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Georgia Tech’s Tongue Drive System (via GT)


There is a limited selection when it comes to wheelchairs that can be self-driven and maneuvered by quadriplegics. Controlling them usually consists of ‘breath-power’, where the user blows or inhales into a tube and the pressure is translated into movement. Researchers and engineers have been designing and developing new systems that allow those without the use of their limbs to control their wheelchairs without the need of assistance.

 

Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair, for example, is outfitted with a tablet computer that allows him to move and interact with appliances using an infrared switch (located on his glasses) to move a curser and select the appropriate app for interaction. Interactive Dynamics (Buenos Aires) is developing a thought-controlled chair that allows its users to move using a neural headset, however further development is needed before it’s fully realized.

 

Until that chair becomes available, engineers from Georgia Tech have designed a new method of self-propulsion that involves the use of the user’s tongue and tests have shown that it’s faster and more efficient than breath-powered setups. Known as the ‘Tongue Drive System’, the device uses a magnetic stud positioned on the users tongue for navigation and interaction (yes interaction as well). Sensors positioned on either side of the users head track the magnetic stud’s position, which acts like a biological joystick of sorts.

 

The tongue’s position is then translated into movement, allowing users to navigate their wheelchairs independently. The engineers also found that the magnetic tongue stud could also control curser movement, allowing users to interact with computer. Through a series of tests, the engineers found that their TDS system proved more efficient and easier to use over other systems currently on the market. It’s the engineers hope that their system can be refined enough to bring the technology to the market sometime in 2015.

 

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SkyJack: Raspberry Pi equipped Parrot AR.Drone 2.0


With the recent revelation that Iran had supposedly hijacked a US Navy RQ-170 Sentinel UAV by hacking its navigational systems, it wasn’t long before someone figured out how to do with hobbyist drones. Hobbyist Samy Kamkar has designed a unique drone that is capable of hijacking other drones that are nearby and taking control of them (a drone with its own drones). The UAV itself is actually a Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 that’s equipped with a 720p HD camera and is controlled with any smart mobile device. While the drone is interesting in itself, the real fun lies in the software that Samy created. The system he created, known as SkyJack, equips a Raspberry Pi single board computer to the drone, which has two wireless transmitters that it uses to seek out other Parrot drones and hacks their signals. Once the signals have been acquired, the user can then effectively take control of the hijacked drone/s (camera and flight controls) and do as they please. The SkyJack software (based on Perl) runs on any Linux-based PCs or any mobile device outfitted with Android or iOS. It uses aircrack-ng to turn the Wi-Fi card into monitor mode. It then detects all Wi-Fi signals in the area, deactivates any that have a Parrot signature, and then puts the user in control using node.js and node-ar-drone. With the recent announcement from Amazon regarding the use of drones (Prime Air) to deliver packages (UPS and Google are looking to do the same), it will be interesting to see if others will use something similar to hijack the drones delivering those packages. The SkyJack software is available for free from GitHub.



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Tallinn University of Technology’s U-CAT robotic sea turtle in action (via Tallinn)


Scientists and archeologists have been using submersible ROVs for decades to explore the oceans depths and those hard to reach shipwrecks. The problem with crafts/subs is that they are often too big and bulky to navigate inside those wrecks, which limits what we can learn from them. Another issue is the propulsion systems, which the ROVs use to navigate. Typically, they rely on thrusters for precise movement, however that method is not ideal when it comes to enclosed spaces. To overcome those limitations, scientists from the Tallinn University of Technology (Estonia) have created an incredibly maneuverable robotic sea turtle, designed to explore shipwrecks. The turtle, known as U-CAT, is part of the European Union’s ARROWS project, whose aim is to develop low-cost autonomous underwater vehicles for archeological operations. The robot itself, mimics the way sea turtles move underwater with four independently driven flippers, which allows the robot to move forward, upward, up, down and even turn on a dime. The locomotive aspect alone makes the U-CAT an ideal choice when navigating confined enclosures and limits the amount of silt that can decrease visibility. The U-CAT houses an onboard camera that continuously feeds video to scientists working topside, which allows them to inspect almost every aspect of a sunken ship’s holdings. Since the robot is autonomous, it requires no tether, which can become snagged or tangled, potentially destroying not only the sunken wreckage but also the ROV itself. The scientists from TUT plan on testing the U-CAT at archeological sites in both the Mediterranean Sea and the Baltic Sea and will eventually work in tandem with other larger ROVs outfitted with imaging technology to discover, identify and ultimately reconstruct (through software) those particular sites.

