Aaron Dollar Wins Prestigious "MIT Tech Review 2010 Young Innovators Under 35 Award" (TR35) for Creating Flexible Robotic Hands

Shape Deposition Molding (SDM) Robot Hands

Dr. Aaron Dollar of Yale's GRAB Lab was recently awarded the prestigious "MIT Tech Review 2010 Young Innovators Under 35" award, better known as TR35, for his work on building flexible robot hands through shape deposition manufacturing (SDM).  The SDM process allows multiple materials to be integrated into a single mechanism, including soft finger pads, compliant joints, rigid members, sensors, and even tubes to run wires and cables.  In fact, this is the same / similar process by which the Meka Robotics H2 Hand (eg. on Simon) is constructed.  Anyway, this is a promising trend for robotics research; TR35 seems to consistently recognise the contributions of top roboticists, such as Andrea Thomaz (2009), Andrew Ng (2008), Robert Wood (2008), Josh Bongard (2007), etc. Congratulations Aaron!

Velodyne HDL-32E: A New High-End Laser Rangefinder

Velodyne HDL-32E Laser Rangefinder

Today Velodyne Lidar introduced the HDL-32E, a new laser rangefinder with 32 simultaneously-operating laser beams that cumulatively output up to 800,000 points per second.  The new laser rangefinder provides full 360° scans at up to 20 Hz with ranges from 5 cm to 100 meters and a vertical field of view from +10° to -30° (datasheet).  The entire device is very compact at just 8.5 cm in diameter and 15 cm tall -- not much larger than a soda can!  The HDL-32E has a list price of $29,900 and is expected to ship in the next few weeks, apparently to meet a pretty hefty initial demand.  The new laser rangefinder is the successor to the Velodyne HDL-64E, a vastly successful device that was pivotal for many DARPA Grand Challenge autonomous cars and even saw applications in cutting-edge music videos.  I have high hopes for this new LIDAR. 

PR2 Video Contest Results: $10k in Aggregate Cash Prizes

PR2 Robot by Willow Garage

While Willow Garage made an important announcement about the forthcoming commercial availability of PR2 robots earlier this week, I want to focus your attention on something a bit more whimsical.  At the PR2 launch party, Willow Garage founder (Scott Hassan) was throwing around the idea of a PR2 video competition for PR2 Beta Program recipients, complete with substantial cash prize.  True to his word, Scott set up a rules / video submission site; in a nutshell: the competition deadline was Aug. 17th, had $10k in aggregate prize money, and was to be judged by Scott, his wife, and his children.  Today the results were announced on the pr2-users mailing list.  You can find (all?) the submitted videos, including the winners, embedded below -- check 'em out and let us know which is your favorite in the comments!

Telescoping Robot Arm for Wheelchair-Mounted Object Retrieval

Telescoping Robot Arm Mounted to a Wheelchair

Two weeks ago, Engadget / CrunchGear posted videos of RAPUDA (Robotic Arm for Persons with Upper limb DisAbilities) from AIST's Intelligent Systems Research Institute -- a wheelchair-mounted, light-weight robot arm with a prominent telescoping link that was demonstrated grasping a cup from a table, lifting the cup for drinking, and grasping an object from the floor via teleoperation (video embedded below).  Given my proclivity for clever mechanisms, I wanted details about the telescoping link, specifically to determine how it compares to the Geosystems Situational Awareness Mast (aka Zippermast).  Well, I found what I was looking for: a Japanese patent application for "Linearly Moving Extendable Mechanism and Robot Arm Equipped with Linearly Moving Extendable Mechanism."  Basically, the telescoping segment consists of a series of small interlocking modules that are expelled (or reeled-in) through the "shoulder" link.  Check out the pictures -- cool stuff!

Electrotactile Arrays for Texture and Pressure Feedback During Robotic Teleoperation

Electrotactile array for viewing images on your forehead.

