Category Archives: Robot Vignettes

The Farm of the Near Future

The morning sun began to creep gently over the east side of the corn field. The farm’s control system orchestrated a discussion between the weather sensors on the premises and the web services providing the daily forecast. It made the decision to turn on the irrigation for the full cycle today.

A small flock of geese settled into the soybean field looking for a meal. Their arrival was greeted with the shrill kree-arrrr call of a red tail hawk. The cry sounded again and it was clear the hawk was approaching. The geese burst from the ground in a panic as a small drone quadricopter flew into view and blarred one last hawk call from its speakers.

Back in the corn fields, a small rover robot made its morning rounds probing the soil and visually inspecting the crops. All data was sent back to the control system via its wifi connection. The rover stopped suddenly in its six-wheeled tracks and zoomed in on one particular cornstalk. It took several photos and sent the urgent message to the system along with the GPS coordinates of the problem.
Back at his desk, the farm assistant received the photo images. He recognized the problem as some type of blight but was not familiar with this particular strain. He called his supervisor who said she was not familiar with this blight either. She suggested they put in a call to have it analyzed by an expert.
An hour later, a small driverless car arrived at the farm. The trunk of the car opened and a bipedal robot emerged and walked towards the farmhouse. The supervisor and assistant led the robot to the infected corn. When they reached the site of the infected cornstalk, the robot focused the high-resolution cameras on the problematic area. A voice emitted from the robot’s speakers: “Yep, I know what this is and I know what you have to do…” The two farm employees took on smiles of relief.
Far away from this cornfield in Yankton, South Dakota, Bob sat in the small room of his house that served as his office. Using the program on his laptop computer, he maneuvered his mechanical avatar at the farm to take some more pictures of the cornstalks in this area. Bob accessed the farm’s control system and began reviewing relevant data. This assignment was typical for him. He knew a lot about raising corn. The circumstances of his life that moved him from Iowa to Yankton challenged him to find employment in his area of expertise, but that changed when he learned of the opportunity to utilize teleoperated robots to be his feet on the street…or in the fields as it were. Now he was quite busy, especially in this season, and living quite well. He was looking forward to opportunities to consult farmers in emerging markets across the world. He would be part of a group that would trial these services while employing language translation. In a short matter of time, Bob would deliver instructions to this farm and the blight that could have been catastrophic would be eradicated.
At edge of the cornfield several deer approached the crops for a free meal. The thunderous bark of a doberman instantly scattered them. Still barking, the drone quadricopter rose above the cornstalks and ensured the interlopers were driven far away.

Peace of Mind on Vacation

Like most people interested in the advancements in robotics, I am very interested in JIBO who is receiving a lot of recent attention. JIBO is an example of a produt in the market niche known as social robots. It seems to me that vendors in this space often emphasize the personal or emotional value these robots bring to their owners. Honestly, I’m an overwhelmed hard-working guy who would just love to see these things help me out. If I can love a shop vac that performs above and beyond expectations I may just go out and get a heart tattoo on my well-intentioned bicep for a personal robot who can take a load off Daddy. The story below depicts a scenario in which a JIBO armed with appropriate third party hardware and applications provides exceptional emotional value to a typical parent of a family.

