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Gizmorama - January 29, 2018

Good Morning,

Drones and robots! Oh, my! They're flying and moving. Just as long as they don't become self-aware.

Learn about this and more interesting stories from the scientific community in today's issue.

Until Next Time,

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*-- Larva-like robot can navigate tiny, enclosed spaces --*

Engineers at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems have designed a tiny, soft-bodied robot capable of navigating tight, enclosed spaces. The so-called millirobot is modeled after the larvae of beetles and caterpillars.

The magnetically-controlled robot measures four millimeters in length and looks like a tiny tab of paper. The body of the rectangular millirobot is made of a soft elastic polymer.

Unlike other tiny bots with limited mobility, the new robot has an impressive ability to navigate dynamic terrain.

"We looked at the physical mechanism of locomotion of soft-bodied caterpillars and jellyfishes and took inspiration from them," Metin Sitti, a professor and researcher at MPI, said in a news release. "The result is that our millirobot is a mix of small-scale soft-bodied animals, such as a beetle larva, a caterpillar, a spermatozoid, and a jellyfish."

Scientists embedded a pattern of magnetic particles in the tiny strip of polymer. Using extremely precise external magnetic fields, researchers can torque the bot's body into a wide variety of positions, enabling a complex range of motion.

The variety of contortions allows the bot to jump over obstacles, roll across surfaces, scoot through narrow passages and even move both on and in water.

"In the future, our robot can carry drugs and deliver them to a desired location where they are most needed, much like a doorstep delivery," Sitti said. "We would use it for minimally invasive medical applications inside the human body: it would be delivered through swallowing or a cavity on the skin and make its way through the digestive or urinary tract, abdominal cavity, or heart surface."

Researchers described their breakthrough bot this week in the journal Nature.

The bot's most promising applications are in the biomedical field. Scientists could potentially use the tiny bot to study and treat disease. Researchers have already tested the millirobot inside chicken tissue and a synthetic surgical stomach model.

"Currently it is not possible to access many small regions inside the human body without surgery, but our target is to reach such regions non-invasively and conduct diagnostic and therapeutic operations with our soft robots," Sitti said.

*- Drones learn autonomous navigation by copying bikes, cars -*

Autonomous flight is no problem in open airspace, but today's self-flying drones are ill-equipped to navigate busy city streets and tree-filled neighborhoods at low altitudes. Researchers at the University of Zurich are trying to change that.

Scientists have developed a new algorithm called DroNet. The software helps drones safely navigate urban obstacle courses.

"DroNet recognises static and dynamic obstacles and can slow down to avoid crashing into them," Davide Scaramuzza, professor of robotics and perception at Zurich, said in a news release. "With this algorithm we have taken a step forward towards integrating autonomously navigating drones into our everyday life."

The new technology is powered, not by advanced sensors, but a sophisticated algorithm designed to analyze the drone's surroundings and respond quickly and efficiently.

"This is a computer algorithm that learns to solve complex tasks from a set of 'training examples' that show the drone how to do certain things and cope with some difficult situations, much like children learn from their parents or teachers," said Scaramuzza.

Scientists provided the software with training examples of bikes and cars navigating urban traffic. The algorithm can identify navigational patterns and glean basic traffic laws by watching the movements of bikes and cars through a crowded environment.

Tests showed the algorithm allowed the drones to not only use their training examples to navigate city streets, but also safely utilize the lessons learned in other environs, like a parking lot or indoor office.

Researchers detailed their efforts in the journal IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters.

The technology could eventually be used to power drones working in search and rescue situations or for parcel delivery services.

"Many technological issues must still be overcome before the most ambitious applications can become reality," said Zurich Ph.D. student Antonio Loquercio.


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