Monday, June 23, 2008

The Robots Rule, Eat Flies, etc.

The world’s six most useful robots
1 EcoBot
A revolution in robotics. The robot, developed at the University of Bristol, is designed to power itself by eating flies. Feed the EcoBot a dead bluebottle every so often, and it will digest the insect in one of its eight microbial fuel cells, each filled with sewage slurry teeming with bacteria. A sugar compound in the fly's exoskeleton is extracted and metabolised by the bacteria to generate energy, which is turned into electricity. 'The idea is that it could go places we don't or can't go and send back information,' says Ioannis Ieropoulos of the EcoBot team. It might take temperature readings, or toxic gas measurements. For now EcoBot's achievements seem modest. In endurance tests, eight flies lasted the bot for 12 days, but it only moved for a few seconds every 14 minutes. And its developers aren't sure how it will attract its food. It's not yet WALL-E, nor is it autonomous, but it's on the way.

2 Big Dog
It may be the best known kick on the internet. A man in a car park kicks a strange, spooky, headless thing with four legs. The thing staggers, then it rights itself. The thing is a robot; the humming noise, the engine that powers it. Made by Boston Dynamics and partly funded by the Pentagon outfit that brought us the internet, Big Dog is designed to be a military pack animal. It is powered by a gas engine, has a ball for each foot, and can walk or trot at a maximum of four mph. It can distinguish terrain, carry 165lb and cross ditches.

3 Robonaut
It's either an advanced piece of space robotics, or Boba Fett on a skateboard. Robonaut, with its 'centurion-inspired' helmet, is Nasa's star robot. Its torso is meant to look human, but not too much: research shows that humanoid robots can only look so human before humans freak out. 'Robonaut was designed to work with the same tools and interfaces that have been built for an astronaut's gloved hand,' says Ron Diftler, project manager at Nasa's Johnson Space Centre in Houston. Eventually, it will 'assist astronauts with tasks the same way a nurse helps a doctor, and provide maintenance on lunar or Martian bases between astronaut visits.'

4 NeuroArm
Last month, a Canadian woman became the first person to have a robot's hands inside her head. Controlled by a neurosurgeon at a computer workstation, neuroArm worked for nine hours to remove a tumour from Paige Nickason's head. NeuroArm, developed at the University of Calgary, has a sense of touch, a necessity in brain surgery, where surgeons judge how to proceed by how soft the brain is. And for precision, the two robotic arms are peerless.

5 Wakamuru
This rotund, yellow, black-eyed robot, launched by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in 2005, was the first properly useful helper robot for the home. It can talk to its elderly owner; recognise faces and voices; download from the net and relay the news out loud; and send an urgent call to a hospital or police station.

6 Swarm robots
If you have a problem with creepy-crawlies, look away now. These tiny, sugar-cubed sized robots, developed by the EU-funded Symbrion project, work like insects, grouping themselves into a mass, then reconfiguring into the most useful position. They can power each other, and will soon be able to home in on the nearest 220V socket to charge themselves. Swarm robots could be sent into earthquake zones, where they could get into small spaces to sense survivors, or form chains back to rescue-workers.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Monkeys and Robots... A Powerful Pairing!!!

Mind over matter: monkeys control robots with brain power

PARIS (AFP) — Scientists have trained monkeys to manipulate a robotic arm solely with brain power, and could soon help amputees and paralysed stroke victims do the same, according to a study released Wednesday.

Immobilised monkeys with electrode filaments inserted into their cerebral cortext learned in only days to reach out with the free-standing prosthesis, pluck a tasty morsel with a pincer-like claw, and pop it in their mouths. When the path of the arm -- positioned next to the shoulder -- was deliberately blocked, the animals simply willed it around the obstacle with their minds, says the study, published in Nature.

"The entire task is now performed with brain control," Andrew Schwartz, the lead researcher and a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, told AFP.

In preliminary experiments, also with Macaca mulatta monkeys, computers assisted with various parts of the task, he explained. The study's findings are the first reported use of a so-called "brain-machine interface" (BMI) to perform a practical action in three dimensions -- in this case feeding oneself -- purely via brain control of a computerized arm, noted John Kalaska, an expert on the central nervous system at the University of Montreal.

Strokes, spinal cord injuries and degenerative neuromuscular diseases cripple tens of thousands of people every year, rendering the simplest of actions -- opening a door, scratching an itch, drinking a glass of water -- frustratingly difficult or impossible.

Those afflicted with the most severe form of paralysis, known as locked-in syndrome, are fully-conscious prisoners inside a body that no longer responds to the most basic of commands.
"These patients are still able to produce the brain activity that would normally result in voluntary movements," explained Kalaska.

"But their condition prevents those signals from either getting to the muscles or activating them," he said in a commentary, also in Nature.
Schwartz's experiments provide the most tantalising hope to date that paralysis victims can one day short-circuit their own nervous system by hardwiring their brains directly to a computerized robot.

"Hopefully we will be implanting microelectrode arrays [in humans] in the next two years," Schwartz told AFP.

"At that point it should be relatively easy to perform this kind of task," he said.
In the meantime, Schwartz and his team are making improvements on the robotic arm, adding points of articulation in the wrist and hand to the five already built in -- three at the shoulder, one at the elbow, and one at the hand.

This does not mean that "neuroprosthetic robots will soon be available at the local rehabilitation clinic," cautions Kalakska, who says several barriers remain before such devices can be easily deployed.

The long-term reliability of the electrodes -- about the breadth of a human hair -- must be vastly improved.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Robo-Ladies of Note

The amazingly realistic female android, named Actroid DER 2, was demonstrated at the AKIBA Robot Festival here in the Akihabara district of Tokyo. For more information visit Robots Dreams at