This Week In Bots: Saluting The First President Of The Robot Epoch

In January of 2013, robots will be more political than ever. Probably also cuter.



Bot vid: Darpa’s Robbie

One of the more interesting robotics programs that DARPA funds is the Autonomous Robotic Manipulation project, designed to produce robots that can perform relatively complex tasks without too much supervision (obvious military implications here). As revealed over at the Automaton blog, robot maker RE2 has a robot in this program, cheerfully dubbed Robbie. The strength of the robot’s design is in its grippers that approximate human hands. They have sensors so the machine even feels “touch” a little like we do.

Bot vid: Smart Tripod

The winner of this year’s Microsoft Robotics @Home competition is interesting: It’s a tripod on a mobile base that can follow its subjects around, using a Kinect sensor to navigate and detect the movements of its human subjects for control purposes. The tech can be used for, say, creating a low-budget movie’s tracking shots. The winner was Arthur Wait, who earned a check for $10,000.


Bot vid: Fukushimabot

The Future Robotics Technology Center in Japan has just demonstrated its new robot destined to help assess and perhaps clean up the nuclear mess at Japan’s tsunami-ravaged Fukushima nuclear site. Rosemary, as the machine is called, is roughly the size of a lawnmower and has unusual feet that swivel to navigate obstacles or crawl up a slope of greater than 60 degrees. Best of all it’s strong enough to carry gear weighing up to 60 kilos (approx. 132 lbs.), making it ideal for ferrying sensors, imaging units, and perhaps clean-up equipment into radiation-damaged zones.


Bot News

Robofish. This week a large yellow robot fish could be seen swimming in the ocean off the Spanish port of Gijon, taking part in free water tests of its systems. The five-foot, $31,000 European machine is crammed with sensors designed to detect pollutants that have leaked from vessels or underwater facilities like pipelines, and the goal is to have many fish swimming in sensitive areas to give a very early warning of contamination. Its fish-like design is an attempt to avoid problems like propeller snarl on debris.

Ocean swimmers. On Monday the famous WaveGlider robots from Liquid Robotics were sent off from their stopover at Hawaii en route to their final destinations in Japan and Australia. The experiment is already a success, and the devices have proven useful in collecting data on sea and air environments to aid climate studies and weather forecasting. They swim autonomously, propelled by the motion of water waves.

Australian telepresence museum bot. By November this year the Australian National Museum, in concert with science body CSIRO, will have a robotic telepresence droid roaming its corridors. Equipped with sensors and clever camera units, the idea is to give remote students access to each of the museum’s exhibits in more detail than may be possible with a visit in person. It’s a six-month experiment that may become permanent.

Bot Futures: The First President of the Robot Era?

When the next President of the United States takes office in 2013, it’s unlikely he’ll have to get to work on a raft of robotics legislation. But as an intriguing NPR piece points out this week, he is likely to be the very first president who has to deal with robotics-related issues on a regular basis. 


That’s simply because robots are everywhere, and their presence in places of work, military forces, police forces, emergency services, farms, factories, and homes is only increasing. Robotic technology is penetrating deeply into American lifestyles.

Robots are, for example, finding uses on farms where they can simplify many of the more mundane farming jobs like tilling, distributing pesticide, and even crop-harvesting–potentially driving up efficiency and thus lowering production costs. Robot technology is being used in schools to drive student interest in science and engineering…and even to teach some lessons or boost student writing skills. They’re going to take over the role of some military pilots soon enough, and the ever-expanding drone fleet means U.S. robots are killing enemy combatants, and, sadly, making mistakes overseas right now. Drone robots are even penetrating the skies of the U.S. And there are early examples of the use of robots as political agitators, as in the case of the ONE Street Tweeter, which prints political protest tweets on the streets like a giant mobile inkjet printer.

A few of the thorny issues facing the next president: Of course robots in the workforce improve efficiency and help drive costs down, but is it better for the population to have more folk employed and working slightly less efficiently? Will American citizens tolerate police forces using drones for surveillance, as they become ever more aware of their right to privacy? What happens when the first armed police drone kills a bystander?

By 2017, when the next Comander in Chief takes office, he or she may actually have to develop policies on robots in addition to economic, social, health care, and military matters. Such mechanical issues may even be part of the campaign.

[Image: U.S. Navy]

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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!)