The long drive was over and the smell of salt water filled the air. The brief evaluation was over. Walter was happy with the beach house. He had rented it sight-unseen from the owners. It was slightly smaller than he had expected but he thought it should be perfect for his family that included his wife and two young boys. There were, however, a couple of somewhat troubling thoughts on his mind that had to be reconciled before he could really settle peacefully into vacation mode. While his wife and sons sat on the second story deck and watched the ocean waves roll in, Walter broke away to make a phone call.
“We left in such a hurry”, he spoke into his smartphone, “there are a couple of things I want to check.”
“I am hear to help”, answered a pleasant but somewhat inhuman voice.
Walter continued, “For starters I’m not sure I locked the door to the deck. Could you send me a picture of the door handle?”
“I’m on my way”, the voice answered.
“Thanks, JIBO”, Walter replied.
Back at Walter’s home, the small robot with a conical head wheeled towards the deck door. The robot was mounted on a small wheeled platform that allowed it to navigate throughout the first floor. Small LEDs on the platform blinked to indicate functional behavior of various on-board sensors.
“Also, I wanted to set the thermostat. I think I did but I’m not positive. What’s the temperature in the house?”
“For the past twelve hours the house has maintained an average temperature of 77 degrees.” The temperature sensor included in the mobile base allowed the robot to take the reading.
“Great, that’s what it should be.” Walter had been talking about getting smart thermostats for quite a while. I was time to make the move. “You know what, see if you can find me a high-rated smart thermostat for around $100. Send me a form with five options and I’ll pick the one I want you to buy.” This occasion would not be the first time that Walter had JIBO do the legwork for an online purchase. Although Walter never felt overwhelmed by doing this kind of shopping, he actually enjoyed the incredible simplicity of just receiving a display with suitable options and clicking “go” without the hassle of searching and price comparing. Walter briefly recalled times when one of the boys’ friend’s birthdays was approaching an JIBO conveniently presented (and reminded) him with gift options for the upcoming party. JIBO integrated with Amazon and other e-commerce sites and could make purchases on behalf of Walter. A smartphone app managed the communication between the two of them for these transactions and other similar ones.
“Your parents called this morning”, JIBO offered without a leading request. He had been programmed to alert Walter of these events.
Walter was a little alarmed by the infrequent incident. “Could you play me the message?”
This capability was provided by a simple app that did not require any additional recurring fees. JIBO could make phone calls as his platform integrated with the house landline phone. He simply had to dial into the voicemail system, find the appropriate message, make an audio recording of it, and play it back for Walter.
“This will take a little while,” JIBO reminded Walter. “I’m fast but it takes some time to navigate your voicemail service.”
“Don’t worry, you’re not getting fired today”, Walter assured the intelligent robot. “And I got the photo of the deck door. It’s locked, thanks.”
“I have sent you five options for smart thermostat purchases”, JIBO informed Walter.
“I wish I could multitask like you”, Walter said.
“Perhaps you need a firmware upgrade.”
“I taught you that one.” Walter jogged his brain for anything else that would prevent him from relaxing. “The security system is on?”
“I can confirm that the security system is activated and that there have been no alerts since the time of your departure. I will continue to turn on the ZigBee® lights at random night time hours. I can now play back the voicemail message from your parents’ call.”
The message from Walter’s mother indicated that one of his cousins had just had a baby girl. Walter was relieved to hear there was no emergency and would make the appropriate follow up calls when he could.
Walter saw that it was almost sunset. He felt at ease now and knew he could call JIBO whenever he had to. It was nice to have a reliable helper that didn’t sleep.
“Thanks for everything, JIBO”, Walter said. “Recharge when you have to and don’t throw any wild parties while we’re gone.”
“Noted. I will remind the toaster oven.” JIBO answered.
“I taught you that one.”

In the Den of the Lionfish

Armed with a fresh cup of Colombian coffee, Ethan opened his laptop and reviewed the latest data. The numbers were looking very good. He optimistically envisioned a lot of smiles and nods from the audience at the upcoming presentation. His brief daydream was snapped by an on screen message from Unit 7. Ethan clicked the alert and a screen popped up to display the image Unit 7 was sending from its underwater location in the nearby reef. Ethan reviewed the message and easily recognized that it was a lionfish indeed. Unit 7 claimed that there were no divers in the vicinity and sent a panoramic image to support that claim. Ethan had seen enough information from the robotic submarine and clicked the confirmation button on the application page. According to Ethan’s recent numbers that action would seal the fate of this particular lionfish.

Common Lionfish

Unit 7 was one of many robotic submarines operating off the coast in an effort to control the invasive lionfish population. The environmental and economic effects of the species had reached critical levels. The robots communicated using on-board underwater modems that sent their signals to local buoys which then relayed the communication to the larger wireless network. Human operators received and sent signals to the units over the same The coverage of the swarm was coordinated by a centralized server in order to optimize coverage of the area.
Upon receiving confirmation of its current mission, Unit 7 locked in on the image of the lionfish and began its pursuit. Although the lionfish is a relentless predator and impervious to the attacks of most predators, it is not a very quick or agile swimmer. Advantage: the robotic submarine units. As Unit 7 closed within four feet of its target, it algorithmically analyzed the swimming pattern of its target and fired the small harpoon with a burst of compressed air. The tethered harpoon pierced the fish. As the fish struggled, the Unit 7 moved towards the surface and relayed an indication of its achievement. The message was a request for a rendezvous with a differently purposed robotic vehicle in the area: one that would transport the captured fish to the base station.

