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GeekWire

Robot charging system wins Europe’s seal of approval

Two of the wireless charging systems made by Seattle-based WiBotic have won safety approvals in Europe, marking what the startup’s CEO calls a major milestone.

The chargers and transmitters now have CE Mark approval, which means they meet the safety, health and environmental protection requirements for the European Economic Area. What’s more, the systems have been found to comply with the International Electrotechnical Commission’s directives for the European Union and Canada’s CSA Group standards organization.

“We also recently completed FCC approval in the U.S., so our systems are compliant with reputable regulatory agencies within many countries around the world,” WiBotic CEO Ben Waters said today in a news release. “This, in turn, opens several exciting partnership and deployment opportunities for us across Europe, Canada and beyond.”

WiBotic, which was spun out from the University of Washington in 2015, has developed battery charging systems that can power up autonomous drones as well as robots on land or sea wirelessly, without human intervention. The company’s power management software, known as Commander, can work with the hardware to optimize battery use for an entire fleet of robots.

There’s even a project aimed at charging up future robots on the moon.

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Fiction Science Club

‘Machinehood’ casts humanhood in a new light

S.B. Divya has been thinking about the technologies of the future for so long, it’s hard for her to imagine living in the present.

Her debut novel, “Machinehood,” stars a super-soldier with body enhancements who packs it in to become a bodyguard for celebrities — but becomes enmeshed in an action-packed race to save the world.

Technologies ranging from human enhancement to do-it-yourself biohacking play supporting roles in Divya’s tale of 2095. And oh, if only some of those technologies were available in 2021…

“There are definitely days where I came out of the writing, and looked around and realized that I was back in the real world — and was occasionally sad about it, because there are really useful things in ‘Machinehood’ that I wish we had today,” Divya says in the latest episode of our Fiction Science podcast.

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GeekWire

This software takes charge of charging up robots

It’s hard enough to remember to keep your smartphone charged up, so can you imagine how much harder it’d be to track the charging status of dozens of drones or robots? Now WiBotic has an app for that: a software platform that manages the battery-charging routines for mobile devices that use its wireless charging system.

Today the seven-year-old Seattle startup unveiled its first software product, an energy management package called Commander.

“Commander was developed mostly through listening and learning from our customers who were building robots, and then deploying robots, and then deploying fleets,” said Ben Waters, the company’s CEO and co-founder.

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GeekWire

Sex robots and seniors: A match made in AI heaven?

Are sex robots just what the doctor ordered for the over-65 set?

In a newly published research paper, a bioethicist at the University of Washington argues that older people, particularly those who are disabled or socially isolated, are an overlooked market for intimate robotic companionship — and that there shouldn’t be any shame over seeking it out.

To argue otherwise would be a form of ageism, says Nancy Jecker, a professor of bioethics and humanities at the UW School of Medicine.

“Designing and marketing sex robots for older, disabled people would represent a sea change from current practice,” she said today in a news release. “The reason to do it is to support human dignity and to take seriously the claims of those whose sexuality is diminished by disability or isolation. Society needs to make reasonable efforts to help them.”

Jecker’s argument, laid out in the Journal of Medical Ethics, reawakens a debate that has raged at least since a bosomy robot made her debut in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, “Metropolis.” In a 2007 book titled “Love and Sex With Robots,” computer chess pioneer David Levy argued that robot sex would become routine by 2050.

Over the past decade or so, the sex robot trade has advanced somewhat, with computerized dolls that would typically appeal to randy guys. At the same time, researchers have acknowledged that the world’s growing over-65 population may well need to turn to robotic caregivers and companions, due to demographic trends.

Jecker says sex should be part of the equation for those robots — especially when human-to-human sex is more difficult due to disabilities, or the mere fact that an older person’s parts don’t work as well as they once did. Manufacturers should think about tailoring robot partners for an older person’s tastes, she says.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

WiBotic raises $5.7M for wireless charging systems

Robot and WiBotic charger
WiBotic’s system is designed to charge up robots wirelessly. (WiBotic Photo)

Seattle-based Wibotic says it’s secured $5.7 million in fresh investment to ramp up development of its wireless charging and power optimization systems, five years after being spun out from the University of Washington.

“We’re heading into our toddler phase here,” WiBotic CEO Ben Waters joked during an interview with GeekWire.

Investors in the Series A funding round include Junson Capital, SV Tech Ventures, Rolling Bay Ventures, Aves Capital, The W Fund and WRF. The latest round brings WiBotic’s total investment to nearly $9 million.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

How Amazon robotics team is tackling virus

Amazon drone
Amazon’s robotics group is developing Prime Air drones that can deliver packages, but it’s also working on projects aimed at coping with the coronavirus outbreak. (Amazon Photo / Jordan Stead)

For years, Amazon Prime Air has been working on drones that can deliver packages to customers, but now it’s also working on projects to help Amazon itself deal with the coronavirus outbreak.

Brad Porter, vice president of robotics at Amazon, hinted Prime Air’s role this week in a LinkedIn posting he wrote in response to the resignation of fellow VP Tim Bray.

