This Week In Bots: In Space, In War Zones, In Disasters, In Your Home, And On Your Desk

Robots may one day be “your plastic pal who’s fun to be with” but today they’re doing vital radiation-zone tasks, tweeting from space and prepping to assist soldiers, to dance, and to fold your sheets.



Throwable Bots For War Zones

At the North America convention of the Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, as attended by PopSci, a number of robots have been on show that demonstrate how robots will be used by tech-laden warfighters in the near future. Interest has centered on throwable bots, a smaller, simpler implementation of the kind of surveillance and weaponized robots now in service that you may not have thought about.

Typical of the genre is QinetiQ North America’s Dragon Runner 10, which is small enough and strong enough to survive a 12-foot toss, making it useful as a first-access device for soldiers making house inspections for suspected insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan–the idea is it can be thrown through an open door, or over a high wall, and still report what it finds via a wireless video feed, using infrared to give insight at night. It can also use a robotic arm to move suspicious objects. A lighter version, that reminds us more of the sort of bot in science fiction, is the Recon Robotics Scout–a tiny two-wheeled hand-grenade-sized pure surveillance bot that weighs a mere 1.3-pounds and can survive a drop of 30 feet or a toss of an impresive 120 feet.


Robotnaut Awakens

Robonaut, the world’s first space android and a prototype for future robotic space engineering and exploration, has been awakened by the astronauts aboard the International Space Station this week. His initial operations were a complex sequence of installation procedures and tests–including a complete soak-down of his electrical systems to ensure no interferences with ISS operations.

Most remarkably, and demonstrating the power of Twitter to broadcast surprising news from non-real-person entities, NASA has been tweeting Robonaut’s operations in more or less real time, with a first-person tone that is full of humor: His historic “first words” were “One small step for man, one giant leap for tinmankind.” The feed has even included some of his first sights through his imaging sensors (“Sure wish I could move my head and look around”). The robot is scheduled to go through more tests early next week, including movement tests, before experiments begin to explore its utility.

Fukushima Bot Blog

A number of robots have been assisting in the cleanup and inspection duties at Japan’s ruined Fukushima nuclear reactors, damaged in the earthquake and tsunami disasters earlier this year–the machines, including several donated by iRobot, are helping by entering zones where radiation levels are dangerous for humans and are reported to be performing well despite being dosed with levels that could damage electronics.


But a slightly different, much more personal story that contains alarming details has emerged from a blog run by one of the robot operators. Tales of accidents, dangerous radiation levels, lack of infrastructure, and also of successes were reported in depth, but the site was abruptly closed recently and the content deleted. The team at IEEE’s Automaton blog have kept and curated the information, however, and this week posted many of the items on their own site. It makes for fascinating reading for the tech-inclined, but also contains details that robot manufacturers designing rugged bots for difficult environments like this in the future cannot afford to miss.

Keepon Coming Along


Keepon is everyone’s favorite tiny dancing robot (and if he isn’t already, check the above video–he soon will be), with a sophisticated algorithmic system that ensures he dances on beat and very creatively. The surprisingly high-tech guts inside the diminutive dancer explain his original high price tag of tens of thousands of dollars, and confirmed his status as a research prototype. A new consumer-level machine was announced a while back, and is due on sale in October, but until now we knew little data on how clever the cheaper robot would be.

Now we do, and he’s equally impressive as his serious experimental origins. He’ll dance “like no other toy” with similar beat-detection systems and “an uncanny sense of timing and incredibly fluid movement” and an algorithm that means he’ll “never dance the same way twice.” In addition he has a suite of sensors inside his skin to allow him to react to different kinds of gentle or firm touch, and even sneeze if you scratch his nose. He’ll also express a limited kind of emotional output, and can remember interactions so he can act on his previous experiences.

Far from a desk toy (which undoubtedly he will be, in large numbers), Keepon is also likely to find much use in situations like a children’s ward in a hospital–where his cuteness and interactiveness will distract and amuse children. Its $50 price ticket will help with this.

Minnesota Loves Bots


Robotics in schools is a sure sign that educators are waking up to our robo-peopled near future, and Minnesota officials are the latest to get on board: Robotics competitons have become recognized by the State High School League as an extracurricular activity. The League has decided to work in partnership with For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) to promote the activity and get kids involved in designing and operating robots, including local and eventually statewide championship.

How A Robo Home May Look

This is an imaginative work, but there’s a seed of truth: Designer Diego Trujillo Pisanty has produced an experimental artwork dubbed With Robots that explores how our near-future homes may have to be subtly redesigned to assist robots in assisting us. Machine vision and AI not being quite at sci-fi levels yet, Pisanty has guessed many everyday items will need to be reshaped or marked with optical tags so that robobutlers and maids can interact with them more easily. Check it out…could you live in a home where your bedsheets get neatly folded by a bot, but have a bright optical tag in each corner as a payoff?

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!)