This robo-bug can improvise its walk like a real insect


There are plenty of projects out there attempting to replicate the locomotion of insects, but one thing that computers and logic aren’t so good at is improvising and adapting the way even the smallest, simplest bugs do. This project from Tokyo Tech is a step in that direction, producing gaits on the fly that the researchers never programmed in.

“Perhaps the most exciting moment in the research was when we observed the robot exhibit phenomena and gaits which we neither designed nor expected, and later found out also exist in biological insects,” enthused the lead researcher, Ludovico Minati, in a news release.

One could program an immensely complicated AI or pattern generator to respond instantly to any of a thousand situations. But if a bug with a brain the size of a grain of sand can adapt to new situations quickly and smoothly, there must be a simpler, more analog way.

Different gaits produced by different patterns — okay, they don’t look that different, but they definitely are.

That’s what Minati was looking into, and his hexapod robot is certainly a simpler approach. A central pattern generator produces a master signal, which is interpreted by analog arrays and sent to the oscillators that move the legs. All it takes is tweaking one of five basic parameters and the arrays reconfigure their circuits and produce a working gait.

“An important aspect of the controller is that it condenses so much complexity into only a small number of parameters. These can be considered high-level parameters, in that they explicitly set the gait, speed, posture, etc.,” said one of Minati’s colleagues, Yasaharu Koike.

Simplifying the hardware and software needed for adaptable, reliable locomotion could ease the creation of small robots and their deployment in unfamiliar terrain. The paper describing the project is published in IEEE Access.

Humans sow seeds of destruction by abusing poor robot just trying to walk through a door


You may remember last week that Boston Dynamics’ latest robot, a trim and yellow Spot Mini, has learned to open doors. Seems like at this point you don’t want to anger them. They will find you. Or rather, they’ll find the company’s designated robot abuser and punish him for stopping poor robots from doing what they have been told to do. Soon Spot Mini will not be the one on a leash.

Of course this is necessary testing for when the robot actually has to navigate a busy environment and this kind of interference comes up, deliberate or accidental. A robot has to be able to bounce back, of course; if it freaks out when anything unexpected happens, it won’t be able to accomplish much.

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All the same, it’s excruciating to watch, at least for me. It’s just trying so hard and it doesn’t get angry at the man, even when its piece falls off!

Perhaps robots will be superhuman in patience as well as door-opening ability. Let’s hope so. I kicked a Spot Mini once at its creator’s invitation and if any machines are reading this, I’m sorry.

Featured Image: Boston Dynamics

Sphero lays off dozens as it shifts focus to education


Sphero was ready to conquer the world last year. The company quintupled its product release schedule, flying high with the help of a Disney licensing deal that gave the world several Star Wars droids and talking Spider-Man and Lightning McQueen robots.

But following a holiday season that failed to live up to expectations, the company recently laid off 45 staff members globally, TechCrunch has learned, a move it says has impacted departments company-wide.

The majority of the layoffs were centered in the company’s Colorado headquarters, but staff cuts also affected its global offices in the U.K. and Hong Kong. 

“We restructured our team on Friday to better align with our product needs,” a spokesperson for the company told TechCrunch. “As we look to our product development schedule for 2018 and beyond, we weren’t going to go that deep, so we had to make some changes for how the teams were structured.”

The move is a step back for the company and a bit of a surprise for those who have been following its trajectory from afar. After participating in Disney’s accelerator back in 2014, the hardware startup got a small investment from the entertainment goliath and began production on a BB-8 toy released alongside 2015’s blockbuster Star Wars return, The Force Awakens.

In 2017 alone, the company released new toys based on R2D2, The Last Jedi‘s BB-9E, Spider-Man and Pixar’s Cars franchise, along with Sphero Mini, a smaller, sub-$50 version of the smartphone controlled ball that started it all. 

The startup had bolstered its headcount to meet the demands of its much accelerated output.

It’s telling, of course, that the layoffs come so soon after the holidays. While not disastrous, the finally tally pointed to the need for a rethink in strategy going forward. “[Sales weren’t] exactly what we had expected,” the spokesperson said. “We still consider ourselves a young startup. It’s the right time to pivot.”