Upon rendezvous, Unit 7 and the transport carried out their aquatic choreography. The transport spotted the captured fish in tow and extend a sinewy hand that collapsed around the fish almost like a mechanical Venus flytrap leaf. With a quick signal to the harpoon, the barb was retracted and the submarine retracted the tether carrying it. The transports end effector pivoted towards the service and tossed the fish into its central storage unit designed to adequately preserve it. Although the fin rays of the fish are venomous, it is edible if prepared properly. There were several local charities that were benefiting from the captured fish.
The fleet of robotic submarines were part of a larger effort that utilized mobile robots to control invasive species across the country. When the public was made aware of the efforts there was some level of trepidation towards the thought of semi-autonomous robots hunting their prey amid the residents. It took some trials, time, and numbers to substantiate the proclaimed safety of the robots in general. One of the most attractive aspects of the robot programs was the “global off switch”. More organic control methods involved the introduction of species and substances, but those approaches ran the risk of introducing a new imbalance to the environment. Conversely, once their goal numbers were met, the robots would be switched off and removed with no ongoing impact or evidence of their historic presence.
This was the second killing for Unit 7 in the past hour. It returned to the floating base station and docked for a well-deserved inductive recharge.
Back at his desk, Ethan received a text message from his friend, Thomas, who was managing a team of land-based robots that were hunting Burmese pythons in the Miami-Dade area. The message included a picture of Mongoose Nine with its latest capture.

Robotic Explorations

The following story depicts a fictitious (at this point in time and as far as I know) company. If you happen to create a company based on this story please offer me at least a free tour when you make the inevitable fortune.


I experience one of those brief heart-stopping moments as the email appears in my Inbox. It is the name of the sender that catches my attention: Robotic Explorations. This email is the online invitation to my first self-guided tour. And I am going to explore the desolate reaches of the Australian Outback.

I had done one group tour in a South American rainforest with Robotic Explorations previously. The price was much lower mainly due to the larger number of virtual tourists, but after taking that tour I was determined to put myself in the driver’s seat and make my own path. But I am getting ahead of myself…I should probably explain what Robotic Explorations is all about.

As they say on their website, they offer their customers a unique virtual touring experience aided by a semi-autonomous robot. Basically they have a fleet of these very mobile rover-type robots. They are equipped with some kind of hybrid engine that provides lots of mileage very quietly (which is important when you want to spy on the local wildlife). Their website provides the interface to your robot which their local team deploys to your starting spot. Below is a picture of the interface you access from the web page.


So I’m getting all ready to start my trip. I chose a 24 hour time period. I have my computer hooked up to some nice speakers so I can get a good listen into the environment and I bought a Google Chromecast so I can see what the robot is seeing on my HD big screen.

Ok, I just got the message: “Congratulations, your rover is activated. Happy trails!” And the picture is coming in…wow, so cool. I am virtually in the Australian Outback. I was wondering about bandwidth issues, especially since these tours are often in the middle of nowhere. Apparently Robotic Explorations has addressed that challenge in its touring areas. I have heard explanations ranging from line of sight laser signals beamed from towers to hovering broadband repeaters…whatever it is, the picture and sound quality are great.

The robot is asking me where we should go. Let me ask him for a quick video pan of the area. Alright, we are going to head northwest. The terrain map indicates some type of small forest. Maybe we will see some cool creatures. So I’ll just click on that area and my robotic ambassador will route there as best as he can.

My control panel just flashed a “Rough terrain…” indicator. Uh oh…our first set back. It seems that the rover has tumbled down a hill and is on its side. The panel indicates: “Rover overturned; activating outriggers…”. I can see by the camera picture that he is righting himself, and now we are back on our wheels again. The panel displays “Reattempting previous route with increased torque.” Very carefully the robot ascends the hill and reaches more level ground. Fantastic effort.

I have the side cameras activated as we are driving in case something catches my eye. Wow, something just caught my eye. Not an animal but a really great view of the landscape. Let me stop him now and take a snapshot. Forgot to mention, my trip is linked to my Facebook acThe_World_Factbook_-_Australia_-_Flickr_-_The_Central_Intelligence_Agency_21count so I can post these photos as I take them. The application also puts a pin in my map where I took the snapshot. I’m adding the caption: “Enjoying the late afternoon view of the Australian Outback (with a beer).” Ok, onward…

Hold on, I just saw an alert icon on my display. The laser sweep picked up some movement a little to our east. Let’s check it out. I just clicked on the alert icon where it appeared in the map view and the rover is now re-routing and approaching. One nice thing about their app: you can have different web URLs for your control panel vs. your camera views. So I have the camera views on my big screen and I’m actually using their iPad app to control the robot. The rover is getting close to the source of the motion so I got the message: “Switching to stealth mode”. I clicked “Ok”. I think this runs the motor on all battery to make him real quiet on approach. I think I see something. I’m stopping the rover and zooming in. It’s a bunch of birds around a small pond. Strange looking birds, cool. Going to snap another photo for Facebook. Just noticed my friend posted a comment on my last picture: “What the hell are you doing in the Australian Outback?”

