Blade Runner aside, Robotics isn't just about cold-hearted tech. It's also, for example, informing some very heart-warming developments in the very human world of prosthetic limbs. In the news this week is the Bebionic3 robotic hand and arm prosthetic. This is jammed with microcontrollers, sensors, and motors to make it move and work realistically and reliably, and weighs just 550 grams—less than a real limb, and much less than the Terminator's equally clever, if fictional metal limbs. And still it's capable of picking up weights up to 45 kilos. That means it can help its wearer push or pull themselves up if they're seated or have fallen. It's an incredible indication, as the Automaton blog points out of how far bot prosthetics (bothetics?) have come—and where they are going.
Aerial spy drones are no longer just for the military and police. To wit: A dragonfly-like drone is available on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, after being developed for the Air Force (which helped develop it with $1 million in funds). Made by TechJet, the Dragonfly is highly customizable to suit your needs and can cost as little as $99 in a basic configuration.
This video has made the rounds, but it's worth watching because it sets out how one group of robotics innovators is trying to solve some of the basic issues of artificial intelligence with the help of the iCub robot. This sort of work is critical to the advancement of robot tech, particularly as robots are interacting more with humans in our daily lives, and it's difficult stuff. The video will explain a little, and also demos how one incredibly cute robot is a serious research tool, not a toy.
Autodesk Makes Designing Robots Easy. Autodesk, the big name behind the famous AutoCAD software that's used to design everything from buildings to aircraft, has just now released a new piece of software that's going to make it easy to design—and print in 3-D—robots. The program, 123D Design, runs on Macs, PCs and, iPads, and iPhones, and it's designed to be very easy to use even for beginners. Of course it can be used to rapid-prototype other, non-bot objects, but at heart this is still the act of using a robot to print out physical objects!
Obama and Drones. Wired has an interesting article online this week that suggests President Obama's second term may be even more characterized by the use of drone warfare than his first term.
Navy's Ocean-Going Drone. The U.S. Navy, it's emerged, has taken its experiments in ship-like drones to a new level. Late last month it successfully test-fired six missiles from a surface drone being tested in the waters off the coast of Maryland. The NUWC-4 vehicle's missiles are remotely steerable once fired and are designed to be anti-armor as well as potent small-threat weapons...systems that could have prevented the bombing of the USS Cole.
News that a flying drone is cheaply available to the public through a crowdsourced project isn't necessarily a huge surprise when you remember other efforts like the $300 Parrot AR drone, which debuted in 2010 as an expensive iPhone-controllable toy. Through "drone" was in its name, you'd probably never have compared the Parrot to the powerful Predator, Global Hawk, and Boeing's new Phantom Eye machine, simply due to its home-built status.
But in addition to the Dragonfly mentioned above, there's also a Kickstarter project to fund development of a tiny quadrocopter called the NanoQ. The remarkable aspect of this project is that it's a game—each copter is equipped with IR systems so you can play a sort of aerial Laser Tag with friends—and that the special Mimix controller that comes with it is designed to make flying a quadrocopter an easy task. More resilient than the tiny remote-control helicopter craze that took place recently, the plan is to ultimately make more games available, like bombing runs on ground targets that react with effects when they're hit and other interactions. Essentially it's an at-home toy version of the kind of drone warfare that is increasingly used by military forces around the world.
Meanwhile, NASA and the European Space Agency are in the news this week for testing an advanced new interplanetary communications system in a radio experiment that connected astronauts aboard the International Space Station and a robot on the ground in Germany. The protocol, dubbed Disruption Tolerant Networking, was developed with the help of Vint Cerf (who helped come up with some of the protocols that make this, your Internet, work) and will help in future robotic missions to planets like Mars where a ground-based rover chats to an orbiting satellite. But it's worth noting that the robot NASA's astronauts controlled this week was one made out of Lego's Mindstorms robotics pieces. This is unarguably a toy, but it's being used to demonstrate powerful future robotics technology.
LEGO itself, via its LEGO Education group, is poised to again sponsor the World Robot Olympiad for 2012, taking place this year in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The WRO is aimed mainly at students, and has a goal of improving educational awareness and skills in robotics (as well as science and technology, in general).
When we wrap in memories of the failed Pleo toy robot dinosaur and even Sony's aborted Aibo robo-dog experiment, one can see that robotic technology has advanced very quickly beyond the realm of science fiction. Robots are coming to our homes, our classrooms, our workplaces, and even our bedrooms. The future, more than ever, is now.
[Image: Flickr user reenyman]