Robotics Tech Digest - January 2017

Soft robotics helping heart to beat

Researchers at Harvard University and Boston Children’s Hospital have developed a soft robot sleeving that fits around a heart, assisting it to beat. Utilizing pneumatic actuators, the robot contracts and twists in rhythm with the heart, potentially providing assistance to people suffering heart failure. Compared to other mechanical methods, the sleeve obviates any need for the patient to use blood thinning drugs as it does not come into contact with blood. As proof of concept, the robot has been tested on a live pig’s heart.

$250 million investment in advanced robotics institute

American Robotics, a Carnegie Mellon University founded institution, will be given USD 250 million to set up an advanced robotics manufacturing institute (ARMI). USD80 million will be provided by the US Department of Defense and the remaining funds by partner organizations. ARMI, which will be based in Pittsburgh, will be investigating ways to make industrial robots more affordable, adaptable and efficient by co-opting new manufacturing tech, AI, autonomy, 3D-printing and other emerging technologies. According to Carnegie Mellon’s news article the aim of ARMI is to improve US advanced manufacturing and provide more options to small and medium sized businesses.

Robot valets

In a carpark in Wuzhen, China, Hikvision is trialling a robotic parking system. The system uses flat, pallet like, orange robots. A driver drives onto the robot and the robot will navigate into a free parking space. The robot uses Hikvision’s combined visual and inertial navigation to achieve self-positioning with an accuracy error below 5mm, the company claims. In addition the robot can lift handle, rotate and lower a 2,500 kg vehicle. The robot is controlled by a smart parking system which is able to dispatch and control 500 vehicles simultaneously; the company further claims that this system can increase the amount of space in a carpark by 40% compared to a carpark designed for drivers parking their own cars.  

Robots getting under our skin 

A cross-institute group of scientists have developed soft robots that can be implanted under the skin to deliver drugs. The biobot is made of hydrogel (a jelly like, but resistant material), and is driven by a Geneva drive (a gear mechanism) which is activated by an external magnet. By moving the magnet a partitioned wheel containing doses of a drug will deliver the dose when needed. The scientists tested the device for ten days on mice with bone cancer, and after comparison with a sample of mice treated with chemotherapy, it was shown that the mice with the targeted drug release implant had less tumour growth and damaged fewer cells. 

Ocado’s third warehouse using robots

Ocado, an online supermarket, is expecting its robot-heavy third warehouse to be open in 2017. The warehouse in Andover, UK, has a main floor divided into a grid of small squares. Under each square is a stack of five crates of food. On the grid itself is a team of up to 1,000 robots which are able to lift the crates from below. The robots move around the grid at up to nine miles per hour following instructions communicated via a very dense, bespoke 4G mobile telecoms network operating in the licence-exempt 5GHz band. The instructions tell the robots which crates to pick and the destination. The robots are able to cooperate: for example, a robot can help another robot lift the top crate so as to be able to reach the second crate down. The robots however are only able to grab the crates of groceries; it still requires a human to sort the different products into an order.

Robotics enables new surgical procedure

Surgeons at University Hospital Leuven have successfully used a robot to operate on a patient with retinal vein occlusion (a blood clot in a retinal vein that can cause blindness). The KU Leuven’s specially designed robot was equipped with a needle of 0.03 mm to inject a thrombolytic drug into the vein. The robot overcomes traditional barriers to carrying out the surgery because it was able to hold the needle steady for ten minutes while administering the drug, and has the precision to inject the vein in the first place. 

Heat sensing robot skin

Scientists at ETH Zurich have developed a heat sensing skin which could be applied to robots to enable them to detect humans. The transparent, flexible material is made of pectin and relies on currents of ions rather than electrons to detect heat. The pectin is dipped in calcium chloride, the ions of which provide the pectin its heat sensitivity. The material can detect temperature changes as small as 10 millikelvin. The changes in temperature cause the material’s resistance to change. The researchers see this being useful in search and rescue, prosthetics, and in autonomous navigation for robots. 

Intel’s new retail robots

At NRF (National Retail Federation) Big Show 2017, Intel demonstrated Simbe Robotics’ Tally, a robotic autonomous shelf auditing and analytics solution. Intel says the robot works to ensure that products are stocked, in the right place, and displaying the correct price tag. It uses an Intel Core i7 processor and Intel Realsense cameras to understand and navigate its environment. Intel says that the robot can roam the aisles of a store safely without any special infrastructural changes. 

Panasonic’s servicebot

A Panasonic robot, HOSPI has been collecting used plates from restaurants (it has a tray slot which staff can load, then HOSPI heads back to the kitchen), serving drinks (which are stored in a mini-fridge installed in HOSPI’s back) and providing assistance to customers at Tokyo’s Narita Airport.
 The robot was initially designed for hospital use, delivering samples and files to different departments. The robot uses real-time feedback sensors to avoid collisions, and a preprogramed map of its environment to plan routes. 

Starship begins trials in USA

Starship, the Estonian-headquartered manufacturer of delivery robots, has partnered with DoorDash and Postmates for its US pilot. Starship’s robots will be delivering food for the companies in Redwood City and Washington DC. DoorDash will be testing a fleet of robots in the coming month with hopes of rolling the robot delivery service out to DoorDash’s 250 cities. The technology has already been used in London, UK, and other cities worldwide, to deliver food from restaurants to customers. 

CES home robots

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2017 had many robots aimed at the domestic market. Here are a few.
Kuri – a semi-humanoid robot. Kuri features a touch sensor on its head which activates the bot. HD cameras built into the eyes allow for photography and video, including live-streaming so that homeowners can monitor their homes when not there. Microphones enable voice recognition and voice control, and can detect unusual sounds, and warn the owner via text. Mapping sensors enable Kuri to walk around the house without bumping into things. 
Bosch Mykie – short for “my kitchen elf” –  is a touch-screen-enhanced version of Amazon Echo that can control Bosch appliances, pull up recipes, respond to voice commands and project video content onto a wall. 
Lynx – a humanoid robot built by Ubtech Robotics and using Amazon’s Alexa platform. It has cameras in its “eyes” to allow for home monitoring.
LG Hub Robot – still in the early development stages. Uses the Amazon Alexa platform, and can control LG appliances and electronics. The robot has a screen. 

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