National Robotics Week delights kids

Greg Nichols for ZDNet:  The seventh annual National Robotics Week, which kicks off this week, will see more than 250 events take place across all 50 states.

It's a pretty cool time to celebrate robots. A new generation of small, relatively inexpensive, and highly collaborative industrial robots brought new levels of automation to light industry last year. Home robots, in the form of vacuums and lawn mowers, continue to do well in sales, and drones--technically flying robots--are everywhere. I'm literally watching one fly over a park near my house as I write.

New kinds of bots are also making early strides. Companies like Savioke are bringing robots to hotels and others likeRevolve Robotics and Double are connecting people via affordable embodied telepresence--especially people whose disabilities prevent them from traveling to school or work.  Cont'd...

Robotics makes baby steps toward solving Japan's child care shortage

Roy Bishop for The Japan Times:  Child care is a hard job, but somebody, or something, has got to do it.

Japanese researchers have developed androids to meet that need, which includes happily reading that fairy tale again and again and again.

The androids, which were created by a team of education and robotics specialists at a research facility in Abiko, Chiba Prefecture, are part of a larger system called RoHo Care. Short for Robotic Hoikujo (day care center), RoHo is being touted as a high-tech solution to the staffing crisis that forced the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry to announce emergency measures this week.

“I never thought I’d see this day, but we’re now confident that RoHo could blaze a trail for child care worldwide,” said team leader Makoto Hara.

At a briefing on Thursday, Hara introduced a “care-droid” prototype named Or-B, the core component of RoHo’s vision for day care assistance, and said it will undergo a trial run this summer before full-scale implementation in 2018.  Cont'd...

Cafe X Robotic Barista

From LAUNCH Festival 2016:  CafeX unveils fully automated robotic cafe at Launch Festival; companion iOS & Android app will allow users to order drinks prior to arrival; works w/ local coffee growers in ea mkt; cafe is ~60 sq ft & is open 24 hrs/day.


Amazon Hosted A Secretive Robotics Conference In Florida

Michael Grothaus for FastCompany:  Amazon hosted a secret robotics conference in Palm Springs, Florida last weekend, reports Bloomberg. The conference, dubbed "MARS," which stands for "Machine-Learning (Home) Automation, Robotics and Space Exploration," was an invite-only event held at the Parker Palm Springs that brought together experts in the fields of robotics, artificial intelligence, space exploration, and home automation.

Amazon has not publicly commented on the conference, but reports on social media from attendees leaked its existence. Bloomberg notes that the conference hosted some big names, including film director Ron Howard and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. The event was also attended by a number of academics from MIT, the University of California at Berkeley, and ETH Zurich, sources told Bloomberg. Also in attendance were some CEOs and representatives from companies including Rethink Robotics, Toyota Motor Corp., and iRobot.  Cont'd...

Google Puts Boston Dynamics Up for Sale in Robotics Retreat

Brad Stone and Jack Clark for Bloomberg Business:  The video, published to YouTube on Feb. 23, was awe-inspiring and scary. A two-legged humanoid robot trudges through the snow, somehow maintaining its balance. Another robot with two arms and pads for hands crouches down and lifts a brown box and delicately places it on a shelf -- then somehow stays upright while a human tries to push it over with a hockey stick. A third robot topples over and clambers back to its feet with ease.

Tens of millions of people viewed the video over the next few weeks. Google and the division responsible for the video, Boston Dynamics, were seemingly pushing the frontier in robot technology. 

But behind the scenes a more pedestrian drama was playing out. Executives at Google parent Alphabet Inc., absorbed with making sure all the various companies under its corporate umbrella have plans to generate real revenue, concluded that Boston Dynamics isn’t likely to produce a marketable product in the next few years and have put the unit up for sale, according to two people familiar with the company’s plans.

Possible acquirers include the Toyota Research Institute, a division of Toyota Motor Corp., and Inc., which makes robots for its fulfillment centers, according to one person. Google and Toyota declined to comment, and Amazon didn’t respond to requests for comment.  Full Article:

18 months since the toolkit's release, soft robotics is flying

Gordon Hunt for SiliconRepublic:  Pioneered in Ireland by the likes of Dr Dónal Holland, with a plethora of departments in Harvard University in the US involved, the Soft Robotics Toolkit has gone on to foster significant interest in an area exploding into the mainstream.

