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What's New in Robotics this Week - Sep 09

Emmet Cole
by Emmet Cole.
Posted on Sep 09, 2016 7:00 AM. 8 min read time

Mars InSight Mission; new autonomous tractor; August fundings; telepresence robots for sick kids; China gov subsidies for robotics firms; and much more. Find out what's happening in our robotics universe this week. We hope that the news we have selected will interest and amuse you. Enjoy!   

NASA Approves 2018 Launch of Mars InSight Mission (JPL Lab)

NASA has approved a spring 2018 launch of its InSight mission to study the deep interior of Mars, following final approval this week by the agency's Science Mission Directorate. 



The mission was originally scheduled to launch in March of this year, but NASA suspended launch preparations in December due to a vacuum leak in one of its prime science instruments. 

The new launch period for the mission begins May 5, 2018, with a Mars landing scheduled for Nov. 26, 2018. The next launch opportunity is driven by orbital dynamics, so 2018 is the soonest the lander can be on its way.

"Our robotic scientific explorers such as InSight are paving the way toward an ambitious journey to send humans to the Red Planet," said Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, in Washington. "It's gratifying that we are moving forward with this important mission to help us better understand the origins of Mars and all the rocky planets, including Earth."

In a busy week for space robotics, less than a month before the end of its mission, Rosetta’s high-resolution camera revealed the the Philae lander, wedged into a dark crack on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. 

"With only a month left of the Rosetta mission, we are so happy to have finally imaged Philae, and to see it in such amazing detail,” says Cecilia Tubiana of the OSIRIS camera team, the first person to see the images when they were downlinked from Rosetta yesterday. 

Elsewhere, NASA's Osiris-Rex spacecraft and RoboGlove projects have also been grabbing headlines. 


Robotic Surrogates Help Chronically Ill Kids Maintain Social, Academic Ties at School (UCI)

Chronically ill, homebound children who use robotic surrogates to “attend” school feel more socially connected with their peers and more involved academically, according to a first-of-its-kind study by University of California, Irvine education researchers. 


“Every year, large numbers of K-12 students are not able to go to school due to illness, which has negative academic, social and medical consequences,” said lead author Veronica Newhart, a Ph.D. student in UCI’s School of Education. “They face falling behind in their studies, feeling isolated from their friends and having their recovery impeded by depression. Tutors can make occasional home visits, but until recently, there hasn’t been a way to provide these homebound students with inclusive academic and social experiences.”

Telepresence robots could do just that. The Internet-enabled, two-way video streaming automatons have wheels for feet and a screen showing the user’s face at the top of a vertical “body.” From home, a student controlling the device with a laptop can see and hear everything in the classroom, talk with friends and the teacher, “raise his or her hand” via flashing lights to ask or answer questions, move around and even take field trips.

Chinese Robotics Makers Feast on Government Subsidies (Caixin Online

Local governments in China pumped hundreds of millions of yuan into the robotics industry in the first half of the year, helping to boost profits by as much as 60 percent in some companies, according to reports. 


Guangdong-based Greatoo Intelligent Equipment Inc. earned 19 million yuan (US$ 2.84 million) in the first six months of this year, more than 60 percent of which came from the local government, according to the company's financial report. In March alone, Greatoo's two robotics projects received subsidies of 8.7 million yuan from two government departments.

Subsidies also contributed 40 to 60 percent of profits for three companies — Topstar Technologies Ltd., Guangdong Bo Lante Intelligent Equipment Co. Ltd., and Jiangsu Yawei Machine Tool Co. Ltd. Another four saw government awards make up 10 to 30 percent to their income. Siasun Robot & Automation Co. Ltd., the country's biggest maker of industrial robots in the northeastern city of Shenyang, received 34 million yuan from its local government, about one-fifth of its profit. 

This Robotic Tractor Looks Seriously Badass (gizmodo

Developing agricultural robots that can work outdoors in the complicated and cluttered environment of a farm or orchard is a real challenge. 

Agricultural equipment manufacturer Case IH, became the latest company to offer a potential solution when it unveiled the Autonomous Concept Vehicle, a "seriously intimidating-looking" robot tractor this week. 

This futuristic piece of agricultural equipment is drawing crowds at the annual Iowa farm show, and for good reason. Unlike conventional tractors, it has no cabin for a driver. Instead, it utilizes cameras, radar, and GPS, which allows farmers to remotely control and monitor the machine with an app on a tablet computer. The machine can operate day or night and is designed to plant seeds and harvest crops, among other tasks.

Path planning technology developed by Case IH will allow farmers to manage their fields and oversee the overall operation of multiple vehicles simultaneously. The ACV is also capable of obstacle detection to prevent mishaps.

Pizza Delivery Drones Not Trusted by Americans (Robotics Trends

A recent YouGov poll has found that only 37 percent of Americans believe pizza delivery drones would drop off their order undamaged. A third of those surveyed trust that a drone-delivered pizza would arrive at the right temperature. Two-thirds said they’d prefer a human delivery person to a delivery drone.


As Robotics Trends reported, "millennials aged 18-34, of course, trusted the pizza delivery drones more than any other age group in the survey." 

When asked to state their level of trust for a hypothetical drone delivery service run by Amazon, 38% of people said they would trust it. For the United States Postal Service, that number came in at 23%, followed by Google (20%) and Walmart (19%).

Overall, 39 percent of people said they would not trust a drone-based delivery system to work, regardless of the company behind it. This suggests that despite the advances in drone technology, and relaxation of regulations by the Federal Aviation Administration, companies may have to target young people eager to try new technology to get a drone delivery service off the ground. 

Meanwhile, a pilot drone pizza delivery scheme is already underway in New Zealand

August Fundings and Acquisitions (The Robot Report)

Robot startups raised close to US$430m in 18 deals in August, according to Frank Tobe's latest roundup. A further US$1bn was paid in four acquisitions. Some highlights: 

Emotech, the UK-based maker of the Olly robot, a product similar to Amazon's Echo device, has raised $10 million from Chinese venture investors Alliance Capital and Lightning Capital.

DPE Deutsche Private Equity has agreed to sell Westfalia Group, a German maker of towing equipment and integrator of robotic warehousing solutions, to Horizon Global Corp. for around $186 million (including assumed debt).

Otto Motors, a SF startup developing self-driving truck system kits, was acquired by Uber for an undisclosed amount. Bloomberg suggests the price is $680 million assuming certain targets are met.


And Finally...








No Sailors Needed: Robot Sailboats Scour the Oceans for Data (New York Times
Navy tests unmanned 'Bladerunner' robotic speedboat (Express
Robotic surgeons around the world lend a ‘hand’ to fight prostate cancer (Microsoft
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Dairy Cows, and Fresh Fruit Harvesting? (PDDNet)
Virtual Reality Created by Robots Allows Jurors to Visit Crime Scenes (
How maggots are influencing the future of robotics (PhysOrg)
Anthrobotics: Where The Human Ends and the Robot Begins (Futurism
Cobots over robots? (Information Age
7 robots that could replace humans in the kitchen (Business Insider

"What's New In Robotics This Week" is compiled from Wed-Wed and published on Friday mornings. 
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Emmet Cole
Written by Emmet Cole
A freelance robotics writer since 2006, Emmet is an Economist contributor, and a regular contributor to Robotics Business Review and Robotics Trends. His writing on robots has also appeared in Wired, BBC Future, BBC Focus magazine, Space Quarterly, and numerous other outlets.
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