something fly involves a lot of trade-offs. Bigger stuff can hold more fuel or batteries, but too big and the lift required is too much. Small stuff takes less lift to fly but might not hold a battery with enough energy to do so. Insect-sized drones have had that problem in the past — but now this RoboFly is taking its first flaps into the air… all thanks to the power of lasers.

We’ve seen bug-sized flying bots before, like the RoboBee, but as you can see it has wires attached to it that provide power. Batteries on board would weigh it down too much, so researchers have focused in the past on demonstrating that flight is possible in the first place at that scale.

But what if you could provide power externally without wires? That’s the idea behind the University of Washington’s RoboFly, a sort of spiritual successor to the RoboBee that gets its power from a laser trained on an attached photovoltaic cell.

“It was the most efficient way to quickly transmit a lot of power to RoboFly without adding much weight,” said co-author of the paper describing the bot, Shyam Gollakota. He’s obviously very concerned with power efficiency — last month he and his colleagues published a way of transmitting video with 99 percent less power than usual.

There’s more than enough power in the laser to drive the robot’s wings; it gets adjusted to the correct voltage by an integrated circuit, and a microcontroller sends that power to the wings depending on what they need to do. Here it goes:

“To make the wings flap forward swiftly, it sends a series of pulses in rapid succession and then slows the pulsing down as you get near the top of the wave. And then it does this in reverse to make the wings flap smoothly in the other direction,” explained lead author Johannes James.

At present the bot just takes off, travels almost no distance and lands — but that’s just to prove the concept of a wirelessly powered robot insect (it isn’t obvious). The next steps are to improve onboard telemetry so it can control itself, and make a steered laser that can follow the little bug’s movements and continuously beam power in its direction.

The team is headed to Australia next week to present the RoboFly at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Brisbane.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

NASA’s latest mission to Mars, Insight, is set to launch early Saturday morning in pursuit of a number of historic firsts in space travel and planetology. The lander’s instruments will probe the surface of the planet and monitor its seismic activity with unprecedented precision, while a pair of diminutive cubesats riding shotgun will test the viability of tiny spacecraft for interplanetary travel.

Saturday at 4:05 AM Pacific is the first launch opportunity, but if weather forbids it, they’ll just try again soon after — the chances of clouds sticking around all the way until June 8, when the launch window closes, are slim to none.

Insight isn’t just a pretty name they chose; it stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, at least after massaging the acronym a bit. Its array of instruments will teach us about the Martian interior, granting us insight (see what they did there?) into the past and present of Mars and the other rocky planets in the solar system, including Earth.

Bruce Banerdt, principal investigator for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has been pushing for this mission for more than two decades, after practically a lifetime working at the place.

“This is the only job I’ve ever had in my life other than working in the tire shop during the summertime,” he said in a recent NASA podcast. He’s worked on plenty of other missions, of course, but his dedication to this one has clearly paid off. It was actually originally scheduled to launch in 2016, but some trouble with an instrument meant they had to wait until the next launch window — now.

Insight is a lander in the style of Phoenix, about the size of a small car, and shot towards Mars faster than a speeding bullet. The launch is a first in itself: NASA has never launched an interplanetary mission from the West coast, but conditions aligned in this case making California’s Vandenberg air base the best option. It doesn’t even require a gravity assist to get where it’s going.

“Instead of having to go to Florida and using the Earth’s rotation to help slingshot us into orbit… We can blast our way straight out,” Banerdt said in the same podcast. “Plus we get to launch in a way that is gonna be visible to maybe 10 million people in Southern California because this rocket’s gonna go right by LA, right by San Diego. And if people are willing to get up at four o’clock in the morning, they should see a pretty cool light show that day.”

The Atlas V will take it up to orbit and the Centaur will give it its push towards Mars, after which it will cruise for six months or so, arriving late in the Martian afternoon on November 26 (Earth calendar).

Its landing will be as exciting (and terrifying) as Phoenix’s and many others. When it hits the Martian atmosphere, Insight will be going more than 13,000 MPH. It’ll slow down first using the atmosphere itself, losing 90 percent of its velocity as friction against a new, reinforced heat shield. A parachute takes off another 90 percent, but it’ll still be going over 100 MPH, which would make for an uncomfortable landing. So a couple thousand feet up it will transition to landing jets that will let it touch down at a stately 5.4 MPH at the desired location and orientation.

After the dust has settled (literally) and the lander has confirmed everything is in working order, it will deploy its circular, fanlike solar arrays and get to work.

