A friendly robotic arm plays tic-tac-toe to help rehabilitate patients

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel are building a tic-tac-toe game to help patients with their rehabilitation exercises. The game is played on a grid of boxes and includes “embodied” and non-embodied play. Embodied play means a robotic arm will grab and place a marker – in this case a small cup – and non-embodied play includes bright lights that light up to mark the computer’s spot.

The system uses a Kinova arm and cups. The cups are part of the rehabilitation process and help users learn to grasp and manipulate objects after an illness or accident.

“Playing Tic Tac Toe with a set of cups (instead of X’s and O’s) is one example of a game that can help rehabilitate an upper limb,” said Dr. Shelly Levy-Tzedek. “A person can pick up and place many cups while enjoying a game and improving their performance of a daily task.”

Interestingly the speed of the robot had an effect on the users. A slower robot would make users perform more slowly while a faster robot sped up the game. This could be used to modify the game for individual patients and individual needs. Because the robot never gets tired the rehabilitation staff can pay attention to the minute movements of a patient, catering the speed and type of play as appropriate for their specific rehabilitation regimens.

The research paper appeared in Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience.

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NASA’s InSight Mars lander will gaze (and drill) into the depths of the Red Planet

NASA’s latest mission to Mars, InSight, is set to launch early Saturday morning in pursuit of a number of historic firsts in space travel and planetology. The lander’s instruments will probe the surface of the planet and monitor its seismic activity with unprecedented precision, while a pair of diminutive CubeSats riding shotgun will test the viability of tiny spacecraft for interplanetary travel.

Saturday at 4:05 AM Pacific is the first launch opportunity, but if weather forbids it, they’ll just try again soon after — the chances of clouds sticking around all the way until June 8, when the launch window closes, are slim to none.

InSight isn’t just a pretty name they chose; it stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, at least after massaging the acronym a bit. Its array of instruments will teach us about the Martian interior, granting us insight (see what they did there?) into the past and present of Mars and the other rocky planets in the solar system, including Earth.

Bruce Banerdt, principal investigator for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has been pushing for this mission for more than two decades, after practically a lifetime working at the place.

“This is the only job I’ve ever had in my life other than working in the tire shop during the summertime,” he said in a recent NASA podcast. He’s worked on plenty of other missions, of course, but his dedication to this one has clearly paid off. It was actually originally scheduled to launch in 2016, but some trouble with an instrument meant they had to wait until the next launch window — now.

InSight is a lander in the style of Phoenix, about the size of a small car, and shot towards Mars faster than a speeding bullet. The launch is a first in itself: NASA has never launched an interplanetary mission from the West coast, but conditions aligned in this case, making California’s Vandenberg air base the best option. It doesn’t even require a gravity assist to get where it’s going.

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“Instead of having to go to Florida and using the Earth’s rotation to help slingshot us into orbit… We can blast our way straight out,” Banerdt said in the same podcast. “Plus we get to launch in a way that is gonna be visible to maybe 10 million people in Southern California because this rocket’s gonna go right by LA, right by San Diego. And if people are willing to get up at four o’clock in the morning, they should see a pretty cool light show that day.”

The Atlas V will take it up to orbit and the Centaur will give it its push towards Mars, after which it will cruise for six months or so, arriving late in the Martian afternoon on November 26 (Earth calendar).

Its landing will be as exciting (and terrifying) as Phoenix’s and many others. When it hits the Martian atmosphere, InSight will be going more than 13,000 MPH. It’ll slow down first using the atmosphere itself, losing 90 percent of its velocity as friction against a new, reinforced heat shield. A parachute takes off another 90 percent, but it’ll still be going more than 100 MPH, which would make for an uncomfortable landing. So a couple thousand feet up it will transition to landing jets that will let it touch down at a stately 5.4 MPH at the desired location and orientation.

After the dust has settled (literally) and the lander has confirmed everything is in working order, it will deploy its circular, fanlike solar arrays and get to work.

Robot arms and self-hammering robomoles

InSight’s mission is to get into the geology of Mars with more detail and depth than ever before. To that end it is packing gear for three major experiments.

