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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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Medical Robotics

NIH Funds UMB Brain Surgery Robot

Posted 15 Nov 2012 at 19:34 UTC by steve

According to a University of Maryland news release the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a $2 million grant to UMD and UMB to further their development of a tiny surgical robot that would assist neurosurgeons in the removal of hard to reach brain tumors. The robot is known as the Minimally Invasive Neurosurgical Intracranial Robot (MINIR) and has been under development at the Robotics Automation & Medical System Laboratory for a number of years. The MINIR Prototype has been tested while under continuous magnetic resonance imaging. The grant will allow the development of a second-generation prototype, MINIR-II. From the MINIR website:

"We envision MINIR to be under the direct control of a human operator, with targeting information obtained exclusively from frequently-updated MRI. MINIR will be fully MRI compatible, so that frequently-updated MRI can be used to provide virtual visualization of the target by the human operator as the target's 3-dimensional shape changes during tumor removal."

As seen in the rendering above, the MINIR robot will fit inside the MRI scanner with the patient, allowing surgery to be done while the patient remains in the MRI machine. For all the details, you can check out the paper, "Toward a Meso-Scale SMA-Actuated MRI-Compatible Neurosurgical Robot" (PDF format). Other papers about the MINIR robot may be found on the MINIR project webpage. Read on to see photos and video of the earliest MINIR prototype in action.

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OLinuXino Nano-ITX Open Hardware SBC

Posted 14 Nov 2012 at 17:03 UTC by steve

Move over, Raspberry Pi, there's another open hardware single board computer (SBC) out to win your hearts and minds. The weirdly named Olimex OLinuXino is making the news today on PCWorld, Slashdot, and FreeIO. The OLinuXino sounds like it might be Xenu's computer of choice. But in reality, it's a Nano-ITX with a 1 GHz ARM A13 Cortex A8 CPU with 3D Mali400 GPU. No word yet on whether there's source for the Mali400 GPU driver but a free software driver project called Lima exists. The board has 512MB of RAM, VGA out, SD slot, USB, audio in/out, a Real time clock, a UEXT connector that supports modules with Zigbee and bluetooth. It also has some GPIO pins, 3 I2C, 2 UARTs. Like many ARM SBCs, it lacks any A/D or D/A, which may be problematic for robotics users. But with the addition of an Arduino to handle I/O, this might make an interesting robotics controller. The board can run a variety of GNU/Linux distros like debian and can also run the Linux-based Android distro used on most mobile devices. Cost for all this open hardware goodness? About $57 USD.

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Military Robotics

DARPA Working on Sub-stalking Robots

Posted 13 Nov 2012 at 17:33 UTC by steve

A DARPA program is developing autonomous underwater robots that will stalk submarines and continuously report their location and movements. In particular, these robots will look for the quiet diesel submarines that are becoming more common and perceived as a threat to both military and civilian maritime activity. Russian and France are selling these inexpensive ($200-$300 million) submarines like crazy to anyone who wants them and at least 40 nations now own and operate them including tiny countries like Venezuela. From DARPA's news release, program manager Scott Littlefield says:

“Key features and technology for the vessel include advanced software, robust autonomy for safe operations in accordance with maritime laws, and innovative sensors to continuously track the quietest of submarine targets. Our goal is to transition an operational game-changer to the Navy. This should create an asymmetry to our advantage, negating a challenging submarine threat at one-tenth their cost of building subs."

DAPRA calls the robots Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessels (ACTUV). In August DARPA awarded a $58 million, 3 year contract to Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). Yesterday, CMU NREC announced they'd been selected as part of a team assembled by SAIC to build and test the ACTUV robot.

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Reasoning Without Language

Posted 12 Nov 2012 at 17:33 UTC by steve

An interesting 2009 paper by Ronaldo Vigo and Colin Allen has been released online, titled How to reason without words: inference as categorization (PDF format). The paper takes on the common idea that reasoning is a singularly human activity that relies on our language-based conception of inference. The alternative model of reasoning presented in the paper could apply to nonhuman animals as well as to robots. From the introduction:

We describe an alternative framework that is capable of providing a unified approach to reasoning and the subsymbolic perceptual processes underlying similarity assessment, discrimination, and categorization. The framework is provided by the modal similarity theory (MST) of Vigo (2008), which we describe in ‘‘Modal similarity theory’’.

The paper looks at similarities and differences between the reasoning abilities of animals such as dogs and young human children. It then attempt to build a plausible case for how inference could be accomplished without language. An experiment involving similarity assessment of iconic images is described. A connection is drawn between similarity assessment and boolean operators. Finally they propose that reasoning is based on more fundamental, non-linguistic processes that include discrimination, categorization, and similarity assessment.

