This robot backpack is actually a helping pair of hands controlled by a human

Cost and engineering constraints mean most telepresence robots are variants on the iPad-on-a-stick form factor. But they don’t have to be. Just look at this prototype telepresence bot built by engineers from Japan’s Keio University and the University of Tokyo. It’s basically a robot backpack with two arms and a head that can be operated remotely by a human using a VR headset and controllers. It’s fun, ingenious, and even slightly cute.

The bot is called Fusion, and its form is supposed to encourage collaboration and learning at a distance, says lead designer Yamen Saraiji. Speaking to The Verge, Saraiji says he wanted to create a “body-sharing experience,” so he placed the robot’s arms directly behind the wearer while outfitting the bot with stereo vision and 3D binaural audio.

The robotic arms are the most interesting part of the setup, and they can be used in a number of different configurations. They can move freely by themselves, be controlled by the host, or they can even attach to the wearers’ arms using wrist cuffs to move the human about.

In “enforced posture” mode, the robotic arms are used to control the wearer’s limbs.

This last mode is what really makes the bot unique. As Saraiji explains, it could have a number of uses. For example, “an expert can guide new practitioners on how to operate certain instruments or to assist them remotely without the need of their physical presence.” Or, it could help with the rehabilitation process for people in physical therapy. The elderly could even use it to pass on their physical skills to the next generation.

There are some kinks to be worked out first, though. Fusion is just a prototype, and it has a number of minor flaws that limit smooth operation. For a start, the arms work at a bit of lag, says Saraiji, which can be disorientating. Similarly, the view for the telepresence user — which is off to the side of the wearer’s head — can take some getting used to. And since this is just a prototype, there’s no guarantee that it will ever become a commercial project.

But Fusion does suggest an interesting direction for the future of telepresence robots. Lots of work is being done to give humans supernumerary limbs and create surrogate telepresence robots. Combining the two could create something even more exciting.

A helicopter for a head helps this bipedal robot walk with confidence

Ask the elderly, toddlers, or the very drunk: walking can be tough. And the times when it is, you need a helping hand to keep you on the straight and narrow. For humans, that might mean a walking stick, but for robots, you can get more creative. The Aerial-Biped, a new robot designed by researchers from the University of Tokyo, uses something much more modern: a quadcopter.

First spotted by IEEE Spectrum, the Aerial-Biped is an interesting experiment in how to make life easier for walking robots. Bipedalism is easy for humans, but a challenge for mechanical friends, requiring, as it does, strength, balance, and an infallible inner-ear.

One way to make walking easier would be obvious to astronauts: just turn down gravity. That way it takes less energy to stay upright, and as a bonus side effect, you take less damage when falling over. The Aerial-Biped effectively reduces gravity for itself by wearing a quadcopter as a hat. That’s how it can stay upright on such relatively spindly legs.

Robots in the past have taken advantage of similar buoyancy aids. One built by scientists from UCLA named Ballu is basically a helium-blimp on top of a slender pair of legs. Another, called Magdan, has magnets in its feet so it sticks to the ground with every step.

Speaking to IEEE Spectrum, University of Tokyo’s Azumi Maekawa, the lead researcher responsible for designing Aerial-Biped, explains that although this method of locomotion is novel, it’s not exactly practical. It wouldn’t be as useful for, say, delivering packages or search-and-rescue operations (commonly mooted tasks for bipedal bots.)

Maekawa instead compares the robot’s gait to a flamingo’s, and says its primary purpose would be in the entertainment industry. “We aim to develop a biped robot that has the ability to display desired motions, including various dances, in addition to walking,” he says, explaining that the design allows for imaginative creations “by enabling movements that have been impossible due to the constraints of the mechanisms.”

So, rather than seeing a helicopter-headed robot walking down the street, you might find it at a theme park serving drinks. A flamingo waiter? Sounds very Disney.

The adorable Kuri robot has been canceled

It’s time to say goodbye to Kuri — a home robot that was essentially an Echo on wheels. Mayfield Robotics, which designed the bot, announced today that it’s pausing production and will refund customers who placed preorders. The company seems to be putting most of the blame on Bosch, which supported the company through its Startup Platform program. Mayfield says the company couldn’t find a “business fit” within Bosch to “support and scale” the business. It goes on to say that it doesn’t know what “the coming months will bring.” It sounds like Kuri itself might not be happening, but Mayfield as a whole still exists.

When I first tested Kuri at CES in 2017, the robot didn’t have much functionality. It could drive around and be controlled like a remote control car, but at the time, it wasn’t able to respond to voice commands or react. It acted more or less like a moving Bluetooth speaker. Still, it’s always a bummer to see a product fail. It was obvious that a lot of work went into Kuri, but the unfortunate reality is that smart assistant products are significantly cheaper than home robots and can do essentially the same tasks. Companies in this space need to figure out how to justify their robot’s cost and functionalities to succeed.

The future of search-and-rescue robots might be centaur, not human

What has six legs, four wheels, and two karate-chopping hands? Why, it’s Centauro — a new search-and-rescue robot built by researchers from the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia.

Centauro is the latest experiment by scientists to find the most adaptable and useful body-shape for robots designed to help in disasters. Usually, these machines are built like humans, with two arms and two legs, but researchers are increasingly finding that hybrid designs offer more flexibility. With its four wheeled legs, Centauro is more stable than a humanoid bot, but still retains the two forward-facing arms needed for manipulating objects like tools and doors. (Or, as in the video below, karate-chopping some plywood for fun.)

As reported by IEEE Spectrum, Centauro’s design builds on that of Momaro, another centaur-robot designed by researchers from the University of Bonn. Momaro was the top European performer at DARPA’s Robotics Challenge in 2015, which tested the ability of robots to carry out the sort of tasks they might face in a search-and-rescue mission. (Yes: this was the same event where lots and lots of robots fell down.) Other top performers at the event were also hybrids, including the winning team from South Korea’s KAIST university, who built a robot that transformed from a bipedal design to a wheeled one.

Centauro itself is 1.5 meters tall, weighs 93 kilograms, and is made of an assortment of lightweight metals (like aluminum, covered by a 3D-printed plastic “skin.” It has a 2.5-hour battery life, and is controlled at all times by a human operator.

The main selling point of this design, though, is flexibility. Each of the robot’s limbs has six degrees of freedom, and can rotate at the hip, knee, and ankle. This means it can take on a number of different postures, including an upright wheeled position (best for for quick movement) and a crouched “spider” mode, which gives it more stability when operating tools. It can also pick its way through rubble and even climb up stairs.

Of course, designing the robot itself is only have the challenge. Now, researchers have to figure out how best to control it; and will be testing Centauro’s might with ever-more difficult challenges. And who knows, in the future we may see robots with centaur designs rescuing humans from dangerous situations. That’s one way for fantasy to become reality.