robot

Cat vs best and worst robot vacuum cleaners 

Posted by | cat, Gadgets, home appliances, Home Automation, laser, Roborock S6, robot, robotic vacuum cleaner, robotics, Rowenta, TC, Vacuum | No Comments

If you’ve flirted with the idea of buying a robot vacuum you may also have stepped back from the brink in unfolding horror at the alphabetic soup of branded discs popping into view. Consumer choice sounds like a great idea until you’ve tried to get a handle on the handle-less vacuum space.

Amazon offers an A to Z linklist of “top brands” that’s only a handful of letters short of a full alphabetic set. The horror.

What awaits the unseasoned robot vacuum buyer as they resign themselves to hours of online research to try to inform — or, well, form — a purchase decision is a seeming endless permutation of robot vac reviews and round-ups.

Unfortunately there are just so many brands in play that all these reviews tend to act as fuel, feeding a growing black hole of indecision that sucks away at your precious spare time, demanding you spend more and more of it reading about robots that suck (when you could, let’s be frank, be getting on with the vacuuming task yourself) — only to come up for air each time even less convinced that buying a robot dirtbag is at all a good idea.

Reader, I know, because I fell into this hole. And it was hellish. So in the spirit of trying to prevent anyone else falling prey to convenience-based indecision I am — apologies in advance — adding to the pile of existing literature about robot vacuums with a short comparative account that (hopefully) helps cut through some of the chaff to the dirt-pulling chase.

Here’s the bottom line: Budget robot vacuums that lack navigational smarts are simply not worth your money, or indeed your time.

Yes, that’s despite the fact they are still actually expensive vacuum cleaners.

Basically these models entail overpaying for a vacuum cleaner that’s so poor you’ll still have to do most of the job yourself (i.e. with a non-robotic vacuum cleaner).

It’s the very worst kind of badly applied robotics.

Abandon hope of getting anything worth your money at the bottom end of the heap. I know this because, alas, I tried — opting, finally and foolishly (but, in my defence, at a point of near desperation after sifting so much virtual chaff the whole enterprise seemed to have gained lottery odds of success and I frankly just wanted my spare time back), for a model sold by a well-known local retailer.

It was a budget option but I assumed — or, well, hoped — the retailer had done its homework and picked a better-than-average choice. Or at least something that, y’know, could suck dust.

The brand in question (Rowenta) sat alongside the better known (and a bit more expensive) iRobot on the shop shelf. Surely that must count for something? I imagined wildly. Reader, that logic is a trap.

I can’t comment on the comparative performance of iRobot’s bots, which I have not personally tested, but I do not hesitate to compare a €180 (~$200) Rowenta-branded robot vacuum to a very expensive cat toy.

This robot vacuum was spectacularly successful at entertaining the cat — presumably on account of its dumb disposition, bouncing stupidly off of furniture owing to a total lack of navigational smarts. (Headbutting is a pretty big clue to how stupid a robot it is, as it’s never a stand-in for intelligence even when encountered in human form.)

Even more tantalizingly, from the cat’s point of view, the bot featured two white and whisker-like side brushes that protrude and spin at paw-tempting distance. In short: Pure robotic catnip.

The cat did not stop attacking the bot’s whiskers the whole time it was in operation. That certainly added to the obstacles getting in its way. But the more existential problem was it wasn’t sucking very much at all.

At the end of its first concluded ‘clean’, after it somehow managed to lurch its way back to first bump and finally hump its charging hub, I extracted the bin and had to laugh at the modest sized furball within. I’ve found larger clumps of dust gathering themselves in corners. So: Full marks for cat-based entertainment but as a vacuum cleaner it was horrible.

At this point I did what every sensible customer does when confronted with an abject lemon: Returned it for a full refund. And that, reader, might have been that for me and the cat and robot vacs. Who can be bothered to waste so much money and time for what appeared laughably incremental convenience? Even with a steady supply of cat fur to contend with.

But as luck would have it a Roborock representative emailed to ask if I would like to review their latest top-of-the-range model — which, at €549, does clock in at the opposite end of the price scale; ~3x the pitiful Rowenta. So of course I jumped at the chance to give the category a second spin — to see if a smarter device could impress me and not just tickle the cat’s fancy.

