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Oct 06

Reported by Larry Hardesty, in MIT news, 4 OCtober 2013.

Small cubes with no exterior moving parts can propel themselves forward, jump on top of each other, and snap together to form arbitrary shapes.

In 2011, when an MIT senior named John Romanishin proposed a new design for modular robots to his robotics professor, Daniela Rus, she said, “That can’t be done.”

Two years later, Rus showed her colleague Hod Lipson, a robotics researcher at Cornell University, a video of prototype robots, based on Romanishin’s design, in action. “That can’t be done,” Lipson said. Continue reading »

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Sep 12

Reported by Tanya Lewis, in Wired Science, 05 Sep. 2012.

Walking on a treadmill is no great feat, unless your legs are being moved by a robotic device connected to your brain.

A new brain-computer interface allows a person to walk using a pair of mechanical leg braces controlled by brain signals (above), as reported on arXiv. The device has only been tested on able-bodied people, and while it has limitations, it lays a foundation for helping people with paralysis walk again. Continue reading »

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Sep 03

Reported by Cordis EU TEchnology Marketplace, 30 Aug. 2012.

© Biotact project

Inspired by the twitching whiskers of common rats and Etruscan shrews, EU-funded researchers have developed rodent-like robots and an innovative tactile sensor system that could be used to help find people in burning buildings, make vacuum cleaners more efficient and eventually improve keyhole surgery.

Sensor systems that replicate the sense of touch have been the focus of increasing research in recent years, largely for robotics applications. But the focus has normally been on developing sensors that in some way or another replicate the way humans touch and sense the world: with our skin and particularly our fingertips. Continue reading »
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Mar 01

Reported by , in Wired Science, 27 Feb. 2012.

In the movie Fantastic Voyage, a crack surgical team is miniaturized inside a ship. Their mission: to destroy a blood clot in the brain of a Soviet-era informant.

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Dec 16

Reported byPeter Reuell, PhysOrg, and Harvard Magazine, 15 Dec. 2011.

What do you think of when you hear the word “robot”? If you’re like most folks, you probably imagine something like Gort from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” — a lumbering metal machine designed to resemble a human.

When the “body” of the robot is inflated, it arches; when the “legs” are inflated, the robot stands up. Sequential pressurization and depressurization of the legs allows the robot to walk to a barrier (a glass plate). Deflation of the body decreases the height of the robot, and a different sequence of actuation of the legs gives it a kind of undulatory motion, and allows it to wiggle under the barrier. Once on the other side, re-inflation of the body allows it to resume its walk. Image courtesy of George Whitesides

Whitesides, the Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor, and his research team have developed an array of “soft” robots based on natural forms, including squid and starfish. Whitesides envisions using the pneumatically powered robots to aid disaster recovery efforts by squeezing into the rubble left by an earthquake to locate survivors, or as a way to free up a surgeon’s hands in the operating room. The work is described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) this month.

“If you look around, most robots are things that either look like humans, or like parts of humans,” Whitesides said. “The robots that work on automobile assembly lines are just the upper half of a human being that’s bolted to the ground.

“There are all kinds of animals, however, that do things in very different ways, and those creatures have not been looked at carefully because we have gotten fixed on a particular point of view,” Whitesides continued. “The key to this research is that we asked the question, ‘Why can’t we do something that’s squidlike?’”

Inspired by natural forms, Whitesides’ team went to work, eventually building starfish- and squidlike robots capable of surprisingly delicate operations such as picking up a raw egg without breaking the shell.

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Nov 27

Reported by Matt Nixon, University of Michigan News, 22 Nov. 2011.

Research conducted at the University of Michigan College of Engineering may lead to the use of insects to monitor hazardous situations before sending in humans.

Professor Khalil Najafi, the chair of electrical and computer engineering, and doctoral student Erkan Aktakka are finding ways to harvest energy from insects, and take the utility of the miniature cyborgs to the next level.

“Through energy scavenging, we could potentially power cameras, microphones and other sensors and communications equipment that an insect could carry aboard a tiny backpack,” Najafi said. “We could then send these ‘bugged’ bugs into dangerous or enclosed environments where we would not want humans to go.”

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Oct 05

Reported by Danielle Venton, in Wired Science, September 26, 2011.

Swarms of flying robots, flocking autonomously like birds, have taken to the air near Lake Geneva, Switzerland.

At Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale’s Laboratory of Intelligence Systems in Lausanne, Sabine Hauert, Severin Leven and Dario Floreano have found a way to make small, fixed-wing machines fly together, migrate and avoid crashing. The swarms can be used for imaging and mapping the ground. In the future they may fly on search and surveillance missions.

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May 22

Reported by Brandon Keim , May 4, 2011, in Wired Science.

Robots in a Swiss laboratory have evolved to help each other, just as predicted by a classic analysis of how self-sacrifice might emerge in the biological world.

“Over hundreds of generations … we show that Hamilton’s rule always accurately predicts the minimum relatedness necessary for altruism to evolve,” wrote researchers led by evolutionary biologist Laurent Keller of Switzerland’s University of Lausanne in Public Library of Science Biology. The findings were published May 3.

Hamilton’s rule is named after biologist W.D. Hamilton who in 1964 attempted to explain how ostensibly selfish organisms could evolve to share their time and resources, even sacrificing themselves for the good of others. His rule codified the dynamics — degrees of genetic relatedness between organisms, costs and benefits of sharing — by which altruism made evolutionary sense. According to Hamilton, relatedness was key: Altruism’s cost to an individual would be outweighed by its benefit to a shared set of genes.

In some ways, the rule and its accompanying theory of kin selection is contested. Some scientists have used it to extrapolate too easily from insects to people, and some researchers think it overstates the importance of relatedness. But a more fundamental issue with Hamilton’s rule is the difficulty of testing it in natural systems, where animals evolve at a far slower pace than any research grant cycle.

Simulations of evolution in robots, which can “reproduce” in mere minutes or hours, have thus become a potentially useful system for studying evolutionary dynamics. And though simple in comparison to animals, Keller’s group says robot models are not too different from the insects that originally inspired Hamilton.

In the new study, inch-long wheeled robots equipped with infrared sensors were programmed to search for discs representing food, then push those discs into a designated area. At the end of each foraging round, the computerized “genes” of successful individuals were mixed up and copied into a fresh generation of robots, while less-successful robots disappeared from the gene pool.

Each robot was also given a choice between sharing points awarded for finding food, thus giving other robots’ genes a chance of surviving, or hoarding. In different iterations of the experiment, the researchers altered the costs and benefits of sharing; they found that, again and again, the robots evolved to share at the levels predicted by Hamilton’s equations.

“A fundamental principle of natural selection also applies to synthetic organisms,” wrote the researchers. “These experiments demonstrate the wide applicability of kin selection theory.”

Reference: “A Quantitative Test of Hamilton’s Rule for the Evolution of Altruism.” By Waibel M, Floreano D, Keller L. PLoS Biology, Vol. 9 No. 5, May 3, 2011

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Feb 09

Reported by Kyle VanHemert in Gizmodo, Feb 9, 2011.

At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, scientists are building RoboEarth, a sort of Wikipedia for robots that will let them independently share instructions for tasks they’ve mastered. Needless to say, Oh shit!

Dr Markus Waibel, a RoboEarth researcher, explains that a lack of standardization is keeping robots isolated and largely ineffective at actually helping humans in day to day life. RoboEarth would be a communication system and database for robots to upload, exchange, and download knowledge on a variety of topics. It could teach them how to clean up, say, or how to set the table. The RoboEarth site outlines the scope of the project:

RoboEarth will include everything needed to close the loop from robot to RoboEarth to robot. The RoboEarth World-Wide-Web style database will be implemented on a Server with Internet and Intranet functionality. It stores information required for object recognition (e.g., images, object models), navigation (e.g., maps, world models), tasks (e.g., action recipes, manipulation strategies) and hosts intelligent services (e.g., image annotation, offline learning).

“They key,” Dr. Waibel told the BBC, “is allowing robots to share knowledge. That’s really new.”

RoboEarth Diagram

The four-year project is funded by the European Union and currently employing 35 researchers. So far, they’ve been successful in getting robots to upload updated maps of locations, download a handful of descriptions of tasks and execute them.

Now, Kyle VanHemert knows, getting all alarmist about a robot uprising is kinda getting old at this point, but this does seem a little bit worrisome! Surely all sorts of protocols will be in place to prevent, you know, undesirable tasks from getting disseminated (from the “mess up my human owner’s apartment!” robo-prank to the “tear my human owner limb from limb!” potentiality), but he is still not sure he likes the idea of his Roomba being able to download the knowledge of robot hivemind over my Wi-Fi connection. He has got torrents to download. [BBC via RoboEarth]

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