December 27, 2013
2013 Was A Big Year For Robotics
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
From the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge to Google’s many robotic acquisitions, 2013 seemed to be the “Year of the Robot." Only time will tell if the past year was a turning point for all things robotic.
In March, engineers at the University of Sheffield in the UK announced that they were developing a system of swarming robots in an attempt to understand how a group of machines could work in concert to accomplish a task. At the time, the UK team said they were working with a swarm of 40 robots that could aggregate together or push an object across the floor.
“We are interested in how these systems, that are so massively distributed actually work. Where there is no central entity that controls everything, but rather all the entities, all the individual parts – interact with each other and a complexity arises from these interactions,” explained lead researcher Roderich Gross, from the university’s Natural Robotics Lab, in an online video.
Perhaps the research into swarming robots could be applied to robotic bees like the ones that are being developed by Harvard engineers. In May, Harvard engineers Pakpong Chirarattananon and Robert J. Wood announced the first flight of an insect-sized robot.
"I was so excited, I couldn't sleep," said Chirarattananon.
"This is what I have been trying to do for literally the last 12 years," added Robert J. Wood, principal investigator of the National Science Foundation-supported RoboBee project. "It's really only because of this lab's recent breakthroughs in manufacturing, materials, and design that we have even been able to try this. And it just worked, spectacularly well."
According to the team’s report in the journal Science, the robot is half the size of a paperclip, weighs less than a tenth of a gram, and can flap its wings 120 times per second.
The Harvard “robo-bee” wasn’t the only robotic creature to spring to life this year. In June, a team from Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland announced the development of a new robot based on detailed observations of a house cat.
According to a report by the scientists in the International Journal of Robotics Research, the cheetah-cub is the fastest in its category of small quadruped robots under 30 kilograms, running almost seven times its body length in one second in laboratory trial.
Some of the heaviest hitters in the field of robotics, like the engineering department at Harvard and NASA, had teams furiously competing in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC). The competition began in cyberspace with teams using simulated robots to complete a series of tasks, such as driving a car, walking over rough terrain, attaching a virtual hose, and turning a valve.
The teams in the competition were all instructed to use the Open Source Robotics Foundation’s (OSRF) Gazebo virtual simulator because the virtual robots would later translate easily to actual metal-and-circuits robots, according to OSRF’s CEO Brian Gerkey.
Sixteen teams from around the world eventually made it to the DRC’s final round, which involved actual physical robots performing the same tasks asked of their virtual alter-egos. Held at Florida’s Homestead Miami Speedway on December 20 and 21, the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials offered an important baseline on the current state of robotics technology today and its potential for future use in disaster response.
One of the companies that had previously built robots for the Department of Defense under DARPA was acquired by Google, the search giant announced in December. Based in Waltham, Massachusetts, Boston Dynamics has built mobile research robots for the Pentagon and gained a reputation for constructing highly-agile robots with an uncanny sense of balance. The latest Google acquisition marked the eighth time in the last six months that the search giant bought a robotics company.
“Competitions like the Darpa Robotics Challenge stretch participants to try to solve problems that matter and we hope to learn from the teams’ insights around disaster relief,” said Google robotics executive Andy Rubin in a statement released by Google.
In addition to humanoid robots, Boston Dynamics has designed and built a menagerie of two-legged and four-legged robots capable of climbing walls and trees. In one web video, the company’s BigDog robot climbs hills, traverses snow, maintains its balance on ice and even withstands a human kick. In another video, the company’s Cheetah robot can be seen running on a treadmill. The four-legged cat-bot has been clocked at a pace of 29 mph.
While today’s commercially available robots have a limited sense of use and purpose, 2013 showed that we may not be far away from seeing more robots in our everyday lives.