I’m back…I’ve been a little lazy about updating this post because I’m really enjoying just wandering around and feeling like I’m out there in the great abandon. Another movement alert up ahead. It’s horses…three small horses wandering by. I click on a horse in the camera display and select “Track with rover”. This action makes the rover follow them from an adjustable offset. We follow them for a ways as they head towards a large rock formation. They enter a narrow ravine between two steep rocks and we continue after them. The robot’s camera adjusts for the dimmer light and activates the picture stabilization. Suddenly one of the horses lets out a snort and they race off. I don’t think we will be able to catch them. I zoom in on the satellite picture to see if we can make it through this ravine. The rover’s LIDAR is optimistic about a way out so we continue.

My attention is drawn to the left side camera. What I first thought was just discolorations on the rock walls that line this ravine are actually…paintings. They remind me of prehistoric cave paintings. It seems to depict some sort of creature with claws being held off by people.
rock-paintingIt’s a little difficult to describe. I’ll take some photos and post on Facebook to see what other people think of it. I remember that my contact at Robotic Explorations indicated my rover was being deployed to a very remote part of the Outback seldom hiked by people due to its desolation. My rover was delivered to its starting point by a small helicopter. Could it be that my photographs are the first to be taken by an outsider? Am I the first visitor to this land to make this discovery? Although my photos will record the latitude and longitude I am definitely marking this point with a trip pin.

It’s getting dark now. I think I am going to take a look at the sky with the panoramic. The robot camera is adjusting for the dim light. Now I can see stars…lots of stars. Another photo opp. Beautiful night in the Australian OutbackWhat’s that? Rover picked up significant sound reading not too far off. I click on the direction to indicate my approval. Let’s go.

Once again we go into stealth mode as we approach objects in motion. Too dark so night vision is enabled. Not as brilliant as day time shots but what are you going to do? Ooh, I just saw the reflection of some glowing eyes (enough moonlight for that I guess). Wow, about four…nope, at least eight dog things. Maybe these are dingoes. Did I mention I’m not an expert on the Australian Outback? Doesn’t matter to me; makes it even more interesting and surprising in some ways. Yeah, I’m seeing a pack of these dogs eating something on the ground. Looks like feathers, some kind of very big bird. I’m going to tell Rover to move in very slowly. This warrants video; I have enough allowance for some footage on this trip. Audio is good too. Can hear them yelping at each other as they compete for the best eating spots. After a while, they disperse into the darkness.

I should mention I really can’t go anywhere I want. The map has boundaries, I guess limited to where Robotic Explorations has worked out touring rights. If I try to go beyond the boundaries, the robot won’t let me. But it doesn’t matter, the area is bigger than what I could probably see in a year. Speaking of that, this tour route (the route of points to where I actually go) will be saved with my account. So if I do happen to want to come back here, I can overlay previous trips to revisit key pinned places or make sure I explore new areas.

I’m only a couple of hours into this trip but I can’t explain how cool it is to feel like I’m exploring this part of the world “on my own”. I should mention that Robotic Explorations has another option that is more expensive but sounds unbelievably cool. You can rent a rover that is also a docking station for a UAV drone. The drone uses the fuel powered rover as a charging station when it has to. Basically you can release the drone and get an aerial view (and photos and videos) from where you are. You control the altitude with the control panel and click the destination as well – just click on the map and the drone will go there. There is also a feature to track an object that the drone camera recognizes it. So the drone will follow your target with its camera if it moves. With one click you can return the drone to the docking station rover. I have also heard rumors of plans for submarine tours in the future. Going to start saving my pennies for the next trip.

So how should I answer all these “where ARE you??!!’ comments popping up in Facebook?

( 8^])X

Photos that were not purchased were taken from Wikimedia Commons and friends of mine kind enough to share.
Wireframe mockups were developed with