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05/04/2013 2 comments

Festo is a German automation company. But beyond industrial automation they also do a lot of research in the field of robotics. While they have some nice parts of humanoid designs, the most interesting designs are their designs based on the locomotion of animals. They base their designs on animals because evolution has “developed” animals in an energy deficient environment. Thus, development based on animals will lead to lightweight and energy efficient designs.

Their first robotic animal experiment was in 2006. They made a robotic fish that could swim.

They continued in the same line in 2007 when they made a manta ray that would swim. They also made a flying version of it.

They continue their aquatic designs with a jelly fish.

Festo Aqua Jelly

Festo Aqua Jelly

And they also build a flying version of it. Which is my personal favourite project of theirs.

In 2009 they build a penguin. Again both in swimming and in flying version.

Festo Aqua Pengiun

Festo Aqua Penguin

In 2010 they stop with their aquatic based designs and make an elephant trunk like arm what they call their Bionic Handling Assistant.

In 2011, they make a robot based on a real flying animal, their smartbird. The wings not only go up and down, but also twist at specific angles.

2012 brings a gripper based on the head of a bird. Because of its design, a very light gripper with a large stroke and force can be achieved.

Festo Powergripper

Festo Powergripper

And this year they released a dragonfly like robot. The Bionicopter. The Bionicopter has 13 degrees of freedom, so this is really a nice example of miniaturisation as all sensors, actuators and control components have to be put in a very small space.

I think they have a very nice research and development atmosphere at Festo and wouldn’t mind working for such a company.


Festo :

Elderly care

17/03/2013 7 comments

In Japan, the problem of a growing elderly population is a lot worse than here. Because of that, there is a lot more research in assisting the elderly.

Twendy One is a robot that aims to help elderly people remain at home longer. By aiding them in tasks they can not do by themselves any more, the autonomy of these people can be greatly improved.

An other example of an assisting robot is Robovie II. This robot helps you doing grocery shopping

These robots can help the elderly stay at home longer. But it might also remove a part of the human contact they otherwise would have.

Do you think staying independent for longer outweighs the potential of decreasing the human contact people could have?


03/03/2013 4 comments

While it looks that personal robots are far off, they are invading our homes today.

I think, a vacuum robot is the most successful kind of robot today. You can find the from around 150 Euro up to 900 Euro.

There are a lot of manufacturers, but 2 noteworthy models are the Roomba and the Neato.

Picture of the Roomba and the Neato

Roomba (left) and Neato (Right) (Image curtsey of

The Roomba uses a simple random path based on foraging techniques of insects. It passes several times over the same area which may be sub-optimal for timing, but that might not be a problem if you are not around while it cleans. It has sensors to detect dirt so it can clean does areas more thorough.

The Neato uses a laser range finder for planning an optimal path. This way, every place is only cleaned once.

Both robots (the more advanced versions anyway) have scheduling options so they can start when you are not at home and have recharging stations they automatically will return to after cleaning.

They are not the most complex robots, but they seem to do what they were designed for and are rapidly gaining popularity. A few years ago, you had to look for them directly on the manufacturers website to get them. Now you can find them in stores like the Fnac and the Colruyt.

For the moment they are not a complete replacement of vacuuming by hand, but they can decrease the number of times you have to do it manually, and increase the general cleanliness of your house by vacuuming more often then you would do yourself.

The self driving car

17/02/2013 7 comments

A great new technology that is coming are the self driving cars.

Darpa has issued a challenge providing 2 million dollars for the first car that could navigate a track in the dessert. In 2005 a robotic car developed by the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory completed this track for the first time.

The car has completed over 500 000 km accident-free. Ironically, the car actually had 2 accidents. One while driven by a human, the other when a car ran into it while it stopped at a traffic light. For the moment the car can not legally drive in most places, but as of September 2012 they are allowed in 3 U.S. states (Nevada, Florida and California). [1]

VisLab conceived a challenge in which 4 cars drove autonomously a 15 000 mile trip from Italy to China. The first vehicle had some (planned) human intervention because there were no maps of parts of the trip. The 3 other vehicles used the interventions as pointers to complete the trip completely by themselves. An other interesting note is that all vehicles were completely electric. [2]

General Motors developed an electric urban vehicle that can drive autonomously. A nice feature is that it can come to you when called by phone. [3]

Picture of EN-V


While these cars are not available on the market today, some of the technology used in these cars is already used in commercial available cars today.

