This Week In Bots: Robots In Space, The Sack, And Other Challenging Places

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Bot Vid: The Naval Robot That Fights Fires

The Navy has a big plan to put smart gesture-controlled bipedla firebots onto ships. These droids are able to scramble through compartments designed for human access, so they'd be invaluable in a crisis, and they can handle fires that humans cannot. The plan needs much research, and the Octavia bot shows a step along the way. It's a wheeled bot with a freakish face but which can respond to human commands and also recognize and tackle fires. The shiny-helmeted firebot of the future will look very different than this, but will definitely use some of its skills.

Bot Vid: How The World Looks Through Robo-Eyes

The robots we're building now incorporate many different kinds of machine vision systems to let them "see" the world, and, frankly, it's not the kind of thing you may imagine if you've seen too much Terminator. As a demonstration of what the world looks like to today's crop of bots, filmmaker Timo Arnall has put together a mashup of the machine vision feeds of a number of robots. The clip should help you realize what a phenomenally difficult task machine vision is--making Octavia, the firebot's responses more impressive.

Bot Vid: DIY Teacher Bot

Big, complex robots often seem to be the exclusive domain of researchers or corporations with money to burn...but that's not always true. Entrepreneur and robo-engineer Dan Mathias is an old hand at building robots, and he's just revealed the latest: Kate 1.0 ("Kid's Avatar Teacher and Entertainer). The nearly four-foot-tall machine was conceived partly as a way for overseas military personnel to communicate with their families back home, and also as an edutainment vehicle for youngsters. It's got stereoscopic vision, an Android tablet for Skypeing, and uses a Kinect sensor for situational awareness. Proof that imagination is still vital in the robot game.

Bot News

Qbo on sale. Qbo has popped up in This Week in Bots a fair amount, because the diminutive little bot seems ideally suited for research and development processes, and the team behind it at The Corpora have tried some clever tricks--like teaching Qbo's to recognize themselves in a mirror. Now the machine is officially on sale, and it's priced reasonably in a world where research robots can cost tens of tousands. The intro kit, free of electronics, is just around $650. Qbo Lite is fully assembled, running Linux and ROS and costs $2,200. The Pro edition has a bigger processor and storage and more powerful actuators for $3,000.

Robot Asteroid Mining, The Next X-prize? A startup in Seattle is due to reveal its mission next week, but bits of information are leaking out. It seems to be destined to develop robotic space missions to explore our solar system, and in particular to travel to asteroids and dig into them in order to better understand their composition (and eventually, mine them for profit). The list of funders and advisers is impressive, including James Cameron and Google's Larry Page. The fact that Peter Diamandis, X-Prize head honco, is listed as chairman of the company has many tongues wagging.

Robot Sex. New Zealand researchers have stirred up a big debate around a very controversial topic: Sexual relations between humans and robots. In their paper called "Robots, Men and Sex Tourism" there's discussion of the notion of robotic prostitution as a fence against STDs, human trafficking, and underage prostitution...and a frank admission that the sex industry does make money flow. The authors argue that the current open acceptance of sex toys (which are themselves getting smarter) and robotic advances will converge in about 30 years, and our attitudes to the question of robot sex will adapt just as swiftly (something anime has been doing for a while, with the top image from a Ghost In The Shell film).

Bot Futures: Exploring Space Will Be More A Job For Commander Data Than Captain Picard

As NASA's efforts to get humans into space aboard its own vehicles develop, and commercial space systems that could quickly turn into manned space systems advance (like SpaceX's upcoming docking opportunity at the ISS), human spaceflight is in the limelight. It's a matter of pride, and of inspiration--with astronauts' existence known to interest people in general science as well as just space. And humans are better at coping with the unexpected than our robotic tools are. But simultaneously there's an effort by NASA to develop Robonaut, with the silver-faced chap even this week flexing his muscles aboard the ISS. Ultimately Robonaut will undertake some of the external spacewalking duties of astronauts. 

And thus there's a discussion going on at the moment, relating to the future of space exploration. Many people are pushing for human exploration missions--returning to the moon, and possibly even pushing on to Mars (with Buzz Aldrin, original moonman himself, keen that a permanent base be established on one of Mars' moons).

But the counterarguments are compelling. They start with space-borne radiation, because we're fragile sacks of flesh really and the exposure to radiation in space can injure and kill us. A Mars-bound human mission could, for example, encounter a burst of radiation strong enough to be lethal if a solar flare erupted in its path with too high an intensity. Human life is also complicated to sustain, and our longevity is also an issue when it comes to longer-term missions (such as to Jupiter).

So it seems that the relentless push to develop humanoid (and non-humanoid) robots for use on Earth will have equally important implications off Earth. And the next generation of astronauts may actually end up being spacedroids.

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

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