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Videos: DARwIn-OP Humanoid Application Challenge

The DARwIn-OP Humanoid Application Challenge took place at ICRA 2012 in Minnesota this month.  The goal of the challenge was to promote innovative, open-source projects in the DARwIn-OP community.  More than 13,000 students participated but only nine teams made it to the finals.  Projects were judged by Professor Dennis Hong (Virginia Tech), Professor Daniel Lee (University of Pennsylvania), and peer review among the finalists.

The winning team hails from The University of Manitoba’s Autonomous Agents Laboratory, who’s hockey-playing DARwIn-OP (nicknamed Jennifer) was able to “skate” on ice and rollerblades and shoot a puck with a pint-sized hockey stick.  As might be expected, the project quickly made headlines and appeared in broadcast news segments across Canada earlier this year.

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Another fun project came courtesy of a team from Drexel University’s Autonomous Systems Lab, who programmed the robot to drive a Roomba using a simplified steering column, acceleration, and brakes.  The robot’s vision system was able to track a black line, which informed it when to turn left and right.

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[source: ICRA 2012] & [Robotsource.org] via [IEEE Spectrum]




Book Review: Loving The Machine

Loving The Machine examines Japan’s unique relationship with robots. Author Tim Hornyak begins with a lesson on Japanese puppets and karakuri ningyo, which like Western clockwork automata can be considered the ancestors of modern robots. They’re not so far apart; Toyota’s wire-based robot and band are really nothing more than the modern expression of these traditions.

When, in the early 1920s, Japanese theaters produced Karl Capek’s R.U.R., it didn’t set audiences on fire.  But its robots, and those in movies like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis proved universally popular, inspiring people around the world to write science fiction novels starring mechanical men or create animatronic statues.  Japan was no exception, though many early “robots” (more works of art than robots in the true sense of the word) have been lost and have had to be reproduced based on photographs and precious diagrams.

Post-war interest in robotics was given a shot in the arm through popular comics and animated tv shows like Astro Boy and Gundam. A summary of the most popular series examines how the genre has evolved over the years from relatively simple beginnings to complex character studies. In this way, the first seventy odd pages establishes the context in which Japan was able to embrace (rather than fear) robots in all their forms. Of particular note is Japan’s rapid adoption of industrial robots, which were invented in the United States.

Guest Interview: Anthrobotic x Cybernetic Zoo

This week we’re hosting our first guest post ever.  It comes to us courtesy of the sometimes snarky but always entertaining Reno J. Tibke, the owner and operator of Anthrobotic.com.  This is his interview with Reuben Hoggett, the author of Cyberneticzoo.com, a huge archive of robot-related projects from the 20th century.  Enjoy!

anthrobotic: Hello, Mr. Hoggett. Let’s jump right in: what exactly is Cyberneticzoo.com?

The site is intended to be a resource on 20th century cybernetic machines, humanoid robots, and walking machines. It diverges now and then as some earlier interests rekindle themselves to the point of starting a new category, e.g., pneumatics in robots.

anthrobotic: And you occasionally dip into into the 21st century as well, yeah?

Yes, mainly if there are minimal items and the original idea has been re-born, e.g., exoskeletons, walking rickshaws, human-powered walking machines, and the like. Not modern humanoids such as ASIMO, they’re too numerous for the time it would take, and they are adequately covered by many others out there.

anthrobotic: Your site is an excellent resource, no doubt, but it’s pretty obscure. I found you through a very specific keyword and image query, and aside from search indexing or backlinking from the sites you’re sharing, email appears to be the only way to connect. Any desire to promote or gain wider exposure?

Most people who have contacted me via the site have been amazed by the researched material presented. I have helped several thesis students. Unfortunately, I’m not a website expert and some good info gets buried. But it is a treasure find for those who do scroll beyond the opening page. My only regret with a much larger audience would be my inability re: lack of available time to respond adequately to their questions, assuming they want to contact me.

anthrobotic: Okay, if not for money or fame, why did you build it?