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Random Robot Roundup

Posted 10 Nov 2012 at 02:27 UTC (updated 10 Nov 2012 at 16:13 UTC) by steve

Purdue University received a $6 million grant to develop an autonomous agricultural robot capable of pruning grape vineyards and apple orchards. Let's hope the Purdue robot puts up a fence around the orchard to keep out the Robo-squirrels being developed at the University of California. UC is also advancing the state of the art in split-brain research. Other brain research this week includes an MIT study of what actually happens when the brain passes from consciousness to unconsciousness. A better understanding of the human brain may help researchers finally get artificial intelligence right - Noam Chomsky says they've been getting it wrong all this time. Poly Bug sent us a link to CIROS, a Korean humanoid robot who slices cucumbers and tosses salads. Franke Tobe of the Robot Report let us know about a new article he's posted about Eldercare Robots. And The Swirling Brain spotted an article describing a new method proposed by physicists that may finally settle the question of whether or not our reality is just a computer simulation. 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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Free Your Mind: The Return of FreeIO.org

Posted 9 Nov 2012 at 01:13 UTC by steve

Long-time readers will remember in the early 2000s we had frequent stories of open hardware board designs from a website called FreeIO.org. The FreeIO.org project was started by Diehl Martin, better known as Marty. He named all his boards after breakfast foods, which gave us the opportunity to write fun headlines like "Hot Grits for your Robot". Other boards were called Donut, Toast, Cornbread, Biscuit, Juice, and Flapjack. Schematics, CPLD source, CAD files, Gerber files, were all released under the GNU GPL. Marty's designs were also raised as an example when Jim Turley wrote his famously wrong prediction in 2002 that open source hardware would never become widespread. But in 2004, things slowed down when Marty announced he'd been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He continued to work on new boards until he posted his farewell message in 2006. Marty passed away in October of 2007. After that, the FreeIO.org project ground to a halt for a few years. But today, the FreeIO.org website was relaunched! From the announcement:

"The time has come to get things rolling again and I’m starting with a relaunch of the website. Marty’s free hardware designs are still here and hopefully we’ll find volunteers to work on new hardware projects to add. I’ll also start updating the resource pages to make them more useful again. Meanwhile, I’ve decided to make the site more immediately useful by aggregating all the free hardware and open hardware news, so members of the open hardware community can have one central place to find out what’s going on."

We're not sure where the website is headed in the future but we're glad to see FreeIO.org back online and look forward to using them as a reliable open hardware news source. They're already posting news updates from the major open hardware and free hardware organizations such as the Open Source Hardware User Group, the Open Source Hardware Association, and the Open Source Hardware and Design Alliance. Who knows, if we're lucky, maybe we can drum up support for an open source robot controller board!

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Robotdalen Innovation Award Competition

Posted 8 Nov 2012 at 16:29 UTC by steve

The 2013 Robotdalen Innovation Award Competition is now open for nominations. Do you have a robot that's innovative and has commercial potential? Does it have a sound theoretical foundation that has been translated into reality? Does it benefit the environment and society? If so, head on over to the Robotdalen award criteria and application page and fill out the form. If you win, you'll receive "hands-on help from the Swedish robotics initiative, Robotdalen, to further develop and commercialize [your] innovative robotics solutions". This is an international competition open to entrepreneurs, researchers, inventors, start-ups, robot developers, even students. Oh, and did we mention the winner also gets a €6,000 cash prize? You've got until January 13 to submit your application. Pictured above are the 2012 award winners. Photo by Terése Andersson. Read on to see videos of the 2012 event and the call for entries in 2013.

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Robots Reduce Cost of Science for USGS

Posted 7 Nov 2012 at 17:18 UTC (updated 7 Nov 2012 at 17:36 UTC) by steve

After a contentious election, the US Government will be returning to business as usual soon and one thing both sides agree on is that the cost of government needs to be reduced. A recent report by the US Geological Survey illustrates how robots are helping out with this problem. Airborne scientific observation missions can cost as much as $30,000 per hour. The USGS is replacing these expensive airborne data gathering missions with remotely piloted vehicles, or drones, which can complete an entire mission for $3,000. So far the USGS is using the Honeywell T-Hawk Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) and AeroVironment Raven RQ-11B. The Raven in particular has other advantages over manned missions besides cost. From the report:

The initial USGS mission in March 2011 studied the annual north-south migration of endangered sandhill cranes from Arizona through Colorado to Montana and Wyoming. The cranes fly north in the first part of February and spend much of each spring in Colorado’s San Luis Valley at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. Thermal cameras capturing images of the cranes at roost were used to determine population trends in collaboration with the FWS. “Because the Raven is small and quiet, it could fly low enough – 75 feet – to photograph the birds without disturbing them. Moreover, the mission cost only one-tenth of a conventional airborne survey"

Having proved that using robotic aircraft can dramatically reduce costs, the USGS is looking for other missions that can take advantage of the drones. They'll soon be replacing conventional aircraft in climate change studies, geophysical fault and fracture mapping missions, and other tasks. The USGS will team with NASA Ames Research Center to use the SIERRA UAS. They also hope to increase the autonomy of the planes, further reducing the need for expensive human interaction. Read on to see photos and video of the USGS drones in action.

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