THURSDAY: Finally! A Robot Spider You Can Ride!?

3 April 2014

Just what we’ve always dreamed of . . . a spider you can ride? One of the few dreams I think almost nobody has had is the one about “riding the wild spider.” When I first saw an article about this, I cocked my head and just looked at the picture for a minute – involuntarily muttering, “Wha?”

VIDEO

But, ready or not, the ride-able spider is here. And just in time for . . . some holiday, . . . I guess.

Beginning in 2009, Matt Denton, founder of Micromagic Systems, undertook the building of what has come to be called a giant spider. But for those of us who are aficionados of spider factoids, spiders have 8 legs.   The fact that the ride-able spider robot has only 6 legs is just a bit of a disappointment. The designers, also, recognized the credibility gap that would develop if their invention were actually called a spider.  So, they gave it the formal name: mantis — naming it after the six-legged praying mantis.

By the way, if you ever get a close look at a praying mantis . . .   Well, let’s just say that, in terms of “looks,” it can give the creepiest spider more than a run for its money.

COMPARE: SPIDER FACE vs PRAYING MANTIS FACE

Anyway, reportedly, the construction of a giant walking robot that could carry around a human being was a long-time dream of Denton’s. The finished product isn’t just big, it’s the biggest hexapod built “so far.” At a height of over 9 feet with a weight of 4,188 pounds, it’s “the biggest all-terrain operational hexapod robot in the world.” A Perkins 2.2 liter turbo diesel engine is required to operate the hydraulics that moves its many legs.

And I wasn’t kidding when I talked about riding the wild spider, either. Micromagic Systems is actually making the Mantis available for rent. It doesn’t move fast, but it’s quite sure-footed and capable of traversing terrain that would stop a wheeled vehicle. In fact, Micromagic Systems shouldn’t be surprised if DARPA comes “a calling.” The Mantis has clear military applications along the same lines as other robots being developed for the military by the defense industry.

DARPA SPONSERED PROJECTS; “BIG DOG” & “ROBO-RAVEN

The Mantis’ rugged performance is all the more surprising because appearance, rather than performance, is the chief characteristic of the animatronic devices Micromagic Systems has always produced. “Animatronic devices” are machines that simulate the movement of living creatures and are most often built for the production of special effects for the film industry. It was Denton’s team that created the six-legged turtle for a Harry Potter film.

WAS THERE A SIX-LEGGED TURTLE IN A HARRY POTTER FILM?

Although the Mantis is a fantastic achievement, I can’t help asking: It’s always six legs with you at Micromagic? A six-legged turtle. Then, a six-legged mantis. We spider-lovers are waiting for the first, eight . . . (count ‘em!) . . . eight-legged spider robot.

MICROMAGIC SYSTEMS

Engineers unveil giant robot spider that you can drive

Realistic Toy Robot Spiders — As If the Real Things Weren’t Enough

Robo-Spider to the Rescue

THURSDAY: What is Bionics?

3 April 2014

THE SHORT ANSWER

A simple internet search brought many results. But the first was a definition of bionics: “having artificial body parts, [especially] electromechanical ones.”

The term bionic is most often used in medicine to mean the replacement or improvement of human organs or other body parts with mechanical imitations. Bionic imitations are designed “to work” like the original part or even better. This is different from prosthetic replacements, which are only designed to “look like” the missing organ or body part. However, one does not have to exclude the other. A “working” bionic replacement can also be prosthetic or “look like” the missing body part or organ.

Many researchers in the field of robotics are working on many different projects. And each group of researchers knows what they are doing. But this field has, and continues, to develop so quickly that there is a lot of actual confusion about words: what to call what you are doing. And the word bionic is an example of change and confusion.

In the late 1950’s, a psychiatrist and engineer named Jack E. Steele invented the term bionic. But his “bionic” had a much broader meaning than the term has today. Steele used the term to describe the imitation of nature, natural processes, and living organisms in the design of mechanical systems – as solutions “to engineering problems.”

And the definition might be the same, today, if a science fiction writer named Martin Caidin hadn’t used the term in his novel, Cyborg. Again, the definition of the word bionic might not have been affected if the novel had been unpopular.   Not only was Cyborg popular, but it was adapted into the television show, The Six Million Dollar Man.  I’d guess the show’s developers thought the word “bionic” sounded cool, but the word “cyborg” sounded creepy. The rest is not only TV history, but narrowed the meaning of the word bionics to focus on the design of functional, mechanic organ replacements and body parts.