Electrotactile arrays are a lesser-known form of human-machine interface (HMI) that apply electric current to skin-contacting surface electrodes to excite cutaneous nerves and give the illusion of texture, pressure, or pinpricks (depending on current strength and electrode resolution) all without mechanical vibration.  This technique has been around for many years for:  non-visual fighter pilot status displays, tongue interfaces, surgery guides, and for forehead-mounted camera displays for the blind.  Enough background... The exciting news is a recent product developed by Senseg and Toshiba Information Systems called "E-Sense" that successfully embeds an electrotactile display into a touchpad, LCD, or other curved surface (eg. all over a cellphone), thereby providing programmable high-resolution texture feedback to a user -- see the video embedded below.  I would wager that this feedback could greatly enhance haptic shared awareness in teleoperation / telemanipulation systems.

DLR Biped Robot Leverages LWR Arms -- Eventually Justin's Legs?

DLR Biped Robot -- Justin's new legs?

PlasticPals just pointed out DLR's 10-month effort to build a biped robot -- an effort that yielded a 1-meter, 50kg walking robot (video below).  Mechanically, each leg has six degrees of freedom.  A DLR / Kuka Light-Weight Robot (LWR) arm segment comprises the upper-leg, and a custom lower-leg segment connects to the foot through a six-axis force-torque sensor. Realtime control algorithms and dynamic simulations are performed using OpenHRP3 and Simpack.  DLR claims that this is the "first electromechanically actuated bipedal robot with torque controlled joints," through which they intend to research compliant impedance control for biped locomotion. I share PlasticPals' musings: could these legs ultimately transform Justin into a bipedal walking humanoid?

VolksBot Omni: A Holonomic Robot Base Using only Robotis Dynamixel Servos

VolksBot Omni Robot Base

I recently learned that the holonomic mobile base developed at the University of Bonn's Autonomous Intelligent Systems Lab (NimbRo@Home) for the Dynamaid robot has become commercially available.  It is officially called the VolksBot Omni and is being sold in Fraunhofer's VolksBot line for 9000 EUR (~$11,700 USD).  Fundamentally, the VolksBot Omni is a powered-caster omnidirectional robot base (similar to the PR2 or Justin robots), except that its actuators are exclusively Robotis Dynamixel servos -- four modules, each with two EX-106 servos for drive torque and one RX-64 for module steering. The base is fairly light weight (around 5kg), but sports a 40x60cm chassis that supports a 20kg payload.  It has a top speed of 50 cm/sec, is controlled via USB, and has ROS / Player drivers.

Hizook Requests Your Assistance -- Part 2

Hizook Requests Your Assistance

In our first request for assistance, we asked you to contribute / submit articles related to your own projects, ideas, and research.  Here we'll ask you to consider these other methods of lending Hizook a hand: Provide a modicum of financial support by using Hizook's affiliates (eg. Amazon and Trossen Robotics) when making robotics purchases; Enroll for a Hizook user account; Or just become an active commenter. Again, our goal is to foster a community for academics and professionals that promotes informal, yet educated, robotics discussions outside of rigid peer-reviewed conference and journal settings.  We cannot hope to do this alone; your assistance is crucial!

Hizook Requests Your Assistance -- Part 1

Hizook Requests Your Assistance

I'm consistently surprised by the outpouring of support and enthusiasm from you, our Hizook readers, about this site and its content -- it's abundantly clear that academic and professional roboticists would welcome a commons for informal, yet educated, robotics discussions outside rigid peer-reviewed conference and journal settings.  Hizook was founded to fill that role.  However, keeping up with world-wide robotics news would be a full-time endeavor -- a role to which I alone could not possibly do justice, especially accounting for my own research aspirations.  Thus, Hizook is asking for your help... There are lots of ways to assist!  In this first installment, we'll look at the the most pressing manner in which Hizook requests your assistance:  contribute / submit articles related to your own projects, ideas, and research.

NASA's "Curiosity" Mars Rover Takes Its First Test Drive Inside the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Cleanroom

Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) robot known as Curiosity

NASA's $2.3B Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) robot known as Curiosity took its first test drive on Friday inside a NASA cleanroom, moving about 1 meter.  As the successor to two wildly successful Mars rovers (Spirit and Opportunity), NASA has high hopes for Curiosity, which weights as much as a small SUV, has a six-wheel rocker-bogie suspension about waist height, and is nuclear powered via a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG).  Curiosity is an amazing piece of technology in its own right, and even more impressive when considering its marvelous sensor payload.  Personally, I'm proud to see my tax dollars being used for such impressive scientific pursuits.  Check out Curiosity's first test drive in the video below.

