This Week In Bots: Google’s Driverless Cars, Sure, But Are You Ready To Fly With A Robot Pilot?

It may not be as insane as it sounds!



Bot Vid: Skippy The Robot Stone Skipper

Skipping stones is a wonderful, happy pursuit. If you’re of a certain technical bent you may even remember the smarts of Barnes Wallis and the invention of the bouncing bomb while you skip a pebble between the waves. Wallis would certainly have been amazed by Skippy the robot, designed and installed on an Idaho lake for the express purpose of letting you telepresence-skip a stone when you can’t get to open water yourself. Try it out, you’ll love it.

Bot Vid: Facebot

One way to explore how we react to robots, and also to use them to explore how we react to people, is to make them look almost exactly like us and then examine volunteer’s emotional responses. That’s what Pisa University researchers have done with the FACE robot–which has 32 motors beneath its rubbery skin that can deliver a simulation of an astonishing range of emotions. The team explored FACE’s “uncanny valley” qualities by getting 5 autistic children and 15 non-autistic kids to watch FACE making emotional faces, and then watch a psychologist making the same ones. They then compared the reactions.


Bot Vid: Lab Robots Face The Danger

We’ve seen lots of assembly-line robots before, but none quite like the Mahoro robot which has seven degrees of freedom in each arm to give it a full range of human-like arm motions. It’s designed to do complex and repetitive tasks like the ones that human operatives do when working as lab technicians–and deliver high dexterity and precision that people simply can’t match. Its human-like reach means it can work with pre-existing analysis equipment, and because it’s a robot it can work with highly dangerous chemicals and bio-toxins that humans are probably best kept far away from.


Bot News

Olympic robo-cams. Reuters has installed some custom-made camera equipment in weird and wonderful, and often lofty, places in the different sports venues across London that will soon play host to the Olympic Games. The idea of the remote cams is to capture some of the most incredible action sports photography ever, because of the impossible angles the cameras can achieve on the action.

U.S. robo-subs. U.S. Navy ships have deployed SeaFox robotic submarines in the Persian Gulf to patrol the seas and prevent Iran from blockading the Strait of Hormuz with mines or other weapons. Each wire-controlled SeaFox sub has sonar, a camera, and has explosives aboard to defuse mines.

Learning algorithms. In a similar way to the Google machine that “learned” to recognize cat images online, a new robotic learning algorithm, based on the work of Dr. Lukasz Kaiser of the Université Paris Diderot, can watch a human play a game several times, define the rules of the game, and then work out how to beat the human player automatically. It’s a radically different approach than the computers that have been taught to play chess use, and it may have incredible utility in situations where robots work alongside humans.

Bot Futures: Robotic Passenger Planes

The idea of Google’s self-driving car may freak you out as much as it intrigues you–it’s such a strange notion that you could entrust your life to a bundle of electronics guiding a metal box hurtling along at highway speeds. But Britain’s BAE has a whole extra dimension of vehicle automation in mind that seems even more outlandish: It’s researching pilotless passenger planes.


You heard right. Like Google’s car systems, the aircraft relies on a bank of sensors scanning the environment and sophisticated algorithms running in powerful computers. The difference being that there are so many other factors that impact the flight of an aircraft that the system has to be super-smart. It uses cameras to watch for other air traffic, being able to recognize aircraft, hot air balloons and parachutists and so on, as well as being able to plot course around hazardous flying weather that’s associated with certain types of cloud.

In its training mode, there are pilots aboard, and the aircraft navigates autonomously until it detects an anomaly–whereby it suggests the maneuvers it would like to make to a human operator, who can than give it the thumbs-up. If the comms link goes down, the aircraft is smart enough to use an infra-red system to scan for safe landing spots and even to confirm they’re clear of obstacles like people or animals.

In essence, the aircraft is building on robotic flight expertise that begins with autopilots that nearly all passenger planes use today, and which has been extended into pilotless, autonomous drones like the fearsome Global Hawk. BAE sees it being used to aid in search and rescue operations because it wouldn’t suffer pilot fatigue, and as an additional safety system aboard passenger aircraft. It imagines that it will be used as an emergency backup for real human pilots rather than a replacement.

But the fact is that an aircraft with this system could actually fly itself with simply a human pilot as a monitor, because the robot takes most of the flying workload off the pilot’s hands. These systems wouldn’t get tired, they wouldn’t misunderstand the aircraft’s standard operating procedures and they may actually result in fewer aircraft accidents. They may even allow for a single pilot to be aboard many flights, instead of two.


Already aircraft can fly significant portions of their flights under computer control, and can in many cases land automatically–you, as a passenger, probably never know this, and it’s not necessarily relayed to you when the pilot makes one of their speeches to those aboard because the idea is likely unsettling for some. But the robotic aircraft is really a step beyond these systems. How much would you trust it to keep you safe and sound while hurtling through the skies at speeds approaching the speed of sound so you get to your destination in one piece, and on time?

[Image: Flickr user hedgers ]

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!)