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  Chinese make Optimus Prime out of junk; Garbage Pail Megan Fox still nowhere to be found

 

Some Chinese dudes decided they couldn't wait a year for Michael Bay to drop his next 3D Transformabomb, so they went troweling around the local junkyards until they came up with the 10,108 car parts needed to erect this 33-foot Optimus Prime. We heard that 10 minutes after this picture was taken, OP tried to do a mating dance for the Olympic Stadium, but she didn't bite. Better luck next time!


  Robot arm takes engineers for a virtual reality Formula 1 ride

 

As it turns out, industrial-strength robot arms are good for more than amusing hijinks and the occasional assembly line -- a team of researchers at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics have turned a KUKA KR 500 into the ultimate Formula 1 simulator ride. Outfitting the six-axis, half-ton lifter with a force-feedback steering wheel, pedals, video projector and curved screen, the newly-christened CyberMotion Simulator lets scientists throw a virtual Ferrari F2007 race car into the turns, while the cockpit whips around with up to 2 Gs of equal-and-opposite Newtonian force. There's actually no loftier goal for this particular science project, as the entire point was to create a racing video game that feels just like the real thing -- though to be fair, a second paper tested to see whether projectors or head-mounted displays made for better drivers. (Projectors won.) See how close they came to reality in a video after the break, while we go perform a little experiment of our own.


  Japanese researchers develop robotic wheelchair that can follow humans

 

We've already seen robotic wheelchairs designed to navigate autonomously, but it looks like some researchers at Saitama University's Human-Robot Interaction Center are taking a slightly different approach with their latest project. They've developed a wheelchair equipped with a camera and a laser sensor that instead of tracking its surroundings, simply locks onto a nearby human companion and follows them around. It can even apparently anticipate the direction the person is going to go by using a distance sensor to check which way their shoulders are facing. Still no word on a commercial version, but the wheelchair is already being field-tested in care centers, where the researchers say it could be particularly useful if the facilities are short-staffed. Head on past the break to check it out in action.


  NASA's Athlete Mars rover does a little dance, gets down tonight

 

Its been a few years since we last checked in on NASA's All Terrain Hex Limbed Extra Terrestrial Explorer rover -- aka, Athlete. Now a half-scale working prototype standing 15 feet tall, weighing 2.5 tons (about 2,300 kg), and capable of a 1.25 mph (2 kmph) top speed has been set loose for testing by its Jet Propulsion Laboratory creators. Its first task, set to begin next month in Arizona, will be to complete a test circuit of at least 25 miles (about 40 km) in two weeks under its own power. Failing that, we hear Woz is looking for a dance partner. See what we mean in the video of Athlete demonstrating a flare for cargo transport after the break.


  Wii Balance Board-controlled robot a hit with toddlers in Ithaca

 

How could we resist a story involving robot-powered babies? The Ithaca College Tots on Bots project aims to mobilize infants with physical disabilities by setting them atop a "mobile robot" equipped with a Wii Balance Board to let the young operator steer by leaning -- which, it turns out, works pretty well. Additionally, the vehicle uses sonar to avoid nasty crashes and a remote control that an adult can use to take control. Further study has to be made before any long term developmental benefits can be ascertained, but in the meantime it does look like a lot of fun. See it in action after the break.


  fuRo Core bipedal robot can squat with a 100kg payload, puts your puny muscles to shame

 

What's nearly two meters tall, weighs 230kg, and can lift the equivalent of a generously proportioned man? No, it isn't the ED-209 from RoboCop, but rather the latest robotic biped from Japan. The Core project that's being developed by the fuRo lab in Chiba's Institute of Technology may look and sound quite a bit like your favorite rogue drone, but its objective is rather more peaceful. The hope is to deliver increased mobility for handicapped people -- beyond what wheelchairs can provide, hence the bipedal locomotion system -- and things seem to have gotten off to a good start with the ability to safely balance a 100kg load while performing squats. See that feat, along with some clumsy first steps, after the break.

  Willow Garage now selling the PR2 for $400k a pop

 

While it was fun while it lasted, it was obvious that Willow Garage couldn't keep giving away its ultra-high-end development platform PR2 bots forever. After shipping 11 of the bots to research institutes, Willow Garage is now selling the PR2 to all comers -- as long as they've got 400 grand in their back pocket. We've covered the specs before (oodles of CPU power, two highly articulated pincer arms, and high-end vision systems), along with some of PR2's recent hijinks, and hopefully we see more of that sort of stuff now that the rugged, ready-for-adventure PR2 is on the market. If you can't scrap together all the cash, Willow Garage will also be offering a discount $280k version to people and institutions that can demonstrate "past performance and leadership" in open source robotics software -- a topic obviously near and dear to Willow Garage's heart with ROS, the OS that powers PR2 and is slowly spreading throughout much of the world of higher-end personal robotics.

