This Week In Bots: The Ambling, Gambling, Living, Loving Edition

GroundBot is cool and all, but it’s far from the only robotics innovation to delight and amaze the world this week.



Robot Fly Trap

A professor at the University of Maine has made a robot version of a plant that in some ways is a robot all by itself…the Venus Fly Trap. The diminutive fly-grabber is partly made of a nanomaterial called ionic polymeric metal composite, which acts to replicate the tiny sensitive hairs inside a real trap that send a signal to the closing mechanism when stimulated by a fly landing inside–in this case the nanomaterial, when flexed, sends a tiny electrical signal through an amplifier to the two “leaves” of the trap, made out of the same material. When the bigger signal hits the leaves, they flex in reaction…and trap the fly. 

Silly, amusing stuff. But it has important implications for a future where tiny robots actually trap and eat food to generate power (did your spine just shiver?) or for where electro-mechanical materials take a part in replacing or repairing damaged muscle tissues in humans.

Rolling Spy Tech

We’ve heard a lot about mini-sized surveillance bots and their immediate potential in military situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now there’s an unusual new player in the game, courtesy of Swedish defense contractors. It’s called GroundBot, and in some ways it’s more sci-fi than some of its peers because it’s based on a simple rolling sphere, with all the guts protected inside the spherical carcass. It’s also virtually silent, can run between 8 and 16 hours, and roll up to 6 miles an hour. 


Gambling Robot Casino

New York City’s “first” legal casino opens this weekend, which is odd because New York state law includes a ban on non-electronic gambling. To get around that, the Resorts World Casino in Queens uses robot dealers, meaning the interactions are mediated by something based on electronics, rather than flesh and blood. It seems to be enough to dodge the law and deliver a gambling experience that looks authentic enough.

Walking Without Power


Part of the secret to human ambulatory talents is the way we use gravity and the laws of motion to make striding more efficient. Now scientists at the Nagoya Institute of Technology have created a robotic walking system that actually mimics the lower part of our legs–thighs, shins, and ankles–and weighs about the same as a person. Amazingly, if you set the robot walking down an incline, it just keeps going all by itself, so much so that it set a World Record by striding 100,000 steps continuously over 13 hours and covering 9.3 miles.

Though you may wonder what the precise benefit of such a system is, because even as a robotic limb substitute it would only assist a patient if they only wanted to perambulate downhill…the secret is in the efficiency of the design. The walker moves under the slightest gradient, and this means its design can perhaps be implemented in all sorts of ways from more motorized artificial limbs (where the efficiency boost helps battery life) and, its inventors think, in sporting equipment.

Walking With Power

We’ve seen Murata’s amazing cycling and uni-cycling miniature robots before, but the company has now taken some of its technology and tackled Japan’s rapid aging-population problem. It’s created the “assistance car” to help older pedestrians walk. Think of it as half Segway, half walking stick–because while it doesn’t actually walk for you, it balances itself and provides a rolling but very stable platform to support a partially disabled walker using it, and helping prevent potentially disastrous slips and falls.


It’s a prototype, but could very quickly be sent into production as a walking aid, with the benefit that it can also carry loads–and thus be an ideal shopping companion. Or the tech can equally easily be adapted into a different transport system like a baby carriage. 

Grabbing Graphene

We’ve heard much about the wonderful structural and electronic powers of graphene–it’s touted as the world’s next wonder material. Now Chinese scientists have built a robot with parts made of the stuff. Specifically, a graphene layer is bonded to a thin sheet of polyethylene. IR light falls onto the graphene and gets converted ultra-efficiently into heat, which causes the polyethylene to curl. The feat is the combination of these components–the curling actuator and an electronic control–into a single device. The robot can curl up around a target object, move it, and drop it on command. 

As well as an impressive demonstration of transparent electronics and micro actuators, the invention offers a peek at future microrobotics.


Actroid’s Boyfriend

Actroid-F has freaked out many folks with its emulation of a young Japanese actress…and now the team behind her has given her a boyfriend. Superficially, it’s almost the same physical design–though in a male wig and sporting more masculine skin art–but there are upgrades including in-eye camera units. The bots are so sophisticated at responding to the moves of the real people infront of them that when they were trialled in a hospital, people there actually ended up liking them.

Barbie and Ken, watch your backs.

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!)