The Week's Best Robot Videos: Machines on the Road, at CES, and in Space

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Jan. 13 2012 3:22 PM

The Week's Best Robot Videos: Machines on the Road, at CES, and in Space

Every Friday, Future Tense rounds up the best robot videos of the week. Seen a great robot video? Tweet it to @FutureTenseNow, or email us.

This week, robots try their hand at traveling, both on the road and in space.

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The Cosmo-Bots

A great example of science fiction inspiring technology, these space-dwellers are straight out of Star Wars. MIT professor David Miller used Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber training droid as a model for SPHERES, the free-flying robots seen here aboard the International Space Station. Each unit has its own propulsion, computing, and navigation equipment that allows them to perform some amazing choreography together. The project has been around since 2006, but researchers have now paired the bots with Samsung Galaxy S smartphones to bring low-cost cameras, sensors, and computers to the project. NASA hopes the project “could lead to advancements in automated docking, satellite servicing, spacecraft assembly, and emergency repairs.”

The Chauffer Bot

One major challenge to creating autonomous vehicles is figuring out how to prevent collisions. This self-driving car was designed in France to test the safety features of cars under precise, programmable conditions. As seen in the video, the robotic driving system is helping to test the car’s emergency braking features. We even get to see how this autonomous car reacts if a pedestrian walks into the street unexpectedly. The car is fitted with four cameras to track surroundings and road markings, and while a joystick lets humans take control if needed—proof that even robots can’t get away from the backseat driver.

The Telepresence Bot

One of the most popular robots at the Consumer Electronics Show this week is Ava, iRobot’s spatially aware drone. Ava is a compilation of technologies, including Apple’s iPad, Microsoft’s Kinect, and iRobot’s own platform, that can scan an environment, map it out, and then navigate it. Ava can even maneuver around unexpected obstacles, like people, in its path. At the moment, Ava doesn’t do a whole lot besides move around and use the camera capabilities of its components, but the idea is that developers can come up with any number of things to make the bot more useful.

The DIY Cardboard Bot

Last week we met Boxie, MIT’s friendly cardboard robot journalist. This week engineer Mike Estee showed off his own cardboard creation, a five-legged result of his “Paper Robots” project. His goal was to create a lightweight, inexpensive machine, and at just $85, it looks like he succeeded. As an added bonus, he posted his design templates and documentation online under a Creative Commons license, in case you want to try your hand at robotics this weekend. Using cardboard has many benefits, including low cost, weight, strength and abundance, but as Estee tells us, perhaps its most important characteristic is that it allows for mistakes:

“One of the often overlooked, and rather important steps in discovering a novel solution to a problem, is getting it wrong the first half dozen times. It helps inform the design process later, and allows one to not worry so damn much about the current state of affairs.”

Via the Verge.

If you'd like to build your own robot but don’t know where to start, check out Popular Mechanics’ “Build Your First Robot” project, which launched this week. And be sure to share your creation with us.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Adam Sneed is a researcher for Future Tense at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @atsneed.

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