Here is an overview of the technologies already on the market:

Autonomous cruise control

This is a cruise control that maintains a safe distance from other vehicles. The main sensor used for this technology can be either a radar or a laser based sensor. As added bonus, the system can be used to send a warning signal if a collision is likely to occur, even when the cruise control is not activated.

It can be improved with GPS to predict the response from other vehicles (I.e.: an exit ahead). It can also be benefit from looking at the turn signals of the cars in front of it.

An other improvement would be Cooperative Adaptive Cruise Control. Here, information is passed from other cars in the neighbourhood to improve the driving experience. It could be very beneficial for the road capacity. Standardisation of the information protocol is needed for this however, and there are at the moment no plans for doing this.

Toyota was the first car manufacturer that had implemented this (in 1997). [4]

Hill descent control

This is related to cruise control. In traditional cruise control, only the gas is steered. In that case the car will still accelerate when going downhill by just the gravity pulling the car down. Hill descent control will improve the cruise control by applying the breaks when needed. [5]

Lane departure warning system

This system warns the driver if he is leaving his lane, without using his turn signals. It can be extended by taking action to keep the car on its lane.

The used sensors can be video in the visual spectrum, laser or infra-red sensors.

Nissan was the first to implement this system in 2001. [6]

Blind spot information system

As the name suggests, this system will give a warning if there is danger of collision with something in the blind spot of the read mirrors. It was first used only when a car entered the blind spot when changing lanes, but newer systems also warn for fast approaching vehicles. [7]

The first implemented system was done by Volvo in 2006. [8]

Collision avoidance system

This is a more complex system. It actually can consist of some of the parts described earlier.

It isn’t a fixed set of systems, but more of a collection of systems that is assembled by the manufacturer to provide this service. Next to the previous systems, it could monitor traffic lights, the current weather and weather and traffic predictions. It doesn’t only have be used as a warning system, but it can actively prevent the collision or take measures to reduce the severity of the damage. For instance, for preventing a collision, it could break, or steer. For reducing the damage it could change the seat position, tension of the seat belts and reposition the head rests. [9]

As it is not a finely defined system, it is hard to put a name on the first company that implemented it.

Intelligent speed adaptation

This is not to be confused with cruise control or a manual speed limitation. The intelligent speed adaptation system uses data of the local road, to alert drivers that they are exceeding the speed limit or to limit the speed of the car itself. It can get its data from a map and GPS, radio beacons along the road or optical recognition of speed signs.

As far as could be found, there are no car manufacturers that give this option in their commercial cars. There are however passive systems (giving only a warning sign) that are included in gps systems. SpeedShield is an active system that can be installed in a car to actively prevent the car from going too fast. [10]

Automotive night vision

Some high-end cars have an optional night vision system. This improves the visibility under poor lighting conditions by displaying an alternative view of what is in front of the car. It can be displayed on the dashboard or in the wind shield via head-up display and the image can be captured by actively sending infra-red light and capturing it, or by passively capturing the infra-red emitted by heat.

The first manufacturer to implement some kind of night vision was General Motors in 2000. [11]

Adaptive light control

This system can regulate the intensity and orientation of the front lights. The simplest of these systems which only switched between high beam and normal lights are found back as early as the 1950s by General Motors. They worked by detecting the headlights of upcoming cars, but had a lot of problems with discerning headlights from street lamps and road sign reflections.

The most advanced systems today alter the the orientation of the lights by anticipating the changes in terrain based on GPS data. [12]

Intelligent parking assist systems

These systems help parking or even completely autonomous park the car by itself. In most cases the driver has to put the car next to the parking spot and mark the place the car should be parked on a display. The system works uses the parking sensors that are common in a lot of modern cars and drives the electric power steering of the car. Shifting the gear still seems to be done manually.

The first version of this system was deployed by Toyota in 2003. [13]

Traffic sign recognition

As input for other systems, it can be useful to read the signs along the roads. The intelligent speed adaptation system discussed earlier can make use of this feature. Current systems do not read all the signs however. For the moment only the speed limits and overtaking restrictions are detected. They rely on more advanced systems like computer vision.

BMW was the first to implement this in 2008. [14]

Driver drowsiness detection

These systems learn driver patterns and try to detect when a driver is becoming drowsy. The system monitors lane deviations and abnormal steering behaviour and will alert the driver if it detects any. [15]

Several car manufacturers implement these since 2010.