SEIS is a collection of six seismic sensors (making the name a tidy bilingual, bidirectional pun) that will sit on the ground under what looks like a tiny Kingdome and monitor the slightest movement of the ground underneath. Tiny high-frequency vibrations or longer-period oscillations, they should all be detected.

“Seismology is the method that we’ve used to gain almost everything we know, all the basic information about the interior of the Earth, and we also used it back during the Apollo era to understand and to measure sort of the properties of the inside of the moon,” Banerdt said. “And so, we want to apply the same techniques but use the waves that are generated by Mars quakes, by meteorite impacts to probe deep into the interior of Mars all the way down to its core.”

The heat flow and physical properties probe is an interesting one. It will monitor the temperature of the planet below the surface continually for the duration of the mission — but in order to do so, of course, it has to dig its way down. For that purpose it’s installed with what the team calls a “self-hammering mechanical mole.” Pretty self-explanatory, right?

The “mole” is sort of like a hollow, inch-thick, 16-inch-long nail that will use a spring-loaded tungsten block inside itself to drive itself into the rock. It’s estimated that it will take somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000 strikes to get deep enough to escape the daily and seasonal temperature changes at the surface.

Lastly there’s the Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment, which actually doesn’t need a giant nail, a tiny Kingdome or anything like that. The experiment involves tracking the position of InSight with extreme precision as Mars rotates, using its radio connection with Earth. It can be located to within about four inches, which when you think about it is pretty unbelievable to begin with. The way that position varies may indicate a wobble in the planet’s rotation and consequently shed light on its internal composition. Combined with data from similar experiments in the ’70s and ’90s, it should let planetologists determine how molten the core is.

“In some ways, InSight is like a scientific time machine that will bring back information about the earliest stages of Mars’ formation 4.5 billion years ago,” said Banerdt in an earlier news release. “It will help us learn how rocky bodies form, including Earth, its moon, and even planets in other solar systems.”

In another space first, Insight has a robotic arm that will not just do things like grab rocks to look at, but will grab items from its own inventory and deploy them into its workspace. Its little fingers will grab handles on top of each deployable instrument and grab it just like a human might. Well, maybe a little differently, but the principle is the same. At nearly 8 feet long, it has a bit more reach than the average astronaut.

Cubes riding shotgun

One of the MarCO cubesats.

Insight is definitely the main payload, but it’s not the only one. Launching on the same rocket are two CubeSats, known collectively as Mars Cube One, or MarCO. These “briefcase-size” guys will separate from the rocket around the same time as InSight, but take slightly different trajectories. They don’t have the control to adjust their motion and enter an orbit, so they’ll just zoom by Mars right as Insight is landing.

CubeSats launch all the time, though, right? Sure — into Earth orbit. This will be the first attempt to send CubeSats to another planet. If successful there’s no limit to what could be accomplished — assuming you don’t need to pack anything bigger than a breadbox.

The spacecraft aren’t carrying any super-important experiments; there are two in case one fails, and both are only equipped with UHF antennas to send and receive data, and a couple of low-resolution visible-light cameras. The experiment here is really the CubeSats themselves and this launch technique. If they make it to Mars, they might be able to help send InSight’s signal home, and if they keep operating beyond that, it’s just icing on the cake.

You can follow along with InSight’s launch here; there’s also the traditional anthropomorphized Twitter account. We’ll post a link to the live stream as soon as it goes up.

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Watch these robotic soccer players play a nail-biter of a match

As a hater of all sports, I am particularly excited about the imminent replacement of humans with robots in soccer. If this exciting match, the Standard Platform League (SPL) final of the German Open featuring the Nao-Team HTWK vs. Nao Devils, is any indication, the future is going to be great.

The robots are all NAO robots by SoftBank and they are all designed according to the requirements of the Standard Platform League. The robots can run (sort of), kick (sort of), and lift themselves up if they fall. The 21 minute video is a bit of a slog and the spectators are definitely not drunk hooligans but darned if it isn’t great to see little robots hitting the turf to grab a ball before it hits the goal.

I, for one, welcome our soccer-playing robot overlords.

