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Robotics

Volkswagen Factory Worker Killed By a Robot 310 310

m.alessandrini writes: A worker at a Volkswagen factory in Germany has died, after a robot grabbed him and crushed him against a metal plate. This is perhaps the first severe accident of this kind in a western factory, and is sparking debate about who is responsible for the accident, the man who was servicing the robot beyond its protection cage, or the robot's hardware/software developers who didn't put enough safety checks. Will this distinction be more and more important in the future, when robots will be more widespread?
China

Foxconn CEO Backpedals On Planned Robot Takeover 45 45

itwbennett writes: For years now, Foxconn has been talking up plans to replace pesky humans with robot workers in its factories. Back in February, CEO Terry Gou said he expected the automation to account for 70 percent of his company's assembly line work in three years. But in the company's shareholder meeting Thursday, Gou said he had been misquoted and that "it should be that in five years, the robots will take over 30 percent of the manpower."
Robotics

Making a Birdhouse is Like 'Hello World' for a Versatile Factory Robot (2 Videos) 24 24

Many millions of American students have been called on to construct a wooden birdhouse as part of a middle- or high-school shop class. To make a birdhouse from wood and nails may not requite advanced carpentry, but it does take eye-hand coordination, object recognition, the ability to lift constituent pieces, and to grasp and wield tools -- and each of those can be broken down further into smaller tasks and skills of the kind that we as humans don't generally have to think about. ("Rotate wrist slightly to account for board angle.") For robots, it's another story: like the computers that run them, robots generally only do what they're told. Industrial robots can do some complex tasks, but they're expensive and complex to program.

Benjamin Cohen is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Pennsylvania working under adviser Maxim Likhachev with a real-world, cheap way to make robots to accomplish a multi-step project with minimal human intervention, which he calls "autonomous robotic assembly." Project Birdhouse -- part of his Ph.D. work, along with teammates Mike Phillips and Ellis Ranter -- is Cohen's effort to create a sort of "Hello, World" for robots. With a combination of a research-platform robot base, off-the-shelf parts, like a nail gun (read: "One not built for robot use"), and software to squeeze greater accuracy out of the system as a whole, he and his colleagues have come up with a robot that can grab a selection of parts, align them properly, and assemble them with nails into a functional birdhouse. QR codes let the robot give the robot a sort of recipe to follow, and the system is smart enough to squawk if it doesn't have the right parts to complete the task. (Check out more video with the robot in action, and a great many photos, sketches, and diagrams illustrating the project's evolution.)

NOTE: We split today's video in half, with both halves running right here, today. This way, if you watch the first video and and want to learn more, you can move on to the second one. And the transcript not only covers both videos, but has "bonus" material that isn't in either one.
Robotics

Robot Swarm Behavior Suggests Forgetting May Be Important To Cultural Evolution 37 37

Hallie Siegel writes: Can we learn about human cultural evolution by studying how group behaviour in robots evolves? Researchers in the Artificial Culture Project are trying to do just that. Prof. Alan Winfield from the Bristol Robotics Lab discusses his latest research on modelling the process by which cultural memes develop in robots when they pass learned behaviours to other robots in their group. Some interesting findings suggest imitation noise (ie. when the behaviour isn't learned perfectly) and forgetfulness (i.e. when the robot has only limited memory of the behaviours it is trying to imitate) lead to stronger cultural memes in the robot behaviour.
Robotics

The Death of Aibo, the Birth of Softbank's Child-Robot 152 152

New submitter pubwvj writes: Sony is killing off their robot Aibo, stranding the 150,000 or so owners with no support, repairs or parts other than cannibalism. Now we have another Japanese company, SoftBank, releasing a robotic 'child.' Eventually, they too will discontinue the production of parts and support, beginning the process of killing off all those 'children' that are spawned. As robotics become (far) more advanced at what point will it be murder for a company to discontinue a product line?
Businesses

More Warehouse Robots Coming To Market As Softbank Invests $20M In Fetch 38 38

Hallie Siegel writes: Japanese Softbank just injected $20M in funding to Fetch Robotics, a Silicon Valley company that is developing robotic solutions for warehouse and logistics. This is one of the first warehouse systems that is coming to market since Kiva. Softbank is also invested in Aldebaran Robotics, producing the Pepper robot — a social humanoid robot that is scheduled to make its debut in Nestle stores later this year as a sales and marketing assistant.
Robotics

