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• Robot and Frank

Robot and Frank generated some buzz at the Sundance Film Festival, and I’m happy to report that it wasn’t just hype. It’s a genuinely entertaining character study set in the next 50 years that manages to be both funny and surprisingly touching. And while it is a relatively small independent film you wouldn’t know it from the cast, which includes recognizable stars Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, and Liv Tyler (with Peter Sarsgaard providing the voice for the titular robot).  Langella is a perfect fit for the part, and if you’re sick of the tiresome trope of the killer robot you’ll find the film’s premise totally refreshing.

As a younger man Frank was a cat burglar, and even though he’s well over the hill old habits die hard. The problem is his memory ain’t what it used to be, and with his independence quickly deteriorating his son Hunter brings him the latest in assistive robot technology.

As might be expected, Frank is none too thrilled about the prospect of a robot babysitter. The VGC-60L humanoid is about the size of a child and speaks with a neutral voice a bit like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In appearance it looks less impressive technically than Honda’s ASIMO – boxier and rougher around the edges – more akin to the Russian humanoids Arne and Arnea.

Videos: Walking Paper, Bionic Ankles, & Swiss Quadruped

Another week, another robot video round-up!  To start off with let’s take a look at an impressive arts and crafts project: a walking paper robot!  Of course, Japan has a long history of making cool things out of paper: from traditional origami to the more detailed papercraft models, but this takes things to a new level.  Although it does make use of some wooden shafts and elastics for power, we’re going to let that slide.

Taipei Int’l Robot Show 2012

The Taipei International Robot Show (TIROS) 2012 runs from August 29th~31st this week, where 450 exhibitors from around the world are demonstrating their latest technology products and projects.  Visitors can check out the latest automated guided vehicles, vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, and hobby kits dancing in traditional dress, to name just a few.

In recent years Taiwan has been investing in factory automation robots and is gradually moving towards the research and development of service robots.  Following the lead of other countries in Asia and Europe, Taiwanese experts believe that Taiwan’s aging population will need the added support.

However it is HugBot, a friendly polar bear, which has quickly become the star of the show.   Made by Taiwanese company UrRobot, the robot hugs you for five to six seconds to measure your pulse. It is equipped with a microphone to detect when you are ready before opening its arms to wait for your embrace.  The company says it could find a place in elementary schools, amusement parks, and children’s hospitals.

Around fourteen examples from Taiwan have been grouped together as examples of the nation’s prowess. One of these, from researchers at National Formosa University, is the Super Black Mamba, a biomimetic robot which imitates the smooth motion of a snake.Next year researchers will begin testing surgical robots for the first time, which are less invasive and thus shorten recovery time.  A few more photos and a video follow after the break.

[sources: HiNet, Lihpao, (CN)]

For His Latest Trick, Dr. Guero’s Biped Balances

Having previously programmed his Kondo KHR-3HV hobby robot to walk on stilts and ride a bicycle, the good Dr. Guero is now refining the robot’s overall balance.  The pseudonym is a reference to a character from the popular manga and animated television series Dragon Ball Z, for a scientist who has worked at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology and Boston Dynamics.

To begin with you’ll notice the robot’s feet have been trimmed down considerably (technical details aren’t readily available, but it appears from the wires in the above photo that he has placed new sensors there).  Of course it is able to balance on one foot (something most hobby robot kits can do quite easily on a flat surface), but things are taken a step further by placing weights on the robot’s extremities, which appear to have little effect on its balance.  The robot is then shown walking forwards and backwards (without rotation) on an incline, and reacting to external disturbances by quickly side-stepping.

Monday Mobile Suit Madness

Japan’s real life 4 meter tall robot project (the one by Hajime Sakamoto, not to be confused with the KURATAS) was demonstrated live this weekend at a Monozukuri festival.  Monozukuri is a term which translates along the lines of “crafting things” or “manufacturing”.  As we’ve mentioned in previous articles, Hajime Sakamoto has been crafting humanoid robots for many years.  His smaller robots are the preferred platform by RoboCup soccer teams from Japan and Germany.  His stated goal is to one day build a working version of the Gundam mobile suits.

For the uninitiated, Gundam is a long-running animated television series that is as popular in Japan as Star Wars is in the United States.  The stories, which have mesmerized viewers for more than 30 years, revolve around military conflicts between Earth and its interplanetary colonies.  The stars of the show are often the pilots of the mobile suits, which supplement the armies’ fleet of space ships.  In recent years the series has been celebrated with a life-sized statue of its titular robot, but Sakamoto won’t be satisfied until he sees one walking.  That’s where the 4 meter robot steps into the picture.

Videos: Meet The Creator of KURATAS & More

It’s not every Friday we can bring you a selection of cool robot videos, but this week we can!  We begin with this short interview with Kogoro Kurata, the creator of the world famous KURATAS mecha.  Having joined YouTube less than one month ago, his videos have already racked up more than 3,000,000 views.  Now we get to meet the man behind the mecha, and thankfully the video comes with English subtitles.

Honda Launching Robotic Lawn Mowers In Europe Next Year

Normally we don’t cover consumer robotics products, but Honda has sweetened the deal with these photos of ASIMO and, well, we’re suckers for the little guy.  The Miimo (strange, you’d think they would have called them ASIMOwers) will hit the booming European robotic mower market sometime next year.

Available in two specifications, the Miimo 300 and 500 (for perimeters up to 300 and 500 meters respectively) will likely have different battery capacities but will otherwise be identical.  It will roam a patch of earth, keeping within the boundaries you set with wires (which can be buried underground to maintain a clean appearance).

• pMA Gorilla “Lucy”

While there are now dozens of full-body humanoid robots in existence, there are few based on our primate relatives.  Even the robot Bonobo, named after a species of Chimpanzee, is humanoid in shape.  If you’re looking for truly apish bots the Gibbon-like Brachiator robots built at Nagoya University, Japan, are perhaps the most well-known examples.

This seems like a waste given that the primate form offers researchers the chance to explore both bipedal and quadrupedal locomotion in one robot. In particular, a gorilla robot could benefit from the stability afforded by its four-legged stance but also balance on two legs to perform manipulation tasks.  As luck would have it there is one, nicknamed Lucy…

Between 2002~2004 Steven Davis (with the help of Darwin Caldwell) sought to explore these possibilities with the pMA Gorilla as part of his PhD at the University of Salford.  He describes the bio-mimetic approach as analyzing an animal and breaking it down to create a simplified (yet functional) artificial model.  In fact, a robot doesn’t necessarily need to replicate every part of an animal for it to be useful as a research platform.  Taking cues from a female gorilla’s anatomy, he did some necessary surgery and opted for pneumatic muscle actuators (pMAs) rather than electric geared motors to drive the robot’s limbs.