Maybe the spectacular success of the television show and a spin off or two, made the word bionic just too trendy for the technological community. “Bionic,” with its original meaning, disappeared from technical literature in favor of Otto Schmitt’s term, “biomemetric” meaning the solution of engineering problems by imitating nature in the design of mechanical devices. Then, Janine Benyus popularized the term, “biomimicry” in her 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.

Technically, the rather long phrase, “bionical creativity engineering” still retains the broad meaning of the original term bionics.   But you’re more likely to hear the terms biomemetric or biomimicry when robotic marvels like Boston Dynamics’ “Big Dog” or UVD’s Robo-Raven are discussed.

A final note on word usage. Bionics is the study of incorporating mechanical organs and body parts into living human beings. When you actually incorporate the mechanical organ or body part, you have something called a cyborg. To take some of the creepiness out of the name cyborg, remember that a heart patient with a pacemaker is, technically, a cyborg. A kidney patient, actually using a dialysis machine to assist kidney function, is a cyborg, as long as they are connected to the machine.

 

THURSDAY: What is a Cyborg?

3 April 2014

SHORT AND SIMPLE

A cybernetic organism is called a cyborg (for short). A cyborg is a being with both organic (living) and mechanical parts. And it sounds just as creepy to say that a cyborg is part living animal and part machine. But, TV’s The Six Million Dollar Man brought one idea of a cyborg into public awareness. The “The Six Million Dollar Man” is a fictional vision of normal human functions increased and improved by robotic or mechanical technology.

VIDEO CLIP INTRO: The Six Million Dollar Man

WIKIPEDIA: The Six Million Dollar Man

But a few years before the airing of the pilot episode of the TV show, most everyone already knew about cyborgs. As a matter of fact, most of us have met a few. Simply, the cardiac pacemaker, introduced in the 1960’s, turns the wearer into a cyborg. The pacemaker’s action as it regulates the beating of the human heart is enough to make the user, together with the device, into a cyborg. Also, a variety of medical and life-saving technology may, technically, combine together with the user to form a cyborg.

But if “The Six Million Dollar Man” was a cyborg, why did they call him “bionic?”

Because “bionics” is the study of how to use mechanical technology to replace human organs or improve the way human organs work. So, the study is bionics, but the actual combination is called a cyborg. By the way, the TV show, “The Six Million Dollar Man”, was based on a science fiction novel by Martin Caidin titled Cyborg.

THURSDAY: Toy Robot Spiders — As If the Real Things Weren’t Enough

6 March 2014

“The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.”

Oscar Wilde

Before we go, we have to get some definitions out of the way.

A robotic purist will explain that there’s no such thing as a toy robot.  The words “toy” and “robot,” used together, form an oxymoron.  In other words, by definition, a toy isn’t a robot, and a robot isn’t a toy. A robot is a machine that “does work.”  A toy is a machine, but not a machine that does work.

An animatronic device is a machine that moves like a living creature.  Animatronic devices are used for entertainment.

But these aren’t robots. Right?

Is entertainment work?

Well, uh . . . .   Let’s get back to robots.

No one can play with a robot. Right?

Well, I have to admit that children can play with anything including (and especially) the cardboard box their “toy” came in.

So, if a child plays with a robot, does it become a toy? Well, if a tree falls in the forest . . .

Let’s forget the purist definitions.

There are toy robot spiders. They are really cool.

Inside Adam Savage’s Cave: Awesome Robot Spider!

Robugtix

In addition to the animatronic spider, the Robugtix line includes a hexapod (6-legged) robot for those who are not “spider purists” demanding the full 8-legs of the “octopodal” arachnid.

[video] iitsii the Hexapod Robot

These animatronic devices are produced by Amoeba Robotics Ltd., a research, engineering, and design company.  Founded in 2010, this Hong Kong based concern focuses on “providing innovative robotics systems for professional and educational use.”  I can’t resist including another video of the “T8.” [video]

Watching these animatronic devices, you might pause to wonder what their working counterparts, the “robots,” must look like.  And there you might get a surprise.  Working robots, like their animatronic/entertainment counterparts, are being designed to resemble animals and even people.

Why?

