This Week In Bots: Extra-Terrestrial Aircraft, Telepresence Cat-Stroking, And Robot App Stores

2012’s truly up and running now. Will it be the year of the robot? Let’s check out some early developments in the field.



Drones on Titan

Titan, a moon of Saturn, is mysterious and fascinating to us: Its cloudly atmosphere and slushy liquid-methane surface is a true glimpse into an alien world, and it’s not too far away. We’ve briefly explored its atmosphere and its odd chemical-soaked surface, but now a team of scientists have proposed a very ambitious robotic exploration plan to thoroughly investigate Titan’s secrets. The 30-strong group of boffins have put together the designs for a project called AVIATR that’s breathtaking in scope: Making the most of the low gravity and super-dense atmosphere, AVIATR would be an aircraft that would soar through the clouds, scanning the atmosphere and the terrain below. 

Powered by a radiothermal powerplant, AVIATR could (assuming it could withstand the harsh environment) spend a much longer time on mission than the brief moments we’ve managed so far with the Huygens mission–loitering over areas of interest and performing more in-depth research, or roaming the skies under its own robotic command and identifying unusual features such as surface lakes, mountains, or dramatic wind zones. The 120-kilo machine would define a whole new paradigm in robotic planetary exploration, and there’s a lot of interest in the idea…with just one drawback, it’ll take decades to get it floating through Titan’s hydrocarbon clouds.

Robot App Stores

App stores are popping up everywhere for all sorts of devices from your MP3 player to your wristwatch. But soon robots will be getting in on the app store game too. In just a couple of weeks the Robot App Store will hit, with a model a little like Apple’s: Apps have to be submitted by developers, then approved before they appear in the store catalog. At launch about 500 apps are expected to be available, penned by around 200 registered developers ready to improve your personal robot’s powers to do everything from navigating better to kicking a ball more accurately.


The idea is to collate the thinking about tweaking and improving some of the growing number of home-use or educational programmable robots that are coming onto the market. By placing all the apps in one place, it’s even possible that wholly new ideas will be inspired by the app market itself–and it’ll offer developers the chance to earn a little cash from what may be an industry about to bloom.

Qbos Flirt

Qbo, the cutest little educational bot you ever did see, has already been given the ability to identify itself in a mirror–for now it’s a trick, but it does hint at a near future where robot identity may become a legal issue all by itself. But now developers at The Corpora have enhanced Qbo’s ability to identify robots and let it recognize another robot like itself…but that’s not its own image in a mirror. The process involves a couple of visual cues to help it realize it’s looking at a different bot, and the upshot is a sweet bit of interactivity.


As the guys at Automaton point out, this isn’t an example of a self-aware robot interacting with another similar device, and conducting a Turing-test-defeating chat that proves they have a degree of consciousness. It’s really a simple bit of programming. But like the earlier mirror-image experiment, it prompts us to think about a future when robots loaded with information about you are meeting each other and interacting…with all the legal, privacy, and security issues that’ll ensue.

Automated Kitty Sitter

Telepresence is an idea more usually associated with remote workers dialing in to an office-roaming robot, or doctors and nurses visiting patients at their bedside, even if that bedside’s on the other side of the world. But it’s evidently an idea ripe for innovation, and Taylor Veltrop has taken a Nao development robot, a Kinect, two Wiimotes, some clever programming, and an unusually helpful kitty and hacked together a telepresence cat-stroker. For those moments when you’re away from home, and you want to give the cat some affection–at the fingertips of a diminutive droid.


Hmmm. My cat freaks out when the Roomba starts to patrol the floors, so I’m not convinced what she’d do if a tiny humanoid strolled toward her with plastic digits out-stretched, but I suppose your cat’s mileage may vary. More importantly, this home-brewed effort was achieved with off-the shelf parts, offers an impressively “immersive” telepresence experience for the user (if not the cat), and it hints at a thousand as yet unimagined telepresence innovations to come.

Leaping Lizards

UC Berkeley scientists have taken inspiration for their biomimetic robot from a slightly unusual source, one that perhaps a chap like Stephen Spielberg would be more familiar with: The velociraptor, or more properly its modern descendant–the lizard. Some dinosaurs and lizards have one thing that could benefit robots, you see: A powerful muscular tail. 


When you’re designing a search and rescue robot for extreme environments–perhaps a mountain rescue machine–a robotic tail could combine with on-board motion sensors to keep the bot sure-footed on tricky terrain and even maintain its orientation in the air after a jump to ensure a good landing, as demonstrated in the video. It’s yet another example of taking a solution that Mother Nature’s been refining since the age of the dinosaur and adapting it for an artificial device.

Japan’s Robofarm

What do you do with a decimated landscape that’s been polluted, wiped clean of human structures by a natural disaster, and left in a tricky state for humans to work in? The answer, according to Japanese officials, is to start a project to open robot-assisted farms in the region. Miyagi prefecture is the targeted zone, one of the three worst-affected areas in the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear incident that befell Japan in early 2011. Some 59,000 acres of farmland were impacted by the disaster, and local farmers are struggling to deal with the after-effects as well as trying to re-establish a healthy farming ecosystem.

Hence the government’s project, which ropes in robotics expertise from companies like Panasonic and Hitachi, to assist farmers with robot tractors, produce packers, and which also involves a clever CO2 recycling project to try to reduce the demand for other fertilizers. It’s a six-year project with an initial investment of around four billion yen ($51 million).

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!)