 

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Changes in industrial communications today are creating what some call a revolution in manufacturing automation. Key to these changes is Industrial Ethernet, which adds deterministic delivery, time-triggered support, greater distances and safer, more reliable operation to the advantages of traditional Ethernet. Owing to the many proprietary implementations of Industrial Ethernet, as well as legacy serial protocols, silicon and software solutions must provide a basic compatible technology that enables ease of design and promotes across-the-board communications.

 

Through semiconductor innovation, industrial customers can look forward to the advantages of speed, safety, efficiency and flexibility brought by advanced network communications.

 

Whether the new age of industrial automation is revolutionary, as some say, or simply a significant evolutionary advance, it is nonetheless bringing in an important new stage in equipment communications. Using Industrial Ethernet, factories are increasing the volume and variety of output while operating more safely and energy-efficiently.


Other areas such as transportation, automotive systems, power distribution and building installations are also benefiting from the same communications technology. As industrial communications start to move forward at a revolutionary pace, TI technology is significantly adding to the momentum.

 

To buy Texas Instruments products from Farnell element14 visit Texas Instruments | Farnell UK. For more information on Texas Instruments solutions for Industrial Automation, visit http://www.ti.com/automation. For more on how TI innovation is driving the future of electronics, visit www.ti.com/innovation.


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Thomas Leyrer

System Application Manager

Head of Industrial Automation Lab

Texas Instruments


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Amazon’s Prime Air octo-copter. Ready for package delivery! (via Amazon)


Just when you think there is nothing left that drones can be used for, comes a sci-fi like story that’s seemingly hard to believe. In this case, it’s Amazon’s Prime Air delivery system, which makes use of drones to deliver packages in 30-minutes or less! The shopping hub recently went on 60 Minutes to reveal their new shopping endeavor, which is clearly the first of its kind for retail outlets. The idea of drones delivering things is not new however, as the military and civilian SR (Search and Rescue) personnel have been using them over the past few years to deliver vital medicines, food and other supplies for soldiers in the field and people trapped in remote locations. Amazon plans to use a fleet of drones that will deliver packages directly to your location in the same amount of time it takes for a pizza to be delivered.


Amazon’s Prime Air will work by taking the customer’s order online, after which, workers at nearby outlets package your item in a plastic container. The container travels down a conveyor to a waiting octo-copter that grabs the package and flies to the customer’s location. The carry weight of the drones is limited to 5lbs and under so you won’t receive your next 50-inch flat panel screen by drone delivery. Amazon is currently waiting for the FAA to instil rules and regulations regarding the use of civilian drones, so we won’t see them buzzing around anytime soon, however the company is hopeful that their delivery system could be employed sometime in 2015. It will be interesting to see if any of those packages become lost or sent to the wrong address just like their human counterparts seem to do from time to time.


What a great way to promote Amazon on this year’s “Cyber Monday.”



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A short introduction from Martin Mienkina (Field Application Engineer) on Kinetis M series MCUs one-Phase Power Meter ref design.

Kinetis M series MCUs one-phase power meter reference design (DRM143) is intended for the measurement and registration of active and reactive energies in one-phase, two-wire networks. It is pre-certified and serves for evaluation of Kinetis M series microcontrollers in a real metering application.


