Category Archives: Robotics

Physicians ponder the future of medical robotics

Robots like the da Vinci surgical robot have enabled humans to achieve a remarkable degree of precision when performing certain surgeries, but these technologies – while incredible – are really just an extension of a physician’s body, like a very high tech scalpel or forceps.

A new generation of tiny snake-like robots is actually capable of crawling through the body to perform surgery, but again, these are guided by a human physician, and tethered to a external machine.

Physicians may look forward to these developments, but many may not foresee a future in which the robot will perform tasks on its own, without the guiding hand of a doctor:

“It won’t be very long before we have robots that are nanobots, meaning they will actually be inside the body without tethers,” said Dr. Michael Argenziano, the Chief of Adult Cardiac Surgery at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University Medical Center in New York.

Argenziano was involved with some of the first U.S. Food and Drug Administration clinical trials on robotic heart surgery more than 10 years ago. Now he says snake robots have become a commonly used tool that gives surgeons a whole new perspective.

“It’s like the ability to have little hands inside the patients, as if the surgeon had been shrunken, and was working on the heart valve,” he said.

But Argenziano and experts in robotics say the new creations work best when they’re designed for very specific tasks. “The robot is a tool. It is no different in that sense than a scalpel. It’s really a master-slave device,” he said.

Argenziano recognizes that medical robots will continue to shrink in size and expand in capability, but is careful to note they won’t be putting him out of a job any time soon. He’s correct – for now.

In a generation, however, we may very well loose tiny robots within our bodies to perform autonomous diagnostics and procedures, often before we’ve even become aware of any symptoms that something is wrong. The role of a physician could easily change to that of a manager, directing fleets of tiny robots within patients, similar to the way an engineer helps guide the actions of robots on a factory floor.

Nevada Opens Its Roads to Self-Driving Cars

Nevada, which has been a pioneer for allowing the testing of autonomous vehicles, became the first state in the country to issue a license which will enable Google (and other companies) to test self-driving cars on Nevada roads.

Even so, the average driver won’t be able to head out to their local autonomous car dealership and purchase one anytime soon. As one might expect, this first-of-its-kind license required Google to present extensive documentation showing the safety record of previous tests and how drivers – two of whom will be required to be in the cars while testing – have been trained. Google and other companies looking to test self-driving vehicles in Nevada will also be required to purchase a pricey surety bond.

It seems especially appropriate that Nevada be the first state to take this step, as it hosted the finish line for the early DARPA Grand Challenges, where autonomous vehicle technology really took off. It’s hard to believe that a short eight years ago driverless cars were unable to complete more than 1/8 of a 150-mile course in the Mojave desert, and today they are able to capably share the roads with human drivers.

(Autonomous vehicle photo courtesy of Nevada DMV)

Robot guards come to South Korean prisons

If you’re unfortunate enough to be sent to a South Korean prison in the near future, the guard on your cell block may be a machine. The robots autonomously patrol prisoner areas, and when they observe “any abnormality” can report the issue to a human operator. The machines, which are currently in field trials, are designed to “protect prisoners from suicide, arson and assault.”

Robots are a good choice for jobs that are either repetitive (and therefore boring) or dangerous. Prisons are more the former, and therefore could be a good environment for robots to help ease the workload of human guards.

(Via Engadget)

Conference positions the Motor City as the Robot City

Detroit has always been a major engineering and manufacturing hub best known for cranking out automobiles, and as such has been a significant purchaser of robotics. However, with all of that engineering talent and manufacturing capability, why couldn’t Detroit become a center for robotics design and production?

This question was on the minds of attendees at yesterday’s “Michigan Robotics Day,” sponsored by the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences and the University of Michigan. The conference aimed to raise Detroit’s profile regarding robotics development, educate the public about the role robots play in our lives, advocate for funding for technology R&D and inspire students to pursue careers in STEM-related fields.

From the Detroit News:

“Robotics represents a major global economic opportunity in Michigan,” said Rick Jarman, president and CEO of the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, which sponsored the conference.

