Feast your eyes on these awesome MIT robots


On Monday, in celebration of National Robotics Week, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) opened its doors to select members of the press for a day of private robotics demos. Here is just a smattering of the wonders on display.

perching plane

1. The Perching Glider If you’ve ever seen a bird land on a wire, you’ve surely noticed how it pitches way back in the moments before alighting – well over ten times higher than a plane does. You’ve probably also noticed that planes don’t land on wires. Mechanizing that pitching motion, which birds perform so effortlessly, and which is a crucial element of precision landing from winged flight, turns out to be a very hard control problem, because the patterns of turbulence that emerge in its wake are highly complex and nonlinear. But MIT loves hard problems – hence the “perching glider,” a model aircraft with a bevy of onboard sensors and a single actuator: a horizontal rudder or “elevator” in the tail. By feeding its sensor data into an algorithm, the flying robot knows just when and how much to pitch so as to hit the power line pigeon-style every time.

ping pong 32

2. The Ping Pong Arm This robot, the handiwork of grad student Jared Glover, is a WAM arm that is learning, through both low-level iterative self-correction and high-level user feedback, to return a ping pong ball. It tracks the ball with two cameras positioned above the net, and its opponent with a Kinect. It also generates self-feedback by sensing the angle of its own joints. It might someday make for a smashing arcade game – but Glover, himself a veteran of MIT’s table tennis team, has interests that go beyond automated parlor games. “A lot of tasks we want robots to do, like cooking and cleaning, are pretty dynamic,” he says, and adds that he sees the ping pong arm as a way of “exploring ways in which robots can improve their ability in those tasks.”

m cube

3. M-Blocks These delightful jumping cubes, which bind together at their edges with powerful neodymium magnets, move by means of internal flywheels that spin at up to 20,000 rpm to generate momentum. The blocks are operated manually using an old-school two-joystick RC controller, and with some practice an agile pair of hands can learn to maneuver them like real-life Minecraft bricks, although the M-Blocks team hopes to eventually automate the assembly process with computers. CSAIL research scientist John Romanishin says that M-Blocks could one day be used to build self-assembling bridges and scaffoldings, but does not deny that they’d also make a great stocking stuffer.


4. Printable Robots MIT CSAIL is crawling with bleeding-edge machines that cost millions. But how about one for the rest of us? Enter this little guy, who recently helped its creators take home first prize in the IEEE Robotics and Automaton Society’s “Ultra Affordable Educational Robot” contest. The structural elements are made from a pattern printed onto a sheet of vinyl, then cut out and folded together origami-style, and the electronics – circuit boards, motors, actuators, sensors, etc. – all retail for about $3 apiece, making this little robot attainable for less than $20 total. And the very same ingredients can be used to build a whole taxonomy of low-cost mini-bots, including an insectoid critter and an arm.


5. The “Fish” Robot We tend to think of robots as hard, rigid things made of metal and plastic. But an emerging field known as “soft robotics” is turning that notion on its head – or, in this case, its tail – with a new breed of robots made from soft and pliable materials like rubber. This robotic fishtail is made entirely out of soft silicone, with a row of air chambers on each side. It curves by receiving compressed air from paintball gun canisters into one of the sets of chambers, which expands one side of the tail and not the other. For instance, if air is pushed into the left side, the tail will curve to the right. The robot is meant primarily as a theoretical exploration of the concept of soft robotics, but its myriad potential applications could range from military and rescue reconnaissance to ocean exploration to pipe repair.


6. Atlas Developed by Waltham robotics firm (and recent Google acquisition) Boston Dynamics in collaboration with DARPA, this hydraulically-actuated bad boy stands 6”2’, weighs in at 330 lbs., and is considered a major milestone in the march toward humanoid robot. Too big for the Stata Center, Atlas is housed in a nearby hangar-like space with a ceiling-mounted tether and an ominously giant-robot-sized treadmill, where a team of CSAIL developers works to prepare it for its next competition. After a packed day of robot demos, we could not have asked for a more fitting main event, even though Atlas was apparently suffering from a bug that made him fall over after taking four steps.

Nick Cox is a freelance writer who lives in Somerville.
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