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Over the past five years or so, heavy metal music has gone in a completely new direction. Not with the music mind you, but rather with band members who are neither male nor female but robots. Yes there are numerous robotic musicians breaking into the music biz with some playing more of a classical/pop-fusion style (California Institute of Arts’ MahaDeviBot, GlockenBot and BreakBot) as well as those playing covers of heavy metal classics like Germany’s Compressorhead. Following on the initial success of those robotic musicians comes yet another pneumatic band focusing more on synth-pop with a metal twist.

 

 

Known as Z-Machines, the three-piece band was created by some engineering students from Tokyo University and made their debut at Tokyo’s trendy Liquidroom club. The members include guitarist Mach, who’s outfitted with a total of 78 fingers and uses 12 picks to strum its instrument. On drums is the blue-metal clad Ashura, who uses 21 sticks with 6 arms to lay down the beat. Rounding out the trio is Cosmo, who plays the keyboard and flashes lasers from his head. The robots can play either by being programmed or independently controlled by humans using keyboards or other instruments connected to a MIDI device. An interesting facet of the band is it is able to interact with the audience based on their actions.

 

 

For example, if the audience raise their drinks in the air, the band plays louder and harder. How the band does this is currently unknown, however motion feedback sensors are certain to be involved. Z-Machines opened for this year’s Maker Faire Tokyo sponsored by Zima (that drink is still around?) with an interesting 10-minute set that captivated the audience. It’s certain that robot artists will continue to evolve into more elaborate performances in the near future and will most certainly perform alongside humans. Domo arigato Mr. Roboto.

 

 

 

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Swiss Federal Institute of Technology’s Gimball drone (via EPFL)


Drones, or more formally UAVs, are usually controlled either by a remote operator skilled at flying them or are flown autonomously using software to program a series of waypoints. Of course, those methods only work if there are little to no obstacles in the UAV’s path. However a new type of drone has been designed that takes advantage of those obstacles and can even fly in cluttered environments. The drone, known as Gimball, was designed and developed by engineers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and uses a hexagonal rotating shroud to protect itself while flying. This enables the drone to actually ‘bounce’ off of obstacles and continue on its flight. The drone is equipped with a pair of counter-rotating propellers for flight along with adjustable fins for changing direction. It can be operated by both humans and autonomously using a magnetic compass and altitude sensor to guide the drone to its destination. To keep the drone upright, the engineers outfitted the UAV with an ingenious gyroscope-like setup made out of two carbon-fiber rings, which are connected to the hexagonal shroud.

 

 

The whole system is lightweight, weighing in at just under a pound, which allows it to remain aloft. While the design is very efficient, it does have its drawbacks, including the open-framed protective shroud, which can get snagged on sticks, branches or other protuberances such as exposed rebar in disaster areas. The current design doesn’t have any positioning sensors or GPS, so it is not that precise when moving to waypoints autonomously. It can also absorb impacts at roughly 3Mph, however anything over that speed will destroy the drone. The engineers are looking to rectify some of those issues, such as navigation by outfitting the drone with an object detection system to avoid becoming caught on debris. The team foresees the drone being used in areas with heavy smoke that would be difficult to navigate using other UAVs or ROVs. If all else fails, it could double as a ‘smart’ soccer ball able to out-maneuver the opposing team.

 

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Handie prothetic hand made with 3D printing technology – via James Dyson Foundation

 

The Maker Faire, dubbed the “Greatest Show and Tell on Earth,” took Tokyo by storm this week, bringing together makers of monsters, rock bank robots and prosthetic hands.

 

On the scene this year was a design team who has worked together since college towards the development of a functional, yet affordable, prosthetic hand. After much tedious work, Handie was born.

 

Handie, already a nominee for the James Dyson design engineering award, is a prosthetic hand which offers amputees a considerable amount of functional ability at a much lower cost. Prosthetic limbs can cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars; Handie carries a price tag of just under $400.