Among the other robotic advances promoted at the event were a projected boom in autonomous or self-driven vehicles for land, air and sea. Self-driven vehicles can save time and energy, open vistas to challenged drivers and save lives on the battlefield.

Michigan is ideally suited for the growth of engineering, computers and technology, Jarman added, because it is anchored by a large number of professional engineers at automakers and suppliers, by the U.S. Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center and by colleges and universities.

As a native Metro Detroiter, I would love to see the region position itself on the leading edge of robotics development and help regain some of its past glory as a global center for technology.

What will the winning humanoid robot need to conquer the next DARPA Grand Challenge?

Could Boston Dynamics' PETMAN be a platform for the next Grand Challenge?

To date, the DARPA Grand Challenge has been a competition to build and field driverless vehicles, and the challenges have been a remarkable success. Now it looks like the agency is challenging teams to tackle a much more difficult task: creation of an all-purpose robot that can perform many diverse tasks that to this point have been only in the domain of humans.

According to a post at the website Hizook, DARPA will require the winning robots to semi-autonomously complete the following:

1) The robot will maneuver to a open frame utility vehicle, such as a John Deere Gator or a Polaris Ranger. The robot is to get into the driver’s seat and drive it to a specified location.

2) The robot is to get out of the vehicle, maneuver to a locked door, unlock it with a key, open the door, and go inside.

3) The robot will traverse a 100 meter, rubble strewn hallway.

4) At the end of the hallway, the robot will climb an ladder.

5) The robot will locate a pipe that is leaking a yellow-colored gas (non-toxic, non-corrosive). The robot will then identify a valve that will seal the pipe and actuate that valve, sealing the pipe.

6) The robot will locate a broken pump and replace it.

So this tells me any successful entrant will require, at least:

  • A humanoid form. I know I mentioned it above, but apparently the rules do not specifically state a humanoid design is an absolute must. However, in order to operate a vehicle with a steering wheel or handlebars, designed to fit an average-sized human, as well as climb a ladder, this design seems to make the most sense, and is apparently what DARPA is looking for.
  • A high degree of manual dexterity. Although we’ve seen some novel solutions for gripping and manipulating objects, such as the universal jamming gripper, it seems like a hand with an opposable thumb would be the most obvious path here, especially if the robot needs to use this appendage for a diverse array of tasks (gripping a steering wheel, operating a lock, climbing a ladder, and so on) ill-suited for a more specialized appendage.
  • Advanced object recognition. Not only with the robot need to navigate around objects both while operating a vehicle and moving on its own, it will also need to identify a few very specific objects (a pipe leaking gas, a broken pump) and then identify ways to fix those objects. The required tasks do not state whether the robot would need to be able to discern the difference between a broken pump and an intact pump, but given the enormity of that assignment I think that might require some human assistance.
  • A portable, long-lasting power source. Currently, humanoid robots burn through power very quickly. (For reference, Honda’s ASIMO can run for one hour on a single charge, but ASIMO doesn’t move through rubble or climb ladders.) The challenge here will be balancing power with portability. It’s possible that teams could use a gasoline engine, like the kind that powers Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog.
Of course all of this is speculation, and I’m sure the brilliant minds that are sure to enter this challenge will be able to come up with some groundbreaking solutions to a lot of these problems. Given the enormous progress inspired by DARPA’s previous Grand Challenges, I can’t wait to see what teams design here.

(Via Danger Room)


New web-based publication devotes first issue to the singularity

Katalyst VS is a new digital publication that devotes each issue to a single topic through a “curated collage of perspectives and pop culture influencers.” Their very first issue is devoted to exploring the singularity, and includes features about dystopian futures in film, emerging technology, and interviews with Ray Kurzweil and Robocop creator Michael Miner. Miner admits he’s actually a “bit of a Luddite” and shares his skepticism about transhumanism without mentioning it by name:

Second, I think the Kurzweil “Singularity” vision of the future, which I thought a lot about and could take up five interviews, is a little bit overrated. I would say that those unions – the first real mechanical-human union is the mouse, beyond surgical applications that help cripple people, the universal union is the hand and the mouse reaching into the screen. There’s a lot of pain in that, you have physical problems carpal tunnel syndrome, and those unions are – I think that the reality on the ground is different than the paradise in theory, if that makes any sense to you.

