Hi there, and welcome to my weekly Robot Update. This is wear I do a round up of what is going on in the Robot news around the world, so stay tuned.
Hi Guys, I’m Philip English from robophil.com, and welcome to the Robot Weekly update number 16.
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Cockroach robots? Not nightmare fantasy but science lab reality
Texas engineers attach miniature computer wired into nervous system of live cockroaches for remote control and aim to gather video information in places such as broken sewers. They lurk in dark corners, feed off crumbs, and obey the commands of humans. Years in the making, and a contender for the most revolting creation to emerge from a laboratory, the robo-roach has arrived. Built by engineers in Texas, the robotic insect fuses a live cockroach with a miniature computer that is wired into the animal’s nervous system. At the push of a button, a human operator can control the beast. Or at least which way it scuttles. Hong Liang, who led the research at Texas A&M University, said the controllable insect could carry tiny video cameras, microphones and other sensors. With those on board, it could gather information from places where humans would rather not be: collapsed buildings, broken sewers, and the kitchens in student house shares. “Insects can do things a robot cannot. They can go into small places, sense the environment, and if there’s movement, from a predator say, they can escape much better than a system designed by a human,” Liang told the Guardian. “We wanted to find ways to work with them.” The US team made tiny backpacks for the cockroaches and stuck them on with paint. Normal glue did not attach to the insects’ waxy backs. Each backpack contained a computer chip that could send signals down a pair of fine wires into nerves that controlled legs on either side of the cockroach. With a rechargeable lithium battery to power the device, the total weight of the backpack was less than 3g. In a series of demonstrations, the scientists showed how they remotely controlled the direction in which the cockroach walked by stimulating nerves on either side of its body. When cockroaches walk, the three legs on each side move in time with each other. But the electrical pulses disrupt this, making the middle leg fall out of step with the others. The result is that a pulse to the left makes the cockroach turn left, and vice versa.
Pleurobot Is an Eerily Lifelike Robotic Salamander
It’s not particularly difficult to make a robot that looks like an animal. It’s harder to make a robot that behaves like an animal. At EPFL, a group led by Prof. Auke Jan Ijspeert has been working on swimming robots for over a decade, using the salamander as a model, and Pleurobot looks like the most accurate—and eerily lifelike—yet. Alllllright, so the whole talking thing is maybe not typical behavior for salamanders, but we’ll let it slide. The key to Pleurobot’s lifelike motion is its design, which was based on 3D x-ray movies of a real salamander walking and swimming: Tracking up to 64 points on the animal’s skeleton they were able to record three-dimensional movements of bones in great detail. Using optimization on all the recorded postures for the three gaits they deduced the number and position of active and passive joints needed for the robot to reproduce the animal movements in reasonable accuracy in three-dimensions. By design Pleurobot provides torque control for all the active joints, which enables us to apply our neural network models of the spinal cord neural circuits (called Central Pattern Generators) of the salamander and to activate virtual muscles to replicate the recorded animal movements along with realistic viscoelastic properties. This is particularly important in order to get a fundamental understanding of vertebrate motor control. In other words, the joints and muscles of the robotic salamander respond in just the same way that the joints and muscles of a real salamander do. This means that applying neural patterns that real salamanders use for walking to the robot salamander will (or should, at least) cause the robot to walk in the same way. And it seems to work rather well. Pleurobot may not be the fastest of walkers, but its low center of gravity makes it exceptionally stable, and it’s also multimodal: it can walk on land, swim under water, and transition seamlessly between the two. This makes it ideal for the obligatory search-and-rescue applications, although for aquatic operations the robot needs to wear a waterproof swimsuit.
A robot that collapses under pressure (In a good way)
If NASA plans to send robots to other planets, it’s going to need some new designs: ones that are easy to land, easy to move around, and easy to fix. That means they probably won’t look like a bipedal T-1000 chasing the one hope for mankind. They probably won’t even look like the four-legged galloping critters Boston Dynamics is building. Nope. Those robots will look like a hexahedral tent stripped of its fabric. At NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program, engineers are developing just such a machine. They call it the Super Ball Bot: a robot made of metallic rods and cables that can extend and retract on command. It looks a little bit like a tangled mess of toothpicks and dental floss, but in space, that manipulable structure is ideal—it can expand and compress to absorb impact on landing, squeeze into tight spaces, and even move across the surface of a foreign planet in an odd crawling-slash-tumbling motion. The robot’s creators, Vytas SunSpiral and Adrian Agogino, will present the latest version of the Super Ball Bot at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) 2015 in August. The pair first realized the potential of the squishable structure when they were playing with a six-bar baby toy, strung together with wire. Agogino threw it up in the air, and SunSpiral (yes, his name is SunSpiral) noticed how well it absorbed impact when it landed. SunSpiral recalls: “I said ‘Ah ha! It’s a landing robot!’”
That’s it guys, for a weekly world Robot News, I am your host Philip English
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