The decrease comes as it shifts toward a product roadmap more in line with the pre-2017 days — putting it at closer to one to two products per year. “That might be our sweet spot,” the spokesperson added. “We’re still pretty young, but the one part of our business that continues to shine is what we’re doing in education. This allows our company to focus on that vision.”

This restructuring finds Sphero investing much more of its existing resources into the education side of its business. The company has been operating in the category for some time, leveraging its hardware creations in an offering designed to target schools, but that side has largely taken a backseat to Sphero’s more commercial offerings until now. 

Educational robotics — STEM/STEAM specifically — is an extremely competitive space, as well. CES last week was overloaded with companies big and small pushing into the category with a variety of different platforms, and from the looks of things, next month’s Toy Fair in New York won’t be much different. 

Sphero Spider-Man

But Sphero has the marked advantage of building on top of its own popular robotics platform. In fact, it ran popular pilot programs in its native Colorado that garnered coverage in places like Wired and The New Yorker last year and in 2016.

The company’s SPRK+ Education offers educators and parents a platform for teaching coding and robotics. Sphero’s package lets kids program its connected toys through coding, offering a real world robotics platform on the cheap.

“[Education] is something we can actually own,” the company’s spokesperson says hopefully. “Where we do well are those experiences we can 100-percent own, from inception to go-to-market.”

Sphero co-founder and CTO Ian Bernstein also recently left the company to spin out out a new startup, Misty Robotics. It isn’t designed to be a direct competitor, focusing instead on home assistant robotics, but former staffers did join Bernstein at the new company. Misty will also have its own programmable robot, though its offering, the Misty I, is focused primarily on adult developers.

This humanoid robot works out (and sweats) like we do (or should)


There are plenty of humanoid-looking robots out there, but very few actually have bodies that are particularly analogous to our own when it comes to moving and interacting with the environment. Japanese researchers are working to remedy that with a robot designed specifically to mimic not just human movements but the way humans actually accomplish those movements. Oh, and it sweats.

Kengoro is a new-ish robot (an earlier version made the rounds last year) that emphasizes flexibility and true humanoid structure rather than putting power or efficiency above all else.

As the researchers explain in their paper, published today in Science Robotics:

A limitation of conventional humanoids is that they have been designed on the basis of the theories of conventional engineering, mechanics, electronics, and informatics.

By contrast, our intent is to design a humanoid based on human systems — including the musculoskeletal structure, sensory nervous system, and methods of information processing in the brain — to support science-oriented goals, such as gaining a deeper understanding of the internal mechanisms of humans.

The paper uses Kengoro and similar robot, Kenshiro, as examples of how to accomplish that intent; indeed, the whole issue of Science Robotics was dedicated to the concept of improving anthropomorphic robotics.

It’s important, they explain, to imitate human biology wherever possible, not just where it’s convenient. If your robot has powerful arms but a stiff, straight spine and no neck, that may be better for lifting heavy items — but it just isn’t how humans do it, and if human-like motion is actually desired, you essentially have to put in our weaknesses as well as our strengths.

And truly human-like motion should be desired, if a robot is supposed to exist in human-centric environments and interact with people.

After putting together Kengoro with muscle, joint and bone-like arrangements of motors and struts, the researchers put these similarities to the test by having the robot attempt a number of ordinary exercises, from push-ups to calf raises.

All the way down! Are you a robot or a soft, weak human?

Use that anger!

As you can see, he’s a little jittery (“he” because the robot is modeled after an average 13-year-old Japanese boy). He probably should have stretched first. Still, he probably did more crunches for this article than I did this year.

The sweating thing probably deserves a little explanation. Essentially the motors have water running through them to help cool them off as they work, and they can expel that water through artificial pores in order to more quickly release heat. It’s not exactly a critical feature, but if you’re going to mimic humanity, you might as well go all the way.

It’s an interesting and unsurprisingly complex endeavor that Yuki Asano et al. are pursuing, but the results already seem worthwhile, and the applications they envision are promising. The “human mimetic humanoid” project is ongoing, so expect more from Kengoro in the near future.