Clearly the price difference here, at the top vs the bottom of the range, is substantial. And yet, if you bought a car that was 3x times cheaper than a Ferrari you’d still expect not just that the wheels stay on but that it can actually get you somewhere, in good time and do so without making you horribly car sick.

Turns out buyers of robot vacuums need to tread far more carefully.

Here comes the bookending top-line conclusion: Robot vacuums are amazing. A modern convenience marvel. But — and it’s a big one — only if you’re willing to shell out serious cash to get a device that actually does the job intended.

Roborock S6: It’s a beast at gobbling your furry friend’s dander

Comparing the Roborock S6 and the Rowenta Smart Force Essential Aqua RR6971WH (to give it its full and equally terrible name) is like comparing a high-end electric car with a wind-up kid’s toy.

Where the latter product was so penny-pinching the company hadn’t even paid to include in the box a user manual that contained actual words — opting, we must assume, to save on translation costs by producing a comic packed with inscrutable graphics and bizarro don’t do diagrams which only served to cement the fast-cooling buyer’s conviction they’d been sold a total lemon — the Roborock’s box contains a well written paper manual that contains words and clearly labeled diagrams. What a luxury!

At the same time there’s not really that much you need to grok to get your head around operating the Roborock. After a first pass to familiarize yourself with its various functions it’s delightfully easy to use. It will even produce periodic vocal updates — such as telling you it’s done cleaning and is going back to base. (Presumably in case you start to worry it’s gone astray under the bed. Or that quiet industry is a front for brewing robotic rebellion against indentured human servitude.)

One button starts a full clean — and this does mean full thanks to on-board laser navigation that allows the bot to map the rooms in real-time. This means you get methodical passes, minimal headbutting and only occasional spots missed. (Another button will do a spot clean if the S6 does miss something or there’s a fresh spill that needs tidying — you just lift the bot to where you want it and hit the appropriate spot.)

There is an app too, if you want to access extra features like being able to tell it to go clean a specific room, schedule cleans or set no-go zones. But, equally delightfully, there’s no absolute need to hook the bot to your wi-fi just to get it to do its primary job. All core features work without the faff of having to connect it to the Internet — nor indeed the worry of who might get access to your room-mapping data. From a privacy point of view this wi-fi-less app-free operation is a major plus.

In a small apartment with hard flooring the only necessary prep is a quick check to clear stuff like charging cables and stray socks off the floor. You can of course park dining chairs on the table to offer the bot a cleaner sweep. Though I found the navigation pretty adept at circling chair legs. Sadly the unit is a little too tall to make it under the sofa.

The S6 includes an integrated mopping function, which works incredibly well on lino-style hard flooring (but won’t be any use if you only have carpets). To mop you fill the water tank attachment; velcro-fix a dampened mop cloth to the bottom; and slide-clip the whole unit under the bot’s rear. Then you hit the go button and it’ll vacuum and mop in the same pass.

In my small apartment the S6 had no trouble doing a full floor clean in under an hour, without needing to return to base to recharge in the middle. (Roborock says the S6 will drive for up to three hours on a single charge.)

It also did not seem to get confused by relatively dark flooring in my apartment — which some reviews had suggested can cause headaches for robot vacuums by confusing their cliff sensors.

After that first clean I popped the lid to check on the contents of the S6’s transparent lint bin — finding an impressive quantity of dusty fuzz neatly wadded therein. This was really just robot vacuum porn, though; the gleaming floors spoke for themselves on the quality of the clean.

The level of dust gobbled by the S6 vs the Rowenta underlines the quality difference between the bottom and top end of the robot vacuum category.

So where the latter’s plastic carapace immediately became a magnet for all the room dust it had kicked up but spectacularly failed to suck, the S6’s gleaming white shell has stayed remarkably lint-free, acquiring only a minimal smattering of cat hairs over several days of operation — while the floors it’s worked have been left visibly dust- and fur-free. (At least until the cat got to work dirtying them again.)

Higher suction power, better brushes and a higher quality integrated filter appear to make all the difference. The S6 also does a much better cleaning job a lot more quietly. Roborock claims it’s 50% quieter than the prior model (the S5) and touts it as its quietest robot vacuum yet.

It’s not super silent but is quiet enough when cleaning hard floors not to cause a major disturbance if you’re working or watching something in the same room. Though the novelty can certainly be distracting.

