The world’s largest industrial robot manufacturer could build a facility in space.

In a wide-ranging interview with RoboticsAndAutomationNews.com, recorded at Hannover Messe, Neil Dueweke – who was competing to be heard over a loud musical band in the background – says the company has big ambitions.

“Anywhere there’s robotics involved, Fanuc will be there,” says Dueke. “Space robotics? Why not?”

As far-fetched as it might sound, there are many projects involving robots in space – that’s in addition to the robotic rovers which are already widely known.

In one project, the European Space Agency is building a robot holiday resort on the Moon.

And NASA has a large number of projects involving robots in space, and has even installed an outer space additive manufacturing facility which targets the alien market.

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Robot fruit pickers to put migrant agricultural laborers out of work

Some of the biggest fruit orchards in the U.S. may soon use robots in harvesting fruits, as two robotics firms are currently developing machines that could accelerate fruit picking. Mechanical harvesting has become a staple practice in many farms for crops such as wheat, corn, green beans, tomatoes and others. However, the harvesting of fragile, easily-perishable crops — such as apples, berries, table grapes and lettuce — are still done through manual labor. Fruit orchards in Washington state alone require thousands of farm workers to do the harvesting.

Israel-based FFRobotics noted that human pickers are getting scarce, with many young people shying away from farm work. The firm also stressed that elderly pickers are slowly retiring. In line with this, the company is currently working on a machine with three-fingered grips designed to grab fruit and twist or clip it from a branch. According to company co-founder Gad Kober, the machine will feature between four and 12 robotic arms, and can harvest as many as 10,000 apples an hour. The machine would also be able to harvest 85 to 90 percent of the crop off trees. The remaining crops could then be manually harvested by workers, Kober noted. On the other hand, California-based Abundant Robotics is developing a machine that makes use of suction technology to vacuum apples off trees. Plans for machine production were discussed in February at an international convention of fruit growers. The company aims to launch the robotic harvesters in the market before 2019.

The two robotics companies are likely to achieve their production targets, with both prototypes projected to be released this fall, according to Karen Lewis. Lewis is a Washington State University cooperative extension agent who assessed the use of robotics in fruit orchards. Lewis also noted that while the machines will serve as game changers in harvesting, fruit orchards across the country may be required to cultivate fruits in new trellis systems to allow the machines to see and harvest the crops.

Experts raise flags on potential losses in migrant laborers

Despite the agricultural advances, the announcement did not sit well with many agricultural experts. According to experts, robot pickers will negatively impact the livelihood of farm workers especially the migrant labor sector, many of whom have been illegally working in the U.S. An analysis by the Pew Research Center revealed that unauthorized immigrant workers accounted for 17 percent of the workforce in the U.S. agriculture industry in 2014.

Washington has long suffered from human power shortages, and has greatly depended on immigrant workers from Mexico to harvest many crops. According to Erik Nicholson, an official with the United Farm Workers union, the eventual loss of jobs among human pickers will have huge implications. Nicholson estimated that about half of Washington’s farm workers are illegal immigrants. However, he stressed that many of them have settled in the state and were productive members of the society. “They are scared of losing their jobs to mechanisation [sic]. A robot is not going to rent a house, buy clothing for their kids, buy food in a grocery and reinvest that money in the local economy,” Nicholson was quoted in DailyMail.co.uk.

President Donald trump’s hard-hitting policies against illegal migrant workers have had farms and orchards scrambling for alternative harvesting methods. Some farms have purchased new equipment in order to cut back on human resources. Other farms have even lobbied with federal officials for deals that would limit the negative effects of recent policies on their livelihoods. Jim McFerson, head of the Washington State Tree Fruit Research Centre, stressed that the recent immigration conundrum is now a matter of survival for many farmers.

Sources include: 

DailyMail.co.uk

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Robots Podcast #230: bots_alive, with Bradley Knox

In this episode, Audrow Nash interviews Bradley Knox, founder of bots_alive. Knox speaks about an add-on to a Hexbug, a six-legged robotic toy, that makes the bot behave more like a character. They discuss the novel way Knox uses machine learning to create a sense character. They also discuss the limitation of technology to emulate living creatures, and how the bots_alive robot was built within these limitations.

 

Brad Knox


Dr. Bradley Knox is the founder of bots_alive. He researched human-robot interaction, interactive machine learning, and artificial intelligence at the MIT Media Lab and at UT Austin. At MIT, he designed and taught Interactive Machine Learning. He has won two best paper awards at major robotics and AI conferences, was awarded best dissertation from UT Austin’s Computer Science Department, and was named to IEEE’s AI’s 10 to Watch in 2013.

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Researchers Find The ‘Holy Grail’ Of Soft Robotics

Robots are increasingly able to outperform humans in a variety of mundane tasks(and even in more technical areas like surgery), but for all that efficiency they are still by and large one trick ponies. Most robots are designed to perform one very specific task and part of taking robotics to the next level is designing a multifunctional robot that can move with enough speed to make multifunctionality a desirable feature.

