News briefs for the week take a look at data-tracking penguins in Antarctica, how to “easily” hack hospital service robots, giant Gundam robot finally getting a real job, mobile robots filling in at skilled job vacancies, and AI & robots teaming up for new drug discovery.
ECHO, research buddy at negative 49C
To study the Emperor penguins of Atka Bay, Antarctica, offers insights into the ecological changes—especially with global warming—taking place in the greater Southern Oceans.
Currently, a small number of randomly selected penguins from a colony of 20,000 are tagged with a Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) and Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) system. The only way to retrieve the data from those tags is by getting close enough to the birds to rescan the device, which means wading into the colony (as penguins scatter in fear) to get near enough to recover data.
Enter ECHO, the newly-arrived 4-wheel robot helper or UGV (unmanned ground vehicle), is equipped with an automatic data-downloading terminal. Mounted with wireless data-receivers, the ECHO UGV (for the next five years) will automatically retrieve oceanographic data from equipped birds. ECHO spots a tagged penguin and moves into the colony to collect data to send it on to waiting researchers. Remarkably, the penguins, at first curious about ECHO, have now accepted the new UGV resident.
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Marine Animal Remote Sensing Lab
Hospital service robots vulnerable to malicious hackers
Cynerio, a New York City-based cybersecurity startup, which specializes in securing hospital healthcare systems, accidentally discovered vulnerabilities in service robots that malicious hackers could use to “easily” hijack the robots.
The service robots were the kind used to transport medical supplies and other hospital goods throughout the hospital, specifically Aethon’s TUG robots. The bugs were not found in the robots themselves but rather in the servers that were used to communicate with and control the robots as they travelled the hallways.
In all, five vulnerabilities were found, which, collectively, were named the JekyllBot:5. The bugs range from the kind that allowed hackers to create new users with high-level access the robots to others whereby the robots could be remotely controlled, allowing access to restricted areas of the hospital as well as using the robot’s in-built camera.
Asher Brass, the lead researcher in detecting the bugs, said that the bugs could have been created easily, even by individuals with little knowledge of or “very low skill set for exploitation.”
Cynerio said that hospitals with Internet connections as well as a local network were most vulnerable because, ultimately, anyone could trigger the vulnerabilities anywhere on the Internet.
The susceptible local networks have since been safely patched for the JekyllBot:5, however, say the experts, hacking service robots is a relatively new malicious trend that needs constant vigilance.
Giant Robot Finally Finds a Job!
Until now, monster-size Gundam robots have been built mostly for show, without much utility or function. Based on Yoshiyuki Tomino’s fictional manned robot (mecha), from (1979) anime TV series Mobile Suit Gundam, the latest was a 59-foot replica built at the Gundam Factory in Yokohama, Japan (2020).
West Japan Rail Co., partnering with Gundam-roboticist, Dr. Katsuya Kanaoka of Human Machinery Co., together with Nippon Signal Co., have built a 32-foot (9.7 meters) high Gundam-style robot to work dangerous jobs, like fixing and maintaining power lines on the railroad’s overhead wires as well as to do heavy lifting around the train yard.
Sitting atop a specially designed railway flatbed (see video), the giant robot is piloted by an operator using a VR headset and hand controls.
The pilot’s VR goggles are motion-tracked to the robot’s head where a stereo vision camera is mounted. “Gripping a pair of handles, the pilot is able to move the robot’s arms and hands—and if an external force like a weight moves the robot’s arms, this motion is reflected back to the pilot’s controls.”
According to West Japan Rail: The key objectives are “to improve productivity and safety, enabling workers to lift and naturally manipulate heavy equipment around the rail system without exposing them to the risk of electric shocks or falling.”
Mobile robots as fire fighters and first responders
Along with the tens of thousands of worker shortages generally, the ranks of specialized fire fighters and first responders jobs have also suffered post-COVID.
“Not to diminish it, but a restaurant worker shortage shuts down a restaurant for a day,” said Lt. Brian Bittner with the Mentor Fire Department. “A firehouse shut down for a day can mean a delayed response time, can mean someone’s outcome from a medical emergency or a fire doesn’t go as well as it could have if we had proper staffing for that day.”
LeoTronics, a new startup developer (founded in 2020) of mobile robots in Slovakia, has developed a mobile solution set of tracked and wheeled tech gear for firefighting, first aid, hospital/medical, and policing.
The company’s website touts an array of proprietary technologies and in-house expertise like mechatronics, electronics, artificial intelligence/neural networks, autonomous navigation, and research in human-machine interaction that are built into its mobile robots, making them adaptable for multiple solutions.
For example, LeoTronics’ Trackreiter system (see photo), the company claims, is adaptable for fire and rescue services, security, maintenance, agriculture, and dangerous industries (e.g., removing land mines).
Adaptable, multipurpose mobile robots have advantages over purpose-built machines that the startup is hoping will be a market differentiator for LeoTronics.
AI & robot team discover novel spinal cord therapy
The elusive dream of spinal cord injuries is to somehow regenerate or rejoin severed spinal cords. Progress has been agonizingly slow.
However, a biomedical engineering team at Rutgers School of Engineering, New Brunswick, NJ, utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) and robots offers up a unique breakthrough. “The team’s ground-breaking stabilization of the enzyme Chondroitinase ABC, (ChABC) offers new hope for patients coping with spinal cord injuries.”
Adam Gormley, chief investigator in the project, said: “This study represents one of the first times artificial intelligence and robotics have been used to formulate highly sensitive therapeutic proteins and extend their activity by such a large amount. It’s a major scientific achievement.” The results of the team’s work were recently published in Advanced Healthcare Materials.
The ChABC enzyme, is known to degrade scar tissue molecules and promote tissue regeneration, yet it is highly unstable at the human body temperature of 98.6° F. and loses all activity within a few hours.
The bio team needed synthetic copolymers to wrap around the ChABC enzyme to stabilize it long enough for it to work on the severed spinal cord.
But which copolymers to use?
In an AI-driven approach, the AI selected the potential copolymers and then a liquid-handling robot speedily ran the synthesis tests. One copolymer combination produced a success: It retained 30% of its enzyme regeneration capability for up to one week, a promising result for patients seeking care for spinal cord injuries.