Soft Robot Tentacle Can Lasso an Ant Without Harming It 49 49

jan_jes writes: A soft robot tentacle, developed by a team from Iowa State University, can curl itself into a circle with a radius of just 200 micrometers. It was capable of capturing an ant without harming it, and the tentacle was also able to grasp the egg of a fish. Such miniature soft robots could be useful for microsurgery. The lassoing motion and low force exerted by the tentacle could be an advantage in endovascular operations, for example, where the target for surgery is reached through blood vessels. They describe their findings in Scientific Reports.
Robotics

Do Robots Need Passports? Should They? 164 164

Hallie Siegel writes: With countries evolving different regulations over robotic devices, law professor Anupam Chander looks into whether robots crossing borders will need passports, and what the role of international trade law should be in regulating the flow of these devices. Fascinating discussion on what happens when technology like robots crosses over international borders, as part of this year's We Robot conference in Seattle.
Biotech

An Origami Inspired Bacteria-Powered Battery 27 27

jan_jes writes: Origami is the Japanese art of paper folding created by Akira Yoshizawa, which can be used to create beautiful birds, frogs and other small sculptures. Last year a team of engineers from MIT and Harvard has developed an origami flat-pack robot (YouTube video) which can fold itself and crawl away without any human intervention. But now a Binghamton University engineer says this technique can be applied to building batteries, too. The battery generates power from microbial respiration, delivering enough energy to run a paper-based biosensor with nothing more than a drop of bacteria-containing liquid. This method should be especially useful to anyone working in remote areas with limited resources. The total cost of this potentially game-changing device is "five cents."
Robotics

Why So Many Robots Struggled With the DARPA Challenge 44 44

stowie writes: The DARPA Robots Challenge concluded recently, and three teams were given prizes for completing all the tasks. The other robots in the competition struggled — not only were they unable to complete the required tasks, many of them were unable to even stay standing the entire time. So why did these robots have such a hard time? "DARPA deliberately degraded communications (low bandwidth, high latency, intermittent connection) during the challenge to truly see how a human-robot team could collaborate in a Fukushima-type disaster. And there was no standard set for how a human-robot interface would work. So, some worked better than others. The winning DRC-Hubo robot used custom software designed by Team KAIST that was engineered to perform in an environment with low bandwidth. It also used the Xenomai real-time operating system for Linux and a customized motion control framework. The second-place finisher, Team IHMC, used a sliding scale of autonomy that allowed a human operator to take control when the robot seemed stumped or if the robot knew it would run into problems." If nothing else, the competition's true legacy may lie in educating the public on the realistic capabilities of high-tech robots.
Robotics

Robotic Assistive Devices For Independent Living 17 17

Hallie Siegel writes: Kavita Krishnaswamy has extreme physical disabilities that severely limit her mobility. She also has drive and a keen mind. I met her last month at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), where she attended via BEAM. In this article, Kavita shares her Phd research to develop robotic assistive devices that give independence to people with severe disabilities. Interesting work on the need for 'multi-modal' interfaces — ie. interfaces that allow the users to interact with the assistive device in different ways, including speech recognition and brain-computer interface.
Japan

Robots Compete In Navigating Simulation Of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Plant 64 64

schwit1 writes: A new DARPA Robotics Challenge completed its final competition recently. 25 teams operated robots around a landscape designed to simulate the hazardous environment that aid workers found after the Fukushima Daiichi reactor in Japan melted down multiple times in 2011. Engineers tried to help, but disaster ensued, rendering a huge area around the plant uninhabitable after toxic steam was released into the skies. The radioactive leftovers are still emitting a million watts of heat. First prize is $2m, second prize is $1m, and third gets $500,000.
ISS

First ISS-To-Earth 'Handshake' Demonstrates Space-to-Ground Remote Control 21 21

Zothecula writes: NASA astronaut Terry Virts, aboard the International Space Station, and ESA telerobotics specialist André Schiele, in the Netherlands, made space history this week with the first telerobotic "handshake" between space and Earth. Using special force feedback joysticks that acquire force data and create the sensation of pressure, Virts and Schiele brought the agencies closer to allowing astronauts in remote locations to naturally and safely control robotic devices and perform potentially dangerous or otherwise impossible tasks.
AI

Building Amazon a Better Warehouse Robot 108 108

Nerval's Lobster writes: Amazon relies quite a bit on human labor, most notably in its warehouses. The company wants to change that via machine learning and robotics, which is why earlier this year it invited 30 teams to a "Picking Contest." In order to win the contest, a team needed to build a robot that can outpace other robots in detecting and identifying an object on a shelf, gripping said object without breaking it, and delivering it into a waiting receptacle. Team RBO, composed of researchers from the Technical University of Berlin, won last month's competition by a healthy margin. Their winning design combined a WAM arm (complete with a suction cup for lifting objects) and an XR4000 mobile base into a single unit capable of picking up 12 objects in 20 minutes—not exactly blinding speed, but enough to demonstrate significant promise. If Amazon's contest demonstrated anything, it's that it could be quite a long time before robots are capable of identifying and sorting through objects at speeds even remotely approaching human (and thus taking over those jobs). Chances seem good that Amazon will ask future teams to build machines that are even smarter and faster.
Transportation

