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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.

• Nico

Nico without his usual Yale sweatshirt

Nico is an upper-body humanoid robot developed at Yale University’s Social Robotics Lab, under the direction of Brian Scassellati (who cut his teeth on MIT’s Cog and Kismet).  Originally built circa 2004 to mimic the proportions of a one year old child, it has continued to serve as a research platform ever since.

Nico uses a similar mechanical set-up to the aforementioned bots, with a simple head (featuring two cameras per eye for wide and narrow fields of vision), a pair of arms, and a torso bolted to a table.  Microphones for speech recognition are placed apart from the robot’s body, along with a bank of sixteen computers used for image processing and other tasks. Its body (such that it is) has a total of 22 degrees of freedom (head x6, 2 arms x6, right hand x2, back and waist x2).

In 2007, Nico was touted as the first robot to recognize itself in a mirror.  Scassellati referred to the trick as “this dumb simple algorithm”.  Basically, Nico could classify what it was seeing as “self”, “other”, or “neither”. While it was not exactly the eureka moment it was made out to be in the press, it’s a start.

• Adam

Malte Ahlers, a student of neurobiology in Germany, has built a humanoid robot torso called Adam (Advanced Dual Arm Manipulator), or A1 for short.  Although the project is still somewhat early in development, the hardware side of things has been in the works for around two years already.

Unlike many personal projects that opt for hobby servos from Robotis (or another company), Adam’s arms have five degrees of freedom actuated by robolink joints from Igus, a German robotics company.

The robolink joints have both pivot and rotation – ideal for building robot arms – but they use external cables for their rotation (much like a pulley: one for clockwise and another for counter-clockwise rotation).  The resulting bundle of cables had to be routed to planetary gear motors inside the torso, and he had to build a motor controller to read out the position encoders in the joints in order to drive the motors with position control.  As a proof of concept, he has posted a video showing one of the shoulders moving.  He’ll have to pack many more motors into Adam’s torso to get the other arm moving.

• Hector

Recently the CompanionAble project wrapped after four years of research and development, having received €7.8M euros in funding under the EU Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). The project was a collaboration between 18 organizations from France, Austria, Germany, Spain, Belgium, England, and the Netherlands. Stichting Smart Homes, a group from the Netherlands, developed an assisted-living scenario that integrated a robotic companion (named Hector) with a smart home environment. Then the project’s target demographic (elderly people with mild cognitive impairments) were invited to test the system by living with it for two days.

Hector, developed by Germany’s MetraLabs Robotics, scoots around the house and interacts with people through both verbal commands and a touch screen interface. It’s one of several mobile robots developed by the company, which carry odd-sounding names like SCITOS G3 (Hector’s official name).

It’s pretty amazing how the simple addition of eyes can give an entirely different feeling to an otherwise lifeless mechanical object. Hector can carry small objects, like your keys, but is primarily meant to be a personal organizer. It can remind you when to take your medication, alert you to scheduled appointments, and suggest activities. The project suggests that, should a robot the likes of Honda’s ASIMO ever be capable of fulfilling such a role, it will be highly prized in this sector for its ability to project an even more human-like personal assistant.

Photos: Robot Expo Korea 2012

Robot Expo Korea 2012 attracted more than 20,000 visitors last week in the city of Gwanju.  Around 1,600 students from elementary, middle and high schools competed in the 14th International Robot Olympiad.  There were robot soccer, dance, and design competitions.  In addition a trade fair took place where a total of 47 companies presented their products and technology, including vacuum cleaners, artificial fish, rovers, agricultural robots and educational kits.

To be honest there isn’t much to report, since there were few humanoids on display other than the Robotis DARwIn-OP and Robobuilder kits.  However, one new guide robot made an appearance.  It was developed by Junsung E&R (a company formed in 2005 that specializes in renewable energy technology), and bears a striking resemblance to a certain Pixar robot character.

Hm… Robots don’t appear to be the company’s strong suit.  Not that it matters; South Korea is overflowing with simple guide robots as it is!  A selection of photos is tucked after the break.

[source: Robot Expo 2012] via [Gwanju Info (KR)]

Videos: Tichno Ad, Chinese Segways, MIT Cheetah, & Curiosity

Another week, another set of robot videos to watch.  First we’ve got a new television commercial airing in Japan featuring seven Vstone Tichnos (humanoid robots developed specifically to promote stores and products).  They’re modeling a new line of durable school bags from Nitori, but it’s their Vocaloid singing voices which have caused something of a stir among audiences who are wondering if it is really Hatsune Miku’s voice.


[source: Nitori movie @ YouTube] via [Jcast (JP)]

• SDUST Baby

The Shandong University of Science and Technology (SDUST) celebrated its 60th anniversary in late 2011 with the birth of the SDUST Baby. The robot, which stands roughly 170 cm (5’7″) tall, was developed in less than a year by four professors and eight students specifically for the anniversary.  It uses an LCD screen to display a variety of facial expressions such as laughing, crying, and so on.  It has 1 degree of freedom in its neck, 1 in its waist, and 4 per arm (shoulder x2, elbow x1, wrist x1).

Its head-mounted camera is used for face recognition, and it features some degree of speech recognition and synthesis.  For example, the researchers entered the photos and names of prominent alumni who would attend the anniversary event, allowing the SDUST Baby to name them on sight.  In another demonstration, the robot repeats words spoken by a researcher. The robot performed a simple dance routine to the tune of the school anthem for reporters before it was assigned to greet visitors at the school’s Historical Exhibition Hall celebrating the school’s accomplishments.

Granted, it’s not going to win any awards on its technical merits, but at least they took some time to make it look friendly (unlike say AndyVision, a recent example by the much more affluent CMU).  The research team had previously worked on industrial robots (this is their first service robot).  One of the team members said they plan to develop smaller, more refined service robots in the future.  A few more photos and videos follow after the break.

[source: SDUST, 2, 3, 4, SDKD, Sohu (CN)]