Stupid Robot Tricks – Humans Need Not Apply

Mid-August is always a slow time in New York, and it seems as though the robotic  world has followed step.  So much of the news is about summer bot camps, world robot cups, and even origami robots (which I will discuss below).  Before illustrating how robots can do amazingly stupid pet tricks, like humans wrapping their tongue around their noses, I need to share with you the video below – Humans Need Not Apply.  This piece of propaganda provides an excellent history of robotics sans the paranoia.  Judge for yourself:

Now, the tricks from the Harvard yard.  A graduate student, Samuel Felton, last week made a robot out of a piece of paper and batteries.  His creation as reported last Thursday in the Science journal is the first robot that can fold itself and start working without any intervention from the operator.

“We’re trying to make robots as quickly and cheaply as possible,” Mr. Felton said.

Mr. Felton was obviously inspired by origami, the Japanese paper-folding art in his quest of making small folding robots.  He thinks that one day it could be use on future space missions or even for Ikea-like furniture, folding from a flat-packed board to a table in minutes (without the need for Allen wrenches or Swedish instructions).

What is Felton’s secret? Well, first off it is not simple paper but a composite made of layers of paper, then a flexible circuit board and drumroll please – Shrinky Dinks. Finally, he adds two motors, two batteries and a microcontroller for the brain. All of this totaling less than $100!

The idea for Felton’s robot was in response to his advisor’s, Robert Wood’s, research in building insect-size robots. However, there are no assembly lines for machines that small. Building small components on a flat sheet is easier. Over several years, Dr. Wood’s team built on his idea, producing a printed robotic inchworm and a self-folding lamp. The earlier projects, however, required human assistance during construction. With the process now fully automated by Felton, robots could be efficiently packed for travel and deployed in places where there are no people – space the final frontier. 

From robots that build themselves (without humans) to robots that need humans to survive – In my final post of stupid robot tricks, I would like to introduce you Gumdrop the auditioning robot. Do I hear an new Oscar category for best robotic actor…

X-Ray Vision, Watch Out Superman!

When people hear about X-Ray Vision they think of offensive TSA agents that are using body scanners for their own personal pleasures.  Somehow a pat down becomes less obtrusive. When I think of X-Ray Vision, I am brought back to Superman I and his early flirtations with Lois Lane, I think you know what I am talking about.  Beyond teenage pranks, X-Ray Vision could seriously help rescuers, soldiers, and first responders save lives.

Researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara have harnessed Superman’s power in robots by leveraging WIFI. Essentially the machines work in pairs, with one broadcasting wireless transmissions and another (positioned on the opposite end) measuring them. Since walls and objects reduce signal strength, the receiver can distinguish between empty and occupied spaces to create an accurate map of the area. These aren’t the first robots that I have seen that can peer through concrete, but the Cougar20-H surveillance robot that emerged years ago uses a number of sensors, whereas UCSB’s creation depends solely on WiFi.

In the future, the researchers believe the technology can be used for search and rescue (it’ll certainly be very useful in rescuing people out of collapsed buildings after earthquakes), to determine the occupancy level of a location and as a helper for archaeological digs. Also, these robots can potentially be outfitted with technology that can classify the object (if it’s human, or what it’s made of if it’s not) they’re seeing through walls. The UCSB team, which has been working on this project for years, has just released the above video of the robots in action.

Researchers at University of California create robots with 'X-ray vision' (illustration shown). The two robots detect changes in signal strength to see through walls

POTENTIAL USES FOR THE TECH
  • Search and rescue, and surveillance.
  • Occupancy detection in a home.
  • Classification of what an object is made of behind a wall.
  • Archaeological digs without needing to dig underground.
  • Real world robotic networks to perform tasks such as object mapping for humans.
  • Detecting home intruders before they enter your house.

For example, when the robots passed around a square concrete structure, out of sight of one another, they were able to work out what was inside – and could even identify a human. This was done by measuring the drop in signal strength as the transmission passed through the walls and other objects. By measuring this drop the robots could create a visual map of what they thought they were seeing in about 100 seconds.  And the researchers say the results were satisfyingly accurate, with errors of no more than two inches (5cm).

