Archive for the ‘Podcast’ Category

January 29th, 2010

Robots: Quadrotors

Today’s show is centered around robots in the air, and more specifically on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) of the quadrotor variety. We chat with Joshua Portlock from Cyber Technology about their portfolio of different-sized UAVs with special emphasis on the CyberQuad, a four-rotor helicopter with advanced autonomous capabilities. Near the end of the show we also start what will hopefully be an animated debate on what exactly is the definition of a Robot, so join in the discussion!

Joshua Portlock

Joshua Portlock is the project manager of the CyberQuad project at Cyber Technology out of Perth, Australia. Portlock tells us about his company’s fleet of UAVs and their increasingly broad range of applications in the civil market. He then gets into the nitty gritty on his own creation, the CyberQuad, a four-rotor autonomous aircraft that’s the final result of years of research started while he was still an engineering student at the Curtin University of Technology.

The CyberQuad is a highly-optimized quadrotor that uses ducted fans to increase the efficiency of the drivetrain and provide protection from obstacles. Recently featured in Wired magazine, the platform can fly and hover in constrained environments and has already been used to visually survey oil platforms, bridges or search for bushfires in the Australian outback before they go out of control.

What is a Robot?

Have you ever wondered what a robot really is? Over coffee the other day we were trying to find a sleek and simple one size fits all definition for all the robots we’ve covered on the show from molecular robots to smart houses, humanoids or flying crawling and jumping robots. However, for every definition we came up with there was a counter example that either didn’t fit the definition or did although it wasn’t really what we think of as a robot! For example, the definition “A robot is a machine with inputs and outputs” was not satisfying because a calculator fits that definition although it is not a robot. Therefore, every episode from now on will explore a new or modified definition and submit it to the “counter-example” test until we are satisfied with the result. We’ll be asking our friends, colleagues and you our listeners for your best answer to the question “What is a robot?”. If you think that you have a good answer, email us your short definition at with your phone number so that we can call you and ask you directly on the air!


Latest News:

For more information on the future of the Spirit Mars Rover, the plans for a fuel-cell powered exoskeleton and Korea’s Mahru-Z robot, visit the Robots Forum.

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August 14th, 2009

Robots: Brain-Machine Interfaces

In today’s show we’ll be speaking with two experts in the field of brain-machine interfaces. Our first guest, Charles Higgins from the University of Arizona tells us how he uses insects to control robot motion and how they might be used in the future to develop new biological sensors for artificial systems.
We then speak with Steve Potter from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Instead of taking a fully developed brain and connecting it to a robot, he grows neural circuitry in a Petri-dish and interfaces it with robots, with the ambition to discover how we learn and memorize.

Charles Higgins

Charles Higgins is associate professor and leader of the Higgins Lab at the University of Arizona. Though he started as an electrical engineer, his fascination with the natural world has led him to study insect vision and visual processing, and to try to meld together the worlds of robotics and biology. This fascination and his interest to share it with others brings him every year to the Neuromorphic Engineering Workshop in Telluride, Colorado, where he met our interviewer Adam and took him dragonfly-hunting!

Higgins first tells us about his experiments with natural systems such as dragonflies, and how he’s learning about how their brains work in the hope of applying some of the concepts of neurobiology to engineering systems. He then talks about his most recent work in trying to use the amazing visual system of a dragonfly as a sensor to control a robot, and in turn to provide motion stimulus back to the dragonfly in a closed-loop system. He finishes by telling us a bit about the future in which we will design insect-inspired robots, or even have insects built-in to them directly!

Steve Potter

Steve Potter is the Director of the Potter Group which is part of the Laboratory for NeuroEngineering, a collective research unit shared between Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology. To understand how the neurocircuitry in the brain can lead to learning and memory, he’s been growing neural circuits in Petri-dishes and hooking them up to the sensors and actuators of robots. The embodiment provides the stimulus needed for the brain to develop. Because the neurons are in a dish, they can easily be monitored over time, providing a close-up sneak peak into the brain activity.

Robots that have been hooked up to this system include the Koala and Khepera wheeled robots from K-team and a robot artist named MEART (Multi-Electrode Array Art). MEART was built in collaboration with the SymbioticA Research Group and went on tour around the world, drawing pictures based on stimulation from its in-vitro brain and feeding back camera images of its art. After weeks of stimulation, the brain actually calms down, providing insight into the possible treatment of epilepsy.

MEART Robotic Arm

Finally, Potter gives us his take on whether these hybrid living robots (Hybrots), or Animats are more life or machine?


Latest News:

For more information on the LEGO Moonbots challenge, the AUVSI conference and the Evolta robot, visit the Robots Forum.
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July 3rd, 2009

Robots: From Animals to Automation

In this episode we look at how FESTO, a worldwide leader in automation technology, has been copying nature to design bionic robots such as artificial penguins, manta-rays or jellyfish. Our first guest, Markus Fischer, is head of Corporate Design at FESTO and expert in transferring technology from biomimetic research to actual products such as grippers. Our second guest, Victor Zykov, finished his PhD and PostDoc at Cornell University in NY on modular robotics. His favorite modules, the Molecubes, are another example of transfer from a bio-inspired systems to FESTO.

Markus Fischer

Markus Fischer is the head of the Bionic Learning Network project at FESTO, one of the world’s leaders in automation, with thousands of employees around the world and products ranging from solenoids, valves, and cylinders to integrated automation solutions. Recently, FESTO has been exploring the world of mobile robotics, with stunning demonstrators such as the AquaPenguin, AquaRay, AirJelly and many more.