Robot arms and self-hammering robomoles

Insight’s mission is to get into the geology of Mars with more detail and depth than ever before. To that end it is packing gear for three major experiments.

SEIS is a collection of six seismic sensors (making the name a tidy bilingual, bidirectional pun) that will sit on the ground under what looks like a tiny Kingdome and monitor the slightest movement of the ground underneath. Tiny high-frequency vibrations or longer-period oscillations, they should all be detected.

“Seismology is the method that we’ve used to gain almost everything we know, all the basic information about the interior of the Earth, and we also used it back during the Apollo era to understand and to measure sort of the properties of the inside of the moon,” Banerdt said. “And so, we want to apply the same techniques but use the waves that are generated by Mars quakes, by meteorite impacts to probe deep into the interior of Mars all the way down to its core.”

The heat flow and physical properties probe is an interesting one. It will monitor the temperature of the planet below the surface continually for the duration of the mission — but in order to do so, of course, it has to dig its way down. For that purpose it’s installed with what the team calls a “self-hammering mechanical mole.” Pretty self-explanatory, right?

The “mole” is sort of like a hollow, inch-thick, 16-inch-long nail that will use a spring-loaded tungsten block inside itself to drive itself into the rock. It’s estimated that it will take somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000 strikes to get deep enough to escape the daily and seasonal temperature changes at the surface.

Lastly there’s the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, which actually doesn’t need a giant nail, a tiny Kingdome, or anything like that. The experiment involves tracking the position of Insight with extreme precision as Mars rotates, using its radio connection with Earth. It can be located to within about four inches, which when you think about it is pretty unbelievable to begin with. The way that position varies may indicate a wobble in the planet’s rotation and consequently shed light on its internal composition. Combined with data from similar experiments in the ’70s and ’90s, it should let planetologists determine how molten the core is.

“In some ways, InSight is like a scientific time machine that will bring back information about the earliest stages of Mars’ formation 4.5 billion years ago,” said Banerdt in an earlier news release. “It will help us learn how rocky bodies form, including Earth, its moon, and even planets in other solar systems.”

In another space first, Insight has a robotic arm that will not just do things like grab rocks to look at, but will grab items from its own inventory and deploy them into its workspace. Its little fingers will grab handles on top of each deployable instrument and grab it just like a human might. Well, maybe a little differently, but the principle is the same. At nearly 8 feet long, it has a bit more reach than the average astronaut.

Cubes riding shotgun

One of the MarCO cubesats.

Insight is definitely the main payload, but it’s not the only one. Launching on the same rocket are two cubesats, known collectively as Mars Cube One, or MarCO. These “briefcase-size” guys will separate from the rocket around the same time as Insight, but take slightly different trajectories. They don’t have the control to adjust their motion and enter an orbit, so they’ll just zoom by Mars right as Insight is landing.

Cubesats launch all the time, though, right? Sure — into Earth orbit. This will be the first attempt to send Cubesats to another planet. If successful there’s no limit to what could be accomplished — assuming you don’t need to pack anything bigger than a breadbox.

The spacecraft aren’t carrying any super-important experiments; there are two in case one fails, and both are only equipped with UHF antennas to send and receive data, and a couple low-resolution visible-light cameras. The experiment here is really the cubesats themselves and this launch technique. If they make it to Mars, they might be able to help send Insight’s signal home, and if they keep operating beyond that, it’s just icing on the cake.

You can follow along with Insight’s launch here; there’s also the traditional anthropomorphized Twitter account. We’ll post a link to the live stream as soon as it goes up.

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

As a hater of all sports I am particularly excited about the imminent replacement of humans with robots in soccer. If this exciting match, the Standard Platform League (SPL) final of the German Open featuring the Nao-Team HTWK vs. Nao Devils, is any indication the future is going to be great.

The robots are all NAO robots by SoftBank and they are all designed according to the requirements of the Standard Platform League. The robots can run (sort of), kick (sort of), and lift themselves up if they fall. The 21 minute video is a bit of a slog and the spectators are definitely not drunk hooligans but darn if it isn’t great to see little robots hitting the turf to grab a ball before it hits the goal.

I, for one, welcome our soccer-playing robot overlords.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

It goes without saying that getting dressed is one of the most critical steps in our daily routine. But long practice has made it second nature, and people suffering from dementia may lose that familiarity, making dressing a difficult and frustrating process. This smart dresser from NYU is meant to help them through the process while reducing the load on overworked caregivers.