(Article by Motherboard)

To overcome this design problem, engineers have begun studying Mother Nature’s own solution to multifunctionality, which has given rise to a field of bio-inspired robotics. One of the newest areas of bio-bot research involves the creation of soft robots, where the idea is to take a cue from animals like the octopus and starfish and make a robot that is only made of soft components. Soft robotics is, in essence, the art and science of designing artificial muscles.

Just in the last five years engineers have seen enormous breakthroughs in soft robotics, but a fundamental problem still remains: these robots are still moving at starfish-like speeds. This is why a new approach to engineering robot muscles pioneered by researchers at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences which allows for flexible, efficient circuitry is being heralded by soft roboticists as “the holy grail” of the field.

The technical term for the artificial muscles that make a soft robot move is “actuators,” and historically these actuators have relied on hydraulic or pneumatic components (which make use of liquids or compressed gases, respectively) to function. The downside of pneumatic and hydraulic actuators is that they are slow to respond and rigid—which kind of defeats the whole point of soft robotics. Some engineers have looked at using soft, insulating materials called dielectric elastomers as an alternative to pneumatic actuators, but they also require rigid components and high voltage to deal with their complex and inefficient circuitry.

In this sense, the latest development out of Harvard is something of a revolution for dielectric elastomers. The research, published this week in Advanced Materials, culminated in the development of a dielectric elastomer that has a broad range of motion and hyper-efficient circuitry, thus requiring relatively low voltage to function.

“Electricity is easy to store and deliver, but until now the electric fields required to power actuators in soft robots has been too high,” said Mishu Duduta, a Harvard engineering graduate student and the paper’s lead author. “This research solves a lot of the challenges in soft actuation by reducing actuation voltage and increasing energy density, while eliminating rigid components.”

To make their paper-thin device, Duduta and his colleagues made use of a new type of elastomer developed at UCLA which doesn’t need to be pre-stretched over a rigid frame like other elastomers. For the device’s electrode, they used carbon nanotubes developed at Harvard instead of the typical carbon grease.

According to the team, this breakthrough could find use in everything from minimally invasive surgical tools to the artificial muscles for more complex and traditional robots.

“Actuation is one of the most difficult challenges in robotics,” said Robert Wood, a Harvard professor of engineering and co-author of the new paper. “This breakthrough in electrically-controlled soft actuators brings us much closer to muscle-like performance in an engineered system and opens the door for countless applications in soft robotics

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Russia Launches Robotic Progress 66 Cargo Ship to Space Station

The Russian space agency Roscosmos launched a robotic cargo ship early Wednesday (Feb. 22) on a mission to deliver fresh supplies to the International Space Station.

The autonomous Progress 66 resupply ship launched into orbit atop a Soyuz rocket at 12:58 a.m. EST (0558 GMT), lifting off from a pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The cargo ship will arrive at the space station early Friday (Feb. 24).

 

LIFTOFF! The Russian cargo craft leaves Earth to deliver supplies to the @Space_Station. Watch: http://www.nasa.gov/live
11:31 AM – 22 Feb 2017
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“Liftoff of the 66th Progress resupply vehicle outbound to the International Space Station,” NASA spokesman Rob Navias said during live commentary.

The new spacecraft is due to dock itself at the station on Friday at 3:34 a.m. EST (0834 GMT). You can watch the Progress 66 docking live online, courtesy of NASA TV, beginning at 2:45 a.m. EST (0745 GMT).

A Russian Soyuz rocket launches the automated Progress 66 cargo ship toward the International Space Station from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan on Feb. 22, 2017, in this still from a NASA TV broadcast.
A Russian Soyuz rocket launches the automated Progress 66 cargo ship toward the International Space Station from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan on Feb. 22, 2017, in this still from a NASA TV broadcast.
Credit: NASA TV
Progress 66 is Russia’s first resupply mission to the space station since the loss of the Progress 65 cargo ship shortly after its launch on Dec. 1, 2016.

Wednesday’s launch occurred just hours before another cargo ship, a SpaceX Dragon capsule, was due to arrive at the International Space Station. But the Dragon aborted its approach at a range of seven-tenths of a mile due to an incorrect value in the global positioning system software used to pinpoint the spacecraft’s position relative to the space station, NASA officials said.

The Dragon capsule will attempt another rendezvous on Thursday (Feb. 23), NASA officials added.

The International Space Station is currently stocked with supplies using a fleet of robotic spacecraft. In addition to Russia’s Progress vehicles and SpaceX’s Dragon capsules, the station is also resupplied by Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft and Japan’s H-2 Transfer Vehicles. SpaceX’s Dragon and Orbital ATK’s Cygnus are privately built spacecraft that resupply the space station under contracts with NASA.

 

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