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LG adds more AI camera features and a notch for the G7 ThinQ

LG has done a really terrible job keeping the G7 ThinQ under wraps. But clearly the company doesn’t mind. Building up the hype cycle is clearly more important to the handset maker than any kind of big reveal. In addition to leaked images from nearly every angle, the company has already issued several official press releases ahead of today’s big unveil in New York.

As numerous photos have already suggested, LG’s the latest company to go all in on the notch. There’s a big one up top that will no doubt evoke Apple’s new flagship for many users — though the G7’s cutout is smaller than the iPhone’s, and the curved bottom bezel is a bit larger.

In a prebrief ahead of today’s announcement, a spokesperson for the company said LG anticipates that the notch will be a fact of life on high-end handsets for the next one and a half or two years, as phone makers work to figure out the ideal solution for going full screen. A display manufacturer itself, the company floated its own flexible display tech as a potential workable solution.

LG’s settling on this as the latest iteration of the “second screen” feature found on the V20. Here, however, that refers to FullVision — essentially an optional black bar that sits on either side of the notch, creating the appearance of a flush top bezel.

Notch aside, the screen is a 6.1-inch QHD+, which works pretty well in sunlight, courtesy of a boost button. LG’s also put some effort into the phone’s speakers, which, until recently, have been one of the most overlooked pieces of most phones. These get really loud — in a demo, we were able to hear music pretty clearly played across the room.

The real centerpiece is, as the name suggests, ThinQ. That’s the AI camera the company introduced at MWC with the latest iteration of the V30S. It’s a neat feature that’s some combination of flashy gimmick and genuinely useful feature. Essentially the system utilizes AI features to identify what it’s shooting and adjust accordingly. It also shows its work in the process, flashing seemingly random words on screen as it attempts to figure out what it’s looking at.

I didn’t get to spend much time with the device this time out, but it did a pretty admirable job figuring out when people were in the room. In all, the system has 18 shooting modes — around double the amount rolled out on the V30S. New additions include:

  • Baby
  • Pet (In addition to Animal)
  • Beverage
  • Snow
  • Sky

Of note is the low-light camera, which “increases the brightness of each shot.” It’s not really on the level of Huawei’s latest offering, and does appear to still include a fair amount of noise on dark shots, however. The handset also gets a Portrait Mode, which brings a familiar approximation of the bokeh effect, introducing blur in the background to help frame the subject. Like Samsung’s offering, the effect can be adjusted after the fact.

The handset has a devoted side button, dedicated to Google Assistant. LG has no plans to let users assign different features, but will do so if enough users request it. Built-in far-field voice technology also helps Assistant hear voices in a noisy setting.

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Smart dresser helps dementia sufferers put their clothes on right

It goes without saying that getting dressed is one of the most critical steps in our daily routine. But long practice has made it second nature, and people suffering from dementia may lose that familiarity, making dressing a difficult and frustrating process. This smart dresser from NYU is meant to help them through the process while reducing the load on overworked caregivers.

It may seem that replacing responsive human help with a robotic dresser is a bit insensitive. But not only are there rarely enough caregivers to help everyone in a timely manner at, say, a nursing care facility, the residents themselves might very well prefer the privacy and independence conferred by such a solution.

“Our goal is to provide assistance for people with dementia to help them age in place more gracefully, while ideally giving the caregiver a break as the person dresses – with the assurance that the system will alert them when the dressing process is completed or prompt them if intervention is needed,” explained the project’s leader, Winslow Burleson, in an NYU news release.

DRESS, as the team calls the device, is essentially a five-drawer dresser with a tablet on top that serves as both display and camera, monitoring and guiding the user through the dressing process.

There are lots of things that can go wrong when you’re putting on your clothes, and really only one way it can go right — shirts go on right side out and trousers forwards, socks on both feet, etc. That simplifies the problem for DRESS, which looks for tags attached to the clothes to make sure they’re on right and in order, making sure someone doesn’t attempt to put on their shoes before their trousers. Lights on each drawer signal the next item of clothing to don.

If there’s any problem — the person can’t figure something out, can’t find the right drawer or gets distracted, for instance — the caregiver is alerted and will come help. But if all goes right, the person will have dressed themselves all on their own, something that might not have been possible before.

DRESS is just a prototype right now, a proof of concept to demonstrate its utility. The team is looking into improving the vision system, standardizing clothing folding and enlarging or otherwise changing the coded tags on each item.