Gliding UAV Perches on a Wire -- Power Line Recharging to Follow

UAV (Glider) Perching on a Powerline

Perching is one of the most common aerobatic maneuvers executed by birds and is representative of a large and important class of aggressive aerial maneuvers that take advantage of unsteady aerodynamics.  During a perching maneuver, birds often exceed 90 degrees in angle-of-attack, exploiting both viscous and pressure drag for rapid deceleration.  Russ Tedrake and Rick Cory at MIT's Robot Locomotion Group have drawn inspiration from these insane maneuvers by developing a gliding UAV that can perform perching -- eventually (presumably) allowing a UAV to perch and recharge on powerlines.  This is an impressive feat on many levels:  the physics (semi-turbulent flow, visualized in their photos), a controls perspective (dealing with high-speed maneuvers, non-linear dynamics, and real-time constraints), and an application perspective (the eventual integration of powerline recharging).  Be sure to check out the photos and videos!

CNET Road Trip Looks at iRobot's "Cool Stuff" -- Including a Roomba Testing Lab

iRobot Roomba testing lab

CNET's Road Trip 2010 series dropped by iRobot HQ, where "Cool Stuff" is aptly emblazoned on the doors. They snapped a number of interesting photos of lesser-known iRobot history / robots, including: underwater gliders, previously unseen chembot prototypes, and Landroids (mini-Packbots). But perhaps the most interesting nugget was the Roomba testing lab, where Roombas scuttle around for 1500-2000 hours of durability testing across various floor types with different levels of dirtiness -- check out the video below.  The multi-floor testing is uncannily similar to that which we performed on the Roomba Dustpan robot.

An ISO Standard for Personal Care (Service) Robots

ISO Robotics Standards

I recently became aware of an effort by ISO (International Organization for Standardization) to define a standard for domestic service robots -- more specifically, ISO-13482 "Safety requirements for non-medical personal care robots."  I must confess having mixed feelings about this development.  On one hand, it is exciting that the personal robotics revolution is near-enough at hand to warrant the definition of a standard -- there are many standards for industrial robots (eg. ISO-10218 and ISO-9409), but none for domestic personal robots.  On the other hand, I'm a bit concerned that a somewhat-binding international standard is being developed prematurely and in a rather closed-door fashion -- issues upon which I will elaborate below.  Thankfully, there will be plenty of discussion at IROS 2010 (Taipei, Taiwan in mid-October) at the "Workshop on Standardization for Service Robots."  Lack of resources will likely preclude my attendance, so perhaps someone can fill us in after the fact...?

Intel / CMU's HERB (Home Exploring Robot Butler) Gets a Dual-Arm Upgrade

Intel / CMU HERB Robot Butler

FastCompany spotted a new version of HERB (Home Exploring Robot Butler) at the CMU Quality of Life Technology Center.  HERB is a joint effort between Intel Research's Personal Robotics Program and Carnegie Mellon University.  The new version sports two Barrett WAM arms on a Segway RMP mobile base and has a very distinctive rotating (instead of tilting) planar laser rangefinder.  The new HERB certainly has a unique design -- be sure to check out the photos and video below where HERB grasps objects from a table.

DARPA Chembot Program Update: A New Prototype Developed by IRobot, MIT, and Harvard

IRobot / MIT Chembot from the DARPA Chembot program

Hizook previously covered a number of DARPA Chembot projects, including Dr. Hong's Whole-Skin Locomotion (aka amoeba robot) and the IRobot Jamming Skin Robot (aka "blob bot").  The original blob bot was rather creepy, but researchers from IRobot, MIT, and Harvard have ameliorated the situation by creating a decidedly non-creepy successor: a Chembot with soft (silicone?) selectively-inflatable body segments for locomotion.  Hopefully a fully-integrated version (power, actuation, and control) is near at hand. Read on for photos and a video of the new prototype.

