This Week In Bots: Ship-Climbing Spies, Tiny Quadrocopters, Open-Source Androids, Teacher Bot, And NASA’s Robothespian

If you’re into technology that can stroll convincingly like a human, or creep, roll, climb, spy, and even deliver drinks with uncanny mechanical smoothness, then you’ve come to the right place.



In our second installment of This Week In Bots we share tiny flying drones, amazing magnetic climbing spy machines…and a friendly NASA thespian robot.

Ship-climbing magnetic spy bot

ReconScout already has a line of “throwable” small-scale spy bots, but their latest one has a very specific target: ships. In an age where pirates seem to be capturing cargo vessels left, right and center, the little spy bot has an admirably handy feature–it can use its magnetic wheels to crawl up the sheer metal walls of a tanker. When aboard, it streams live video back to its operators, and can even see in the dark thanks to IR cameras and illuminators. Now all they have to do is fix it with a taser, and Somali pirates would have a weapon to truly fear.

Tiny quadrocopter, the future of flying spybots?


Quadrocopters have taken to the skies these days–thanks to the advances in powerful, lightweight motors and batteries and semiconductor-scale high-accuracy accelerometers and gyros. But we’re used to seeing these super-agile machines measuring about two or three feet across. Which is why CrazyFlie is incredible: It’s just 4-inches on a side, and is so tiny its PCB acts as the main structural member. Somehow its makers have crammed enough computing power, sensors, and battery life aboard the 20-gram vehicle that is can fly for about four minutes, carry out its own balancing corrections, and be steered by remote control.

In some senses this hobby bot is a very early taste of what future lightweight flying spy drones for police and military forces may be like. If only they could tackle the motor/rotor noise, that is.

POLYRO–the open source android

POLYRO robot

Open source robotics is a growing phenomenon, based on a number of different designs, all with a similar goal of promoting robo-education and advances in robot design through crowd-sourced solutions. Most of the bots are pretty simple though, essentially smart evolutions of the “turtle” robot that got many of us our first access to a robot in the 1980s. Not POLYRO, though.


His name stands for “oPen sOurce friendLY RObot,” and with his child-like stature and cutesy face he’s pretty adorable. He’s also no techno slouch–a Willow Garage TurtleBot is his core mobility system, but the 1-meter tall machine also incorporates a netbook, two arms with three degrees of freedom, USB webcam eyes and 11 servos in total. He costs $2,000, which even a stretched Computer Science major’s budget might be able to manage.

Teaching computer science with a bot

It’s an age where the first time kids use a computer or smartphone the experience is so slick, so removed from raw bits of machine code or C++ that teaching computer science is becoming trickier.

Which is where Carnegie Mellon’s Finch robot comes in. He’s a small two-wheeled device with a rugged design, temperature and light sensors, accelerometers, impact sensors, LED lighting, speakers and a socket in its tail to take a pen so it can act as a turtle. It’s only $99, and CMU hopes to sell it to try to encourage young techno-tinkerers to get interested in the mechanical nitty-gritty of programming a real computer-based object.


NASA loves a robot actor


NASA is all about humans and space and long-term projects like the colonization of Mars–and development of a genuine U.S.S. Enterprise (we kid, mostly). But it’s also all about robots, from robotic planetary-investigation devices to the humanoid Robonaut aboard the ISS. But it’s also bought a Robothespian–a sophisticated android with many realistic movement degrees of freedom, and special skills as an actor/educator. It’s now emerged that the device will be used to greet and amuse the 1.5 million visitors a year that go to the Kennedy Space Center museum. Robothespian is no Robonaut, for sure, but he’ll definitely help promote NASA’s high-tech plans.

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


About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)