Archive for the ‘Podcast’ Category

September 6th, 2013

Robots: Construction with Amorphous Materials - Transcript

In this episode we speak with Nils Napp from the Self-organizing Systems Research Group at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

Napp tells us about his project to create robots that can reliably build structures in uncertain, unstructured terrain. Like termites that can build complex structures using shapeless materials like mud, his robots build structures out of foam, toothpicks or bags of sand. As a first example, he’s been working on ramp building in chaotic environments remnant of disaster scenarios. Focus is given to designing algorithms that allow the robot to build up the ramp using only local information and without any preplanning. These features allow his algorithms to be scaled to multiple robots, thereby speeding up the process. Finally, Napp tells us about the challenges he faces when working with such materials, the steps needed to bring these robots out of the lab and tradeoffs with classical construction techniques. He also introduces us to his latest work in synthetic biology.

And here’s an example of another SSR robot using amorphous material by Christian Ahler.

Nils Napp
Nils Napp is a postdoctoral fellow at Radhika Nagpal’s Self-organizing Systems Research Group at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. Before coming to Harvard, Nils Napp received his Master and PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Washington where he worked at the Klavins lab on Robotic Chemistry and Programmable Parts.

His main research focus is on control strategies for groups of robots and other distributed systems. Ultimately, he hopes to make self-organized systems that like biological systems are able to reliably work in random, unstructured, and fluctuating environments.


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May 31st, 2013

Robots: Curved Artificial Compound Eye

In this episode, we speak with Ramon Pericet and Michal Dobrzynski from EPFL about their Curved Artificial Compound Eye (CurvACE) published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Inspired by the fly’s vision system, their sensor can enable a large range of applications that require motion detection using a small plug-and-play device. As shown in the video below, you could use these sensors to control small robots navigating an environment, even in the dark, or equip a small autonomous flying robot with limited payload. Other applications include home automation, surveillance, medical instruments, prosthetic devices, and smart clothing.

The artificial compound eye features a panoramic, hemispherical field of view with a resolution identical to that of the fruitfly in less than 1 mm thickness. Additionally, it can extract images 3 times faster than a fruitfly, and includes neuromorphic photoreceptors that allow motion perception in a wide range of environments from a sunny day to moon light. To build the sensors, the researchers align an array of microlenses, an array of photodetectors, and a flexible PCB that mechanically supports and electrically connects the ensemble.

This work is part of the European Project Curvace which brings together a total of 15 people from four partners in France, Germany and Switzerland.

You can read our full coverage about this new sensor on Robohub.

Ramon Pericet Camara
Ramon Pericet Camara is the scientific coordinator for the CurvACE project and a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at EPFL. His research interests are oriented towards bio-inspired robotics, soft robotics, and soft-condensed matter physics.

Ramon received a Masters degree in Physics in 2000 from the University of Granada (Spain) and a PhD in Multidisciplinary Research from the University of Geneva (Switzerland) in 2006. Subsequently, he was granted a fellowship for prospective researchers from the Swiss National Science Foundation to join the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz (Germany).

Michal Dobrzynski
Michal Dobrzynski is a PhD student at the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at EPFL. He obtained his master degree in Automatic Control and Robotics in 2006 from the Warsaw Technical University (Poland). He then joined the SGAR S.L. Company (Barcelona, Spain) as a Robot and PLC Software Engineer where his work focused on industrial robots and automatic lines programming and visualization. Next, in 2007, he joined a Numerical Method Laboratory at the University Politechnica of Bucharest (Romania) where he spent two years working in the FP6 “Early Stage Training 3″ project as a Researcher.


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May 3rd, 2013

Robots: Controlled Flight of Insect-sized Robots

In this episode we hear from researchers at the Harvard Microrobotics Lab about the Science paper published today reporting on the first controlled flight of an insect-sized robot. The amazing high-speed video below shows the robot taking off, hovering in place and steering left and right. This work is part of the Robobees project that aims to make swarms of insect robots. You can read our full coverage on Robohub.