My interest in all things robots is a lifetime one. Since a boy I had scrapbooks of robots, computers, rockets, flying saucers, medical science advances, telescopes, and other popular science topics. I think I reached a point where I asked myself what was I going to do with all this material, and I had a sense of, whilst it was a personal collection, it was potentially unique, and the last thing I wanted was for a lifetime’s effort to be trashed when I eventually pass away.

I first started sending articles about Edward Ihnatowicz and his cybernetic sculptures to Alex Zivanovic who has a wonderful site on the Senster. I also looked around for a similar site for my material, and that started the wonderful and ongoing relationship with David Buckley and his website on Robot History Makers.

I need to digress slightly. One of my other passions in life is classic Italian sports motorcycles, and noticing that some of the key engineers of the era were dying off, e.g., Taglioni of Ducati, Tonti of Moto Guzzi, etc., it occurred to me that possibly no one was recording the life of these unique individuals. Naturally, it also occurred to me that no one was recording the stories of the pioneers of cybernetic machines (e.g., Grey Walter) and robot artists (e.g., Bruce Lacey).

So in 2009 I planned a trip to Europe, including the UK, to at least catch up with those I was particularly interested in and whose contact information I could get. The trip included a visit with David Buckley, who eventually asked if he could join me. After that, I knew David didn’t have the time to publish more of my material, and that some of my interests were outside his main theme. I bit the bullet and started my own website.

Boston Dynamics Breaks Speed Record for Legged Robots

A number of quadrupeds are in various stages of development for DARPA’s Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) program.  In the past few months both Boston Dynamics and MIT’s Biomimetic Robotics Lab have published video footage of their robots in action.

Boston Dynamics is the program’s frontrunner.  It’s old news by now, but their nearly complete prototype has broken the land speed record for legged robots at 28.9 kph (18 mph). The previous record was set by the MIT Leg Lab’s pogo stick-like Planar Biped robot back in 1989.  It too was co-created by Marc Raibert, and bounded at a speed of 21 kph (13.1 mph).

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Cheetah is still tethered to an external power source and uses a boom to keep it centered on its treadmill, but the company says it will test an “unplugged” version later this year. If that doesn’t get you excited, Raibert has speculated that, with some improvements, the robot could achieve speeds of 64.3 kph (40 mph). Even if it eventually runs that fast it would still be slower than its flesh-and-blood inspiration, which has a top speed of 120 kph [75 mph]).

• Xianxingzhe

NUDT’s prototype biped robot

Waseda University’s humanoid and bipedal walking robots seen at the Expo ’85 world fair in Tsukuba inspired researchers from the Chinese National University of Defense Technology to build one of their own.  Having previously built an amphibious snake-like robot and some insect-like hexapods, a humanoid seemed like a suitable challenge.  In 1987 the researchers had managed to get a simple bipedal robot to walk, and in 1989 they began work on the upper body.  Finally on October 29th, 2000 they were ready to unveil the completed Xianxingzhe (先行者), which translates as “forerunner” or “pioneer”.

The final robot was able to walk at a rate of 2 steps per second, stood 140 cm (4’7″) tall, and weighed 20 kg (44 lbs).   It was controlled by an embedded PC and had a total of 17 degrees of freedom (head x1, 2 arms x2, 2 legs x6) powered by 100W motors.  The shoulder joint and elbow joint moved synchronously.  The lights in its eyes would blink, it was able to walk, turn, ascend stairs and step over small obstacles measuring about 4 cm (1.5 inches).  Interestingly the ears are actually speakers, not microphones!  The researchers believed that this technology could find practical use in limb rehabilitation, or perform work in toxic or radioactive areas.

As the first walking humanoid robot built in China it was a major technological breakthrough for the country, but its gangly appearance and simple (some might say cute) smiley face made it an easy target.

The victim of unfortunate timing, it was revealed the same year as Honda’s ASIMO, prompting a Japanese website to make direct comparisons between the two.  That Xianxingzhe was developed for a fraction of the cost made little difference to the average netizen, and the page satirizing the robot quickly grew in popularity.  Because the robot was built by a university of “defense technology”, the page claimed the cylindrical motors in its hips were actually a secret weapon: a crotch cannon.  A second page included humorous animated .gifs that showed how the robot would charge up its energy by rapidly squatting before letting loose a massive attack with a mighty pelvic thrust.

