Going All Soft For "This Week In Bots"


Asimov wrote "a robot may not injure a human being, or through inactivity allow a human being to come to harm," but some of our robotic war machines are already challenging that. As a counterpoint, let's take a look at the bots that were created to help care for us. The softer side of bots, if you will. 

The Rescue Octobot

As part of a broader European research initiative into building a full-body octopus robot (why?...why not!) Italian researchers have made a breakthrough in producing an artificial robotic arm that's unlike most you've seen before: It's a pseudopod! The idea is that the amazing gripping powers and incredible flexibility of an octopus tentacle would be extremely useful for many kinds of robot manipulators. The trick was to build the arm out of softish silicone and embed steel and nylon cables inside it.

Ultimately, octobots could be hugely useful in search and rescue operations in watery environments—being able to maneuver into very cramped spaces, and grasp and maneuver (firmly but gently) anyone who needed rescuing.

An early prototype is shown here:

The Soft-Skinned Robot

Most android robots, unlike octobot, tend to be hard things made of plastic and metal. This causes problems when they have to operate in human environments, where our own softer bodies are at risk of injury when something goes wrong. Which is where Japanese robotics startup Touchence enters the story: They've designed a synthetic skin, called ShokacCube, which is actually a touch-sensor embedded in a soft pliable material. Strapping it to the outside of the robot's body acts as a cushion to protect anything the robot impacts (and the robot itself) while also providing touch feedback data smart enough to detect if you're stroking it or pinching it.

The most obvious implementation would be in health care robotics, where robots will interact and in some cases move patients around in hospital care situations.

The Nurse Bot

In the future, nursing robots may do many things in hospitals—perhaps even administer medication to patients. But to start, the earliest implementations may involve helping the social needs of patients, making them feel less isolated. One way to do this is via telepresence, and that's roughly what iRobot is getting into with a newly announced partnership with InTouch Health. InTouch already operates in the telepresence telemedicine game, and with iRobot's success in other markets the two firms really could make a big impact. 

Work will center on the iRobot Ava "mobile robotics platform" and most likely result in a sophisticated robot able to roam around and allow a remotely located doctor to interact with a patient via webcam-like chats. In terms of bringing specialist advice to patients from far away, this could be revolutionary...but it's also easy to imagine Ava roaming the wards at night, allowing nursing staff to check in on patients.

The Jedi Lightsaber Bot

We couldn't do a whole "Week in Bots" without showing a cool, more menacing robot in action—so here's some research into smart robot arm movements by Stanford researchers, and their experimental robotics course. JediBot is designed to use pre-defined attack patterns, and when it detects an impact it'll react to move its sword out of the way, which is challenging compared to the usual precise movements of robot arms. In a defensive mode, the robot sees the attacker and sword using Microsoft Kinect, in order to work out the best defensive moves to make.

Fun! Until you remember how deadly Star Wars' droid commander General Grievous was... 

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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  • Frank Tobe

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    Hi Kit,

    I thought your current This Week in Bots was right on the mark when you wrote about the partnership between InTouch Health and iRobot and their AVA.  I too have been tracking this development on my site, The Robot Report.

    The recent partnership between iRobot and their AVA device and InTouch Health with their telepresence robots already at work in 400 hospital systems is a perfect matchup from where I'm sitting. Downsizing InTouch's device and turning it into a cheaper AVA-like one will make everyone happy, cost less, sell for less, sell more and thereby provide an even better service to patients, hospital staff and doctors and, if possible, bring jobs to America. [As an aside, I met Colin Angle, iRobot's CEO, in Lyon, at a conference, earlier this year, we talked about his AVA and Santa Barbara's InTouch Health and telepresence in general and iRobot's desire to expand into the healthcare biz.]

    There's an interesting discussion going on in the IEEE Robotics and Automation group on LinkedIn:


    It's particularly relevant because Henrik Christensen is giving information - insider info - about the new National Robotics Initiative. He has been almost a robotics mentor to me (even though he's younger) and is well-connected in this AMP and NRI process. Which is why I think it's relevant for your next This Week in Bots column.

    Finally, another story suggestion for your column is a piece I wrote as a comment on the same discussion group:

    I think this is where American innovation and entrepreneurial skills can jumpstart a new industry from one that has passed us by. And that appears to be the goal of the NRI - to revitalize and refocus (target) the research that must happen to get things moving.

    People think that robots are those things that make cars and that they are manufactured in Germany and Japan - which is true. But what they are missing is the whole other category we call "service robotics." This category includes everything except industrial robots... unmanned aerial and ground vehicles, underwater devices, embedded systems, single purpose devices (think Roomba), telepresence robots, agricultural robots, food processing robots, factory and personal assistants, tutors, security/surveillance devices, etc. Most importantly, there is no dominent nation with an edge in service robotics. It's happening all over the world. But America is somewhat in the lead at present - and with this stimulus from DC - this National Robotics Initiative - things could happen faster.


    Frank Tobe

    The Robot Report (www.therobotreport.com)

    Tracking the business of robotics

    Blog: Everything-Robotic (www.everything-robotic.com)

    Santa Barbara, CA

    (805) 895-4141

    PS: I tried keaton@fastcompany.com which didn't work.  What's your correct email address (if you don't mind)?