Robocop actually explored this concept in some depth and was unique in showing the significant downsides of being an ultra-powerful crime fighting cyborg. While I (an avowed Robocop fan) thought the Miner interview was especially interesting, the articles here are all fun to read and the site design is very slick. Well worth a visit.

Is mimicking human biology the path forward to developing human-like AI?

ECCEROBOT, billed by its designers at the University of Sussex as the “world’s first anthropomimetic robot,” was designed to mimic the form and function of the human body. Engineers created a synthetic skeleton to which they attached synthetic tendons and “muscles” with the goal of developing a robot that moves and interacts with the world as we do. Ultimately, researchers want to know if and how having a human-like body may help the machine develop human-like intelligence.

The concept is interesting and I think this type of research, from an engineering standpoint, could potentially have great use for development of artificial limbs and bionic body parts, which users require to match “the originals” as closely as possible. As an generalized approach for building humanoid robots, however, I’m not convinced that trying to copy biology as closely as possible is the most efficient or effective way to go. After all, biology and evolution are messy, and even if we did want to copy biological structures exactly, we are far from having adequate technology and materials to do so.

Given these physical limitations I’m interested to see how the software that powers ECCEROBOT might “learn” and develop. An alternative approach with the same goal might be letting an AI interact with avatars and virtual objects in a detailed virtual world, but again, we’ve got a long way to go before that becomes a viable research path.

ECCEROBOT and other humanoid robots are going to be featured in a BBC documentary, “The Hunt for AI,” which will air tomorrow.

(Via Techland)

New Boston Dynamics four-legged robot runs 18 miles per hour

The Cheetah, a DARPA project created by Boston Dynamics, is a four-legged robot built for speed. Specifically, this video shows the Cheetah hitting 18 miles an hour, which breaks the previous record set by a legged robot by 4.9 miles per hour – a record that has stood for about 23 years.

Unmanned drones raising questions as they move from the battlefield to the backyard

Drone aircraft – whether outfitted for reconnaissance or combat – have changed the way humans conduct warfare. Now, civilian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) armed with cameras are finding their way onto the market for purposes ranging from filmmaking to real estate, and raising a lot of questions along the way.

In California, for example, the Los Angeles Police Department sent warning letters to the California Association of Realtors informing them that using drones to capture video footage of homes for sale violates (as yet non-existent) Federal Aviation Association rules for unmanned aircraft that fly below 400 feet.  And FilmL.A., who “coordinate and process permits for on-location motion picture, television and commercial production” aren’t happy with UAVs shooting video since it’s cheaper than capturing footage the conventional way and doesn’t require crane and jib operators (who are represented by FilmL.A.) to get shots from on-high.

The FAA is expected to issue regulations for unmanned aircraft in the near future, but as UAVs and video equipment get smaller and less expensive, I expect the popularity of civilian UAVs to grow significantly. In fact, there are already communities of UAV enthusiasts online that can show you how to get started for a very reasonable cost.

Win one for the (universal jamming) gripper

Back in 2010, researchers at the University of Chicago and Cornell University (PDF warning) unveiled a “universal jamming gripper” that served as an alternative to a robotic claw or hand for gripping and manipulating objects. The gripper is brilliant in its simplicity – essentially, it’s a rubber balloon filled with “granular material.” To grab hold of an object, the gripper wraps itself around the object and then air is pumped out of the balloon, forming a tight grasp. To release the object, air is pumped back into the balloon, loosening the grasp, or even propelling the object a short distance.

For precise object manipulation, the design leaves something to be desired when compared to, say, a hand or even something like a tentacle. However, for an appendage designed to quickly and easily pick up and release a wide variety of objects with different shapes and sizes, it works remarkably well, as demonstrated in the below video:

What I love most about this gripper is the radical departure from traditional gripper designs, like the aforementioned claw or hand. Many times roboticists tend to mimic biological forms, which is well and good for certain applications, but can also be limiting. This gripper is totally unlike a hand, but still works well while being simple, inexpensive and practical.

(Via Wired)