This Week In Bots: Juggling, Pool-playing, Tiny, Spying Flying Drones, And Extreme Cuteness

It has been written that: “At bottom, robotics is about us. It is the discipline of emulating our lives, of wondering how we work.” So what can this week’s crop of mechanistic marvels tell us about ourselves?



Juggling robots

Juggling is surely a human-only art. Elephants may pull off clever tricks with their trunks, monkeys may swing through the branches with the greatest of ease, but only we can keep three (or four, five, six…) balls in the air at the same time. Nope. The Czech Technical Institute in Prague has put together a robotic juggler that can manage three balls with the greatest of ease–and a hearty roar from its multiple servos. And Juggler can also add two more balls to the show. Impressive? You betcha. Shame there’s a lack of red noses and oversized shoes on the non-humanoid machine though.

Pool-playing robot

So if juggling is now a robotic pursuit, maybe playing pool can remain a human-only pastime? Nope to this too. Engineers at the Technical University of Munich have built a human-sized robot with two arms, each with a flexible seven degrees of freedom that can control a pool cue with fabulous ease. The table is watched by an overhead camera, and the robot plans its shots–actually building up a mental image of how difficult each shot may be before choosing one, in a very similar way that you or I would (at least before the inevitable beer effect degrades our performance). The robot can sink about 80% of its shots. Time for The Hustler, Part II?


Nano-spy drone bird

Long a staple of sci-fi and spy movies, miniature flying spy drones now also exist, thanks to DARPA. The Nano Air Vehicle robot it’s just featured in a presentation to the public has been in development since 2006 and closely emulates how a bird flaps its wings to fly–it’s an ornithopter. The entire machine is just 15 cm long and weighs a tiny 20 grams, but is capable of navigation, tolerating wind gusts while flying outdoors, establishing a stable hovering flight, and delivering a video feed. There’s just one question: Would you mistake it for a real hummingbird and carry on with nefarious deeds that someone official would like to spy on?


Tiny spy UAV that fits in a tube

Prioria’s Maverick UAV looks slightly bird-like, and has a flexible wing like a real animal’s that lets it absorb wind gusts without perturbing its body (which also allows it to be stowed in a highly portable manner in a tube) but what it really is is a miniature propeller-drive spy drone that is claimed to be the smallest with a gimbaled camera. This means the operator can fly the UAV on auto-pilot and steer the image-stabilized camera around to peek at whatever is of interest. It’s so small it’s exactly the sort of vehicle you can imagine special forces or police officials deploying.

The cutest telepresence bot you ever did see

Lastly, here’s a robot that actually integrates into our lives, and has an unquestionable cuteness factor that could make it really effective as a telepresence robot: Pico-2. He’s a modified Fujitsu HOAP 2 machine, the product of research work at Kyushu university, with the main advances being a larger head bearing an LCD monitor. Unlike some other telepresence machines, Pico is anthropomorphic–he’s actually designed to emulate human body position too, which is a key component of personal interactions. This is achieved by monitoring the remote user’s body position as well as videoing their face, using a Kinect-like sensor.


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