On November 12, 2003, in Devices & Robotics
A fully autonomous cow-milking robot will leave the
farmer happier and the milkmaid out of a job; a semi-autonomous window cleaning robot will take better care of buildings than
human cradle crews; and a semi-automatic robotic cardiac
catheterization system
may be another warning shot across the surgeon’s bow,
given the clear trend to increasing robot autonomy in all spheres, including

Autonomy is pre-requisite for a pack of robotic vehicles soon to be racing across the Mojave Desert to win fame and a million
DARPA dollars for the winning builder. The race will result in a big step toward
cars that chauffeur you wherever you want to go and take themselves to the car
wash and gas station. It is a race to a substantial change in the way we

Sony has introduced Qrio, a more perfect android. Not so
perfect that it has flexible, sensor-rich skin for
better sensitivity, or eyes in the back of its head for a better sense of direction; but its progeny may well have them.

Given their growing abilities, it is not surprising that globally, orders for manufacturing, service, domestic, and
entertainment robots rose 26 percent in 2002; or that robot vacuums are
ubiquitous enough to warrant comparative reviews in the

Milkmaids Displaced by Robot

The TeatTracker, developed by Scottish researchers, contains sensors
enabling robotic milking equipment to milk cows totally without human
intervention. It may also increase milk yields by up to 20 percent, making
smaller farms more viable and giving farmers an easier life all round.

Reference: Murden, Terry (2003). “Robot milker
is dream machine for sleep-starved farmers
.” Scotland on Sunday, October

Window Cleaners Are Next to Go

The European Union has contributed some UK�500,000 to six European companies
(three Spanish, two German, and one British) jointly building a robotic window
cleaner for skyscrapers, replacing the dangerous cradles and their precarious
human crews. The device will use suction cups to clamber around buildings,
cleaning as it goes using a bank of rotating brushes, detergent-free cleaning
fluid, and an on-board water tank. It will be operated remotely by a human
operator using a PDA, and is expected to clean better, faster, and at less cost
than the traditional method. A full-scale working prototype should be ready
within six months.

Reference: Ramsay, Seb (2003). “The
window-cleaning robot
.” Manchester Online, October 28.

Cardiac Catheterization Robot

Israeli researchers have developed a semi-automatic, remote controlled
robotic cardiac catheterization system designed to eliminate radiation from the
catheterization, which can affect both patient and medical staff. The
catheterization robots could be ready for commercial marketing within two years.

Reference: Hayoun, David (2003). “Navicath
developing cardiac catheterization robots
.” Globes, October 15.

Autonomous Vehicle Race

Teams are preparing for an autonomous vehicle cross-country race sponsored by
the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is putting up $1
million for the winner. The robot vehicles must traverse 200 miles of Mojave
Desert in under ten hours, without a driver and without any form of remote
control. They will have to deal with ditches, water, rocks, barbed wire, and
other vehicles, and there is no set course except that they will be required to
pass through pre-specified 10-foot corridors at a specific speed.

While the Defense Department has spent untold millions on contracts to build
autonomous vehicles, it seems to have realized that the “open source” approach
is both cheaper and more likely to produce innovation and success. Said the
event’s project manager: “There are solutions out there in the community and
nation that people weren’t offering because they don’t deal with the military
complex. So we are inviting little mom-and-pop folks out there to help spur
advancement and take us where we need to be.”

Entrants range from a $50,000 custom-built ATV (all-terrain vehicle)
outfitted by a couple of amateur enthusiasts with a dome that will open up like
flower petals to right the vehicle if it overturns, to a corporate-sponsored,
multimillion dollar Hummer outfitted by some 30 top researchers at Carnegie
Mellon University with the latest autonomous technology and “an array of
on-board supercomputer-class computers.”

DARPA’s $1 million investment is more than repaid by the massive additional
investment by the race entrants. Even if no vehicle completes the race, a
tremendous amount of valuable data will be produced.

Reference: Vance, Ashlee (2003). “Road
Trip for Robots
.” New York Times, October 9.


