A New Addition To The Family

We have already outsourced our chores to Roomba, but MIT’s Cynthia Breazeal suggests we need to hire robotic-nanny. I have 5 kids and a 90 lb. dog squeezed into our ever shrinking Manhattan apartment, do I have room for another robot?  To answer this we need to look closely at Ms. Breazeal’s unveiling of “the world’s first family robot” on Indiegogo (along with with an all star press campaign that included Katie Couric).

According to the above video, Ms. Breazeal’s robot or Jibo promises to be the all-encompassing family house manager/baby sitter for roughly a week’s salary (in NYC).  According to the promotional materials you can pre-buy a unit that will have a range of abilities, including: telling stories to kids, automatically taking photos when you pose, easy messaging and video calling, providing reminders for calendar entries, and companionship through emotional interaction.


Jibo is about 11 inches (28cm) tall, with a 6-inch base. He (yes, it’s a he even though he looks like WALL-E’s girlfriend) weighs around six pounds (2.7kg) and is mostly made of aluminium and white plastic. Jibo’s face mainly consists of a 5.7-inch 1980×1080 touchscreen, but there’s a couple of stereo cameras, stereo speakers, and stereo microphones hidden away in there too. Jibo’s body is separated into three regions, all of which can be motor-driven through 360 degrees — and it’s all fully touch sensitive, too, so you can interact by patting him on the head, poking his belly, etc.

While its hardware is pretty impressive for $500, a companion robot is nothing without some really, really good software — and fortunately, it sounds like Jibo will deliver on that front as well. Jibo will: Recognize and track the faces of family members; allow for natural language input from anywhere in the room; proactively help when it recognizes you’re doing a task that it can help with (i.e. cooking); and, judging by the video, Jibo has some pretty nice speech synthesis software, too.
jiboPerhaps most importantly, though, Jibo’s operating system (Linux-based) is being built from the ground up to be extensible with apps. Jibo will ship with a number of default apps — called “skills” — but there’s also an SDK that will allow developers to create (and sell) their own apps/skills to extend the robot’s functionality. For example, out of the box, Jibo will be able to tell bedtime stories to kids — but you might then download a third-party app that gives Jibo the additional ability to help kids with their homework.

While Jibo today is just a prototype (commercial release 2016), my original question still stands is this just another gizmo destined to join Aibo and Furby in the closet, or the next big thing…

Iron Dome – A True War Hero

According to the bible, when the People of Israel would travel in the desert a “Cloud of Glory” would protect them from harm. Today the Land of Israel is protected by Iron Dome (a modern day divine shield).  As of today, Hamas has launched over 500 missile attacks at Israel this past week, and miraculously Iron Dome has had a 90% interception rate. Its success is a reflection of how robotics is making the world a safer place, as only a robot could respond within seconds to a rocket attack aimed at kindergartens, elderly homes, and apartment buildings.

So how does it work?

Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, an Israeli defense company, developed Iron Dome in collaboration with the Defense Ministry’s Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure as well as Elta Systems, a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries, the manufacturer of Iron Dome’s radar system; mPrest Systems, a subsidiary of Rafael, which developed Iron Dome’s command and control system; and Comtec Communications, which develops components for radio frequency communication. It should be noted that US aid helped support this development. 

“The development of Iron Dome was based on knowledge accumulated at Rafael over 40 to 50 years of missile development,” says Uzi, the head of the Iron Dome project, who can only be identified by his first name for security reasons. “When you develop a missile, you take the knowledge you have and direct it toward the operational goal.”


 First the radar, developed by Elta, scans the area for a ballistic motor or rocket.  When it detects action, it begins a process of information analysis and reporting that tracks the rocket’s location and determines the type of rocket. This info is transferred to the command system, developed by mPrest, which processes and assesses the level of threat and the rocket’s projected destination.

If it’s determined that the rocket will fall outside a protected area – meaning an area that decision makers have determined as high priority because of high population concentration or strategic importance – it won’t be intercepted. But if it seems the rocket will fall inside said area, the decision to intercept will be made. For short range rockets, that decision will be a split-second one. Literally.

The third component in the Iron Dome battery is the launcher, which includes 20 interceptors made by Rafael, which are operated by members of the Israeli Air Force’s Air Defense Command in the field. An interceptor can act independently; even if it loses communication with the ground, it can still complete its mission thanks to its sighting systems.

“Interceptors plan their own route from the moment they are launched,” Uzi says. “They get the trajectory and aim at the optimal place for interception.” The battery also has a communication center which connects all the launchers and interceptors in the region.