Video: Dr. GIY’s Dancing Robot Maid

Dr. GIY (a prominent member of the Japanese ROBO-ONE community) has designed and built a new custom robot.  At 52 cm (20.4 inches) tall Pre-maid Me won’t be doing the housework any time soon, but with a total of 27 degrees of freedom is capable of some pretty fancy footwork!  As is typical of most Japanese do-it-yourself robots, this one was built and programmed using Kondo servo and software (available in kit form as the Kondo KHR-3HV).

According to Dr. GIY, the robot’s dance routine is still a bit rough around the edges.  Once finished, we can expect something similar to his excellent choreography with this catty Manoi AT01.

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[source: Dr. GIY's website (JP)] & [Dr. GIY @ YouTube]

Visit the Cybernetic Zoo

Recently we exchanged links with Cybernetic Zoo, a website which focuses on all sorts of robot-related projects from the 20th century.  As such it’s a great companion to Plastic Pals (which has a decidedly 21st century focus).  While unearthing these obscure oddities you’ll be treated to a collection of photos (and sometimes rare video footage) from around the world.  It’s easy to lose hours wandering through the site’s various categories.

Even though we might classify quite a few of these “robots” as automatons or even puppets, they’re a record of the hopes and dreams of would-be roboticists from years gone by.  Some examples have interesting connections to the robots being built today.  Take for instance these entries on the NASA Robot Astronaut and Manny – both designed to do work similar to Boston Dynamics’ PETMAN.  Although it would be great to combine our sites together, for now we’ll have to make due with a simple link exchange.

RoboBuilder Launching New Big & Small Robots

RoboBuilder, a South Korean manufacturer of hobby robot kits, is set to launch two new do-it-yourself humanoids catering to very different markets.  They’ll make use of the company’s new Smart Actuator Modules (SAMs), which are compatible with the older wCK servos and numbered by their rated torque.  They were developed with the assistance of researchers at KwangWoon University and KIST.

The RQ-TITAN  (short for Technological Innovation Towards ANdroids) is a large kit that can be assembled to stand 84~100 cm (33″~39″) tall and weighs 8.5~10 kg (19~22 lbs).  In the photo up above you can see its legs standing next to the company’s current kit.

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Intended as a research platform for RoboCup’s TeenSize League, it is priced at a whopping 30,800,000 KRW  ($27,200 USD).  This is mainly because powerful servos like the SAM-170 and SAM-140 don’t come cheap (roughly $600 and $440 USD each respectively).  RoboBuilder may debut the RQ-TITAN in the TeenSize League at RoboCup this year in an attempt to one-up Robotis, a popular competing brand, which is also set to launch a TeenSize DARwIn robot sometime this year.

It comes with a 2-axis gyro sensor, 3-axis accelerometer, a USB camera, and is powered by a Windows-based Tiny PC.  The default configuration comes with 22 degrees of freedom: head x2 (SAM-28), chest and shoulder x4 (SAM-140), arms x2 (SAM-28), legs x14 (SAM-170EO).  It can also be expanded to include individually-actuated fingers and/or force sensors in its feet.  Furthermore it can be controlled via smartphone, Xbox 360 game pad, or puppeteered through a smaller robot.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the RQ-HUNO is a tiny humanoid kit that measures just 19 cm (7.4″) tall, making it one of the smallest kits in the world (4 cm shorter than the Robovie-nano and 4 cm taller than the BeRobot).  It has a total of 16 degrees of freedom using a combination of SAM-5 and SAM-3 servos, which pack just enough power for its small stature.

Given that it will likely be cheaper than the company’s flagship model (which can be had for $420 USD), the RQ-HUNO is set to be a very attractive entry-level kit.  Hopefully it will actually launch with the exoskeleton options seen in the conceptual rendering, because if it does it’s not too far off from something like the cute J4.  The only problem I have with it is the feet and ankle assembly seems a bit cramped.  A video of the robot can be viewed after the break.

[source: RoboBuilder] & [Cafe Daum RoboBuilder (KR)] via [RoboSavvy]