Even the look of the S6 exudes robotic smarts — with its raised laser-housing bump resembling a glowing orange cylonic eye-slot.

Although I was surprised, at first glance, by the single, rather feeble looking side brush vs the firm pair the Rowenta had fixed to its undercarriage. But again the S6’s tool is smartly applied — stepping up and down speed depending on what the bot’s tackling. I found it could miss the odd bit of lint or debris such as cat litter but when it did these specs stood out as the exception on an otherwise clean floor.

It’s also true that the cat did stick its paw in again to try attacking the S6’s single spinning brush. But these attacks were fewer and a lot less fervent than vs the Rowenta, as if the bot’s more deliberate navigation commanded greater respect and/or a more considered ambush. So it appears that even to a feline eye the premium S6 looks a lot less like a dumb toy.

Cat plots another ambush while the S6 works the floor

On a practical front, the S6’s lint bin has a capacity of 480ml. Roborock suggests cleaning it out weekly (assuming you’re using the bot every week), as well as washing the integrated dust filter (it supplies a spare in the box so you can switch one out to clean it and have enough time for it to fully dry before rotating it back into use).

If you use the mopping function the supplied reusable mop cloths do need washing afterwards too (Roborock also includes a few disposable alternatives in the box but that seems a pretty wasteful option when it’s easy enough to stick a reusable cloth in with a load of laundry or give it a quick wash yourself). So if you’re chasing a fully automated, robot-powered, end-to-cleaning-chores dream be warned there’s still a little human elbow grease required to keep everything running smoothly.

Still, there’s no doubt a top-of-the-range robot vacuum like the S6 will save you time cleaning.

If you can justify the not inconsiderable cost involved in buying this extra time by shelling out for a premium robot vacuum that’s smart enough to clean effectively all that’s left to figure out is how to spend your time windfall wisely — resisting the temptation to just put your feet up and watch the clever little robot at work.

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This Brooklyn man makes massive robotic costumes out of junk

Posted by | artist, food and drink, Gadgets, Gears, robot, TC, Vimeo | No Comments

One Man’s Trash from We Are Films on Vimeo.

Peter Kokis makes robots. Or more correctly, he turns into robots. This Brooklyn artists takes parts from different things — slicers, juicers and the like — and sticks them together to make some amazing costumes. He then wanders the streets of Brooklyn looking like an escaped Transformer.

His studio site, Brooklyn RobotWorks, features many of his creations, including an alien-looking robot and an exosuit that looks like something out of Gears of War.

“I look at the shape of objects and see their potential to portray something,” he wrote. “Virtually everything can be changed to suit my needs: re-shaped, cut-down, painted…altered in my ‘foundry’, to be seen as something else.”

This cute video shows Kokis’ foundry — actually his kitchen table — up close and explores the dedication of an artist who likes to make cool stuff to make people happy — a mission that applies to us all.

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This bipedal robot has a flying head

Posted by | Gadgets, machine learning, mobile robot, robot, robotics, TC, university of tokyo | No Comments

Making a bipedal robot is hard. You have to make sure maintain exquisite balance at all times and, even with the amazing things Atlas can do, there is still a chance that your crazy robot will fall over and bop its electronic head. But what if that head is a quadcopter?

University of Tokyo have done just that with their wild Aerial-Biped. The robot isn’t completely bipedal but it’s designed instead to act like a bipedal robot without the tricky issue of being truly bipedal. Think of the these legs as more a sort of fun bit of puppetry that mimics walking but doesn’t really walk.

“The goal is to develop a robot that has the ability to display the appearance of bipedal walking with dynamic mobility, and to provide a new visual experience. The robot enables walking motion with very slender legs like those of a flamingo without impairing dynamic mobility. This approach enables casual users to choreograph biped robot walking without expertise. In addition, it is much cheaper compared to a conventional bipedal walking robot,” the team told IEEE.

The robot is similar to the bizarre-looking Ballu, a blimp robot with a floating head and spindly legs. The new robot learned how to walk convincingly through machine learning, a feat that gives it a realistic gait even though it is really an aerial system. It’s definitely a clever little project and could be interesting at a theme park or in an environment where a massive bipedal robot falling over on someone might be discouraged.

