This Week In Bots: Dogs Of War

warrior irobot

Alpha Dog: Goes "Hi Ho," Romps Over Hills

If you're any sort of fan of robotics, you'll know about Boston Dynamics' Big Dog and Alpha Dog--research prototype robots that will be used to inform the design of a genuine military support quadruped robot. Now DARPA has just taken Alpha Dog out into the wild to put it through some grueling tests:

The tests include hauling 400 pounds of cargo over 20 miles during a 24-hour window without needing refueling--exactly the sort of automated troop-following tasks that will make its military-grade offspring incredibly useful in what may be a surprisingly small number of years.

iRobot: New War Machine

iRobot is probabaly familiar to you as the maker of the Roomba and Scooba robots that keep floors clean and mopped, but the company also has a military robot line--a line that's just been boosted with the reveal of the Warrior 710 robot.

An evolution of earlier designs, the robot is a remote-operated machine so it's no match for Alpha Dog's artificially intelligent systems. But the 710 may be more immediately useful than the research droid because it's designed mainly to tackle the inspection and destruction of IEDs. Just like a real soldier is trained to be highly capable in a number of tasks, though, the 710 can actually achieve different goals by having its manipulator arm and tools changed out. The arm, to give you an example, is powerful and dextrous enough to open a car door--thereby making the robot ideal for tackling one type of IED that's been the scourge of troops in Afghanistan.

HeatBot: It Heats

The Automaton blog suggests this robot may be your best friend in the cold snap much of the world is currently experiencing--and looking at its design we're inclined to agree. It's not cuddly, fluffy, or Snuggie-like in any way, but it is warm. Hagent is a prototype right now, put together by two German roboticists, but even the early version is impressive. It's essentially a sensor-equipped mobile mass of phase-change material (PCM). PCM works how it sounds like it does--when it's exposed to thermal energy it changes phase and thus stores the energy inside its bulk, ready to change phase back when the temperature drops and thus release heat (think of those squidgy crystal hand warmers, but cleverer).

Hagent's sensors let it seek out a source of heat like an oven or a fireplace and then it sits there while the PCM inside it captures energy. Having done so, its sensors then let it follow you around the place as it gently emits its stored heat, meaning you may not have to turn on as much local heating if you move from room to room. Awesomely friendly behavior. And on a really chilly day, you may even feel inclined to cuddle the thing--sharp corners and all.

Facebots: Copying Your Expressions

FloBi is a research robot that's been in development for quite some time at CITEC Bielfield--but the team there has just added a sweet new technology that really transforms it: Facial motion capture. FloBi is actually an anthropomorphic robot, you see, designed to replicate the subtle movements of a real human face in robotic form.

The new motion capture tech is pretty simple, consisting of a single helmet-mounted camera to record the wearer's facial expressions, and a sensor suite to let it work out how the wearer is moving their head. Having captured this data, the system can either play it back on a 3-D simulated head as shown in this video, or have the robot itself copy the expressions in physical form. 

Before you dismiss the notion as cute but trivial, this tech may soon be vital for making your interactions with robotic tech more relaxed because the artificial face you're dealing with has subtle and believable human characteristics. That's true for online robotic avatars (think Apple's Siri evolved about 10 generations, able to assist you when you call a customer service line, for example) or for real robots used in sensitive environments like hospital rooms.

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

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