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Attack of the clones

Lego – or LEGO – is expensive and kids – my kids in particular – want a lot of it. Our basement looks like the returns department of a major toy store, covered from corner to corner with toys and, most notably, and endless minefield of little building blocks. And we enjoy building models and imaginative play and my youngest child, Guthrie, loves Star Wars. But all that quality plastic is expensive and the Star Wars kits are the most expensive of all. What are we to do? Add his favorites to holiday gift registries so his grandparents can buy it for him? Spend hundreds of dollars on ships that crash and leave a field of debris and minifigs for miles? Or do we turn to the Internet, that fount of all solace, and find Lepin.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away there were Lego knock-offs. The most popular come from a company called Lepin which I first learned about from this surprisingly complete review of the First Order Tie Fighter set. This video, which features a surprisingly thorough look at Lego vs. Lepin, was a family favorite for a while, taking precedence over the Star Wars trailers and Bad Lip Reading my kids usually watched. They were mesmerized by the slow and steady pace of the video and I was mesmerized by the thought that I could save some money on my Lego.

Before you get excited about the morality or legality of these knock offs understand that I well know that Lego deserves every penny they get. After building the Lepin set I began to better understand the care that goes into a good Lego set and the satisfaction of having a product that doesn’t fall apart mid-flight. That said, this was an experiment and it was truly to surprising to see such a complete and blatant copy of Lego’s kit come in a plain brown paper sack. Unlike other knock-offs I’ve seen – swap meet Louis and fake Rolexes, for example – the Lepin kit was a one-to-one copy of the original, albeit with a few major issues.

So I hit Alibaba and bought the Tie Fighter kit, a model that at once pushed all the right nostalgia buttons for me and the excitement buttons for my children and was sufficiently complex and expensive that we didn’t want to order the real model. I would build this Tie Fighter… for science.

The kit cost $48 with $12 shipping and arrived in two weeks. It came in a plain brown padded envelope with an instruction manual and little bags of pieces. The Lepin pieces aren’t organized in any discernible way although some of the larger pieces are stuck together in the same bag while smaller pieces are crammed inside multiple smaller bags. There is no bag order and the manual does not expect you to open any bag first. Basically your best bet is to dump out all the pieces and get building.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the pegs are completely smooth with a few indented where the injection mold went in. These blocks have no Lego branding and are instead disturbingly bare, as if someone had sandblasted away the logos on a real kit. The minifigs are also problematic. The faces and painting aren’t quite as crisp as Lego’s and the accessories – in this case a little hose connecting to the pilot’s helmet – was oddly connected to the helmet itself, a cost-saving measure that looks like it could snap off and get lost fairly easily.

Once you’ve organized your pieces you can begin assembling the kit. This is when you meet another cost-saving measure. The manual shows only the piece you just assembled in color. The rest of the pieces are greyed out. This means you don’t know what the kit is supposed to look like as it’s being built which makes it especially hard to assemble the internals. Further, the entire manual is chock full of steps. While the Lego kit paces you through each step, placing one or two steps on the page, this manual is chock full of them. It’s very easy to get lost.

We built this model in two days. My son was able to build quite a bit of it but I stepped in at the end because I liked the challenge and he got bored. Soon we discovered the fatal flaw in the Lepin system: the models don’t stick together.

My wife’s father used to make injection molded toys. He always speaks reverentially of Lego, repeating to us over and over that the company repeatedly destroys is plastic molds to make new ones, thereby ensuring that each piece is crisp, clean, and straight. The molds, you see, are the most expensive part of the process, costing tens of thousands of dollars to manufacture. To create new molds for something as complex as this is wildly costly but, as far as plastics lore goes, Lego is more than willing to spend that cash.

Lepin isn’t.

As you begin building you’ll find that some of the straight pieces curl up. The hinges don’t quite stick together. The big boards don’t quite match. As you build you find yourself wondering if the whole thing will hold and, in the end, it won’t. For example, this model uses four little U clamps that stick out on each side to connect to four bars embedded into the wings. These U clamps sometimes seem to click into place but when they don’t the wings fall off and break, requiring another ten minutes of rebuilding. These are not built for rough play – or any play at all – because even the hatch into which you slide your pilots will fall off if you close the door all the way. The tolerances – those sweet, Danish, Lego tolerances – are gone here, leaving behind something that is best displayed on a shelf.

