This Week In Bots: The Flapping, Foam-Spraying, Zombie-Satellite-Tracking, Poop-Scoopin’ Edition

Wondering about the latest developments related to our future robotic overlords? You came to the right place.

flapping bot

Flying Dinosaur Bot


There’s a big debate about how modern bird evolved from flying dinosaurs, and another about how those dinosaurs learned to fly: Did they gradually get better at gliding like a flying squirrel, or did they run-flap along the ground giving them better hunting speed and the ability to easily leap onto perches? The fossil record isn’t much help, apparently. So to help solve the debate, two engineers from the University of California, Berkeley, have designed a flapping flying robot (a form of ornithopter) which also has legs so it can run on the ground.

Extensive research into the mechanics of the different modes of flight, and a resulting paper published this week, have helped to push the debate about flight in one direction: Flapping from tree to tree, not running on the ground seems a more likely evolutionary path. 

Foam Von Neumann Machine

A von Neumann machine is a type of self-replicating robot, that in some far-flung visions of the future will help us populate other planets by creating clones of itself from local materials, and then help build structures or even do terraforming. With this in mind, meet FoamBot–rolling machine armed with a gun that squirts out self-hardening foam, the kind that builders sometimes use to insulate tricky parts of structures. FoamBot sets out an array of moving actuators and structural parts, then fires foam at them to “set” them into patterns like snake bots or quadruped walking robots. It’s not, quite, a von Neumann device then…but it’s a tiny little sample of the future, demonstrated in the messy, sticky, foamy tech of today.


Robots Against Autism

The bot in the image is a chap called Bandit, and though he may look more cheap sci-fi special effect from TV, he’s being described as a new tool to help children with autism better relate to the complexities of social interactions. 

Bandit is a product of research at the Robotics Research Lab at the University of Southern California, and he’s roughly human-shaped with movable features like eyebrows and lips and the ability to move forward or back away from his user. The entire creation is supposed to be a balance between human-emulating, so that kids with autism understand he represents a human being, and also evidently robotic so he’s more approachable and less intimidating. Bandit’s program of work is an extension of earlier research that showed some benefits were gained by letting autistic children interact with toys and teaching them systems for interpreting and reacting to real-world social cues that non-autistic people take for granted.

Nao Does A Haka


Nao is already a well-known developmental and educational robot, and we’ve seen plenty of ‘bots trying to dance, with varying degrees of success. But how could we pass on this wonderful effort from a team at Canterbury University, which has taught a bunch of Nao robots to perform the traditional Maori Haka war-cry dance in time for the final of the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

The only shame is that Nao hasn’t got a tongue.

Satellites Made From Zombie Satellites In Orbit

The European Union just launched its first re-engineered Russian Soyuz rocket, pushing the first two of its Galileo fleet of global navigation satellites into orbit…but the enterprise ably demonstrates the massive cost and hellish complexity of getting satellites from the ground-based lab into useful orbits. That’s something DARPA now wants to tackle, as it’s proposed a robotic engineering system that could actually zoom around different dead satellites that have been parked in a “graveyard orbit,” snagging and bagging useful parts from them and then putting the pieces together into new, useful robots.


It’s called the Phoenix program, and it’s awesome. The first test mission is due in 2015.

Poop Scoopin’ PR2

If you’ve got a $400,000 research and development framework robot, what would you do with it? Ben Cohen from the GRASP lab at the University of Pennsilvania had an idea, and programmed his PR2 unit to handle POOPs (Potentially Offensive Objects for Pickup) in what the Automaton blog is jokingly saying is the “one killer application that the entire robotics world has been waiting for.” Yup, PR2 can intelligently identify a dog poop, navigate to it, then scoop it up.


Silly, but exactly the sort of task a future sidewalk-scrubbing robot could do.

Love In The Time Of Siri

Apple’s Siri is everywhere in the press and on TV at the moment, and as one very impressive selling-point for the new iPhone 4S she deserves to be–her snappy, intelligent chats have amused and pleased pretty much everyone (barring a few). She’s not technically a robot, lacking a body, although as a digital personal assistant she is designed to replicate and replace the work of a human, and her intelligent natural language skills are perhaps the first sample that regular humans today will get of the kind of AI seen in sci-fi robots.

With that in mind, watch this: Duet With Siri by Jonathan Mann. Yes, it’s a kind of maudlin love song (apologies to Sir Paul.)


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!)