Vehicular communication systems

This is actually not really on the market yet. But because of the possibilities it is included in the list.

As touched in the autonomous cruise control communication between cars can be used to improve the road capacity. This is not the only advantage of vehicular communication. The communication can occur between the vehicles as well as between vehicles and road side beacons.The communication can thus be used to transmit changed traffic situations, automatically determine toll and parking prices. It can also increase the safety by communicating sudden stops and accidents. [16]


A lot of the systems needed for an autonomous car are already on the market. Would you like to have a car that you just can sit in without having to drive it? Or wouldn’t you trust something you don’t have control over?


















Musical Robots

26/01/2013 5 comments

Something less academic, but more concerning robotics becoming more mainstream.

Here is an overview of robots playing musical instruments.

We start of with a very impressive rock/metal cover band Compressor Head.

The sound in the next clip isn’t superb, but it really shows an impressive overview of the band.

Stickboy, the pneumatic drummer, was created in 2007. It was not until 2009 when Fingers -the guitar player- was created that they actually formed a band to do performances. Last year Bones was added to the band with the bass guitar. Bones has actual human-like fingers to play the bass, while Fingers has 78 pneumatic actuators to make music. What is particularly interesting is the very human-like motions all the musicians make (well, the bass player doesn’t do a lot, but they often don’t do a lot in real life either). They now tour around the world.

Next up, we have a trumpet playing robot made by Toyota.

The trumpet has a special mouth piece for the robot, and they developed lips for this robot as trumpet playing is based on utilisation of the lips.

The following duo is a research project from the Waseda Universite in Japan. This “duo” is playing the flute and the saxophone.

While an automated saxophone me be nice, the flute deserves some attention. Playing the flute is dependent on a very precise placement of the lips on the flute. They used lips based on the lips of the previous (trumpet playing) robot. The flutist also has lungs, a vocal cord and a tongue, to simulate human behaviour as close as possible.

Toyata is doing a lot of work in robotics. An other of their musical creations is this violin playing robot.

It doesn’t only have the fine dexterity needed to play the violin, but it is also self-balancing (It will prevent itself from falling over if it is pushed) and can jump.

Those off course are all robots playing predetermined tunes. The next robot on the list however improvises to play along with an other musician.

This robot -called Shimon- also has some organic like behaviour in the motion of its head. The head seems to improve the interaction between the musician an the robot according to the people working with the robot.

To close off. Something a little bit different.

The next robot is not meant to play a real instrument. Instead, based on “Pipedream” a 3D animation by Animusic, Intel made something as seen in the animation but in real life as a techdemo.

The technique isn’t completely the same as in the 3D animation because the music is produced by a synthesizer linked to pressure plates instead of real instruments. But is impressive non the less.


The flip side

15/12/2012 6 comments

Every technology also has it’s darker applications. You almost as easily use a quadrotor to inspect your crops on the fields or scout a disaster area as use it to scout military targets. For the moment the US is heavily using UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) in war zones. Most of them are fixed wing aircrafts (“planes”), but there are already some rotorcraft designs (helicopters, quadrotors,…) in use.

While most quadrotor designs are not armed, they can already do quite a lot as you can see in the following video:

As you see, this would be as useful for counter-terrorism units as for the military. On one side, it can save the lives of your people, on the other, it can give a big advantage to destroy the lives of other people.

What do you think about your research being used in military applications?


Quadrotors build a tower

02/12/2012 2 comments

In the future, one of the areas a quadrotor can be used in is in construction work. The video below shows the construction of a small tower by quadrotors.

This demonstration shows the general concepts of construction with quadrotors. The quadrotors used here have a limited carrying capacity, so the blocks are made of foam, but the quadrotors are scalable so usage in real construction would be feasible.

This project also uses an external camera system for the navigation of the quadrotors. It actually uses the same Vicon system we are trying to replace.

Every quadrotor has its own trajectory planning and energy management. It receives the spot it has to put his brick on from one central computer which interprets the blueprint and coordinates the construction. When one quadrotor has a low battery level, it will put itself in a recharging station and an other quadrotor will take its place.

This tower is actually a 6m high 1:100 scale model of vertical village designed by Gramazio and Kohler, 2 architects involved in this demonstration. Every block would contain some apartments or commercial space.

Rendering vertical village

Rendering of the vertical village. (Credit Gramazio & Kohler)


Flying Machine Enabled Construction

IEEE Spectrum