The Handie team designed the limb with price in-mind. To keep production costs low, Handie was designed with a customized motor using an EMG sensor out of mass-produced flexible substrate.

 

 

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The EMG motor and flexible, mass-produced substrate used on first prototype of Handie prothetic – via www.3ders.org

 

With this, each non-electronic piece was manufactured using 3D printing, or additive manufacturing. The prosthetic looks streamlined and because each piece (not including the motor) is manufactured using 3D printing, it is repairable at a low cost, meaning it may even last longer than its more-costly competition.

The third design component of Handie is that is incorporated smart phone technology as its “brains.” This allows the weight of the prosthetic to be less, while enabling users to control the prosthetic by use of an App.

 

 

The designers of Handie spoke about how the prosthetic came to be upon nomination for the James Dyson award, stating that they designed Handie after interviewing amputees to see what they wanted.

 

 

“Our team has been working on myoelectric prosthetic hand since [our] college days. We were pursuing [a] highly functional hand that can perform strong, precise and diverse motions. Talking with amputees, however, we realized that high functionality is not necessarily the first priority to reduce their daily challenges. These tasks don’t require dexterous motions. It is rather the ‘price’ of [the] prosthetic hand that restricts amputees from using myoelectric prosthetic hand[s]. Therefore, ‘Handie’ is designed to provide amputees with sufficient functions at an affordable price.”

 

 

Although the Handie team calls the prosthetic’s functions “sufficient,” it does offer a high degree of functionality, including fingers with three-joint bending capability and automatic hand movement based on the type of object it encounters. The prosthetic can also read the electronic signals emitted by the muscle to which it attaches onto the amputated arm.

 

 

The Handie team announced that for its next model, it seeks to reduce the size and weight of the prosthetic, while also enabling wireless capabilities.

 

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Play-i Bo and Yana toy robots (via Play-i)

 

Gone are the days when children played with simple toys to learn new skills. These have since been replaced by mobile devices (children’s tablets) and electronic handheld games. But while the future will indeed see an influx in coding jobs, trying to get a young child interested in the subject can be daunting to say the least. Sure, more schools are adopting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) related classes to teach kids how to code but trying to get a six year-old to sit in front of a computer and start writing is a different story. Play-I has come up with a solution to getting children interested in coding with their Bo and Yana programmable robots. Both Bo (3-wheeled robot) and Yana (stationary robot) teach children (ages 5 and up) how to program through music, stories and animations designed to use simple input functions.

 

This is done using MIT and Google’s Scratch & Blocky app (currently for iOS only), which allows users to drag and drop icons to perform various functions. Children also get the advantage of seeing the actual code behind those icons, allowing them to eventually write their own code for the pair of robots. They can even share their programs with other children through an on-line repository, which they can modify to suit their needs. Owners can program the robots to give a friend a flower or even push a bar to help clean their rooms with Play-I’s various accessories. The robots are currently being crowd-funded on Play-I’s website and are in striking distance of their $250,000 goal with 28 days left to go. Those interested can pledge $49 for the Yana robot and $149 for the Bo robot. More advanced users can pledge $499, which nets them both robots as well as a soon to be released API (Application Programming Interface).

 

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SenseFly’s eBee drone, mapping surfaces? The future... (via SenseFly)

 

Drones have proven themselves highly proficient when it comes to combat operations and surveillance platforms over the last few decades, but they have since proven themselves in other fields featuring less death. Fleets of drones (four or more) have been put to use in S&R (search and rescue) operations with very surprising results (University of Lancaster’s AeroSee program) and now a new fleet has been put into action for the purpose of mapping large areas and landmarks in unprecedented detail. UAV manufacturer SenseFly recently teamed up with aerial imaging company Pix4D to map one of the highest peaks in the Pennine Alps: the Matterhorn.


