Automate 2011: Dr. Ron Diftler, Anybots and Pleo

I’ve been missing the robots.

Sitting here in front of my Compaq laptop (with only 584MB of RAM) is a far cry from the cool tech I saw back in March at Automate and Promat 2011. Automate, formerly the “International Robots, Vision & Motion Control Show,” started in 1977. Promat is a trade show and educational conference on “material handling and logistics industry.” These conventions, held every two years, present information and practical solutions in robotics, machine vision and motion control for use in aerospace to food & beverage industries and everything in between. This year (luckily for me of the little time-to-spare and limited budget) the duo-cons are taking place in my home town of Chicago. It’s a four day event (March 21-24), of which I was able to attend just one day so I chose Tuesday—the best day for robot enthusiasts.

Sunila Samuels, my friend and fellow fiction writer (check out her blog Robot Dance Mob) gave me the heads-up on the event back in fall 2010. We’ve been looking forward to it since then and the experience didn’t disappoint.

Tuesday morning 8:45am, March 22, 2011, there we were at McCormick Place North, room S102 for the day’s keynote on “The Development of Robonaut 2: A Story of Government-Industry Collaboration and Technology Transfer For The Next Generation of Robotic Solutions.” Long title made short: R2, first humanoid robot in space, an overview. The speakers were Dr. Ron Diftler, Robotnaut Project Manager for NASA Johnson Space Center, and Marty Linn, Principle Engineer of Robotics for General Motors­—both the coolest of dudes by my reckoning. (In case, they care: we were the two women in the 3rd row on their right sides, taking copious notes and no doubt sporting wide goofy grins through most of the talk.) We learned lots of details about the development and mechanics of Robonaut as well as the collaborative efforts between NASA and GM engineers for the ongoing project. I have to say that Dr. Diftler gets my vote for best lines from the talk. Asked about whether or not tactile information could be transferred from R2 to the human teleoperator, he said it would be possible once they found the right device, but that the systems tried out so far resulted in a painful experience for the teleoperator and seemed to have been “designed by the Marquis de Sade.” On the topic of the R2’s power usage on the International Space Station, Diftler explained that recharging can be done either through the robot’s own battery or on the tether network inside the station and said that way “we could recharge ourselves” however it’s most convenient.

Speaking of anthropomorphizing robots…there was just no way to avoid it in the exhibit halls for either Automate or Promat, especially in Automate’s “Emerging Robotics Pavilion.” Perhaps our favorite robot on display was the Anybot QB, a mobile telepresence robot, one of which sported a bow tie. Anybot has real-time 2-way video and audio, weighs 35 lbs, and self-balances on two-wheels. Using this robot as your proxy, you can talk to people, walk with them and see what’s happening without physically traveling to their location—in other words, be there now without actually being there. Not bad for the cost of $15,000 per unit.

Another very nerdy thrill for me was seeing PleoTM first hand. I discovered this cute little dinosaur/artificial life form a couple of years back while web surfing at PleoWorld.com. In the site’s introduction video, Derek Dodson, COO of Innvo Labs, describes PleoTM as a “robotic companion pet” and there’s no denying it fills that role admirably. The latest generation of this cute baby dino will run you $469 USD + more for accessories such as the Learning Stone value packs that teach it to sing, play, dance and even count. Is it worth that amount of shiny, cashy money? It is more affordable, not to mention cuddlier than an Anybot. Should I ever win the lottery, I’d certainly buy one, but for now I’ll stick to my biological pets. Although, if I review the expenses, I know my cat and dog definitely cost more in the long run.

In the non-cute or cuddly but very cool category of robots, I have to mention Motoman Robotics’ Dexter Bot. Motoman, a division of Yaskawa American, Inc., has programmed this dual-arm SDA robot to play Black Jack. The addition of a three-finger grip was demonstrated by a headless version in a smaller booth at the “Emerging Robotics Pavilion.” I have to say that the headless-robot seemed more human-friendly to me. The first inkling of unease came from Dexter Bot’s TV-serial-killer first name, but it was the thin line of Cylon-like red lights flashing within its face plate that kept me at dual-arm’s length.

The closer science reality gets to our science fiction visions, the more the manufacturers will have to aware of pop culture references and avoid the creepy ones in their products, especially if the goal is smooth human-robot interface in the workplace or home. There’s a long way to go before real robots have the capacity go the route of R2D2 and C3PO or Cylons and Terminators. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to seeing the next generation of innovations at Automate 2013.

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