Low-Cost Depth Camera Update: Microsoft Kinect in November, Others to Follow Shortly?

Microsoft Kinect Depth Camera

Back in late March, Hizook provided an overview of various depth cameras (aka range cameras, 3D cameras, time-of-flight cameras, RGB-D cameras), including the PrimeSense solution now known to be the basis of Microsoft's Kinect (formerly Project Natal).  In the last 3 months, the depth camera space has seen numerous updates, such as additional commercial offerings and product updates / availability.   Perhaps the most exciting news (as we speculated in March) is that low-cost offerings will indeed be hitting the market later this year:  Microsoft recently confirmed that Kinect (formerly Project Natal) will start shipping in early November and is already available for pre-order on Amazon.com for $150 USD!   More questions than answers remain -- here is what we know, help us fill in the gaps...

TBot: Reconfigurable 140kg Balancing Robot for the US Military

Transforming Robot with Dynamic Stability

Back in 2006-2007, a dynamically-stable robot named TBot was developed at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) by a team of professional roboticists.  Financed by a now-defunct DARPA program, the goal was to create a a robot capable of fast transportation in open areas  and precision operation in tight urban combat scenarios.  Using two "arms" capped with an extra set of wheels and a linear "waist" actuator, TBot can transform from various four-wheel statically-stable (large footprint) configurations to a two-wheel dynamically-stable (small footprint) configuration, and vice-versa.  I'm still a bit skeptical about dynamic stability -- often, it seems to add many challenges for very few added benefits.  Perhaps the transformer approach, like the TBot and the iBot personal wheelchair, is a healthy compromise for those who insist on (occasional) dynamic stability?

Nesbot Robot Doesn't Just Fetch Coffee -- It's the Actual Coffee Machine

Nesbot Coffee Machine Robot by BlueBotics

We've seen snack-carrying and coffee-fetching robots on Hizook before, but the BlueBotics Nesbot really speaks to my over-caffeinated heart.  Nesbot is an autonomous mobile coffee machine whose sole purpose is to take my web-based order, autonomously locate me (via BlueBotics' ANT navigation system), and deliver my choice of  six blends -- and remember, I prefer strong espressos!   It seems that Nesbot was a contract job for BlueBotics, which is one of a few select robotics companies in the EU BRICS project, commissioned by Nestlé Nespresso to "investigate future applications in the coffee service market."  I like it -- I want all of my robots to have embedded coffee machines... 

KUKA youBot Robot Unveiled at Automatica: A Mecanum Base With 5 DOF Arm

KUKA youBot Robot with mecanum omnidirectional base and 5DOF arm

This week KUKA Robotics is demonstrating their latest product offering at the Automatica conference in Munich: the youBot robot.  YouBot is a mobile manipulating robot with a 5DOF arm coupled to a mecanum omnidirectional base -- essentially the same product that Hizook predicted when the individual components were being demonstrated at IROS 2008.  KUKA will start delivery in November for Germany (March for the US), and the robot will cost approx $24,000 USD (less with educational discounts), and components will be available separately.  The youBot looks to be a solid robot platform and is not encumbered by the large control boxes characteristic of some larger KUKA arms -- a few photos and videos are embedded below.

Spotlights for PR2 Beta Robot Recipients Posted by Willow Garage

Willow Garage

At Willow Garage's week-long PR2 training workshop, each of the eleven recipient institutions gave a 15-20 minute talk highlighting their planned research activities on the PR2.  On Monday, with a little help from yours truly, the first beta-site spotlight (of Georgia Tech) was posted on the WG blog -- complete with recorded video from the training workshop talk by Prof. Charlie Kemp (of Georgia Tech's Healthcare Robotics Lab).  Today, the spotlight for UC Berkeley (with video) followed.  These spotlights and recorded talks are a treasure trove of insights into work being performed at several top robotics research labs.  They are definitely worth reading / watching!  As as they come online, I'll embed the videos below and include links to Willow's thorough blog posts.  [Warning: many embedded videos below.]

