We've written about Boston Dynamics so many times here in TWiB because the company is at one of the leading edges in robot design, and has some incredible machines. It's this prowess which has enabled BD to tackle DARPA's Robotic Challenges head-on. And now we know what it's made: Pet-Proto. Ultimately Proto will tackle challenges like climbing a ladder, scaling rubble piles and so on, but for now he's capable enough to make many navigation decisions autonomously. It's not clear yet if the machine can speak thousands of different galactic languages.
Bossa Nova robotics this week revealed its upcoming research robotics platform called mObi. It's a balancing robot that locomotes using a single ball for traction, a move that looks perilous but which could give the robot amazing agility—at least on flat surfaces. With some kind of high-powered tablet as its head and interface, the robot's all about human-machine interaction and he's said to debut as a research release (a little in the mold of Willow Garage's PR2 machine) at first in 2013, but then maybe later as a saleable product. There seems to be little imagery of the mObi yet, but from its basic design premise, and tasking, sci-fi fans will have strong recollections of Serge, the butler robot from the TV series Caprica.
At the recent IROS 2012 conference on robots, one demonstration seems to have shown the benefit of robotic swarms better than ever. The droids from the Free University of Brussels and the Instituto Universitario de Lisboa can connect together to solve a tricky task that a singe machine may not be able to tackle. The best bit is that an oversight of the task is given by an aerial drone that chats to the other ground swarm robots to tell them what it sees and how they may best work together. Cleverly the researchers have worked out a way to let the different robots communicate and form ad-hoc communications systems. This sort of tech could be incredibly useful for exploring other planets, and also for both military and search-and-rescue tasks.
Europe's robot space-plane. Even as the U.S.'s own mysterious X-37B robot space plane is hit by delays, the EU is now reported to be planning its own diminutive robotic space shuttle. The project faces a funding decision next month, and if it goes ahead then the Innovative Space Vehicle (a follow-up to the delayed Intermediate Experimental Vehicle) could fly as soon as 2020.
Wall-E gets even more famous. Pixar's fictional Wall-Erobot may already be one of the few robots (real or imagined) that a random person on the street could name, but this week his star got a little brighter because he was officially inducted into the Robot Hall Of Fame. He was selected by popular vote, and joins a long list of other famous bots.
Panasonic's head spa bot. As an innovative development from its existing hair-washing robot, Panasonic has created a dry head spa machine that kneads a client's scalp for the purposes of relaxation. It maps your head cleverly, so there should be no awkward head-squashing going on, and Panasonic is said to be evaluating the machine to see "how such therapy might feel."
NASA's 2013 robot prize. NASA has opened registration for its 2013 robot prize, the Sample Return Robot Challenge. This $1.5 million prize competition is all about developing robots that can survey and navigate difficult terrain and then grab a sample and return it to base. Ultimately this effort is about pushing education and also innovative robot design that could help future planetary rover design.
Pet-Proto, right at the top of this article, is but one machine in the DARPA robot challenge, and over at the Automaton blog there's a neat summary of some of the other entrants. They all have one thing in common, apart from a creepy "just like sci-fi" sensation that may worry nervous viewers. Most of them are more than a little bit human in design. Which means that among the various sorts of robots there are, they may be in the top class: Androids.
The entry led by Drexel University is a typical one. Based on a Hubo robot chassis, the Drexel entry is via collaboration with 10 partner schools, and each school is responsible for innovating part of the robot's design. It must be able to mount and dismount a vehicle, drive the vehicle, traverse rubble-strewn terrain by itself, shift debris, open doors, climb ladders, and use tools to tackle a technical task—all the while demonstrating serious autonomy in navigation and decision-making. Ultimately the robot will be a prototype for future machines that could work in hazardous situations, such as a reactor after a radiation leak or a chemical factory after a spill or a fire.
And that's where the human-like aspects of the robot come to the fore—it's effectively acting as a fireman in situations where you'd prefer not to risk a human life, if possible. Because such machines can be used in even more dangerous environs than humans can tolerate, they may make even better firemen than, well, men (under certain situations).
There are good reasons for making a robot look like a human. It starts with the fact that billions of us have, throughout our own history, been carefully transforming the world to be human-shaped. That means structures as diverse as cars and sidewalks, all the way down to homes and the tools we use at work and play. But we've also covered the world in human systems like roads and other transportation grids. And our human minds have a tendency to anthropomorphize almost anything...even as abstract a concept as a trash compacting robot stuck, alone, on an imaginary future earth—which means we may relate better to such machines.
And that's going to be crucial. Pet-Proto and some of his other DARPA peers may end up saving lives, but they're also very much like the famous robot from the Terminator movies. And Terminator himself plays on some deep human fears of things that look human but are implacably evil.
We've written a bit about trusting robots before, but this time we're going to end TWiB with a question: Could you trust a home butler-bot that's as inhuman as mObi, or would you find it easier to trust a more C-3PO-like machine like Pet-Proto? It's worth pondering because it seems progress toward making an android is proceeding faster than you may have possibly imagined.
[Image: Flickr user dhollahan]