This Week In Bots: Boldly Pounding Fists Where No Droid Has Before

Oribital gestures, child-like androids, robotic spacecraft–it’s all in our robotic roundup. Far out.



Bot Vids: Romeo

Aledbaran Robotics, best known for the pint-sized Nao research bot, have released the first clip of their Romeo project. This machine is way more sophisticated than Nao, is said to be child-sized and is beginning field trials where it assists blind and autistic folk.

Bot Vids: Jammer

We’ve covered this remarkably simple and yet hugely effective gripping robot tech before, but the team behind it at Cornell and the University of Chicago have improved the deftness of the manipulator to the point they’ve taught a robot arm mounted with the Jammer grip to throw darts with impressive precision (impressive, that is, for a latex balloon stuffed with coffee grounds). 


Bot Vids: Lander

As part of its preparation for future planetary exploration, NASA has been working with private companies to test technologies–including robotic systems that could land a probe vertically, using rocket engines. This month Masten Space Systems Xombie took part in a vertical take-off/horizontal transition/vertical landing test in the Mojave desert. It was a storming success for the NASA-led project.


Bot News

Mapping by Kinect. One of the big challenges for inserting all sorts of robots into our daily lives is having the machines navigate autonomously, tackling unexpected challenges and working out how to effectively get to their destination. A new system, coming from research at MIT using a Willow Garage PR2 research robot with Kinect-like sensors, solves the problem impressively. Called Simultaneous Localization and Mapping, it lets robots continuously update internal location maps as they learn information over time–all the while it moves it’s checking and rechecking where things are located in space. Ultimately it could let robots roam offices, hospitals, or factory floors with almost no input from humans.

Mass Microbot Cloning. Harvard engineers have taken inspiration from kid’s pop-up books to design a novel way to mass-produce microrobots. A complex laminated sheet is glued together, with 18 layers of carbon fiber, kapton, ceramic, brass and other materials–laser cut for precision. Built-in hinges can then let the miniature 2.4mm high research robots pop up in one move. Later advances would even allow electronic components to be pre-engineered into the laminate, and maybe even let the tiny robots self-assemble.

Swiss Space Sweepers. The Swiss Space Center this week announced its new project, CleanSpace One, that could ultimately see small Swiss-made robotic spacecraft completing janitorial tasks to clean space of dangerous waste materials. The diminutive robots would thrust up to sizable space debris, including items like dead micro-satellites or discarded rocket parts, and grapple to them. By thrusting to de-orbit the mass, the janitor bots would themselves be consumed in flames on re-entry, thus avoiding becoming more debris. 

Bot Futures

Robonaut, NASA’s astonishing effort at designing a true android for space repairs, experiments, and perhaps planetary exploration, was booted up aboard the International Space Station again this week–for another round of experiments. Compared to earlier tests this one was a biggie, with the gold-helmeted machine testing its systems ahead of some planned experiments.


As part of a promotional move the Commander of the ISS, astronaut Daniel Burbank, shook hands with the robot in what’s said to be the first such robot-human handshake ever to happen in space. An amazing gimmick, with Burbank later radioing in that it was “a firm handshake” from an impressive machine.

But the implications of this move are much more significant than you may think. Robonaut will ultimately be flexing his fingers for tasks like flipping switches and adjusting dummy instruments aboard an orbital test module–vital practice so that his ground-based controllers can learn how to maneuver the robot, and trust its own systems. All this so that one day Robonaut’s distant cousin can be trusted to monitor, and upkeep a spacecraft without direct human supervision (perhaps in situations like emergency human evacuation of the ISS, or during human sleep cycles on missions to Mars).

You may think a non-human robot could do these tasks more easily, but for now most systems on manned missions are finger-friendly, and even external space-exposed tech on the ISS and satellites are put together with bolts and latches that are familar to humans, so that ultimately an astronaut can trouble-shoot them. For the man-shaped Robonaut, the future may even include a human avatar situation, where a remote astronaut pilots the robot to fix or operate a spacecraft.

Basically future space adventures are going to require advanced robotics, and that means vulnerable humans have to trust their mechanical team members (don’t dismiss the psychological stress of the strange situation of being in space), and this handshake is a great symbolic start.


[Image: NASA]

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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!)