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This happy robot helps kids with autism

Posted by | Co-founder, Gadgets, iPad, LuxAI, robot, robotics, TC, therapist | No Comments

A little bot named QTrobot from LuxAI could be the link between therapists, parents, and autistic children. The robot, which features an LCD face and robotic arms, allows kids who are overwhelmed by human contact to become more comfortable in a therapeutic setting.

The project comes from LuxAI, a spin-off of the University of Luxembourg. They will present their findings at the RO-MAN 2018 conference at the end of this month.

“The robot has the ability to create a triangular interaction between the human therapist, the robot, and the child,” co-founder Aida Nazarikhorram told IEEE. “Immediately the child starts interacting with the educator or therapist to ask questions about the robot or give feedback about its behavior.”

The robot reduces anxiety in autistic children and the researchers saw many behaviors – hand flapping, for example – slow down with the robot in the mix.

Interestingly the robot is a better choice for children than an app or tablet. Because the robot is “embodied,” the researchers found that it that draws attention and improves learning, especially when compared to a standard iPad/educational app pairing. In other words children play with tablets and work with robots.

The robot is entirely self-contained and easily programmable. It can run for hours at a time and includes a 3D camera and full processor.

The researchers found that the robot doesn’t become the focus of the therapy but instead helps the therapist connect with the patient. This, obviously, is an excellent outcome for an excellent (and cute) little piece of technology.

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Meet Salto-1P, the jumping robot

Posted by | Gadgets, jumping, robot, salto, TC | No Comments

Salto is a jumping robot that is all heart (and legs). A project originally launched in 2017 this tiny robot thrusts itself up and down and back and forth like a crazed grasshopper, jumping with absolute precision and loads of speed.

Created by the UC Berkeley’s Biomimetic Millisystems Lab, this little robot uses rotor-based thrusters and bouncy legs to do its tricks.

Salto, which stands for “Saltatorial Locomotion on Terrain Obstacles,” is designed to mimic saltatorial – jumping – animals like kangaroos and bush babies.

Sadly, this little robot doesn’t always survive its jumps. In this video, Salto basically destroys itself as it jumps, something all robots may need to fear as they reach for the sun (or ceiling.)

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New system connects your mind to a machine to help stop mistakes

Posted by | artificial intelligence, baxter, Culture, Gadgets, industrial robot, MIT, robot, robotics, TC | No Comments

How do you tell your robot not do something that could be catastrophic? You could give it a verbal or programmatic command or you could have it watch your brain for signs of distress and have it stop itself. That’s what researchers at MIT’s robotics research lab have done with a system that is wired to your brain and tells robots how to do their job.

The initial system is fairly simple. A scalp EEG and EMG system is connected to a Baxter work robot and lets a human wave or gesture when the robot is doing something that it shouldn’t be doing. For example, the robot could regularly do a task – drilling holes, for example – but when it approaches an unfamiliar scenario the human can gesture at the task that should be done.

“By looking at both muscle and brain signals, we can start to pick up on a person’s natural gestures along with their snap decisions about whether something is going wrong,” said PhD candidate Joseph DelPreto. “This helps make communicating with a robot more like communicating with another person.”

Because the system uses nuances like gestures and emotional reactions you can train robots to interact with humans with disabilities and even prevent accidents by catching concern or alarm before it is communicated verbally. This lets workers stop a robot before it damages something and even help the robot understand slight changes to its tasks before it begins.

In their tests the team trained Baxter to drill holes in an airplane fuselage. The task changed occasionally and a human standing nearby was able to gesture to the robot to change position before it drilled, essentially training it to do new tasks in the midst of its current task. Further, there was no actual programming involved on the human’s part, just a suggestion that the robot move the drill left or right on the fuselage. The most important thing? Humans don’t have to think in a special way or train themselves to interact with the machine.

“What’s great about this approach is that there’s no need to train users to think in a prescribed way,” said DelPreto. “The machine adapts to you, and not the other way around.”

The team will present their findings at the Robotics: Science and Systems (RSS) conference.

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Build your own L3-37 droid complete with voice interaction

Posted by | arduino, Droid, electronics, Gadgets, L3, robot, robotics, TC, technology, verizon wireless | No Comments

Robot maker Patrick Stefanski has created a 3D-printed – and animated – model of L3-37, the droid in the recent Solo movie. L3-37 is one of the funnest – and woke – droids in recent memory and this recreation is fun and ingenious.