It may seem that replacing responsive human help with a robotic dresser is a bit insensitive. But not only are there rarely enough caregivers to help everyone in a timely manner at, say, a nursing care facility, the residents themselves might very well prefer the privacy and independence conferred by such a solution.

“Our goal is to provide assistance for people with dementia to help them age in place more gracefully, while ideally giving the caregiver a break as the person dresses – with the assurance that the system will alert them when the dressing process is completed or prompt them if intervention is needed,” explained the project’s leader, Winslow Burleson, in an NYU news release.

DRESS, as the team calls the device, is essentially a five-drawer dresser with a tablet on top that serves as both display and camera, monitoring and guiding the user through the dressing process.

There are lots of things that can go wrong when you’re putting on your clothes, and really only one way it can go right — shirts go on right side out and trousers forwards, socks on both feet, etc. That simplifies the problem for DRESS, which looks for tags attached to the clothes to make sure they’re on right and in order, making sure someone doesn’t attempt to put on their shoes before their trousers. Lights on each drawer signal the next item of clothing to don.

If there’s any problem — the person can’t figure something out, can’t find the right drawer or gets distracted, for instance — the caregiver is alerted and will come help. But if all goes right, the person will have dressed themselves all on their own, something that might not have been possible before.

DRESS is just a prototype right now, a proof of concept to demonstrate its utility. The team is looking into improving the vision system, standardizing clothing folding and enlarging or otherwise changing the coded tags on each item.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

The charming robot at the heart of Disney’s Big Hero 6, Baymax, isn’t exactly realistic, but its puffy bod is an (admittedly aspirational) example of the growing field of soft robotics. And now Disney itself has produced a soft robot arm that seems like it could be a prototype from the movie.

Created by Disney Research roboticists, the arm seems clearly inspired by Baymax, from the overstuffed style and delicate sausage fingers to the internal projector that can show status or information to nearby people.

“Where physical human-robot interaction is expected, robots should be compliant and reactive to avoid human injury and hardware damage,” the researchers write in the paper describing the system. “Our goal is the realization of a robot arm and hand system which can physically interact with humans and gently manipulate objects.”

The mechanical parts of the arm are ordinary enough — it has an elbow and wrist and can move around the way many other robot arms do, using the same servos and such.

But around the joints are what look like big pillows, which the researchers call “force sensing modules.” They’re filled with air and can detect pressure on them. This has the dual effect of protecting the servos from humans and vice versa, while also allowing natural tactile interactions.

“Distributing individual modules over the various links of a robot provides contact force sensing over a large area of the robot and allows for the implementation of spatially aware, engaging physical human-robot interactions,” they write. “The independent sensing areas also allow a human to communicate with the robot or guide its motions through touch.”

Like hugging, as one of the researchers demonstrates:

Presumably in this case the robot (also presuming the rest of the robot) would understand that it is being hugged, and reciprocate or otherwise respond.

The fingers are also soft and filled with air; they’re created in a 3D printer that can lay down both rigid and flexible materials. Pressure sensors within each inflatable finger let the robot know whether, for example, one fingertip is pressing too hard or bearing all the weight, signaling it to adjust its grip.

This is still very much a prototype; the sensors can’t detect the direction of a force yet, and the materials and construction aren’t airtight by design, meaning they have to be continuously pumped full. But it still shows what they want it to show: that a traditional “hard” robot can be retrofitted into a soft one with a bit of ingenuity. We’re still a long way from Baymax, but it’s more science than fiction now.

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

If you’ve ever painted a room you know that getting every nook and cranny is pretty difficult and Tim Allen help you if you have hardwood or carpet. The tarp alone costs more than the paint. Now, thanks to MIST, your robot can manage the entire job, slapping paint up like a robotic Jackson Pollock.

The robot uses mapping technology and a sort of elevator-like neck to spray up and down walls. The team, which hails from the University of Waterloo, has finished their prototype and it’s called Maverick. The team has experience working at multiple big names including Apple and Facebook. It includes Shubham Aggarwal, Utkarsh Saini, Baraa Hamodi, Hammad Mirza, and Dhruv Sharma.

This is just the beginning for Maverick. The team plans on adding other features that make it easier to use.

“We actually plan on mounting a camera behind the sprayer so that it follows the sprayer up and down, and hence can use image processing to make decisions about whether to actuate the spray or not. We’ve already implemented this logic in software and even have a paint quality detection algorithm. That being said, we haven’t mounted the camera just yet as seen in this video,” the team said.