Standing at 14,690 feet, the famous mountaineering giant was tough to map in high detail by conventional methods, so the pair decided to do it from the air remotely. SenseFly provided the drone fleet, consisting of three eBee drones capable of covering an area of 10-square miles in a 45-minute flight, more than enough time to map the mountain. The drones are powered by a lithium-polymer battery, have detachable wings for easy storage, are fully autonomous and can even land itself. Affixed to the foam airframe is a 16MP camera capable of taking imagery down to 3cm-pixel resolutions in order to create maps and topography models in great detail. The drones were programmed with waypoints that covered the entire mountain and were then launched (thrown actually) off the peak to begin their mapping decent. It took no more than six hours to garner the imagery (one picture every 20cm/over 2000 images) needed for a complete map, which was then processed and stitched together by Pix4D using advanced modeling software in great detail. With the negative press about drones in the news, it’s nice to see others using them for more than just surgical strikes.

 

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Willow Garage is a company known mostly for its robotic hardware and open source software. Their most famous project has been the PR2 Robot. Although this was a highly advanced robot, the price and size of the bot was a little too much for most companies or manufacturers to invest in. Now a group of former employees for Willow Garage have come together to create a company of their own. It is called Unbounded Robotics and they have just announced their new robot, the UBR-1.

 

This will not be the first time former employees of Willow Garage have come together to create their own company. Not too long ago another group of former employees created Suitable Technologies, a company which specialized in developing  a telepresence robot dubbed Beam. Unlike these other efforts the robot Unbounded has been developed almost in direct competition with their former PR2 robot. Unlike the PR2, the UBR-1 costs only $35,000 compared to the asking price of $400,000 for the PR2. This price drop makes it much more accessible to many companies and most of all, research institutions.

 

The Unbounded Robotics team consists of CEO Melonee Wise, CTO Michael Ferguson, lead systems engineer Derek King, and lead mechanical engineer Eric Diehr. Together they are hoping the drastically lower price of the robot will create a larger community surrounding the UBR-1. In addition, the new bot will be shipping with ROS Move It! software. This means people purchasing the robot will not have to develop their own algorithms for simple pick and place movements. This will allow people doing research on robotic movements or business applications to quickly get to work and eliminate the need to spend valuable time developing software.

 

During an interview with IEEE Spectrum, Derek King commented, “One of the things that having a little bit more of a business focus gives us is that we're committed to robust software, where it's about more than just a good demo. And that helps researchers when they're trying to build higher level applications on top of these more robust lower layers.”

 

As mentioned, the robot comes equipped with the ROS software. Furthermore, the robot features one arm with 7 degrees of freedom which can support a payload of 3.3 pounds. The bot stands anywhere from 32 to 52 inches, weighs 160 pounds, and moves around at a speed of 1m/s. Inside is a 4th generation Intel i5 processor with 8GB of RAM and a 120 GB hard drive. Running continuously the robot can work for approximately 3.5 hours and it will take that same amount of time to re-charge its batteries to 90% capacity.

 

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Unbounded Robotics' UBR-1 (via UR)

 

The UBR-1 has also been built to support extra sensors and modifications which may be required for specific tasks. King stated, “The other thing we have on our robot are modularity points, so if you did want some higher level sensor, you could just mount it and have the UBS 3.0 connection to attach it to the computer. So for the people who want that extra sensor that they can't do without, it's easy to add to this platform. One of the other modularity points is the gripper: it can do 80 percent of the things you might want to do, but there's definitely a a lot of people that want either compliant grippers, or more fingers, or suction cups, or electrostatic. So to handle that, we made the gripper as modular as possible for either of us or outside vendors or even customers to replace our gripper with their own designs.”

 

The robot also possesses 3 USB ports, 1 display port, and an Ethernet port. The robot is not yet available and is not expected to begin shipping until next summer. However, any institution which was looking to invest in a robot for whatever reason may be waiting for the release thanks to its robust build and low price. Additionally, since the robot is more accessible, it can help advance robotics and create a common foundation for robotics researchers all around the world. And for anyone worried about the robot rebelling, it also has an emergency stop button easily accessible on its back.