If you or your kid are fine with having knock-off Lego on a high shelf where no one can get a better look at it then by all means pick up a model or two. But understand you will be disappointed. While this is a near exact clone of the original kit, the little differences add up to a mess. This Tie Fighter is currently next to our hermit crab cage, untouched, while Poe Dameron’s X-Wing is regularly strafing Storm Troopers and the rest of the Lego is being repurposed into bases, houses, and Minecraft adventures. The only toy that isn’t being played with is the Lepin kit.

That says a lot. Sure you can save money, but should you? Lego shouldn’t cost so much and our kids shouldn’t want so much of it but, in the end, aren’t we teaching them the value of tactile play, the power of building out of constituent parts. Further, I won’t begrudge a kid who wants to play with Lego the ability to build their own Tie Fighter if this is all they can afford. But, in the end, Lego wins in a head-to-head, minifig claws down.

Should you buy Lepin? The stalwart brand defender in me says no. However, if you’re looking to save a buck and want to give your kids the joy of building a knock-off – but not the joys of playing with it – then you can probably get away with this little bit of C-3PFaux. May the Force, as they say, be ever in your favor.

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This soft robotic arm is straight out of Big Hero 6 (it’s even from Disney)

The charming robot at the heart of Disney’s Big Hero 6, Baymax, isn’t exactly realistic, but its puffy bod is an (admittedly aspirational) example of the growing field of soft robotics. And now Disney itself has produced a soft robot arm that seems like it could be a prototype from the movie.

Created by Disney Research roboticists, the arm seems clearly inspired by Baymax, from the overstuffed style and delicate sausage fingers to the internal projector that can show status or information to nearby people.

“Where physical human-robot interaction is expected, robots should be compliant and reactive to avoid human injury and hardware damage,” the researchers write in the paper describing the system. “Our goal is the realization of a robot arm and hand system which can physically interact with humans and gently manipulate objects.”

The mechanical parts of the arm are ordinary enough — it has an elbow and wrist and can move around the way many other robot arms do, using the same servos and such.

But around the joints are what look like big pillows, which the researchers call “force sensing modules.” They’re filled with air and can detect pressure on them. This has the dual effect of protecting the servos from humans and vice versa, while also allowing natural tactile interactions.

“Distributing individual modules over the various links of a robot provides contact force sensing over a large area of the robot and allows for the implementation of spatially aware, engaging physical human-robot interactions,” they write. “The independent sensing areas also allow a human to communicate with the robot or guide its motions through touch.”

Like hugging, as one of the researchers demonstrates:

Presumably in this case the robot (also presuming the rest of the robot) would understand that it is being hugged, and reciprocate or otherwise respond.

The fingers are also soft and filled with air; they’re created in a 3D printer that can lay down both rigid and flexible materials. Pressure sensors within each inflatable finger let the robot know whether, for example, one fingertip is pressing too hard or bearing all the weight, signaling it to adjust its grip.

This is still very much a prototype; the sensors can’t detect the direction of a force yet, and the materials and construction aren’t airtight by design, meaning they have to be continuously pumped full. But it still shows what they want it to show: that a traditional “hard” robot can be retrofitted into a soft one with a bit of ingenuity. We’re still a long way from Baymax, but it’s more science than fiction now.

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MIST paints your walls so you don’t have to

If you’ve ever painted a room you know that getting every nook and cranny is pretty difficult and Tim Allen help you if you have hardwood or carpet. The tarp alone costs more than the paint. Now, thanks to MIST, your robot can manage the entire job, slapping paint up like a robotic Jackson Pollock.

The robot uses mapping technology and a sort of elevator-like neck to spray up and down walls. The team, which hails from the University of Waterloo, has finished their prototype and it’s called Maverick. The team has experience working at multiple big names including Apple and Facebook. It includes Shubham Aggarwal, Utkarsh Saini, Baraa Hamodi, Hammad Mirza, and Dhruv Sharma.