As you can see below the project involves a platform, arm, and spray system. The robot maps the room and then rolls around, hitting spots that are supposed to be painted and avoiding spots that aren’t. Obviously you’re going to want to tape up some spots but for the most part Maverick will blast your walls with a few layers of paint in the time it would take you to go down to the paint store.

I’ve reached out to the team for more information on their project but until then enjoy their jaunty video below. I, for one, welcome our robotic spraying overlords.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

Teradyne, a prosaic-sounding but flush company that provides automated testing equipment for industrial applications, has acquired the Danish robotics company MiR for an eye-popping $148 million, with $124 million on the table after meeting performance goals.

MiR, which despite the lowercase “i” stands for Mobile Industrial Robots, does what you might guess. Founded in 2013, the company has grown steadily and had a huge 2017, tripling its revenues to $12 million after its latest robot, the MiR200, received high marks from customers.

MiR’s robots are of the warehouse sort, wheeled little autonomous fellows that can lift and pull pallets, boxes, and so on. They look a bit like the little ones that are always underfoot in Star Wars movies. It’s a natural fit for Teradyne, especially with the latter’s recent purchase of the well known Universal Robotics in a $350 million deal in 2015.

Testing loads of electronics and components may be a dry business, but it’s a booming one, because the companies that test faster ship faster. Any time efficiencies can be made in the process, be it warehouse logistics or assisting expert humans in sensitive procedures, one can be sure a company will be willing to pay for them.

Teradyne also noted (the Robot Report points out) that both companies take a modern approach to robots and how they interact and must be trained by people — the old paradigm of robotics specialists having to carefully program these things doesn’t scale well, and both UR and MiR were forward thinking enough to improve that pain point.

The plan is, of course, to take MiR’s successful technology global, hopefully recreating its success on a larger scale.

“My main focus is to get our mobile robots out to the entire world,” said MiR CSO and founder Niels Jul Jacobsen in the press release announcing the acquisition. “With Teradyne as the owner, we will have strong backing to ensure MiR’s continued growth in the global market.”

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who hate building Ikea furniture and madmen. Now, thanks to Ikeabot, the madmen can be replaced.

Ikeabot is a project built at Control Robotics Intelligence (CRI) group at NTU in Singapore. The team began by teaching robots to insert pins and manipulate Ikea parts and then, slowly, began to figure out how to pit the robots against the furniture. The results, if you’ve ever fought with someone trying to put together a Billy, are heartening.

From Spectrum:

The assembly process from CRI is not quite that autonomous; “although all the steps were automatically planned and controlled, their sequence was hard-coded through a considerable engineering effort.” The researchers mention that they can “envision such a sequence being automatically determined from the assembly manual, through natural-language interaction with a human supervisor or, ultimately, from an image of the chair,” although we feel like they should have a chat with Ross Knepper, whose IkeaBot seemed to do just fine without any of that stuff.

In other words the robots are semi-autonomous but never get frustrated and can use basic heuristics to figure out next steps. The robots can now essentially assemble chairs in about 20 minutes, a feat that I doubt many of us can emulate. You can watch the finished dance here, in all its robotic glory.

The best part? Even robots get frustrated and fling parts around:

I, for one, welcome our Ikea chair manufacturing robotic overlords.

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

Watchmaker Jaquet Droz announced its Signing Machine – a mechanical device that will sign your name for you using a series of miniature gears and springs – in 2014. Four years later, the company is ready to ship their miraculous contraction just in time for you to ink the deal you’ve made with Cybereus, lord of the digital underworld.

This exquisitely baroque gadget is essentially a little cartridge full of clockwork. You wind it up, stick a pencil in its tiny retractable claw, and let it go. The gears and levers recreate your signature with a series of flowing strokes generated by the movement of the gears.

Droz, a 18th century watchmaker and automaton manufacturer, was famous for his miraculous contraptions including a Draughtsman and Writer, two human-shaped robots that could draw and write, along with his beautiful singing birds that used tiny pipes and bellows to recreate birdsong.

The Signing Machine is activated after you enter your four digit code into the the device and each unit is individually decorated for the owner.

How much does this bit of titanium jimcrackery cost? It starts at $367,500 and goes up depending on your signature. Too much? Just remember: making deals with the cryptodemons of the digital underworld isn’t cheap. You’ll need something like this oddly tactical piece of metal to truly widen their hooded, red-shining eyes.