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Super-Strong Nanotech Artificial Muscles

Posted 28 Nov 2012 at 19:48 UTC by steve

One of the problems with the artificial muscles commonly used in robots is their poor performance compared to biological muscles. This is an important reason why they generally have not found favor as a replacement for conventional motors. A new artificial muscle developed at the University of Texas at Dallas Nanotech Institute may change that. Researchers there, led by Ray Baughman, are working on muscles made from carbon nanotubes, twisted into yarn and filled with paraffin wax. The resulting muscles can lift 100,000 times their own weight and generate 85 time the mechanical power of natural, biological muscles. According to Baughman,

"Because of their simplicity and high performance, these yarn muscles could be used for such diverse applications as robots, catheters for minimally invasive surgery, micromotors, mixers for microfluidic circuits, tunable optical systems, microvalves, positioners and even toys."

The coiled nature of the yarn provides two additional applications. First it can twist and untwist at up to 11,500 RPM, allowing it be used in much the same way as the rubber band that powers a model airplane. Second, the yarn can be sewn into fabrics which then have macro-level properties that can change in the presence of certain chemicals, lighting conditions, or temperature levels. A paper on the latest development appeared in the 16 Nov issue of Science. Unfortunately Science is a pay-walled journal so it's not generally available yet. You can, however, read other related papers on the Nanotech Institute's publications page. You can also get a little more info from the recent UTD news release. Read on to see video of the super-muscles lifting weights and doing other cool things.

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The Universe, The Internet, and The Brain

Posted 27 Nov 2012 at 19:38 UTC by steve

A recently published paper, titled Network Cosmology (PDF format) has demonstrated remarkable similarities in the structure and dynamics of several large scale networks that you may have heard of: the human brain, The Internet, and universe. The paper is by six researchers including Dmitri Krioukov, perhaps best known as the scientist whose four page physics paper titled "Proof of Innocence" (PDF format) was presented to the judge in court, saving Dmitri from a $300 traffic ticket. Having avoided his traffic fine, Dmitri and friends went on to demonstrate that many complex networks from the brain to the entire universe seems to be governed by similar underlying laws. To do this, they looked at the math of causal sets a representation of the quantum gravity that underlies spacetime. From the paper:

"We show that the structure of these networks in de Sitter spacetime, such as our accelerating universe, is remarkably similar to the structure of complex networks -- the brain or the Internet, for example. [...] We show that as a consequence of a simple geometric duality, the growth dynamics of complex networks and de Sitter causal sets are asymptotically identical. These findings suggest that unexpectedly similar mechanisms may shape the large-scale structure and dynamics of complex systems as different as the brain, the Internet, and the universe."

According to the researchers, the probability of the equivalence between all these complex networks being pure coincidence is very low, so there's almost certainly some fundamental law at work. It would be very interesting to identify and understand a new law of physics that affects the emergence of four-dimensional space from the quantum vacuum, the development of our brains, and the dynamics of our social network of friends. The paper contains lots of math, so we recommend against reading it while you're driving.

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Best Robot Photos of the Week

Posted 26 Nov 2012 at 17:25 UTC by steve

Every week we post a collection of the best robot photos submitted by our readers to our robots.net flickr group. Why? Because everyone likes to see cool new robots! This week's collection includes a law enforcement robot from Knoxville, a variety of robot art, some robot toys, hobby robots, and even a cat that likes robots. If you'd like to submit your robot photos, join the robots.net flickr group. If you're not already a flickr member, it's free and easy to sign up. Read on to see the best robot photos of the week!

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Medical Robotics

Can Robots Motivate the Eldery to Exercise?

Posted 22 Nov 2012 at 15:08 UTC by steve

The USC Robotics Research Lab recently posted a journal paper online that appeared in the August 2012 issue of the Proceedings of the IEEE, titled Using Socially Assistive Human-Robot Interaction to Motivate Physical Exercise for Older Adults (PDF format). That title may give you visions of Bender chasing elderly people around the room with a deadly weapon; or perhaps Pusher and Shover robots. But what authors Juan Fasola and Maja j. Matarić are talking about is nothing like that. From the paper:

"This paper focuses on the design methodology, implementation details, and user study evaluations of a SAR system that aims to motivate and engage elderly users in physical exercise as well as social interaction to help address the physical and cognitive healthcare needs of the growing elderly population. SAR systems equipped with such motivational, social, and therapeutic capabilities have the potential to facilitate elderly individuals to live independently in their own homes, to enhance their quality of life, and to improve their overall health."

