Monday, November 8, 2010

RoboCop Comes Home

Protecting Your Home From Afar With a Robot
Photo from NY Times

When Robert Oschler, a programmer, leaves his home, he knows it is secure. And if he ever has cause for concern, he can open his laptop and survey the house through the eyes of his watchdogs.

“I don’t have any pets. I just have pet robots, and they’re pretty well behaved,” Mr. Oschler said. “Fortunately I’ve never logged in and seen a human face.”

His robot, a modified version of the Rovio from WowWee, has a camera, microphone and speakers atop a three-wheeled platform. From anywhere with a Net connection, he can send his robot zipping around the house, returning a video signal along the way.

“As creepy as it sounds, you could even talk to the guy and say, ‘Get out of there. There’s nothing valuable. I’m calling the police,’ ” he said.

For all its power and ability, the Rovio is usually found in a store’s toy section for about $170. Other robots from toy makers, like Meccano, are there as well. Outfitting a house with a fleet of robot guards is no longer just for those with the wealth of Bond villains.

Home security is blossoming for toy makers who can match the technical power and flexibility of the computer industry with the mass-market prices that come from large production runs. Low prices are a trade-off, however, because many people find that the reliability of the lower-priced robots is adequate for home experimentation but far from ready for a task like guarding Fort Knox.

“You should buy two,” said Mr. Oschler, who lives in South Florida.

The off-the-shelf unit is ready to explore after a simple installation involving the computer, but Mr. Oschler added a few enhancements to the software, which he distributes at His version improves the audio and video quality and offers more sophisticated programming options that create routines and paths for the robots to follow.

Mr. Oschler has even wired his robot to a headset that picks up the subtle electrical activity produced by his brain.

“When I tilt my head, the robot goes left. When you do that, it’s a Matrix-like moment,” he said proudly.

Other robot owners have modified their guard-bots, too. Peter Redmer, of Illinois, a online community manager at, said his site gathered the collective wisdom of the toy robots. One hobbyist in China, Qiaosong Wang, posted pictures of his Rovio after he added a small fire extinguisher and software that can detect the shape of fire.

“One of the goals is to create something that the consumer can enjoy without pricing it at $5,000 or $10,000 with military-grade technology,” Mr. Redmer said.

Others have experimented with adding software for aiming the camera or enhancements like better lights for patrolling at night.

Mr. Redmer said he was most interested lately in the Parrot AR.Drone, a flying robot priced at $300. “It flies. How much cooler does it get?” he asked.

Not all of the innovation is attached to something that moves. Several companies are matching sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms with video cameras. These systems monitor the video feed and sound alarms when objects of a certain shape appear.

I tried some software called Vitamin D that lets me watch my office. It raises flags — by beeping — whenever anyone walks in. It requires a computer and detects video signals from attached cameras. (A single-camera version is free, and the cost can rise to $199, at

Archerfish makes surveillance cameras with sophisticated filters for detecting and distinguishing people, vehicles and other random movement. The models, at, include either one or four cameras for $400 to $1,400.

I also spent some time with a Spykee, a robot made by the French company Meccano that sells toys in the United States under the brand name Erector. Several models of Spykee robots are at, for $110 to $300.

The company, perhaps best known for its Erector sets, designed the Spykee as a kit that required some basic assembly. The essential gears and electronics come in a prebuilt base, and attaching the arms takes an hour or so.

“It’s a toy, but many people use it as surveillance robot,” said Jennifer Briand, the product manager for Spykee. By aiming at children, Ms. Briand said, “We wanted a product that they could drive on their own like a spy, play jokes on their brothers and sisters, and protect their bedroom because at that age they don’t like their sister coming in.”

Still, she said the use as a surveillance robot was a bit of a surprise..."

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

May I please have the hall pass, Mr. Roboto?

"A Robot in Every Korean Kindergarten by 2013?"

If you want humans to fear and respect their robot overlords you have to start early. Elementary school children in Korea in the cities of Masan and Daegu are among the first to be exposed to robotic teachers. Among them is a robotic English instructor named EngKey developed by the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST). EngKey can hold scripted conversations with students to help them improve their language skills, or a modified version can act as a telepresence tool to allow distant teachers to interact with children. The arrival of EngKey to Masan and Daegu is just a small step in the mechanization of Korean classrooms: the Education Ministry wants all 8400 kindergartens in the nation to have robotic instructors by the end of 2013. Watch out kids, you don’t want to misbehave when your teacher can crush you in its metallic grip.

EngKey can be a harsh mistress. This child mispronounced his sentence and was told to repeat it. Don't worry kid, just go off script and you'll cause the bot to fry a wire.
As we reported earlier in the year, Korea has been looking to expand the role of robotic assistants in classrooms. Most models, including EngKey, act primarily in support roles for real human teachers. Rightfully so. EngKey can’t handle improvisation, and students must follow a script carefully when practicing their pronunciation with the robot. The value of the bot comes in the student’s fascination and comfort with a toy-like device. Students aren’t intimidated as they may be with an adult, can more freely make mistakes, and hopefully, learn from them. Preschoolers seem to respond well to another robot used in classrooms, Genibo the dog. Teachers can use Genibo to show children dance and gymnastic moves, and their interest in the device helps maintain their attention through the lesson.

Of course, the novelty of robots can wear off with continued exposure, and I’m not sure about the longterm use of robots as attention-getting assistants. In second grade I really loved learning using audio books on a cassette, but I quickly figured out it was the same lectures as I normally got in the classroom, just captured on tape. Korea’s probably right to focus the first wave of their robotics programs at the youngest children. CNN reports that the Education Ministry is hoping to have 830 bots in preschools by year’s end. At that age, a robot may stay interesting for a longer time. Eventually, however, robots that can’t act like humans are going to have a hard time of instructing human children..."

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Another small step for man, but a giant leap for Robots!"

>>>>>>>>>>Accessed from NY Times>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>NASA

"NASA’s Quest to Send a Robot to the Moon"
"For $150 billion, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration could have sent astronauts back to the Moon. The Obama administration judged that too expensive, and in September, Congress agreed to cancel the program.

For a fraction of that — less than $200 million, along with about $250 million for a rocket — NASA engineers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston say they can safely send a humanoid robot to the Moon. And they say they could accomplish that in a thousand days.

The idea, known as Project M, is almost a guerrilla effort within NASA, cooked up a year ago by Stephen J. Altemus, the chief engineer at Johnson. He tapped into discretionary money, pulled in engineers to work on it part time, and horse-traded with companies and other NASA units to undertake preliminary planning and tests. “We’re doing impossible things with really very little, if any, money whatsoever,” Mr. Altemus said.

A humanoid dextrous robot — at least the top half — already exists: Robonaut 2, developed by NASA and General Motors, is packed on the shuttle Discovery, scheduled for liftoff on Wednesday.

Bound for the International Space Station, it will be the first humanoid robot in space. It is to help with housekeeping chores at the space station as NASA learns how astronauts and robots can work together. Eventually, an upgraded Robonaut is to take part in spacewalks.

Project M also draws on other NASA projects that were already under way, including rocket engines that burn liquid oxygen and methane — a cheap and nontoxic fuel combination — and an automated landing system that could avoid rocks, cliffs and other hazards.

Integrating the technologies into working prototypes sped up development. “That’s the magic,” Mr. Altemus said. “A lot of times technologies end up in the lab cooking, and then there’s this valley of death where they never get to maturation or to flight.”

Project M’s planners say that a robot walking on the Moon would capture the imagination of students, just as the Apollo Moon landings inspired a generation of scientists and engineers 40 years ago..."
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