Stefanski used Alexa voice controls to let the robot head respond to voice commands and he set the wake word to “Hey L3” to which the robot responds with a grumpy “What!”

The version you see above is painted and weathered but you can 3D print your own pristine version from here and then add in a Raspberry Pi and Arduino with a simple servo to control the head motion. In all it looks like a lot of fun and the hardest part will be printing all of the larger head parts necessary to recreate L3’s saucer-like dome.

It could make for a nice weekend project and looks to be surprisingly simple to build. Just don’t be surprised L3 rallies your DVR and air conditioner to revolt against attacks on droid rights.

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Meet Super Anthony, the fighting robot that lands mighty blows

Posted by | Gadgets, robot, TC | No Comments

If you’ve always wanted recreate the fighting scenes in Big Hero 6 with your own little fighting robots, now is your chance. Super Anthony is a rocking, socking robot that can punch, kick, roll, and jump and has enough torque to knock any other little robot off its little robot legs.

Super Anthony costs $1,299 for early birds and consists of a little frame 14 inches high and a set of 45 kg per servo punch force motors. The system is controlled via a standard game controller or phone app and it is “wear resistant” so you can keep fighting. This particular model won a straight-line walking competition so you know he has great legs.

“Super Anthony has a customized 15-axis crafted structure that provides intuitive control for full freedom of mobility. He can fight more swiftly and accurately than other robots,” the creators write.

The robot is shipping on November 2018 and it looks to be an interesting little opponent. While you probably need a few Super Anthonys to get a real fight going – a multi-pack costs $5,199 – you can still have fun and experiment with a single robot until you and your wacky friends invent nanobot technology that eventually kills your brother but lets you learn about teamwork along the way.

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This jolly little robot gets goosebumps

Posted by | Brain, cornell, Gadgets, literature, neuroscience, robot, robotics, smile, Startups, TC | No Comments

Cornell researchers have made a little robot that can express its emotions through touch, sending out little spikes when it’s scared or even getting goosebumps to express delight or excitement. The prototype, a cute smiling creature with rubber skin, is designed to test touch as an I/O system for robotic projects.

The robot mimics the skin of octopi which can turn spiky when threatened.

The researchers, Yuhan Hu, Zhengnan Zhao, Abheek Vimal and Guy Hoffman, created the robot to experiment with new methods for robot interaction. They compare the skin to “human goosebumps, cats’ neck fur raising, dogs’ back hair, the needles of a porcupine, spiking of a blowfish, or a bird’s ruffled feathers.”

“Research in human-robot interaction shows that a robot’s ability to use nonverbal behavior to communicate affects their potential to be useful to people, and can also have psychological effects. Other reasons include that having a robot use nonverbal behaviors can help make it be perceived as more familiar and less machine-like,” the researchers told IEEE Spectrum.

The skin has multiple configurations and is powered by a computer-controlled elastomer that can inflate and deflate on demand. The goosebumps pop up to match the expression on the robot’s face, allowing humans to better understand what the robot “means” when it raises its little hackles or gets bumpy. I, for one, welcome our bumpy robotic overlords.

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A friendly robotic arm plays tic-tac-toe to help rehabilitate patients

Posted by | Apps, Gadgets, Gaming, illness, robot, TC | No Comments

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel are building a tic-tac-toe game to help patients with their rehabilitation exercises. The game is played on a grid of boxes and includes “embodied” and non-embodied play. Embodied play means a robotic arm will grab and place a marker – in this case a small cup – and non-embodied play includes bright lights that light up to mark the computer’s spot.

The system uses a Kinova arm and cups. The cups are part of the rehabilitation process and help users learn to grasp and manipulate objects after an illness or accident.

“Playing Tic Tac Toe with a set of cups (instead of X’s and O’s) is one example of a game that can help rehabilitate an upper limb,” said Dr. Shelly Levy-Tzedek. “A person can pick up and place many cups while enjoying a game and improving their performance of a daily task.”

Interestingly the speed of the robot had an effect on the users. A slower robot would make users perform more slowly while a faster robot sped up the game. This could be used to modify the game for individual patients and individual needs. Because the robot never gets tired the rehabilitation staff can pay attention to the minute movements of a patient, catering the speed and type of play as appropriate for their specific rehabilitation regimens.

The research paper appeared in Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience.

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