More than 76,000 people have engaged with the service since it was created, represented across 150 different countries, with the toolkit identified as having made one of the most significant contributions to the development of the nascent industry to date.

While robotics engineering used to focus much more attention on creating the rigid, hard-bodied prototypes like Bender from Futurama, for example, lately there has been a push towards soft, malleable structures that take their inspiration from nature.  Cont'd...

Carnegie Mellon robotics selected for research projects totaling more than $11 million

Carnegie Mellon University's National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) has been selected as a prime contractor or subcontractor on four major new federal research projects totaling more than $11 million over the next three years. The projects range from research on a wheel that can transform into a track to automated stress testing for critical software. 
Herman Herman, NREC director, said the center has hired 10 new technical staff members in the past six months and anticipates hiring another five-to-10 staff members in the coming months to augment its existing staff of about 100. 

"For the past 20 years, NREC has been an important national resource, combining unique technical skills and testing capabilities to solve problems that other groups can't," said Martial Hebert, director of CMU's Robotics Institute, which includes the NREC. "These new projects are a reminder that NREC continues to advance the art and science of robotics and that it remains a vital part of Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute."   Full Press Release:

Artificial Skin That Glows, Stretches Could Change Robotics?

By Brendan Byrne for ValueWalk:  Researchers at Cornell University have developed an electronic artificial skin that doesn’t mind being stretched to 500% its original size (cell phone), glows in the dark and can move a bit like a worm.

In a paper published yesterday in the journal Science, a team of researchers showed off glowing electric skin that could be put to use in future wearables. While artificial skin that responds to commands has been done before, electronics embedded in the skin have generally broken when stretched. However, the team seems to have leaped over this hurdle by using hyperelastic, light-emitting capacitor (HLEC) technology.

“It’s actually much, much, much more stretchable than human skin or octopus skin,” says Chris Larson, a doctoral candidate and researcher in Cornell’s Organic Robotics Lab. “In terms of texture, it’s actually more like a rubber band or a balloon.”

While Larson freely admits that he doesn’t know much about cephalopods, the team was inspired by biology, specifically, the octopus beak with its ability to both move and stretch.

“The researchers created a three-chamber robot from the material, with the newly developed ‘skin’ layers on top, and inflatable layers below that allow movement,” according to a release from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “As the chambers expand linearly, the robot moves forward with a worm-like wiggle.”  Cont'd...

Would you buy meat from a robot butcher?

Greg Nichols for The Kernel:  In an era when hunks of cow and pig are packaged and distributed like Amazon Prime parcels, butchering has retained a surprising degree of its old-world craftsmanship. Workers armed with knives and hooks anachronistically slice flesh from bone the same way they have for hundreds of years. That’s because cutting meat—be it on an assembly line or in a niche shop in Santa Monica, California, or Brooklyn, New York—is a skill that requires exceptional dexterity, a good eye, and a honed tactile sense for texture and firmness. Industrial robots may be perfectly suited to welding chassis and painting cars, but they don’t have the touch to cut a succulent T-bone steak.

That’s likely to change. JBS, one of the country’s largest meat processors, recently acquired a controlling share of Scott Technology, a New Zealand-based robotics firm. Now JBS is looking at ways to automate its facilities. Robots don’t sleep, don’t collect overtime, and don’t suffer the horrific repetitive stress injuries that plague meat workers. Meat is already packed using machines, and if engineers can figure out how to make automated systems that approximate the deft hands of a butcher, there’s little question giants like JBS, Cargill, and Tyson will replace many of their line workers with robots. In the next decade, adroit robots that can see, feel, and move like humans may finally kill off the butcher.  Cont'd...

Atlas, The Next Generation

From Boston Dynamics:  A new version of Atlas, designed to operate outdoors and inside buildings. It is specialized for mobile manipulation. It is electrically powered and hydraulically actuated. It uses sensors in its body and legs to balance and LIDAR and stereo sensors in its head to avoid obstacles, assess the terrain, help with navigation and manipulate objects. This version of Atlas is about 5' 9" tall (about a head shorter than the DRC Atlas) and weighs 180 lbs.

