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Glimpse Our Robotic Future in China

Disembodied robots arms, miniature humanoids, and a robotic conga line at the ICRA 2011 conference.

The exhibit hall at this year’s IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) was chock full of disembodied robotic arms, humanoid robots that bumped into things they were supposed to avoid, and Lego-like parts for assembly into everything from robotic dogs to calligraphy machines.

Darwin OP Open Platform Humanoid Project.

If the gathering in Shanghai was any indication of our technological future, robotic arms are the next big thing. Some, like Yaskawa’s arc welding Motoman, will be used in factories (though at the exhibit two arms on display were carrying out a carefully choreographed light saber duel; video at the bottom of this post). Other companies, like Barret Technologies, build “assistive robotic arms”, one of which, the rep tells me, is currently being used as a surgeon’s aid in knee surgery. The idea is that the surgery is pre-programmed and since the robot’s movements are more precise than the fallible human hand, the robot guides the surgeon’s hands through the surgery. That’s right, the robot guides the surgeon. The arm has 7 degrees of freedom and runs about $150k.

Shanghai XPartner’s robot.

Educational robotics was another running theme at ICRA this year. Shanghai XPartner Robotics’ Dragon Guard is a robotic playmate and study partner. As the rep explained to me (not knowing I was there with my MIT Press book exhibit), kids may be bored with reading. The vaguely humanoid bot (shown to the right), with big blue eyes, touch-screen belly and voice recognition software, can function as an e-reader among other things. I’m not sure how print books can compete with that.

The Darwin OP Open Platform Humanoid Project sells humanoid bots to university research labs for about $12k. The bot’s black shell and vaguely devilish head design gives it a more mischievous look than most humanoid bots. It has a full PC built into it and is intended as a research platform, but its main function in the exhibit hall was to follow a red ball around and kick it. Of course the bot knows “red” but doesn’t know from “ball”, so in a moment of distraction it headed straight for a red chair and tried to kick that instead.

Robotic kits were also popular at ICRA. Dynamixel sells networked actuators for students to assemble and program. The before-and-after pics would go something like this: a box of electronics vaguely resembling absolutely nothing before; a humanoid robot programmed to move in particular ways after. Robotechn’s parts were demoed as robotic worms and starfish displaying different modes of movement selected by the user using a remote control.

And my personal favorite, the Aldebaran robot that sells for $12k as a research platform. It looks like a roughly two-foot kid-bot, has a sleek blue and white design, almost life-like micro-movements, and can fixate on and follow a red ball so convincingly that you almost forget it’s not autonomous. The crowd of spectators probably did forget as they watched it “lead” a procession of robots around the exhibit hall, all seeming to “follow” the Aldebaran bot in a bizarre robo-parade led by a red ball.

The robotic light saber duel:

Ada Brunstein is a freelance writer and senior acquisitions editor at MIT Press.

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