As for the high price and its generally opaque business model, Willow Garage compares the current state of its industry to high end workstations in the 70s, back when researchers were spending more money and time figuring out what their computers could do than actually accomplishing anything with them. Willow Garage isn't planning on making any sort of killing in the business yet -- they'd just be happy to have the PR2 project at a self sustaining level -- but they're working toward what they see as the "next radical shift" in productivity, a personal robotics follow-up to the personal computer revolution. This is a future similar to the one Bill Gates was talking up back in 2006, but of course Willow Garage wants its open source ROS platform to be the "Microsoft" this time around. They certainly don't plan to corner the hardware market in the process, however: the company hopes the quasi-followup to the PR2 will actually be built by multiple companies.


 

  Raytheon's Sarcos XOS 2 military exoskeleton just does the heavy lifting -- for now

 

Raytheon's XOS 2 has a right hook that can rip straight through a wall, but Dr. Fraser Smith assures us that death-dealing variants are still a good ways off. We caught up with the good doctor earlier today, who's been working on the military-grade exoskeleton for eight years, and quizzed him on the hows and whys of building a would-be Iron Man. Find out what we learned after the break, and see the mean machine in our gallery below!

Though the XOS is obviously capable of some pretty fancy footwork and pummels a punching bag with ease, Smith laid out the reality for us right away: the military is looking for exoskeletons primarily to help reduce headcount by carrying heavy weights. The fewer folks it takes to load munitions into a truck and the longer soldiers can carry 120-pound packs, the more money the government's willing to spend on those defense contracts. That doesn't rule out an armored, wall-busting Juggernaut variant for rescuing hostages, kicking ass and chewing bubble gum -- and that sort of "don't bother with the door" exoskeleton was indeed on the drawing board, Smith said -- but "the teams most interested are coming from the logistics side of the business."

Presently, there are two models in the works, a "combat variant" that just includes exoskeleton legs and attaches at the waist, much like Lockheed Martin's HULC, and the full-body "logistics variant" for lifting crates, missiles, bombs... you know, the usual. The XOS 2 is nearly usable for the latter job, but even at 50 percent more efficient than the original (by the company's last count) it's still a prototype that requires a tethered high-pressure hydraulic engine to function. By designing custom hydraulic servos and managing the robot's gait so that it only uses high pressure when it truly needs to (like when it's beginning to take a step), the company hopes to bring that number to 20 percent. That'll let Raytheon cut the cord and install an lightweight internal combustion engine of some sort, he hopes, while letting the exoskeleton keep on truckin' for over eight hours (a military requirement) before running out of fuel.


  Robo-nurse gives gentle bed baths, keeps its laser eye on you

 

When they're not too busy building creepy little humanoids or lizard-like sand swimmers, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology like to concern themselves with helping make healthcare easier. To that end, they've constructed the Cody robot you see above, which has recently been demonstrated successfully wiping away "debris" from a human subject. The goal is simple enough to understand -- aiding the elderly and infirm in keeping up their personal hygiene -- but we'd still struggle to hand over responsibility for granny's care to an autonomous machine equipped with a camera and laser in the place where a head might, or ought to, be. See Cody cleaning up its designer's extremities after the break.


  Choreographing a humanoid robot's dance routine is as easy as click and pull

 

You may not be able to build an HRP-4C fembot in your average garage, but the programming would practically take care of itself -- not only does the AIST humanoid sing using off-the-shelf Yamaha Vocaloid software, its dance moves are click-and-drag, too. Roboticist Dr. Kazuhito Yokoi gave IEEE Spectrum an inside look at the HRP-4C's motion trajectory software, which works much like 3D animation tools: you position the limbs where you want them to start and when you want them to end up using keyframes, and the software takes care of the rest. The system's intelligent enough to generate a 6.7 second sequence from just eight keyframes, and it compensates for hazardous instructions, too -- if your haphazard choreography would tip her over or send limbs flying, it'll automatically adjust her moves. See how it works in a video after the break and hit up our source link for the full interview.


                                   
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