This is just the beginning for Maverick. The team plans on adding other features that make it easier to use.

“We actually plan on mounting a camera behind the sprayer so that it follows the sprayer up and down, and hence can use image processing to make decisions about whether to actuate the spray or not. We’ve already implemented this logic in software and even have a paint quality detection algorithm. That being said, we haven’t mounted the camera just yet as seen in this video,” the team said.

As you can see below the project involves a platform, arm, and spray system. The robot maps the room and then rolls around, hitting spots that are supposed to be painted and avoiding spots that aren’t. Obviously you’re going to want to tape up some spots but for the most part Maverick will blast your walls with a few layers of paint in the time it would take you to go down to the paint store.

I’ve reached out to the team for more information on their project but until then enjoy their jaunty video below. I, for one, welcome our robotic spraying overlords.

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Native Union’s new speaker strikes directly at my weakness for tasteful brass accents

Bluetooth and smart speakers are a dime a dozen these days, and many of them aren’t bad — so what it often comes down to is style. Native Union has my number with its latest device, which accentuates the classic bookcase speaker look with a tech-heavy back end and aluminum (but brassy aluminum) volume knob.

The PR/01 a collaboration with French audio outfit La Boite Concept (roughly, “concept box”), which presumably did the sound-specific portions of the speaker — that is to say, the speaker — while Native Union brought its understated design chops to the bargain.

My iPhone SE proudly wore a Native Union case for a year or so in handsome cherry and brass, though the plastic parts eventually broke down. This looks to be rather a more solid construction, but the design notes are the same: a focus on natural materials with slashes of metal.

Inside is the amplifier and guts, of course, and in back a drawer hides the many inputs: two 3.5mm jacks, two USB, one USB-C. I’m not sure how many of those you’ll end up using simultaneously, but it’s always nice to have options. Plus Bluetooth, of course. And there’s a spot to attach a wireless charger so you can just set your phone on top of the thing and get a boost.

Right now the speaker isn’t quite listed on Native Union’s site — it’s that fresh. Acquire apparently scooped the maker of the thing. I’ve asked for more details, and I’m sure it’ll be online soon. I know it’s coming because there’s a “speakers” nav on their site:

It’s a hell of a good looking thing, but you know it comes at a price — $799. Yes, and you’ll have to buy it at MOMA stores in New York. Really, now. Maybe I’ll wait for a sale.

Update: Native Union sent over some pictures and let me know that the PR/01 will be available in stores starting May 10, and will be listed on the website on May 15.

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Teradyne snatches up robot maker MiR in $272M deal

Teradyne, a prosaic-sounding but flush company that provides automated testing equipment for industrial applications, has acquired the Danish robotics company MiR for an eye-popping $148 million, with $124 million on the table after meeting performance goals.

MiR, which despite the lowercase “i” stands for Mobile Industrial Robots, does what you might guess. Founded in 2013, the company has grown steadily and had a huge 2017, tripling its revenues to $12 million after its latest robot, the MiR200, received high marks from customers.

MiR’s robots are of the warehouse sort, wheeled little autonomous fellows that can lift and pull pallets, boxes and so on. They look a bit like the little ones that are always underfoot in Star Wars movies. It’s a natural fit for Teradyne, especially with the latter’s recent purchase of the well-known Universal Robotics in a $350 million deal in 2015.

Testing loads of electronics and components may be a dry business, but it’s a booming one, because the companies that test faster ship faster. Anytime efficiencies can be made in the process, be it warehouse logistics or assisting expert humans in sensitive procedures, one can be sure a company will be willing to pay for them.

Teradyne also noted (the Robot Report points out) that both companies take a modern approach to robots and how they interact and must be trained by people — the old paradigm of robotics specialists having to carefully program these things doesn’t scale well, and both UR and MiR were forward-thinking enough to improve that pain point.

The plan is, of course, to take MiR’s successful technology global, hopefully recreating its success on a larger scale.

“My main focus is to get our mobile robots out to the entire world,” said MiR CSO and founder Niels Jul Jacobsen in the press release announcing the acquisition. “With Teradyne as the owner, we will have strong backing to ensure MiR’s continued growth in the global market.”

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