Bray said he quit to protest the firings of whistleblowers sounding the alarm about COVID-19 risks. (The controversy is continuing, with nine U.S. senators asking Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for more information about the firings.)

In his LinkedIn posting, Porter insisted that worker safety was a high priority at Amazon, and mentioned the efforts that his group has been making.

“We are working hard to develop and deploy additional processes and technology for a range of measures – from social distancing to contact tracing,” Porter wrote. “We are developing mobile ultraviolet sanitation. My Prime Air drones and robotics group has become an R&D lab for COVID innovation that I can’t wait to share with you. Today I reviewed a list of 72 new ideas for improvements we can make.”

We’re hearing that further information about those ideas will be coming out soon. In the meantime, Business Insider is reporting that one of Prime Air’s projects is using lab space and equipment to produce protective plastic face shields for its warehouse workers and local hospitals.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Update: ’60 Minutes’ shows Amazon’s virus-killing robot

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GeekWire

DARPA lets robots take over nuclear plant

DARPA Subterranean Challenge
 CSIRO Data61’s Brett Wood, checks the team’s Titan robot and piggyback drone just before a robot run in the Urban Circuit of DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

SATSOP, Wash. — Amid the ruins of what was meant to be a nuclear power plant, a robot catches a whiff of carbon dioxide — and hundreds of feet away, its master perks up his ears.

“I think I’ve got gas sensing,” Fletcher Talbot, the designated human operator for Team CSIRO Data61 in DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge, told teammates who were bunkered with him in the bowels of the Satsop nuclear reactor site near Elma.

Moments after Talbot fed the coordinates into a computer, a point appeared on the video scoreboard mounted on a wall of the bunker. “Hey, nice,” one member of the team said, and the whole squad broke into a short burst of applause.

Then it was back to the hunt.

The robot’s discovery marked one small step in the Subterranean Challenge, a multimillion-dollar competition aimed at promoting the development of autonomous robots to seek out and identify victims amid the rubble of an urban disaster area, or hazards hidden in the alleys of a hostile cityscape.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

AI2 sets up robo-challenge in virtual and real rooms

RoboTHOR Challenge
The RoboTHOR 2020 Challenge will test how well computer models for visual identification and navigation translate into real-world robotic performance. (AI2 Illustration / Winson Han)

Computer vision and navigation have improved by leaps and bounds, thanks to artificial intelligence, but how well do the computer models work in the real world?

That’s the challenge that Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence is setting for AI researchers over the next few months, with geek fame and glory as the prize.

AI2’s RoboTHOR Challenge, which kicks off today, capitalizes on years of work that’s been done to train AI agents in synthetic environments.

Ani Kembhavi, a research scientist at AI2, says RoboTHOR focuses on the next step. “If you can train a deep-learning, computer vision model to do something in an embodied environment … how well would this model work when deployed in an actual robot?” he told GeekWire.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Amazon patents ‘Doctor Who’ delivery robots

Storage compartment vehicle
A diagram from Amazon’s patent application shows a customer issuing a command to open up one of the doors on a storage compartment vehicle. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Amazon is already testing robots that deliver packages, but a newly issued patent covers a far more ambitious scheme, involving storage compartment vehicles that can roam the sidewalks to make multiple deliveries along their routes.

As described in the patent application published today, Amazon’s proposed SCVs could pick up items for return as well.

If the plan is fully implemented, it could address the “last mile” or “final 50 feet” challenge for delivery systems by having customers come out to the sidewalk, tap the required security code on their smartphones, and open up the right doors to grab the items they’ve ordered.

There’s no guarantee that we’ll see treaded SCVs roaming the street anytime soon. Amazon says its patent applications explore the full possibilities of new technologies — but those inventions don’t always get turned into new products and services as described in the applications. Sometimes the inventions never see the light of day. (Just ask Jeff Bezos about the airbag-cushioned smartphone he invented.)

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

ANA Avatar XPRIZE teams go to the next level

Avatar at work
The ANA Avatar XPRIZE aims to encourage the development of devices that will allow travelers to experience remote locales virtually. (ANA Avatar XPRIZE via YouTube)

Seventy-seven teams from 19 countries around the globe have qualified to participate in the $10 million ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition, which aims to promote the development of robotic systems that let travelers connect with far-flung locales virtually.

The roster of competitors includes 27 teams from the United States, ranging from Boston University’s Robotics and Ambient Intelligence Labs to Virtual Vegas.

There are teams from international robotic hot spots such as Japan and South Korea as well as from emerging tech frontiers such as Brazil and Jordan.

“The incredible geographical diversity represented by the 77 teams moving forward will provide the unique perspectives necessary to develop transformative avatar technology capable of transcending physical limitations and expanding the capacity of humankind itself,” David Locke, prize director at the Los Angeles-based XPRIZE founation, said today in a news release.

With Japan’s All Nippon Airways as the title sponsor, the ANA Avatar XPRIZE will challenge teams to come up with physical, non-autonomous robotic avatar systems that enable a human operator to see, hear and interact with a remote environment in real time.

Get the full story on GeekWire.