Robot Roundup Spring 2017

Time for an occasional robot roundup, where we look at advances in robotics.

Cobots. One of the big trends at the moment is development of cobots, or collaborative robots. It’s a friendly name for you helping the robot do its work until you are no longer needed, though they advertise these as robots to work with humans.

For example, here’s a robotic arm that can be placed next to humans and do work such as screwing, drilling, and buffing. The big innovation? Torque control, to be able to detect when it collides with anything at all. Previous robotic arms hand a tendency to snap humans in half if they collided. This one can avoid those sorts of accidents.

You program it by moving the arm and tapping on a touchscreen. At $10,500, it makes for an inexpensive employee. One more thing, it can do 80% of the work required to build a replica of itself. Employee manuals may need to be updated to allow robotic arms to mate at work.

If you have been wishing for a small blimp to follow you and gather information about you, you are in luck! Georgia Institute of Technology researchers have now created autonomous blimps that can detect faces and hands, and allow people to direct the blimps with movements. The blimp gathers information about the human operator, “identifying everything from hesitant glares to eager smiles.” The goal is to better understand how people interact with flying robots, presumably because there will be a lot of them soon.

“Imagine a blimp greeting you at the front of the hardware store, ready to offer assistance,” one of the developers said. Yes. And imagine the swarm of blimps ready to help shoppers stampede on Black Friday. That should be fun.

Robot Snakes! A waterproof snake robot can now slither, shimmy, rear up, and climb metal walls using magnets in its body. Just $60,000 for one of these. It has cameras at the head, and can be outfitted with gas, vibration, or other sensors. “With our robots, everything is about augmenting human performance, it’s not about eliminating the human being.” All-seeing snakes, however, your days are numbered.

They’d like to see these used to explore hard-to-reach places, such as sewer lines.


Robot Construction Work. Need a robot that aims to replace a construction crew? This one has a sprayer at the end of an arm that can be programmed to “print” a formwork that can be used to hold and shape concrete. Imagine a big robotic arm with a large supply of spray foam insulation. It’s programmed to spray this into a shape, such as a dome, slowly building up the structure layer by layer. The foam can be left in place afterward as insulation.

Researchers have also tried autonomously embedding rebar, and chains that have been autonomously welded into rigid shapes. It can be solar-powered and isn’t limited to foam – electro-sintered powdered glass, thermally deposited ice, and compressed earth containing gravel and hay fibers have been used.

How about a Tarzan robot that swings like a sloth? It is designed for use by farmers, and long-term, persistent environmental monitoring and treatment of plants on an individual basis. This bot swings around by grabbing overhead wires and could, they think, watch over a field better than humans.

Also for farmers, there’s a new weed-punching robot. This agricultural robot can autonomously detect and physically obliterate individual weeds in a tenth of a second. It can recognize leaf shapes, and do some precision pounding of both weed sprouts and developed plants. “The maximum capability of the system is about 1.75 weeds per second at a speed of 3.7 cm/s and a weed density of 43 weeds per meter, but at lower weed densities, the speed can be cranked up to 9 cm/s.” No poisons, just some robotic arm elbow grease.


Controlling Robots With Your Brain. Here we are back with cobots, again. MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Boston University is working a feedback system that lets people correct robot mistakes instantly using their brain waves, if they are hooked up to an EEG monitor.

It can handle binary, yes-no situations well, but not quite in real-time yet. “As you watch the robot, all you have to do is mentally agree or disagree with what it is doing,” says a developer.


Companies Are Buying Robots at Record Pace. The Robotics Industries Association published a report stating that “North American companies bought 32 percent more robots compared with the first quarter of 2016,” making this the strongest first quarter sales for robots in North America. Prices have also dropped, by 3%.

The RIA says that these are mostly being used to boost productivity.

Of course, the National Bureau of Economic Research says robots have taken 670,000 manufacturing jobs between 1990 and 2007, and that wages dropped when robots entered the workplace.

This leads computational engineering professor Moshe Vardi to a big question: “if machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?” He cites the example of driverless vehicles vs. the 10% of jobs that require operating a vehicle, and suggests that 2045 is about the time machines could overtake humans.


Robot Uprising 7th On Life-Ending List. A UK betting site asked around and crunched the odds for a variety of ways the Earth might end. Robot uprising comes in at number 7. Phew!

The odds favor the sun expanding and swallowing us, Judgement Day, global pandemic, nuclear apocalypse, natural disaster, and bioweapons, in that order.

Comments | 2

  • Electric Deer in Solar Headlights

    The implications of this series are as clear as the Walls closing in scene from Indiana Jones. To put it another way, the walls are closing in, people are being made obsolete. With each report, automation and implementation gains, humanism loses. There are obviously up-sides to technology, but I hardly think the ideal is to obviate humanity by way of market driven rampage.

    It’s the same stuck-in-place-as-the-tide-rolls in motif, that we see with climate change, or authoritarianism. There’s a prevailing notion that people know better, something is not quite right, the message is out there, but we can’t muster what it takes to ACT.

  • Planned Obsolescence

    This story would be funny if it weren’t so horrifying. It’s also one of the reasons I despise the big tech companies so completely. They know they’re obsoleting us, and they really don’t care! My theory is that rather than support the armies of unemployed that will result from their profitable ingenuity, they’ll find a way of truly consigning us to the junk heap. Forget universal basic income. Population “control,” anyone?

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