The robot, named Bandit, is a biomimetic anthropomorphic robot, which in this case means a vaguely humanoid torso mounted on a wheeled platfrom. The robot attempts to engage the elderly person in a variety of games, some of which involve making arm gestures and asking the human to imitate them. The robot observes and offers advice as they attempt to repeat the exercise. Studies of interactions with elderly volunteers seems to support the idea that the robot can succeed at motivating exercise in way humans find enjoyable. You can learn more about the project on the UCS Interaction Lab Robot Exercise System webpage. Read on to see photos and video of Bandit in action.

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Military Robotics

Human Rights Groups Fight Killer Robots

Posted 21 Nov 2012 at 19:23 UTC by steve

We've posted more stories on robot ethics over the years than I can count. The general public and lawmakers still seem ignorant of the issues and even many roboticists still seem unclear on the import of autonomous robots that can make the decision of when to kill and who to kill without a human in the loop at all. But each day we come closer to having fully autonomous war robots. Some researchers, like Ronald Arkin, believe we can create robots that fight only for us and kill only in an ethical fashion. Other researchers, like Noel Sharkey, have warned that we shouldn't build autonomous weapons and that, if we do, they will eventually be copied and turned on us as well. A good comparison of Arkin's and Sharkey's views can be found in Part 1 and Part 2 of the Robots podcast on Robot Ethics. The latest development in this area is the publication of a 50-page report by Human Rights Watch called Losing Humanity: The Case against Killer Robots (PDF format). From the report:

Based on the threats fully autonomous weapons would pose to civilians, Human Rights Watch and IHRC make the following recommendations, which are expanded on at the end of this report:
  • Prohibit the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons through an international legally binding instrument.
  • Adopt national laws and policies to prohibit the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.
  • Commence reviews of technologies and components that could lead to fully autonomous weapons. These reviews should take place at the very beginning of the development process and continue throughout the development and testing phases.

Noel Sharkey was a technical reviewer on their report and provided input. Even if it's too late to stop the development of fully autonomous robots or Apocalyptic AI, it's well worth reading this report, which covers a lot of interesting points. If not an outright ban, it's likely we'll at least seen changes to existing laws as well as new ethics requirements researchers. While we have yet to reach the point of fully autonomous killer robots, several robots are quite close, such as the Northrop Grumman X-47B, pictured above, and the Samsung semi-autonomous Techwin SGR-A1 border guard which can fire on and kill humans. If you're not up for reading the full report, read on to see the short video released by the Human Rights Initiative to summarize the content.
CC licensed image of X47B from flickr user US DoD

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Black Friday for Robot Builders

Posted 20 Nov 2012 at 17:36 UTC by steve

It's almost time once again for Black Friday, the annual, post-Thanksgiving chaos of consumerism in the United States. As long as it's happening, we might as well point out a few bargains that will be of interest to robot builders. Pololu's Black Friday sale begins at midnight on Thursday. Exact details are still under wraps but based on previous years, it will be well worth checking out. Rick Stiles of Trossen Robotics let us in on the details of their sale:

We'll be running 2 promotions from Black Friday through Cyber Monday. The coupon code "Cyber2012" will be a 20% discount on the following products: the PhantomX Reactor Robot Arm Kit, PhantomX Pincher Robot Arm Kit, PhantomX AX-12 Quadruped Comprehensive Kit, PhantomX AX Hexapod Comprehensive Kit, and the ArbotiX Commander v2.0. The same coupon code is also good for 10% off anything else in the store.