Roomba QuadDrive: A Whimsicle Omnidirectional Mobile Robot Base Created From 4 Roombas

Roomba QuadDrive Omnidirectional Robot Base

The curious robotic creation pictured below is called the Roomba QuadDrive, and hails from the University of Bonn's Autonomous Intelligent Systems Lab (NimbRo@Home).   The Roomba QuadDrive is an omnidirectional mobile robot base of the powered caster variety with one obvious (whimsical) characteristic:  it uses four IRobot Roomba 530s as the drive motors, each paired with a Robotis Dynamixel RX-64 servo for steering!  Another of the lab's robots, named Robotinho, surfed atop the QuadDrive base when competing in the 2009 RoboCup@Home competition and when it gave tours of the Deutsches Museum in Bonn -- a short clip of which is embedded below.

Vgo: Another Player in the Remote Presence (Mobile Telepresence) Game

Vgo Communications Remote Presence Robot

The Boston Globe has unearthed another solid player in the remote presence (sometimes referred to as mobile telepresence or mobile videoconferencing) game. This time, it is the Vgo (pronounced Vee-Go) robot from Vgo Communications. Apparently Vgo Communications was founded in 2007 by Tim Root and has upwards of $8M in venture capital funding. The Vgo robot is pretty sleek with a nice cosmetic shell, though it seems a bit vertically challenged. Its target price-point is somewhere around $5000, with a required $1200 annual support contract. This comes just days after Anybots made their QB robot announcements ($15,000 ea.) and after some high-profile Willow Garage Texai events. A few other major players have been relatively quiet as of late, such as InTouch Health and Giraff Technologies (formerly HeadThere).

Willow Garage PR2 Beta Program Launch Party and Press Conference

Willow Garage PR2 Beta Program Launch Party and Press Conference

On Wednesday night, midway through a week-long PR2 training workshop, Willow Garage held a press conference and party celebrating the launch of the PR2 Beta Program, essentially signifying the completion of their Milestone 4.  The night featured speeches by Willow Garage founder (Scott Hassan), CEO (Steve Cousins), and Personal Robotics Program co-founders (Keenan Wyrobek and Eric Berger).  Eleven PR2 robots, destined for recipient robotics institutions around the world, made dramatic entrances before performing an impressive 11-robot coordinated dance (see video below).  I was privileged to attend the event as both a workshop participant and as a Hizook "press" representative, providing access to the press conference where I met other elite robotics bloggers, such as Norri Kageki (GetRobo), Evan Ackerman (BotJunkie), and Erico Guizzo (IEEE Spectrum Automation Blog).  The event was fun, and definitely strengthened my impression that the personal robotics revolution is near.  Updated June 2nd 2010:  The official Willow Garage mashup from the "PR2 Graduation Party" has been posted (embedded below).

Willow Garage's Week-Long PR2 Robot Training Workshop

Last week Willow Garage kicked off its official PR2 Beta Robot Workshop, where approximately 50 robotics researchers from the 11 PR2 recipient institutions gathered to become familiar with ROS on the PR2, hack on the robot alongside Willow personnel, and have plenty of stimulating robotics discussions.    Attending as a grad student in Georgia Tech's Healthcare Robotics Lab, I had a front-row seat to this enjoyable but grueling event.  I'll give my high-level day-to-day overview of the week (below), which included the "PR2 Launch Party" on Thursday night that featured many prominent folks from Silicon Valley (more detailed coverage).  As an aside, I was proud to hear that so many robotics professionals at the event read and enjoy Hizook -- be sure to contribute your photos and impressions in the comments.

Meka Robotics Demonstrates G1 Robot Gripper (Robot Hand) -- "Coming Soon"

Meka Robotics G1 Gripper

On Thursday, Meka Robotics uploaded a video showing off their latest "coming soon" product, the G1 robot gripper.  While the price and specs are still unknown, the patent-pending parallel-jaw design with independent finger actuation looks interesting -- a great addition to their product lineup.  Be sure to check out the video embedded below. 

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