 

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M-Block robot. Angular momentum move it around... genius! See the blocks jump into place, you will agree. (via MIT)

 

It began in 2011 when MIT senior John Romanishin presented his idea for self-assembling robots. “It can't be done,” is the response he received countless times from colleagues and professors. Now, two years later, he has working prototypes and is preparing to present his small cube shaped robots at the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems.

 

The bots are called M-Blocks and are able to move and connect to one another without the use of any external components. In order to accomplish movements, the inside of each block contains a flywheel which can spin as fast as 20,000 revolutions per minute. The flywheel is then braked resulting in angular momentum propelling the block in a specific direction. In addition, the outside of each block is lined with corner magnets and cylindrical magnets placed in special positions. These allow the blocks to attach to other cubes and re-arrange themselves efficiently.

 

Kyle Gilpin, a postdoc student at MIT collaborating with Romanishin, adds, “There's a point in time when the cube is essentially flying through the air, and you are depending on the magnets to bring it into alignment when it lands. That's something that's totally unique to this system.”

 

What makes the cubes so efficient at moving and connecting to one another is the engineering behind the magnet's architecture and assembly. On each edge of a cube a magnet can be found which acts as a pivot for a cube rotating around an edge. When the cubes are connected face-to-face, there is a small gap between each of the cube's edges. However, when one is in the motion of rotating around the face of another, the magnets touch creating a stronger magnet connection, ultimately acting as an anchor for rotation. Furthermore, each edge contains two cylindrical magnets. These are positioned slightly further from each edge and help the magnets stay connected to one another. The poles of each cylindrical magnet will naturally align with the poles of the magnets on another cube, thus allowing them to attach to any side of any cube.

 

Hod Lipson, a robotics researcher from Cornell and early critic of the M-Blocks mentions, “What they did that was very interesting is they showed several modes of locomotion. Not just one cube flipping around, but multiple cubes working together, multiple cubes moving other cubes – a lot of other modes of motion that really open the door to many, many applications, much beyond what people usually consider when they talk about self-assembly. They rarely think about parts dragging other parts – this kind of cooperative group behavior.”

 

The researcher’s next step is to develop algorithms which will guide a swarm of 100 M-Blocks. They mentioned they would like to be able to see the cubes autonomously assemble into a variety of structures and objects. Furthermore, they are also hoping to create special cubes which will have unique functions. For example, possibly a cube with an integrated camera, or batteries. These cubes will not contain motors of their own, but would rather be moved and guided by the other general purpose cubes. It will be interesting to see what the first application may be.

 


 

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You would think a large insect-shaped robot would be a little creepy for children and parents. However, the insect inspired robot, Dash, is actually the complete opposite. It’s small, fun, fast, cute, and cheap. Built by a team of PhD engineers from UC Berkeley their work was previously funded by the National Science Foundation. They worked on building robots based on biological inspired mechanics. For example, they studied how insects run, glide, and use their tails to steer. Additionally, they also looked into how a gecko inspired adhesive could be used to give their robots the capabilities to climb walls. While their current version will only be scurrying around on the ground they hope their crowd funding project will help bring these features to future versions.

 

What they are currently offering is a beta model of their robot. The robot will cost only $65 and is available to the first 1000 backers through the crowd funding Dragon Innovation website. They realized their little insect bot could be a great educational tool for children or even hobbyist. “Seeing Dash scramble across terrain brings a smile to your face. It’s as if he has a personality – to me, always in a hurry and very persistent. Dash is great for those who enjoy building and are interested in experimenting with robots that can evolve and interact with the environment. This is an exciting first step toward a new world of robotics,” commented Dave Vadasz, former VP of Corporate & Business Development at Palm.

