Robotics Tech Digest - November 2016

Bubble wrapped robots move freely

How to stop robots colliding with each other? The current way is to give them a bubble – an algorithmically defined area around the robot monitored by sensors – which if anything should enter would cause the robot to stop whatever it is doing to avoid accidents. This becomes a problem when you want a group of moving robots to work together as a team – they will be forever stopping. Scientists at Georgia Institute of Technology have been working to solve this problem by seeing how far they can shrink the protective bubble. In a demonstration, they had a team of eight robots moving around within inches of each other in a limited space without collision, but, more importantly without any other negative consequences (such as taking long routes to avoid collision). This tech could possibly be used in applications such as self-driving cars to enable smooth flowing traffic.

Banksy robots set to spray interiors in Singapore

PictoBot, developed by Nanyang Technological University, and co-developed with JTC Corporation and Aitech Robotics and Automation, is to be test bedded by spray painting the interior of industrial developments such as JTC Space @ Gul. Industrial buildings require high ceilings, high ceilings mean high walls, high walls mean at least two people painting with a scissor lift, which means danger and time. PictoBot has the potential to save time and risk. It can spray walls up to 10 meters high, working out its environment with cameras and laser scanners. Pictobot needs only 1 person to operate, monitor and refill it. The development team claim it can paint a space 25% faster than a team of two human professionals, can paint for four hours on a single charge and can paint 24/7 (in the dark).

Rovina bringing the underground world to light

The EC-funded Rovina project has created a prototype autonomous robot which has successfully explored the catacombs of Naples and Rome, overcoming terrain related issues such as poor lighting and obstacles, brought back 3D modelling data and identified interesting artefacts. The prototype testing showed increased autonomy, reliability and more accurate traversability analysis, enabling better navigation, compared to previous versions of the robot. Rovina has been designed to be easy to use – the end users it is designed for being from a range of fields: archaeologists; construction engineers; mining engineers; and even ‘virtual tourists’.

While robots watch their printers by night – gets USD2 million investment

Back in June, showed the world its robotic arm which can tend to 3D printers and other machines, removing finished product and initiating new prints etc. The robot arm allows companies to automate a lot of time consuming, tedious work like monitoring and setting printers at night, or during large prints.’s software will analyse data from an arm mounted camera and then send the arm appropriate instructions, eg turn machine six off. True Ventures have just invested in this already established company and tech.

Self assembling robot wins Hackaday prize

A versatile little robot has won its inventors $150,000 and a place at the Supply Frame Design Lab in Pasadena, California. Dtto (the robot’s name) was designed with search and rescue in mind, hence it is composed of small 3D printed block-units which can self-dis/assemble, allowing the bot to be useful in a variety of different contexts. With this configurational flexibility Dtto can squeeze into tight spaces, walk, crawl, or slither. 

Brick laying without builder’s bum thanks to Hadrian X

Fastbrick Robotics’ has just signed a contract to build 11 houses using its bricklaying robot, Hadrian X. The average brick layer can lay half as many bricks in a day as the latest robot from Fastbrick Robotics can lay in an hour – 1000. Hadrian X – the bricklaying robot – is basically a big robot arm with an attached 3D printer glued to the top of a truck. Grabbers on the end of the arm pick up and place bricks onto an adhesive which the 3D printer will first add to the topmost layer of bricks. Fastbrick claim that Hadrian’s houses save material, increase thermal efficiency and make the structure stronger. 

Origami goes high-tech

Sam Felton, from Northeastern University, has big ideas. He sees the future as a world in which flatpack temporary shelters could self-construct. His dreams have basis in reality: he has just built self-folding origami robots. Like with origami his robots are made of paper (although it is sandwiched between layers of pre-stretched polystyrene). Copper wires are placed along the fold lines of the paper and they heat up when a chip tells them to, causing the paper to fold. Felton is currently looking at ways to scale the bot which would involve moving away from heat and toward hydraulics, chemical reaction or pneumatics. He sees the tech also being used in spaceships where there is little room to store 3D objects.

Man uses robotic arm to feel

A team of experts led by Robert Gaunt, Ph.D., at Pittsburgh University have enabled Nathan Copeland, who was in an accident that left him without any feeling in his arms or hands for the past 10 years, to feel pressure and touch in his fingers again. Via a Brain Computer Interface (four microelectrodes implanted into the appropriate areas of the brain) Mr Copeland can control a robotic arm with his mind. Dr Gaunt is optimistic about the future of his work, but remains realistic about the distance to go to create a fully functioning replacement for a limb. “The ultimate goal is to create a system which moves and feels just like a natural arm would,” says Dr Gaunt. “We have a long way to go to get there, but this is a great start.”

Soft Robotics

Soft robotics is an area which has only recently become open for study due to advances in manufacturing, electronics and power sources. So new is the field that soft robotics only got its first official international community in 2012 when the IEEE RAS Technical Committee on Soft Robotics was founded. However, now it would seem that it is firmly rooted as a field of research, design and prototyping. Here we will quickly look at three recent news stories about soft robotics.

  1. Soft robotics are most suited to mimicking biological entities: being soft, malleable, and similar to muscle or skin. In Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)’s Reconfigurable Robotics Lab (RRL) they have made soft robots with muscle-like actuators to help people move. These robots are made of elastomers, including silicone and rubber, and are therefore medically safe. They are controlled by pneumatics; air inflates or deflates a balloon in the actuator. A lot of work is being put into finding out how to control the movement of the actuators to better use them. One of the other projects being worked on at RRL is a belt to support people who have suffered a stroke and help them during the rehabilitation process.
  2. Scientists at the University of Warsaw have made a caterpillarlike robot which is powered by light and controlled by laser beams. The tiny robot, which is simply a strip of liquid crystalline elastomers that are sensitive to light excitation, can not only walk in a caterpillar like manner but can also climb slopes, squeeze through narrow gaps and transport loads up to ten times its own weight.
  3. Finally, scientists at Harvard have created a soft robotic octopus called ‘Octobot’. This is an entirely soft bodied robot which is powered by a chemical reaction of hydrogen peroxide into gas, and has soft microfluidic logic circuits which control where the gas dissipates in the robot’s body, hence allowing it to move; both of which break away from the need to tether the bot to an external power source or to use hard components. Moreover, according to the Ryan Truby, a graduate student in the lab, Octobot is quick and easy to manufacture with 3D printing, moulding and soft lithography. 



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