One robot transmits a Wi-Fi signal and the other receives it. Doing this the robots can work out what objects are between them. Here the left figure shows the area of interest that is completely unknown, while on the right is shown the map the robots made using the technique compared to the actual map

One robot transmits a Wi-Fi signal and the other receives it. Doing this the robots can work out what objects are between them. Here the left figure shows the area of interest that is completely unknown, while on the right is shown the map the robots made using the technique compared to the actual map

The technique can even be used to discern different types of objects beyond walls including multiple objects (shown), or also to find people beyond walls. This could be used to find people in collapsed buildings or spot intruders before they enter your home

The technique can even be used to discern different types of objects beyond walls including multiple objects (shown), or also to find people beyond walls. This could be used to find people in collapsed buildings or spot intruders before they enter your home

“Our approach enables seeing a completely-unknown area (with details) through thick walls by using only Wi-Fi signals,” the team writes on their websiteThis technology can be implemented on any Wi-Fi-enabled gadget. “We have furthermore shown how to use this in a robotic setting to give see-through vision to robots.”

While some modern unmanned robots use laser scanners to see what is in front of them, they are unable to see through objects or walls in the vicinity. The researchers say that their new technique could be a revolution in robotic movements and enable a host of new capabilities for unmanned robots.

Robotic mapping now expands beyond the visual, but the areas in between planes, which now surpasses (non-hero) humans 20/20 sight. Just call it Superbot!

Synthetic Plants

When I was in college I had a garden before it was in vogue, now I live in an Urban area and it is very difficult to keep up the green thumb.  While most of robotics are focused on mechanical devices, I would like to suggest that bio-engineering has a very robotic element at its core.  Ultimately, we use the tools around us to program and make objects serve the betterment of humanity.

I think graduate student Julian Melchiorri must feel the same way which led to his creation of the synthetic leaf at the UK’s Royal College of Art. The ‘Silk Leaf Project’ was designed for an RCA course offered in collaboration with Tufts University’s silk lab in Massachusetts. Melchiorri leaf works just like a real plant as it uses photosynthesis to produce oxygen, by absorbing light, water and carbon dioxide.

“The artificial leaves feature chloroplasts extracted from actual plant cells that are suspended in a material made from silk protein. So when given access to light and water they still produce oxygen, but they’re better suited to surviving off our planet,” according to the inventor. 

The protein-based material is extracted directly from the silk fiber. It’s used to stabilize organelles ‒ organic molecules within a cell, including chloroplasts ‒ within the material’s matrix, Melchiorri told Dezeen.com.

I have the first photosynthetic material that was working and breathing as a leaf does,” he said.

The man-made leaf is lighter than the real thing, but better suited to long-term life in space because scientists don’t know if organic plants would survive and flourish outside our atmosphere the way humans would need them to. And if mankind is to colonize space, those living on another planet would need to produce their own O2 gas. This is where his innovation could have a big impact on robotics.

“So what if we could take those biological oxygen factories into space with us, but without all the land, sun, water, soil, and gravity that forests tend to require?,” Eric Mack of CNet wonders.  He further states that “this is the point where NASA and Elon Musk should probably start paying attention.”

The space agency is the designer’s ideal target, in fact.

“Plants don’t grow in zero gravity,” Melchiorri explained. ”NASA is researching different ways to produce oxygen for long-distance space journeys to let us live in space. This material could allow us to explore space much further than we can now.”

The design brings the natural efficiency of photosynthesis to a man-made material and I think potentially it could also be used in the world of soft robotics. As Melchiorri is an art student at his core, he sees his leaf being used for interior design or for the ventilation system in a large building. The material would serve as a filter for the outside air, bringing oxygenated air into the structure. Below are some of his concept designs:


This all sounds great, but according to space experts the prognosis for a mission to Mars is far off.  As Dr. Wim Vermaas of Arizona State University’s Center for Bioenergy and Photosynthesis states “…[I]t looks like a nice artistic expression of an artificial leaf, and while it may possibly be true that silk proteins stabilize chloroplast function somehow, proteins in a cell are in a constant state of turnover (some more than others) and eventually (on the scale of hours or perhaps days), the system will inactivate… So, it won’t be surviving long enough to be useful for a space mission, I’m afraid.”

Melchiorri ideas are just a start of a much bigger endeavor, as in order for humans to live in outer space we require a continuous supply of oxygen, just maybe a robotic or artificial biological leaf is just the beginning of  the first flower that will eventually produce fruit.