Carnegie Mellon Struggles After Uber Poaches Top Robotics Researchers 234 234

ideonexus sends a report from the Wall Street Journal (paywalled) saying Uber has poached 40 researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in an attempt to jump-start development of autonomous vehicle technology. In February, Uber and CMU's National Robotics Engineering Center announced a partnership to work together on the technology. But according to the WSJ, Uber quickly offered massive bonuses and salary increases to simply bring many of the researchers in-house. The NREC's new director made a presentation a few weeks ago about strategies for rebuilding and recovering. The presentation said NREC’s funding from contracts to develop technology with the U.S. Department of Defense and other organizations was expected to sink as low as $17 million from the $30 million originally projected for this year. Some contracts scientists were working on disappeared when the researchers left, accounting for the drop in funding. And it appeared the center would have to raise salaries significantly to prevent more exits. A few scientists left NREC for other companies in Pittsburgh because of concerns the center might be shut down, said two people familiar with the departures.
AI

Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs To Computerization? 385 385

turkeydance writes: What job is hardest for a robot to do? Mental health and substance abuse social workers (found under community and social services). This job has a 0.3 percent chance of being automated. That's because it's ranked high in cleverness, negotiation, and helping others. The job most likely to be done by a robot? Telemarketers. No surprise; it's already happening. The researchers admit that these estimates are rough and likely to be wrong. But consider this a snapshot of what some smart people think the future might look like. If it says your job will likely be replaced by a machine, you've been warned.
Robotics

Untethered Miniature Origami Robot That Self-Folds, Walks, Swims, and Degrades 27 27

jan_jes writes: MIT researchers demonstrated an untethered miniature origami robot that self-folds, walks, swims, and degrades at ICRA 2015 in Seattle. A miniature robotic device that can fold-up on the spot, accomplish tasks, and disappear by degradation into the environment promises a range of medical applications but has so far been a challenge in engineering. This work presents a sheet that can self-fold into a functional 3D robot,actuate immediately for untethered walking and swimming, and subsequently dissolve in liquid. Further, the robot is capable of conducting basic tasks and behaviors, including swimming, delivering/carrying blocks, climbing a slope, and digging. The developed models include an acetone-degradable version, which allows the entire robot's body to vanish in a liquid. Thus this experimentally demonstrate the complete life cycle of this robot: self-folding,actuation, and degrading.
Hardware Hacking

More About Dan Shapiro and the Glowforge CNC Laser Cutter (Video #2) 25 25

Yesterday Glowforge Co-Founder and CEO Dan Shapiro told us that the Glowforge machine is a CNC laser cutter and engraver, not a 3-D Printer -- even though the first words on Glowforge's main page are, "The First 3D Laser Printer," a description Dan says is there for people not familiar with things like laser cutters and 3-D printers, who want to call the Glowforge a 3-D printer even though people who know about this stuff know what it is at first glance. He also talks about his previous startup, Robot Turtles; what it is, how it came to be, and why kids like it so much. This interview is worth watching (or reading) for the Robot Turtles section alone, especially if you have children or are thinking about designing board games for kids.
Robotics

Florida Hospital Shows Normal Internet Lag Time Won't Affect Remote Robotic Surgeries 125 125

Lucas123 writes: Remote robotic surgery performed hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the physician at the controls is possible and safe, according to the Florida Hospital that recently tested Internet lag times for the technology. Roger Smith, CTO at the Florida Hospital Nicholson Center in Celebration, Fla., said the hospital tested the lag time to a partner facility in Ft. Worth, Texas and found it ranged from 30 to 150 milliseconds, which surgeons could not detect as they moved remote robotic laparoscopic instruments. The tests, performed using a surgical simulator called a Mimic, will now be performed as if operating remotely in Denver and then Loma Linda, Calif. The Mimic Simulator system enables virtual procedures performed by a da Vinci robotic surgical system, the most common equipment in use today; it's used for hundreds of thousands of surgeries every year around the world. With a da Vinci system, surgeons today can perform operations yards away from a patient, even in separate but adjoining rooms to the OR. By stretching that distance to tens, hundreds or thousands of miles, the technology could enable patients to receive operations from top surgeons that would otherwise not be possible, including wounded soldiers near a battlefield. The Mimic Simulator was able to first artificially dial up lag times, starting with 200 milliseconds all the way up to 600 milliseconds.