 

The surprisingly cheap robot was made possible through a new type of manufacturing process. A single sheet of smart composite microstructures (SCM) is used which consists of cardboard, plastic, and adhesive. They then use a laser to cut designs into the material which only cuts through the cardboard part of the SCM. In doing so, they can create specific shapes, which can then be bent and folded together to create a 3 dimensional shape, very similar to how origami works. The result is a body structure which is extremely durable and easy to assemble and can be put together in less than an hour.

 

If purchasing the kit you will also receive a motor, transmission, and plug-and-play electronics. The electronics will include a Bluetooth 4.0, which will be used to communicate with smart phones. Through an app on a smart phone or tablet users will then control and move their robot around. In addition, an Arduino compatible micro-controller will also be used in the assembly. This will allow the more advanced users to modify the bot's behavior or possibly add sensors or additional features.

 

Currently, their prototype only supports iOS devices with Bluetooth 4.0. However, the team has mentioned they are working hard at getting support for Android devices with Bluetooth 4.0 capabilities. Furthermore, they have already reached their funding goal of $64,000 with 20 days still left to go. This will be a perfect gift for children interested in robotics. The electronics are plug in play so no programming is required. Nevertheless, the engineers have made the system hackable, so when the time is right, the budding engineer can begin to program the robot on his own. Additionally, the whole system runs off the Arduino, which is probably the most accessible way for young people to learn about programming. With its low cost, this can be a very big hit for Moms, Dads, and children. 

 

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IIT’s robotic plant system. Tech mimics life... making better machines based on the tried and true (via IIT & Plantoid Project)

 

Robots come in many forms, which are based on the functions they perform. There are robotic arms used in manufacturing plants, small disks that vacuum floors and even some based on humanoid babies to get a better understanding of human behavior. It’s not uncommon for robots to mimic various life forms, just take a look at DARPA’s pack mule LS3, which performs the same function as its mammalian counterpart. Or Virginia Tech’s Cyro robotic jellyfish that’s part of the US Navy’s autonomous vehicle project. While those are based on animal forms, another academic institution has developed a robot based on plant life.

 

The Italian Institute of Technology has designed robotic plants for soil monitoring using its roots, which function almost identically to that of their organic cousins. Known as the Plantoid project (headed by Barbara Mazzolai), the robotic plants are equipped with ‘smart’ roots that house tiny actuators to unwind material that allows the root to dig through the soil. Those roots are equipped with bespoke soft sensors that guide the root around obstacles, such as rocks or other impenetrable material, so the root can unwind safely and reach its target depth. Once the depth is reached the root then unfurls and extends into the area around itself, much like a real root system does, and begins to monitor the soil as well as the environment around the robotic plant. The artificial root is outfitted with an array of sensors that are capable of monitoring water, temperature, pH, nitrates/phosphates and even gravity!

 

The root system gains its power from the ‘flower-head’ that sits atop its stalk, which is actually four mini solar cells that are used to power a rotor that unwinds the root system. The team of Italian researchers wanted to garner a better understanding of how a root system functions as organic root systems bend when they grow in length to avoid and traverse around obstacles. It does this by growing new cells on the opposite side of the direction the root structure is heading while at the same time it prioritizes several chemical and physical stimuli;, it is not completely understood how it is able to do so. The researchers also want to get a better understanding on how organic root systems interact with one another, which may provide a new type of swarm intelligence (Day of the Triffids anyone?). Developing the robotic root system could lead to more energy efficient robots capable of adapting to their environments as well as monitoring the area in disaster zones or toxic sites allowing first-responders to find injured persons quickly and efficiently. Since the root is capable of anchoring itself in soil, it could be used in space for exploration of comets or other planets. Even the medical field could benefit from the technology behind the robo-plant, which could be used for a bendable, growing endoscope to explore the human body. The Plantoid project was showcased last month at the Living Machines conference in London.

 

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