As soon as engineers began developing sophisticated robotics, they ran into some problems.  You may have seen those sleek glass and metal robots from those 1950’s sci-fi movies.  In those days, there was an idea that robots would have to be, somehow, completely different from organic life forms.  And this idea carried over into early, “real-world” technology.  But there were problems.  These “unlife-like” robots didn’t work so well.

The reason was obvious.  Most often, we don’t need robots to do weird, strange, or superhuman tasks.  We really need robots that do exactly what human beings (and a variety of common animals and even insects) do. What’s more, the tasks we want robots to do aren’t necessarily complicated. Often we need robots that do common, everyday tasks. Tasks that are simple, but time consuming and repetitive,

So, for about the past decade, most robots have been developed to imitate animals and human beings.  And, not surprisingly, these robots are becoming more animatronic – life-like — in their movements and, even, appearance.

Sometimes, this is intended as in the Army Research Laboratory’s Robo-Raven. This aerial drone is designed to fly and maneuver with movements so much like a bird that it actually fools real birds. [image] [video]

The “animatronic” appearance and movement aren’t the result of idle tinkering.   Instead, it’s part of this aerial drone’s camouflage.  This particular “application” of camouflage is called mimesis or “masquerade.”  The goal is to create an aerial drone that the observer mistakes for — just a bird flying by.  But the bird is a flying drone relaying sound and video back to another, concealed observer. [video]. So, the “bird-watcher” is the one being watched.

THURSDAY: Robo-Spider to the Rescue

6 March 2014

About the creepiest of all the land-roaming creatures is the spider.  But it only makes sense that, with 8 legs, the spider would be among the most sure-footed animals on earth.  And sure-footedness was just what researchers were looking for in a new search and rescue robot.  So, it’s no surprise that they picked the spider as their model.

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation, in Stuttgart, Germany, have developed a new weapon in the search and rescue arena: a robotic spider.  In stark contrast to the real eight-legged arachnid’s creepy reputation, its robotic incarnation is not just your friend, but your potential rescuer.  These spiders can, for example, creep into the smallest spaces in collapsed buildings and provide location information about trapped victims as well as damage and air quality assessments.

These ‘bots are about as friendly and helpful as real spiders are not.  But, personality aside, in terms of the mechanics of operation, these robots are really a lot like the actual spider.  Research groups throughout the world have turned to biomimicry in designing the last few generations of robots.  That is, the robots of the future are being designed not just to imitate, but to function just like, plain old biological organisms.

In old sci-fi movies, robots of the future were visualized as almost anti-human and anti-organic.  In other words, they were made to look like everything that plain old living creatures weren’t — sporting sleek metal and glass surfaces with an enormous bulk and weight carried hither and yon on wheels.  However, when it came to building the real thing, these sleek-looking innovations turned out not to be . . . innovations.

We “organics” got the last laugh, most recently, watching Mars Rovers continually getting stuck because, even on slightly rough terrain, wheels don’t work as well as feet.  In terms of design, the bulky, weighty robots have been left behind because their very bulk and weight made it difficult for them to move freely and to perform flexibly enough to accomplish a wide variety of tasks.

For most current robotic applications, biomimicry, imitation of real-life organic creatures, is the order of the day.  And it makes sense.  Every time we see a really creepy spider, we worry that one of those creepy things will find its way into our home.  And they do — in spite of considerable obstacles.  What better creature to imitate if your goal is to rescue someone in a collapsed building?  Why try to figure out a new way to do what spiders have been able to do since . . . forever.

Even better, this spider can be produced inexpensively using a 3D printer. The resulting Robo-Spider is disposable (just in case you don’t want these critters crawling around the house after they’ve done their job).  Rather disturbingly, the Robo-Spider moves just like its biological counterpart and, if it has to, it can even jump — leaving me with vaguely disturbing mental image.

Creepy Robot Spider Crawls Out of 3-D Printer

3D-printed spider robot skitters where humans can’t

[image]
Also, BAE Systems, a British defense company, is working on robotic spiders (and dragonflies and snakes) to aid soldiers in combat zones.  These robo-spiders would play the role of scouts crawling through potentially dangerous areas and relaying precise reconnaissance information in situations too dangerous for human beings.

[image] [video]
The project has been taken seriously enough to garner a $38 million contract with the U.S. Army for the development of these robotic “octopeds.”

Robot Spiders, Dragonflies, Snakes to Aid Soldiers in War Zones