A Fish-inspired Robotic Swarm

A team from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering has developed fish-inspired robots that can synchronize their movements like a real school of fish, without any external control. According to a SEAS press release, it is the first time scientists have demonstrated complex 3D collective behaviors with implicit coordination in underwater robots. “Robots are often deployed in areas that are inaccessible or dangerous to humans, areas where human intervention might not even be possible”, said Florian Berlinger, a PhD Candidate at SEAS and Wyss in an interview. “In these situations, it really benefits you to have a highly autonomous robot swarm that is self-sufficient.” (SEAS, 13 January 2021) The fish-inspired robotic swarm, dubbed Blueswarm, was created in the lab of Prof. Radhika Nagpal, an expert in self-organizing systems. There are several studies and prototypes in the field of robotic fishs, from CLEANINGFISH (School of Business FHNW) to an invention by Cornell University in New York.

A Mobile Charging Robot

Futurism.com reports that Volkswagen has unveiled a working prototype of a robot that can autonomously charge electric cars. “The Mobile Charging Robot is an adorable squat bot – which, when you get right down to it, is strikingly reminiscent of the R2-D2 droid from ‘Star Wars,’ bleeps and bloops included.” (Futurism.com, 28 December 2020) As a result, the service robot becomes a social robot. This may be a benefit for the video, but whether it is necessary in practice remains to be seen. The basic idea is that the robots move to cars that are parked in large residential complexes – and where there is not necessarily a human in the vicinity (and where therefore no social interaction is needed). But the concept is questionable in other respects as well. A mobile energy storage of this type seems to be inefficient: “basically, you’d have to charge the robot’s battery supply which it then uses to charge electric cars” (Futurism.com, 28 December 2020). Nevertheless, the idea should be pursued. Without a doubt, there are logistical advantages to having a robot drive to and charge cars – fewer charging stations are needed, and you can service two vehicles at once.

Cozmo is Almost Back

One year ago, The Robot Report reported that Anki’s little robots might be making a comeback. Digital Dream Labs in Pittsburgh acquired the patents, trademarks, and domain. The start-up company “is planning to revive and manufacture more units of each product in the following order: Overdrive, Cozmo, Vector” (The Robot Report, 26 December 2019). Digital Dream Labs founder H. Jacob Hanchar told The Robot Report “the goal is to have all three products available for purchase for Christmas 2020” (The Robot Report, 26 December 2019). Now it seems that pre-orders of Cozmo 2.0 are possible: “Cozmo is a fun, educational toy robot that you can be used to teach children the basics of coding. Whether he is performing tricks, exploring his environment or teaching coding, Cozmo is always full of personality. Pre-order your new Cozmo today for delivery as early as May 15th.” (Website Digital Dream Labs) Cozmo and his friends belong to the best social robots that the industry has ever produced. What is special about Cozmo is the many emotions it can show (but of course doesn’t have). It also has face recognition and a night vision device. More information at www.digitaldreamlabs.com.

Spot in Chernobyl

Boston Dynamics is known for several two- and four-legged robots. Videos often show spectacular movements and stunts. Surely the scenes have to be shot often to be as impressive as possible. The robot Spot has recently been given some new features. Several media report that it was used in Chernobyl. “A team of engineers from the University of Bristol visited the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant last week to test out Spot, a four-legged robodog made by US-based robotics company Boston Dynamics … Spot is capable of making inspection rounds all by itself and can navigate hostile environments such as the highly radioactive site of the former nuclear power plant. Spot went for a walk around the surrounding areas and into the New Safe Confinement structure, a massive moveable dome of steel meant to keep in dangerous radiation from the plant’s number 4 reactor unit, which was destroyed during the 1986 disaster. The robot’s main task was to survey levels of radiation in the area, creating a three-dimensional map of the distribution.” (Website Futurism, 26 October 2020) Spot and Co. stand in the probably oldest tradition of robotics: They take over tasks that are too dangerous or too strenuous for humans.

AI in Medical Robotics

The Emmy Noether Research Group “The Phenomenon of Interaction in Human-Machine Interaction” and the Institute of Ethics, History, and Theory of Medicine (LMU Munich) host a lecture series “on some of the pressing issues arising in the context of implementing and using AI in medicine”. “Each date will consist of three short talks by renowned experts in the respective fields followed by a roundtable discussion. All lectures are held online (Zoom) until further notice.” (Website The Philosophy of Human-Machine Interaction) On 19 November 2020 (18.00-19.30) the topic will be “AI in Medical Robotics”. Speakers will be Prof. Dr. Oliver Bendel (University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland), Prof. Dr. Manfred Hild (Beuth University of Applied Sciences Berlin) and Dr. Janina Loh (University of Wien). The presentation language is German. More information via interactionphilosophy.wordpress.com.

