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This image shows a scuff mark on Mars, deliberately made by the Curiosity rover so it can investigate the Martian surface material in its hunt for signs of life and water.

This Week In Bots: Digging For Moon Water, Droids Going Mobile, And Swarming RoboBees

We're getting to be more machine now than man and woman. (Yes, that was a gratuitous Obi-Wan nod just before the weekend. Got a problem with that?)

Bot Vid: NASA's Exoskeleton

Exoskeleton innovation is happening around the world for a couple of reasons--the first being military-related use. But a far gentler and more humane exoskeleton project has just been outlined by NASA, destined to help astronauts in space. The X1 is based on the tech behind NASA and General Motor's Robonaut android, and is said to be both more adaptable and easier to put on than older exoskeletons. Ultimately this sort of development will also help less-able-bodied people on Earth, perhaps even bringing walking mobility to those who cannot do so.

Bot Vid: Harvard's Bees

Micro-scale UAVs developed by Harvard have got much cleverer, the Automaton blog reports, and after five years of development needed to just help them get airborne, they can now be steered to a destination. Or at least they can, thanks to two new actuators that adjust the wings, pitch, and roll--two of the three primary flight commands of an aircraft. The team is now working on getting RoboBee to yaw under control too and then, when coupled with sensors, it may be ready to be a more autonomous drone (but not of the making-honey sort).

Bot Vid: Calligraphy Bot

If you're a fan of it, an artist or you simply remember the movie Hero, you'll know how complicated and beautiful Japanese calligraphy is to write even while it appears outwardly simple. With some Japanese worrying the art of writing is getting lost in the electronic age, a professor at Keio University has invented a motion-capturing robot that can copy and then repeat the brush strokes of a writer very accurately. Using his system, trained by a master calligrapher, may offer one route to ensuring the art doesn't slip into obscurity.

Bot News

Coralbots. Monitoring coral to study its growth or decline and the relationship these changes have with the environment is tricky, hence a new plan by scientists to team three different types of robot together to study coral--in a sort of Bot Thunderbirds effort. A UAV surveys the ocean region from the air, while communicating with the base station and the two water-based bots. A surface drone then does more position measuring and chats to the underwater drone which gathers high-resolution imaging of the coral from up close. Studies have shown the underwater drone to be far more efficient than human divers, so the whole plan may lead to a much better understanding of the threat to coral life.

Fukushima's robots rewarded. Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has an annual Robot Award program to honor advances in robot tech, and this week it chose to give two of the robots that worked to clean up the Fukushima nuclear disaster a prize. Quince and Rosemary, home-grown research machines, won the Special Award for Social Contribution.

Moon water on the brain. Astrobotic Technology, one of the private entrants into the Google Lunar X-Prize, has this week revealed its robot entrant in the competition to explore the Moon. The golf cart-sized Polaris rover has a four-foot-long drill which it will use to dig into the lunar regolith in the search for precious water resources...if it makes it to the surface of our nearest rocky space neighbor.

Bot Futures: Bots That Make It Up As They Go Along

There're reports this week that different teams are working on the sorts of sophisticated robots that one day, perhaps soon, will be able to help you perform as mundane (but as complex) a task as assembling your Ikea furniture. As the blog at the Smithsonian points out, Ikea itself already uses robots to mass-produce its furniture in the factory, and Stanford has a robot that can use a hammer and screwdriver to assemble a simple Ikea bookcase.

Clever though these sorts of developments are, they're more aligned with the kind of robotic innovations that are actually at work right now in car and computer plants around the world--rather than fully flexible, adaptable robots that will be far more useful in the home and workplace in the future.

For this sort of robotic cleverness--robots that essentially can decide what to do as they try to tackle a task, versus having the solutions pre-programmed in--we need to look at other more interesting innovations in robot tech right now.

Over at Automaton there's news of a robot project from Harvard and the Worcester Polytechnic Institute that's different from many others. It's an investigation into robot mobility in unstructured environments, which means basically everywhere in the world that's not a rigid road or a pre-built human structure.

Their prototype bot has been inspired by creatures like beavers and insects, and is armed with a flinging mechanism, a glue dispenser, and a quiver full of toothpicks. Instead of laboriously building complex engineering structures out of the toothpicks, however, it somewhat randomly spews them in large quantities to create very rough but surprisingly strong and effective load-bearing structures to help it traverse unexpected terrain.

As you can see, the robots are also clever enough to build workable ramps out of materials like casting foam.

In the future the team hopes to make their robots smart enough to construct bridges and arches, and also to be smart enough to encounter an obstacle, observe it, and then come up with a strategy for building a structure to help it get up and over it, perhaps using several steps and different mechanisms.

Meanwhile over at Georgia Tech there's a separate project, funded to the tune of $900,000 by the Office Of Naval Research, that's trying to investigate robots that can improvise tools out of whatever nearby objects they can find on hand. The project's goal has been compared to building a robotic version of TV's MacGyver--an psuedo-military expert who could fashion tools, weapons, and other devices out of seemingly esoteric materials.

Rather than attempt to build a working machine, this project is more about building a robot that can identify a problem, then spot objects than can be repurposed into helping it achieve its directive--as finally handling them, and then fashioning them into a construction of some sort.

From these two examples alone you can see that much thought is being applied to making adaptive, smart robots that in some sense of the word can "innovate" to solve a problem. These machines will be far from the simple, mindless automata of today's robot world. An autonomous robot with this kind of flexible thinking would make an astonishingly capable Martian rover for the future or, inevitably, be great at tackling tricky terrain (or even inflicting attacks) in battlefield situations. It will also be similar to the adaptive thinking that future home or health care robots will have, although they'll have to be programmed with limits: It wouldn't do to have your butler bot smash all your plates to make a ramp so it can get to the sink.

[Image: NASA]

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

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