Sony has been out demonstrating its latest robotic tour de force,
Qrio, a toddler-sized humanoid robot (a toddleroid?) that can sing,
dance, hold a conversation of sorts, navigate an obstacle course, get up after a
fall, sense heat and surface textures, recognize people through their voice or
face, and respond with gestures or words to questions.

The company may release the robot commercially in about a year, though it
currently serves as a testbed for various technologies. It extends the
capability of Aibo, the pet robot Sony released a few years ago. Sony has
sold about 130,000 Aibos.

Reference: Kanellos, Michael (2003). “Toddler-sized
robot dances at debut
.” CNET, October 14.

Sensitive Skin for Robots

Electrical engineers at Princeton University have developed a metal connector
that can stretch up to twice its length, making it ideal for use in the skin of
biorealistic robots. The skin needs to be wired with numerous sensors yet remain
flexible. The new connectors are made from 25 nanometer-thick corrugated gold
film on a rubbery silicone membrane. The researchers hope to automate the
manufacturing of the robot skin within three years.

Reference: Choi, Charles (2003). “Robot skin
stretches to the task
.” New Scientist, October 22.

All-Around Vision

A robot’s navigation skills could be vastly improved by giving it
“omni-directional” vision. New software processes images from a set of cameras
mounted around a sphere to give omni-directional vision and easily identify the
direction of motion in 3D as the robots moves and turns.

Reference: Unknown (2003). “Nine-Eyed Robots Are
.” Space Daily, October 30.

Accelerating Adoption

The United Nations’ World Robotics Survey, published last month, points to
rapid and accelerating growth in both industrial/commercial and domestic
robotics. A 26 percent rise in business orders in 2002 coincided with an
increase in the number of robotic lawnmowers and vacuum cleaners, and orders for
new factory robots rose 35 percent in North America and 25 percent in Europe.
The total number of robots in use worldwide stands at around 1.4 million, about
half of them in Japan. Investment is likely to rise in Japan over the next
decade to replace the country’s shrinking labor pool with robots, and similar
demographic shifts are catching up with other developed countries.

In 2002, 33,000 domestic “work” robots were sold worldwide, compared to
20,000 in 2001. By 2006, the report predicts sales of 400,000 vacuum-cleaning
robots and 125,000 smart lawnmowers. Domestic “entertainment” robots (such as
Sony’s Aibo robot puppy) are already at those levels, with 550,000 sold
and 1.5 million expected to be sold by 2006.

Industrial assembly-line robots are increasingly being adapted for “service”
tasks, with some 18,600 of them cleaning buildings, handling hazardous waste,
assisting surgeons, and performing other service functions.

The report added that costs have come down greatly since 1990.

References: Fowler, Jonathan (2003). “Survey:
Industrial Robot Sales Show Boom
.” Associated Press/The Ledger, October 20;
Unknown (2003). “Farewell
lawnmower… hello robot
.” BBC News, October 21.

Vacuum Review

Associated Press correspondent David McHugh recently reviewed the
RoboCleaner RC3000 from German company Alfred Kaercher GmbH. He compares
it to the iRobotics’ Roomba and the Electrolux Trilobite. He found
the US$1500 RoboCleaner more convenient than the $200 Roomba
which has to be picked up and moved from room to room, and won’t empty itself —
but slower, too big to clean under the sofa, and not able to get as close to
walls and into corners. The $1,700 Trilobite has more powerful
(ultrasound) sensors, and more powerful suction, but is much noisier.

It is not long since we reported the arrival of the first robot vacuum. Now
there are enough of them to warrant comparative reviews in the popular press,
and the comparisons are bound to spur further competitive innovation. Within a
very short time, they could become ubiquitous in hospitals, clinics, and nursing
homes, and ease staffing shortages there.

Reference: McHugh, David (2003). “Robot
vacuum cleans, empties and recharges without human intervention
.” Associated
Press/San Francisco Chronicle, October 1.


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