The (robotic) brain of Iron Dome, according to Uzi, is the command and control center which synchronizes info from the radar system and other sensors and decides which targets to intercept.

“From the moment the system detects the threat – a rocket that’s been launched – it detects the type of threat, whether it’s a Fajr or Qassam rocket or something else, and estimates its trajectory,” says Natan Barak, mPrest CEO as well as a colonel in the reserves and the former commander of the navy’s software unit.

“The moment we see that the threat is going to reach a protected area, we build the interception plans,” he says. “We construct hundreds of solutions and choose the best one. Then we launch the interceptor at the right time so it will meet the threat in the right place. We need to be able to tell whether it’s one threat or several. There’s a program to match each threat, and we confirm that the interceptor is carrying out the program we expected. If there’s a change in the data, the interceptor gets an update, and that’s how the interceptor meets the target.”

Before the moment of interception takes place, a series of decisions have already been made by policy decision-makers, the Air Force and other agencies.

“The number of decisions that need to be made in real time is very small once interception begins,” says Barak. The system can function automatically, but it lets operators intervene in a number of ways.

“There are many constraints because we’re operating the system in a civilian environment and in an area where aircraft are present,” says Barak. “These factors make interception relatively complex. At short ranges, which are the hardest for us, the reaction time from the moment of detection and the moment we know that the rocket is going to fall in a protected area has to be less than a second. We have less than a second to launch an interceptor.”

And if there’s more than one threat? “We have to launch more than one interceptor.”

Barak says that at this stage, the batteries are coordinated at the field-commander level. Each of the batteries is independent, though they communicate with each other. But if one went down, the others could compensate. But that scenario is unlikely. “The systems have extraordinary backup,” he says. “It’s rare for a system not to be in complete working order.”

Iron Dome isn’t influenced by Israel’s weather conditions and can operate even in inclement weather, says Barak. And good news for Tel Aviv residents: the greater the distance, the better the interception ability.

“The more time we have, the greater the precision,” says Barak. “So Gush Dan (the region where Tel Aviv is located) can be less afraid. Of course, many parameters must be considered, but in terms of this particular aspect, Gush Dan is easier for us than Sderot.”

“We use a very sophisticated algorithm to plan the interceptor’s path,” says Uzi. “Once the operator presses ‘confirm,’ the system does the optimization and decides when to launch the interceptor. After the launch, the interceptor receives ongoing updates about the target’s location, which it uses to tweak its trajectory so it can reach the optimal interception point.”

One of the considerations is whether to intercept the target outside a protected area. Even if the interception can only be done over a populated area, aerial interception is still considered the better alternative.

“If the target lands in a protected area, there will be a lot more damage than if it is intercepted and a piece of metal falls that can’t cause as much damage,” says Uzi.

Such was the case yesterday, for example, when a piece of a rocket intercepted over Gush Dan fell on a car, setting it on fire.

Iron Dome’s level of precision – which, according to Uzi, is 82 to 87 percent – has been further improved thanks to the experience Rafael gleaned from the battery’s operators on the ground.

Rafael officials say that the system was developed with cost efficiency in mind. “We were asked to develop a very inexpensive system,” says Uzi. “We invested a lot of money in developing the interceptor and the system in general. We did some very smart things and we tried to use very reliable components and systems. We also used a few innovations of our own that have kept costs down.”

Although Iron Dome does not have a perfect interception rate, defense establishment officials are pleased with its performance.

“The system’s capabilities are far beyond what we thought and expected when we started out four years ago,” says Uzi. “The plan was to hit rockets launched from 15 to 20 kilometers away, and now we have a system that intercepts rockets that are launched from 70 kilometers away and more. The system works beautifully. The excellent performance we’re seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Officials at mPrest take pride in the system’s sophisticated technology. “From a technological perspective, every one of its components is the only one of its kind in the world,” says Barak. “There is no interceptor like it on earth at this cost– not in terms of response time or the ability to expand the system. No other system can distinguish between various kinds of Qassam or Fajr rockets or other types of rockets and intercept them. The speeds are high and the interceptors are relatively small.

“There is no radar like this on earth because detecting these things is a very complicated business,” he says. “It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack – there’s a lot of noise and you have to be able to track the threat that’s in Israel. So there’s also a lot of interest in the system throughout the world.”

According to officials at Rafael, there are no other operational systems in the world that have proven as effective at short-range interception as Iron Dome.  And back to the cost thing: “Our price is one-tenth of any other similar missile on the market today,” says Uzi.