Kevin Ma, Pakpong Chirarattananon and Sawyer Fuller
Kevin Ma and Pakpong Chirarattananon are graduate student researcher at the Harvard Microrobotics Lab working with Prof. Robert Wood (listen to Wood’s podcast here). Kevin studies the design and manufacturing of very small-scale robots while Pakpong’s work focuses on flight control strategies for flapping wing robots. Sawyer Fuller is a postdoctoral researcher with experience in the control and sensing of biological and robotic flies.


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February 22nd, 2013

Robots: Insect-inspired Navigation

In this episode Per talks to Michael Mangan from the University of Edinburgh about using robotics to study and replicate insect behaviour. Mangan describes his studies of desert ants, that are able to accurately navigate arduous environments despite having a very small brain (less than 400 000 neurons). This is an interesting problem as the desert environment is very challenging, it is too hot for pheromone navigation and nearly featureless, making visual navigation difficult.

Michael Mangan
Michael Mangan started by training as an avionics engineer at the University of Glasgow, later deciding to specialize in robotics after taking a course. At that time he was particularly inspired by some of the biorobotics projects in the press such as MIT’s Robot Tuna and Penguin Boat projects. He was very interested in this approach promising improved performance for engineering tasks by taking inspiration from biological systems solving similar problems.

Keen to work in this area he then moved to the Insect Robotics Lab, at the University of Edinburgh to undertake a PhD with Prof. Barbara Webb (see previous podcast interview). This lab combines robotics techniques with animal behavioural experiments in a synergistic loop aimed at revealing how these organisms achieve such impressive behaviors, despite their limited neural hardware and often low-resolution sensory systems. Revealing the parsimonious techniques used by these animals may then allow us to apply them to robotic systems.

Mangan’s current research focuses on the navigational abilities of desert ants. These ants scavenge for food over long distances despite searing surface temperatures when pheromone trails evaporate too quickly to use for guidance. Instead the ants rely mainly on visual cues for guidance. He has recently documented the impressive individual route following behavior of desert ants in southern Spain, and mapped their habitat for the first time. This has allowed the first rigorous testing of robotic and biologically plausible models of navigation in the ant world, as viewed by the ant.

Mangan is currently constructing these virtual worlds for public use and they will be available from This webpage is currently under development but he hopes to have initial data uploaded soon, so stay tuned.


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June 1st, 2012

Robots: Robotic Fish and Mannequins

In today’s episode we talk to Maarja Kruusmaa about robotic fish and the robotic mannequin they are developing at, alongside with Diana Saarva, the COO of

Maarja Kruusmaa

Professor Maarja Kruusmaa is the head of the TUT Center for Biorobotics in Estonia and the R&D Director of She accomplished her PhD in 2002 in Computer Engineering in Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, before becoming professor in 2008 at Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia.

She is now involved in the FILOSE, robotic fish locomotion and sensing project, whose team attempts to build robots that mimic how fish react and adapt to the water flow around them. In the first part of the interview Professor Kruusmaa talks about why they are using a novel, soft and compliant body approach for robotic fish rather than the more common linked chain. She describes how this embodiment helps reduce the computational load and how it allows them to make a simpler and cheaper robot that is more reliable than a more rigid version would be. We also hear about opportunities that come from sensing and adapting to the flow and the advantages of robotic fish compared to conventional UAVs, before talking about possible applications, such as underwater archeology.

Professor Kruusmaa is the R&D Director of since 2009, working alongside COO Diana Saarva. They have created a virtual fitting room which enables users to virtually try on clothes before buying them, with the help of shape-shifting robotic mannequins which can grow from slim to muscular in just a few moments. This allows buyers to enter their measurements and see what clothes would look like on them. robotic mannequin

In the second part of the interview, Professor Kruusmaa and Diana Saarva talk about the idea. It is particularly interesting to hear about how they developed the cooperation between the technology/research side and the entrepreneurs/business side.

Diana Saarva

Diana Saarva and the mannequin

Diana Saarva joined in September 2009, and became the COO in 2011. She is responsible for supervising and coordinating all client operations and developing new business development.


Thanks David!

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