Service Robots in Epidemics and Pandemics

On October 14, 2020 the article “Der Einsatz von Servicerobotern bei Epidemien und Pandemien” (“The use of service robots in epidemics and pandemics”) by Oliver Bendel was published in HMD – Praxis der Wirtschaftsinformatik. From the abstract: “Robots have always been used to carry out dangerous tasks or tasks that are not manageable for us. They defuse bombs, transport hazardous materials and work their way into areas inaccessible to humans. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that even service robots, which are not actually intended for special cases, can provide helpful services in the care of isolated persons and in the containment of diseases. This paper presents four types of service robots. Then it gives examples of robot use during the coronavirus crisis in 2020. Finally, the question in which extent and in what way the robot types can cooperate and whether some of them can be developed into generalists is examined. Business models and operating opportunities are also discussed. The paper shows that cohorts of robots could be vital in the future.” It is part of Volume 57, Issue 6 (December 2020) with a focus on robotics and is available here for free as an open access publication (in German).

Simple, Soft Social Robots

With Hugvie and Somnox Sleep Robot, researchers and companies has made it clear that it is possible to build simple, soft social robots that have a certain utility and impact. This raises hopes for social robotics, which is currently showing some progress, but is still developing slowly. Materials such as rubber and plastic can be used to make simple, soft social robots. These materials can be combined with existing devices such as smartphones and tablets on which you run certain applications, or with simple sensors and electronic components. The project or thesis, announced by Oliver Bendel in August 2020 at the School of Business FHNW, will first do research on the basics of simple, soft social robots. The work of Hiroshi Ishiguro and Alexis Block (with Katherine J. Kuchenbecker) will be included. Then, examples of implementation forms are mentioned and sketched. Their purpose and benefits are presented, as well as possible areas of application. One example is to be implemented, whereby speech abilities and sounds can be an option as well as vibration and electrical impulses. The reference to applications in the household, in public space or in the commercial sector should be established. The project will start in February 2021.

Towards Robot Enhancement

Social robots and service robots usually have a defined locomotor system, a defined appearance and defined mimic and gestural abilities. This leads, on the one hand, to a certain familiarization effect. On the other hand, the actions of the robots are thus limited, for example in the household or in a shopping mall. Robot enhancement is used to extend and improve social robots and service robots. It changes their appearance and expands their scope. It is possible to apply attachments to the hardware, extend limbs and exchange components. One can pull skin made of silicone over the face or head, making the robots look humanoid. One can also change the software and connect the robot to AI systems – this is already done many times. The project or thesis, announced by Oliver Bendel in August 2020 at the School of Business FHNW, should first present the principles and functional possibilities of robot enhancement. Second, concrete examples should be given and described. One of these examples, e.g., the skin made of silicone, has to be implemented. Robots like Pepper or Atlas would be completely changed by such a skin. They could look uncanny, but also appealing. The project will start in September 2020.

3D Printing a Robotic Finger

Nao and Pepper have perfectly shaped hands and fingers. But the fingers are now facing serious competition. Scientists at University of California- Santa Cruz and Ritsumeikan University in Japan have designed and produced a robotic finger inspired by the human endoskeletal structure. From the abstract of the paper “3D Printing an Assembled Biomimetic Robotic Finger”: “We present a novel approach for fabricating cable-driven robotic systems. Particularly, we show that a biomimetic finger featuring accurate bone geometry, ligament structures, and viscoelastic tendons can be synthesized as a single part using a mutli-material 3D printer. This fabrication method eliminates the need to engineer an interface between the rigid skeletal structure and elastic tendon system. The artificial muscles required to drive the printed tendons of the finger can also be printed in place.” The biomimetic robotic finger was presented at the 17th International Conference on Ubiquitous Robots (UR). The paper is available here.

Ingenuity on Mars

The Perseverance rover, which is on its way to Mars, is carrying a drone called Ingenuity (photo/concept: NASA). According to NASA, it is a technology demonstration to test powered flight on another world for the first time. “A series of flight tests will be performed over a 30-Martian-day experimental window that will begin sometime in the spring of 2021. For the very first flight, the helicopter will take off a few feet from the ground, hover in the air for about 20 to 30 seconds, and land. That will be a major milestone: the very first powered flight in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars! After that, the team will attempt additional experimental flights of incrementally farther distance and greater altitude.” (Website NASA) After the drone has completed its technology demonstration, the rover will continue its scientific mission. Manned and unmanned flights to Mars will bring us several innovations, including novel chatbots and voicebots.