This Week In Bots: Self-Driving Cars, Robo-Surgeons, And Foxconn’s Robot Army

Would you let a robot chauffeur you around town, twirl its arms violently as it worked on a production line, or even perform surgery on you? Say yes–because the future is now.

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France Has Self-Driving Cars Too

Google doesn’t have the monopoly on clever self-driving cars, and now France has joined the fray. Deveoped by research company IFSTTAR and engineers from the ESIGELEC school in Rouen, the machine is a Renault vehicle that’s been heavily modified to turn its wheel and operate its pedal controls. The roof is peppered with sensors, including GPS, cameras to monitor around the car and the lanes in front of it and a LIDAR system on the nose to accurately determine the positions of other vehicles and unexpected alerts like a pedestrian.

The team first drove the machine using a drive-by-wire joystick to confirm its systems worked, and then let it perform its tricks on a test track–not the open road, as Google has tried. The goal is also not quite what you may expect–a self-driving car for everyone, with added efficiency and safety–but rather to develop self-driving prototypes so that more research into automobile safety systems can be carried out under precisely controlled conditions.

But it’s hard to not imagine that the French tech oculd be easily boiled down to special-purpose machinery actually built into a next-gen car for exactly the purpose of driving you on your commute to work, or your family on their vacation.


iRobot’s Telepresent AVA At CES

The emphasis of the CES show is consumer electronics, which makes iRobot’s demonstration of its AVA telepresence robot pretty interesting. After debuting in early prototype form last year, AVA–a wheeled base with a long neck that supports an iPad for a “head”–showed off even more impressive skills at this year’s show, seemingly all but ready for an in-store release.

Like most telepresent robots, the goal is to share video and audio and a sense of interactivity with the remotely dialled-in user–perhaps in an office, medical or even home environment–rather than interacting with the robot itself. But iRobot demonstrated that AVA has some smarts of its own thanks to the use of an iPad as its communications core, meaning specialized apps can be downloaded to boost or customize the robot’s behavior. It also has a rudimentary emotional alert response, flashing multicolored signals from its base when it, for example, collides with an unexpected object as it drives around.

With an established consumer electronics maker like iRobot on the case, 2012 may be the year telepresence becomes more normal…and maybe even something you see in homes with an oft-travelling parent.


Robo-Surgeons Get Open Source Boost

Robot surgery may soon no longer be mainly the dominion of the impressive da Vinci machine: A group of top U.S. universities have collaborated to design a suite of open-source surgery robots.

The Raven II machines have been tested and are due one final investigation before one goes to medical research facilities at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, University of Nebraska, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Santa Cruz and the University of Washington. The choice of open source modelling means that as each participating academic facility innovates and improves its robot’s techniques, all the other robots can benefit from the expertise. This is aided by the fact that once they’re shipped at the end of this month and installed at their location, each will communicate with the others via an Internet connection. Unlike da Vinci, Raven II more closely emulates a human surgeon–with just two arms and a camera for observing the operating field.

Foxconn’s Million-Robot Army

Confirming long-held rumors, Foxconn has asserted today it really will begin to employ one million robots on its production lines over the next three years, and in the short term it is likely that they’ll directly replace some workers.

It’s a huge investment for Foxconn, and despite worries about the expense and the fact the move may cause some loss of jobs, the firm is likely weighing the reliability and 24-7 work ethic of a robot workforce over its suicide scandal, and its recent threats of mass suicide by dissatisfied workers. With Foxconn’s position seemingly re-confirmed as a lead Apple component supplier, the investment has probably been calculated as a risk that could soon pay for itself.


DLR’s Human-ish, Human-Safe Robots

DLR, the German aerospace research agency, has popped up often in this column thanks to its incredibly advanced android systems. The firm showcased many of its humanoid robot arm, body and walking systems at the IEEE conference on humanoid robots in late 2011–and robot website Plastic Pals has recently collected the demonstration videos into one convenient location. Stand-out examples include the walking leg systems, and the incredible compliant joints the robot’s arms employ. Compliance lets the robot actually absorb deflecting blows even in the middle of a sophisticated move on its own, not so that you can beat up on a robot Real Steel-style, but so that if a human blunders into a robot’s work area, its powerful motors won’t just ignore the collision and mash the fragile human flesh that’s in its way.

DLR’s devices are indeed impressive–check out the link to see more examples–and they, along with similar systems under development by NASA as Robonaut, remind us that genuine worker androids are actually possible, technically and perhaps affordably, right now for specialist purposes. 

Chat about robots like this with Kit Eaton on Twitter (he’s not a robot!) 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!)