SoftBank's Pepper Robots to Staff Tokyo Cell Phone Store

BY ANGELA MOSCARITOLO for PCMAG:  SoftBank is giving its Pepper robot a new job with some big responsibilities.  The Japanese telecom giant is planning to open a cell phone store in Tokyo this spring staffed primarily by Pepper robots, according to a report from The Japan Times. About five to six Pepper robots will run the store from March 28 through April 3, and be responsible for helping customers and making sales.  "I don't know how this will turn out, but it should be a quite interesting experiment," SoftBank CEO Ken Miyauchi told the newspaper.  The robots will be able to answer questions about different cell phone options, and when someone's ready to buy, they'll even attempt to complete the sale. SoftBank does plan to have humans at the ready to handle tasks Pepper can't yet do — like checking customer IDs when drawing up a new contract.  Cont'd...


Adam Fabio for Hackaday:  [Kevin Harrington] loves robots, but hates reinventing the wheel every time he creates a new machine. He’s built BowlerStudio: A robotics development platform to combat this problem. BowlerStudio was asemifinalist in the 2015 Hackaday Prize. BowlerStudio is a soup-to-nuts platform for creating all sorts of robots. [Kevin] has integrated Computer Aided Design (CAD), 3D modeling, kinematics, machine vision, and a simulation engine complete with physics modeling into one whopper of a software package. To prove how versatile the system is, he designed a hexapod robot in the CAD portion of the program. The robot then taught itself to walk in the simulation. Once the design was 3D printed, the real robot walked right off the bread board. [Kevin] linked the hardware and software with DyIO, another of his projects.

BowlerStudio is a huge boon for just about any robotics hacker, as well as educators. An entire curriculum could be created around the system. Thanks to its Java roots, BowlerStudio is also a multi-platform. [Kevin] has binaries ready to go for Windows, Mac, and Ubuntu.  Cont'd...

Experts At Davos Say Weaponized Artificial Intelligence Robots Are Dangerous

Matt Dayo for STGist:  This may sound like science fiction, or the plot of a Marvel movie, but AFP is reporting that scientists and arms experts in attendance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland have issued a dire warning saying that robots with advanced artificial intelligence (or AI robots) could one day join wars and kill many people.

A former United Nations Disarmament Affairs representative, Angela Kane, has told a forum in Davos that there are many countries that don’t understand what is involved and the development of such technology is limited to a certain number of rich and advanced nations.

Kane and other experts at the debate say rules must be agreed to prevent the development of these killer AI robots.  But at one point during the debate, Kane said “it may be too late.”  Cont'd...

A problem-solving approach IT workers should learn from robotics engineers

Greg Nichols  for ZDNet:  Google-owned Boston Dynamics got some bad news in the final days of 2015.  After years of development and intensive field trials, the Massachusetts-based robotics company learned that the U.S. Marines had decided to reject its four-legged robotic mule, Big Dog. The reason? The thing is too damn noisy for combat, where close quarters and the occasional need for stealth make excess machine noise a liability.

The setback reminded me of a story another group of robotics engineers told me about the development of their breakthrough machine, a robotic exoskeleton that enables paraplegics to walk and soldiers to hump heavy packs without wearing down. It also reminded me of a powerful approach to solving problems and dealing with setbacks that I've encountered again and again reporting on robotics.

Ekso Bionics, which went public in 2015, invented the first viable untethered exoskeleton, one that doesn't need to be plugged into an external power source. Their achievement rests on one engineering breakthrough in particular, and to arrive at it Ekso's engineers had to do something that's surprisingly difficult but incredibly instructive for non-engineers--they had to change the way they thought about their problem.  Cont'd...


Robotics, reshoring, and American jobs

By Charles Orlowek for The Hill:  Good news?   Boston Consulting Group foresees more large manufacturers boosting production for the American market by adding capacity in the U.S. itself, compared with any other country.  It cites “decreasing costs and improved capabilities of advanced manufacturing technologies such as robotics."  Under this optimistic scenario, how much value would American workers add?  When robotics and other automation gets built for, and installed in American workplaces, where are jobs created?   

Increasingly, these jobs are being created and sustained outside the United States, even for domestic factories.   

The first industrial robots were developed and manufactured by Americans, and General Motors became the first user, in 1961.  Over recent decades, however, the domestic robot industry has declined.   A Commerce Department national security assessment from 1991 asserted that American robot manufacturers lost market share throughout the 1980s, with shipments of U.S.-manufactured robots falling by 33 percent between 1984 and 1989, despite robust domestic demand and a weak dollar.   Cont'd...

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