Mail order surplus electronic company Electronic Goldmine has Black Friday specials planned but hasn't announced them yet. They have an email sign up for those who want an early warning. BG Micro has some specials, more specials, and a "virtual sidewalk sale" going on. SparkFun is skipping Black Friday but taking part in Cyber Monday with an offer of free shipping on all orders. American Science and Surplus has some typically bizarre items on sale. And it's usually worth checking Amazon for Roombas, or other home robots or robot toys and maybe at Harbor Freight's Black Friday sale for tools. If you hear about any others, let us know and we'll update this posting.

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Robots Podcast #117: Chris Chesher

Posted 20 Nov 2012 at 16:19 UTC by John_RobotsPodcast

Chris Chesher

Dr. Chris Chesher is a senior lecturer in Digital Cultures, and is currently conducting research into the cultures of contemporary robotics, in association with the Centre for Social Robotics at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics. His research investigates how various technologies become historically woven through social structures and cultural practices. He brings a new and interesting perspective as his approach mixes science and technology studies, media studies and ethnography in an effort to understand robotic technologies and everyday-life.

Read On | Tune In

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Best Robot Photos of the Week

Posted 19 Nov 2012 at 19:46 UTC by steve

This is the first of a new weekly feature on robots.net. Every week we'll post a collection of the best robot photos submitted by you to our robots.net flickr group. Why? Because everyone likes to see cool robots! This week's collection includes a little of everything to give you and idea of the sort of photos we'd like to see. Photos of real robots, robot competitions, robot being used in research and STEM education projects. But we'd also like to see robot art of all kinds, movie robot replica projects, vintage toy robots, pretty much anything related to robots. If you'd like to submit your robot photo for next week's collection, join our flickr group. If you're not already a flickr member, it's free and easy to sign up. Read on to see the best robot photos of the week!

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Random Robot Roundup

Posted 18 Nov 2012 at 18:30 UTC by steve

This week's dump of stories from the editor's in-box include an NFS news release about robobees, a story of NASA engineers building a fuel-cell powered UAV in their spare time to do wildlife surveillance and other ecological missions. A review of Thomas Nagel's new book on consciousness. We've also got a story about a US DOE initiative to develop a simple programming language for biology lab robots, called PaR-PaR. Reader Kra5h sent a link to his instructable on hacking the Snap Circuits Rover. FIRST robotics Team 3940 has created an Indiegogo campaign to fund AutiBot, a robot they're developing to help Autistic children. The FreeIO.org site is looking for suggestions of good electronics and embedded design books to recommend in their resources section and they've also put up a poll asking what open hardware project you'd like see them work on next. Lastly, Robots.net has started a new flickr group where you can post photos of your latest robot project. We'll be picking some weekly favorites from the group to post about here. Know any other robot news, gossip, or amazing facts we should report? Send 'em our way please. Don't forget to follow us on twitter and Facebook. And now you can add us to your Google+ circles too.

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Swarm Optimized Cartesian Ping-Pong, Anyone?

Posted 16 Nov 2012 at 20:37 UTC by steve

Engineers love to do crazy things and when they involve robots, we love to tell you about them. We've reported on a lot of ping-pong playing robots over the years but usually they're based on conventional industrial robot arms or humanoid arm designs. What if, instead of a multi-jointed arm, you wanted to design a cartesian ping-pong playing robot? That is, a robot that can only move linearly on an X, Y, and Z axis. That's the question Hossein Jahandideh and his fellow engineers asked themselves. And to make things more interesting, they used a Particle Swarm Optimization (PSO) algorithm to plan for the approach of the incoming ping-pong balls. The result is the paper, "Ball Striking Algorithm for a 3 DOF Ping-Pong Playing Robot Based on Particle Swarm Optimziation" (PDF format). From the paper:

"It has been shown that a robot as simple and low cost as a Cartesian robot holding a standard racket can be programmed to play ping-pong against a human player. A PSO-based algorithm was proposed to determine when and how to hit the ball. This algorithm, aside from having a near perfect success rate at throwing the ball to a specified target, can also be adjusted to follow various strategies, such as the ball reaching the target with maximum speed, or with maximum spin, etc."

The paper covers all the math developed to build and test a simulation of the cartesian ping-pong playing robot. The construction of an actual robot is still in the planning stages. We look forward to seeing video of their results. The authors note that the algorithms developed in the paper should be applicable to conventional, non-cartesian robots as well.

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