However, creating artificial systems is not the final goal, and Fischer has been looking to identify bionic principles which can be applied to the world of automation in new-generation products. A fulfillment of this endeavor can be found in thier Bionic Tripod which has grippers functioning following the same principles as the AquaPenguins. The concept is based on the Fin Ray® effect by which a fin, when pressed, actually wraps around the point of pressure rather than the intuitive opposite.

Finally, FESTO is also looking at collective robotic systems for inspiration in creating adaptable, robust and flexible systems for the industry.

Victor Zykov

Victor Zykov completed his PhD and PostDoc at Cornell University in NY under the supervision of Hod Lipson. Over the years, he’s been looking to create self-repairing and self-reproducing robots resulting in publications in Science and Nature.

Zykov explains the principles of modular robotics and presents one of his favorite building blocks, the Molecube. Molecubes are cubic like modules that are cheap to fabricate and easy to use for newbie roboticists with an online framework at From the labs at Cornell, the Molecubes found their way to FESTO as educational robots. He tells us why modular robotics is of interest to FESTO in building up adaptable factories of the future.

Victor Zykov is now On-Deck Systems Head at the Kite Assist Institute in California.


Latest News:

To learn more about the autonomous shrapnel removing robot, prediction for the personal robotics market and for the most eery version of “Happy Birthday” you’ve ever heard, have a look at the Robots Forum.

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August 15th, 2008

Robots: DelFly and Europe’s Micro Air Vehicle Competition

In this episode we talk about two major events in aerial robotics in the last few weeks: the announcement of the Delfly Micro and the 2008 European Micro Air Vehicle (EMAV) Competition. We first speak with Christophe de Wagter, a member of the Dutch team that’s been churning out amazing flapping-wing robots in the last few years. Our second interview features Peter Vörsmann, chair of this year’s EMAV competition, to explain the latest advances in autonomous flying vehicles.

Christophe de Wagter

In a recent press release a Dutch team of researchers from the Delft University of Technology announced the DelFly Micro, the latest and smallest member of the DelFly family, achieving flight at a very impressive 3g. Not only can this robot fly for 3 minutes, it actually carries a camera, and thus can sense its environment and is already capable of some basic autonomous flight.

De Wagter is one of the main developers of the DelFly family of ornithopters and tells us about the new platform’s capabilities, as well as the motivations of the project. He also tells us about the recent EMAV’08 competition in Germany and the impressive results of the DelFly II, the precursor to the DelFly Micro.

Peter Vörsmann

With its third edition in Braunschweig, Germany, the European Micro Air Vehicle competition (EMAV) reunited the MAV family of flapping, rotary and flying wing robots. The indoor and outdoor competitions were focussed on advancing the state-of-the art in aircraft maneuverability and autonomy while minimizing the size of the MAVs (see the mission description and rules). The 14 outdoor teams and 9 indoor teams showed off their platforms as they swooped over forests through arches and up a chimney, a hand-full of the MAVs performing autonomously.

The chair of the competition, Prof. Peter Vörsmann from the TU Braunschweig and Director of the Institute of Aerospace Systems, tells us about his view on the event, its challenges and impact. He also presents his Institute’s work on MAVs with autopilot technologies, meteorological MAVs and his future aerobatic robots.


Latest News:

Visit the Robots Forum for links and discussions about the
RED teaching robot, Hanson and Byrne’s singing robot and the iRobot Negotiator presented in the podcast.

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June 20th, 2008

Robots: A Robot Fly at Harvard and at the MoMA - Transcript

This episode features an interview with Robert Wood about his micro-robotic fly, as well as a talk with the curator of design at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

Rob Wood

Rob Wood's Robot fly

Professor Robert Wood is the founder and director of the Harvard Microrobotics Lab at Harvard University. He initially started out at Ron Fearing‘s Biomimetic Lab at Berkley working on the Micromechanical Flying Insect (MFI) project (see Talking Robots interview). Strong of his experience with designing the tiny, he went on to build his own microscale robots for aerial, terrestrial, and aquatic environments. His recent article in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, “Fly, Robot Fly” describes the first flight of his tethered fly:

« It began when I took a stick-thin winged robot, not much larger than a fingertip, and anchored it between two taut wires, rather like a miniature space shuttle tethered to a launchpad. Next I switched on the external power supply. Within milliseconds the carbon-fiber wings, 15 millimeters long, began to whip forward and back 120 times per second, flapping and twisting just like an actual insect’s wings. The fly shot straight upward on the track laid out by the wires. As far as I know, this was the first flight of an insect-size robot. »

Now that the micromechanical structure has proven it has sufficient thrust to actually lift the robot off the ground, the questions focus on how to power the robot insect and what sensors and control could allow it to perform its intended long term applications, namely search and rescue, hazardous environment exploration, environmental monitoring, and reconnaissance.

Wood also gives us some insight on how Biology has been driving his research and how he hopes to be able to return the favor by using his platform to study flies in nature.

Chaotic flight controlled, robot insect swarms, tech-driving miniaturization… let’s wait and see.

Paola Antonelli

Rob Wood’s robotic fly was featured as part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City entitled Design and the Elastic Mind. We had a talk with Paola Antonelli, the curator of the Department of Architecture and Design at MoMA, about the role of design in helping people cope with momentous changes in science and technology. How will designers help people adapt as robots become ubiquitous in our daily lives? How does our experience in nature affect the design of future robotic systems? Paola takes us through a brief tour of a designer’s perspective of science and technology.


Latest News:

Visit the Robots Forum for links and discussions about
iRobot’s “Seaglider” underwater robot, the DARPA contract awarded to iRobot for the Chembot, the sale of the autonomous car “Odin” and EMA the robotic girlfriend mentioned in the podcast.

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