They ranged from funky robot pirates to sleek, sophisticated surgical devices and a robotic guide for the blind that could replace guide dogs. The Silicon Valley Robot Block Party on Wednesday afternoon featured more than 40 robots of every level of simplicity and complexity at Palo Alto law firm WilmerHale.
WilmerHale and Silicon Valley Robotics, an association that supports innovative robotic technologies, sponsored the April 9 event. The robot party is in its fifth year and attracted people of all ages, from school kids to investors.
The robot party gave inventors a chance to show off technologies for consumers, heavy industry, technology and medicine. On display were a driverless car, programmable lawnmower and gear to travel the surface of Mars.
In the consumer arena, Steve Castellotti demonstrated Puzzle Box's Orbit, a small helicopter that users can learn to operate through mind control. Users can boost their powers of concentration by focusing on images on their mobile device. Wearing a headset that communicates by BlueTooth, certain brain waves communicate with the helicopter, which can hover, spin and fly based on programmed instructions.
"With the brain-controlled helicopter, you can practice skills of concentration and mental relaxation," Castellotti said. Users can also steer the helicopter with a tablet computer.
Other consumer-oriented robots included the nifty Egg-Bot kit, which creates elaborate Faberge-style designs on eggs with a fine pen or wax stylus. The egg designs can be dyed multiple colors and create precise, intricate images and even writing as fine as the dot from an ink-jet printer.
Another robot, a programmable Bosch lawnmower, roamed the lawn Wednesday while a space rover from NASA easily climbed up steps and raced around the grass.
NASA Ames' Intelligent Robotics Group, which includes graduate engineering students from a variety of universities, showed off its latest prototypes for wheel-less land rover models. The flexible ball-like structures are collapsible and can carry a load of instruments in their center. Dropped from space to the surface of Mars, for example, the balls are capable of bouncing and rolling over the planet's tough terrain. Unlike wheeled vehicles, they won't snag and can reach previously inaccessible areas, Drew Sabelhaus said.
"It's cheaper to manufacture and it is its own airbag," Aliakbar Toghyan, a University of California, Berkeley, graduate student, said.
Sabelhaus demonstrated a caterpillar-like structure that is based on the human spine. It is remarkably flexible and also has tensile strength, enabling it to wriggle and bend over rocks, he said.
Industrial robots included a SRI-invented vertical climber that is used for bridge inspections. The device, which looks like a thin solar sheet on runners, can climb up overpasses to find flaws and damage by transmitting video images.
"It uses electrostatic adhesion," SRI's Alexander Huff said. It's the same principle as rubbing a balloon on your head and sticking it to a wall."
Alice Wu, a PhD candidate at Stanford University's Biomimetics and Dexterous Manipulation Laboratory, develops sensors that can be put on robot skins to sense pressure when visual inspection is not possible.
"It can sense to grab things with a certain amount of force," she said. The devices are being developed for use in Norway to do robotic oil drilling to detect if heavy pipes are slipping out of grippers.
"They use acoustic emissions sensors to detect slip," she explained.
This year's event was the first to be held off the Stanford campus. The university's Volkswagen Automation Innovation Lab hosted the previous four block parties. But the change of venue marks a step forward for robotics, Glenn Luinenburg, corporate partner at WilmerHale, said.
"It represents a real fundamental shift away from the research labs. Robots are moving out of the lab into commercialization," he said.
The law firm represents many early-stage start ups and emerging-stage companies in high tech. Though many of the firm's clients do work in artificial intelligence, no specific area of robotics is emerging at this point, he said.
"We're at the very early stage in the growth of robotics and artificial intelligence in the valley. There's tremendous opportunity for growth," he said.
The block party is one of the premier events of the fifth annual National Robotics Week, which runs from April 5 to 13. The week-long commemoration celebrates American robotics innovation and educates the public about the field as well as careers in robotics, science technology, engineering and math.