The Iron Dome command and control center is a technological platform with a number of applications that can reconfigure its various components and reshape them to create new uses, kind of like using the same Legos to construct very different models. Founded in 2003, mPrest, which has 120 employees, also develops systems for the Israel Electric Corporation and for border defense.

Barak says this kind of flexibility enables the system to adapt to future needs. “With Iron Dome’s command and control system, we’ll be able to fight the next wars, too. We know what the threat is today, but we don’t know what it will be tomorrow. So we built a system that’s flexible, has fantastic response and real-time threat management ability,” he says.

The Iron Dome system, which was built to respond to Israel’s unique defense challenges, will be exported to other countries on a commercial basis, becoming a source of income. Barak points to potential applications like protecting troops in Afghanistan and guarding strategic areas.

“Rocket warfare will exist throughout the world, and this is the only way to protect against it,” Barak says. He also notes the untapped possibilities. “The system is just starting out. It has used maybe ten percent of its potential.”

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Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Israel and its brave defense forces that are guarding all its people, Jews, Muslims and Christians, from the harm of terrorists.

Muscle Bots

As we celebrate the 238th year of our country’s independence from tyranny, we recall the quintessential American innovation – The Muscle Car. This automobile reflects our society and culture in driving for the biggest and fastest machine possible.  A parallel in the robotic world would be Atlas, big and strong (although a little clumsy). Just like the gas guzzlers of the 1970s, metal robots might soon become a collector’s item.

Earlier this week, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced a new powering scheme for robotics that leverages human muscle tissue with 3D printed components. This “3D-printed bio-bot” offers more precise control over its movements and a more dramatic range of motion, so it can navigate and change its movement in response to its environment. The rectangular robot measures about 0.2 inches (6 millimeters) long, and is constructed from a flexible, jelly-type material and fitted with two strips of engineered muscle tissue on either end.

“This type of skeletal muscle tissue could eventually replace conventional motors in robots,” said Carmel Majidi, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who is not involved in the study.  ”It could create an artificial muscle for limbs in a soft robot — like an artificial jellyfish or octopus — which can be used in search-and-rescue operations, underwater explorations, natural disaster relief — any scenario where we need a robot to squeeze into tight spaces,” Majidi told Live Science. “Basically, you want a robot that’s more lifelike.”

Skeletal muscle tissue is what drives human movement. It covers the bones and is attached by springy tendons that we can consciously control. When we contract skeletal muscles in certain parts of the body, we move — whether it’s a thigh while running or a slight twitch of the finger. To enable this technique, the researchers integrated skeletal muscle tissue engineered from a mouse cell line into a 3D-printed soft robot.  As reported a month ago, soft robots are a new type of robot in bio-engineering inspired by the strong yet stretchy structure and is made from flexible rather than rigid material, allowing it to move and adapt in new environments (see earlier post linked above). .

By integrating skeletal tissue into a soft robot, the researchers created a machine that can carry out more complex motor tasks and is capable of freer and more dynamic motion. The new soft robots would be lightweight, bio-compatible and match the elastic properties of natural muscle tissue, the researchers said. When the scientists tested the robot’s movement, they found that the bio-bot moved only when given an electric shock — giving operators more control over its movement compared to previous bio-bots engineered with cardiac tissue. 

If humans can control the robots to move only when they desire them to, that robot would thrive even better in sensitive or unpredictable work scenarios. These bots could potentially mimic the way our bodies move in response to our changing environments — whether it’s dodging a taxi or moving into our downward dog yoga pose.

In the study, the researchers write that “cell-based soft robotic devices could transform our ability to design machines and systems that can dynamically sense and respond to a range of complex environmental signals.”

Majidi said this type of integration of biological tissue with robotics could potentially lead to improving the design of prosthetic limbs, but such a feat is still far off into the future. “This is still early work and the potential advantages are speculative based on our current practical understanding/experiences,” Majidi said. “There’s much that remains to be done in tissue engineering and materials integration to have truly untethered and autonomous soft bio-hybrid robots.”

Currently, DARPA has expressed interest in soft robots for a variety of military uses, including for its Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) program launched in 2011, which is designing robots to assist war-fighters on the ground, however more civilian uses could be disaster recovery and medical assistance.

The fusion between bio-mechanics and robotics has opened the door for a new wave of organism that could eventually power themselves and self-populate.  Sounds like science fiction of a good summer movie, but in reality it is only a matter of time…