This Week In Bots: Singing, Cookie Baking, Flying Balls, Microbots, Swimming Bots, And Telepresence iPads

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A robot: Your plastic pal who’s fun to be with! Okay, so the future that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy predicted is still far off, but it’s coming closer every week:

HRP-4C gynoid sings on camera

We’ve seen HPR-4C several times already, but she’s always worth revisiting as her skills advance–if only because she’s one of the few android (technically a gynoid) that’s really venturing into Uncanny Valley, with movements and other attributes that seem human. HRP-4C is the best preview out there of the kind of realistic robots we’re likely to encounter fairly soon.

Here she is singing as part of this year’s Japan Robot Association Jisso Protec 2011 show.


She may not be quite a match for BigDog, but he has the advantage of two extra legs to help tackle bumps and slides.

PR2 bakes cookies

Everyone’s favorite large-scale development robot PR2 keeps getting cleverer as researchers work out how to program him to perform ever-more elaborate tasks. This time, as shown on the Automaton blog, PR2’s been taught how to bake cookies. He’s fabulously messy–but hey, he’s still kinda a toddler, so it’s what you’d expect!

This is work by a grad student at MIT’s Distributed Robotics Lab, and though it’s evidently a work in progress, the aim is that inside a month PR2 will be able to do every step needed to bake a batch of cookies.


Japan’s defensive flying spy football

Flying drones seem like they’re the future of spying, warfare, rescue services and possibly newscasting, but they do tend to be fragile affairs, not designed for rugged environments. Except for the Japanese Ministry of Defense’s flying ball bot. Its entire flying structure is contained inside a rigid ball, meaning that to land it can just plop down anywhere, and absorb the energy by rolling to a stop. They’re also only $1,000 each, which could easily accelerate their deployment.

Marine drone

You may not relish the thought of roaming, alone, in the emptiness of an open ocean, but that’s exactly the kind of task that marine drone robots from Liquid Robotics are designed for. They’re powered by a combination of solar cells, and wave-power generation to supply electricity. They’re largely self-sufficient, can station-keep over particular spots in the ocean and communicate via satcomms, which makes them extremely useful for scientific research and, potentially, defensive uses.


Liquid Robotics has a new CEO, Bill Vass, who was president of Sun Microsystems’ Federal division, and the company’s just earned a $22 million Series D funding round.


Not all robots are huge. At the recent IEEE Robotics and Automation conference, one of the competitions designed to push robotic development was the Mobile Microrobotics Challenge, where the bots are measured by the millionth of a meter in size. They faced a maze, and a microassembly challenge designed to simulate operation inside a blood vessel (yup! Fantastic Voyage here we come) and show off micro-scale manufacturing. Pictured here is the University of Hawaii’s effort at building its logo out of glass beads just 0.1mm across.

iPad telepresence balancing bot


Telepresence could be one way you’ll first encounter advanced robotics, because it has such fantastic promise in terms of digital remote working. But two problems limiting development: Cost and mobility. Enter the Taptic Toys iPad robot, demonstrated outside WWDC this week. Its low-cost solution bolts an Apple iPad (with all the necessary Wi-Fi, cameras, and screen tech built in) to a Segway-like, balancing, two-wheeled platform that can certainly manage the bumps and carpets of an office floor more easily than a bot with smaller wheels. The design also allows it to tolerate accidentally bashing into people or obstacles. The robot’s a prototype, but uses off-the-shelf parts and has that low-cost factor, so its future is bright. We can’t help worrying, however, about that iPad smacking the floor at high speed when the batteries run low.

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


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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!)