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IEEE Spectrum
  • 13 Sep 2019

    Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

    IEEE Africon 2019 – September 25-27, 2019 – Accra, Ghana
    RoboBusiness 2019 – October 1-3, 2019 – Santa Clara, CA, USA
    ISRR 2019 – October 6-10, 2019 – Hanoi, Vietnam
    Ro-Man 2019 – October 14-18, 2019 – New Delhi, India
    Humanoids 2019 – October 15-17, 2019 – Toronto, Canada
    ARSO 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Beijing, China
    ROSCon 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Macau
    IROS 2019 – November 4-8, 2019 – Macau

    Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.


    Team PLUTO (University of Pennsylvania, Ghost Robotics, and Exyn Technologies) put together this video giving us a robot’s-eye-view (or whatever they happen to be using for eyes) of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge tunnel circuits.

    [ PLUTO ]


    Zhifeng Huang has been improving his jet-stepping humanoid robot, which features new hardware and the ability to take larger and more complex steps.

    This video reported the last progress of an ongoing project utilizing ducted-fan propulsion system to improve humanoid robot’s ability in stepping over large ditches. The landing point of the robot’s swing foot can be not only forward but also side direction. With keeping quasi-static balance, the robot was able to step over a ditch with 450mm in width (up to 97% of the robot’s leg’s length) in 3D stepping.

    [ Paper ]

    Thanks Zhifeng!


    These underacuated hands from Matei Ciocarlie’s lab at Columbia are magically able to reconfigure themselves to grasp different object types with just one or two motors.

    [ Paper ] via [ ROAM Lab ]


    This is one reason we should pursue not “autonomous cars” but “fully autonomous cars” that never require humans to take over. We can’t be trusted.

    During our early days as the Google self-driving car project, we invited some employees to test our vehicles on their commutes and weekend trips. What we were testing at the time was similar to the highway driver assist features that are now available on cars today, where the car takes over the boring parts of the driving, but if something outside its ability occurs, the driver has to take over immediately.

    What we saw was that our testers put too much trust in that technology. They were doing things like texting, applying makeup, and even falling asleep that made it clear they would not be ready to take over driving if the vehicle asked them to. This is why we believe that nothing short of full autonomy will do.

    [ Waymo ]


    Buddy is a DIY and fetchingly minimalist social robot (of sorts) that will be coming to Kickstarter this month.

    We have created a new arduino kit. His name is Buddy. He is a DIY social robot to serve as a replacement for Jibo, Cozmo, or any of the other bots that are no longer available. Fully 3D printed and supported he adds much more to our series of Arduino STEM robotics kits.

    Buddy is able to look around and map his surroundings and react to changes within them. He can be surprised and he will always have a unique reaction to changes. The kit can be built very easily in less than an hour. It is even robust enough to take the abuse that kids can give it in a classroom.

    [ Littlebots ]


    The android Mindar, based on the Buddhist deity of mercy, preaches sermons at Kodaiji temple in Kyoto, and its human colleagues predict that with artificial intelligence it could one day acquire unlimited wisdom. Developed at a cost of almost $1 million (¥106 million) in a joint project between the Zen temple and robotics professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, the robot teaches about compassion and the dangers of desire, anger and ego.

    [ Japan Times ]


    I’m not sure whether it’s the sound or what, but this thing scares me for some reason.

    [ BIRL ]


    This gripper uses magnets as a sort of adjustable spring for dynamic stiffness control, which seems pretty clever.

    [ Buffalo ]


    What a package of medicine sees while being flown by drone from a hospital to a remote clinic in the Dominican Republic. The drone flew 11 km horizontally and 800 meters vertically, and I can’t even imagine what it would take to make that drive.

    [ WeRobotics ]


    My first ride in a fully autonomous car was at Stanford in 2009. I vividly remember getting in the back seat of a descendant of Junior, and watching the steering wheel turn by itself as the car executed a perfect parking maneuver. Ten years later, it’s still fun to watch other people have that experience.

    [ Waymo ]


    Flirtey, the pioneer of the commercial drone delivery industry, has unveiled the much-anticipated first video of its next-generation delivery drone, the Flirtey Eagle. The aircraft designer and manufacturer also unveiled the Flirtey Portal, a sophisticated take off and landing platform that enables scalable store-to-door operations; and an autonomous software platform that enables drones to deliver safely to homes.

    [ Flirtey ]


    EPFL scientists are developing new approaches for improved control of robotic hands – in particular for amputees – that combines individual finger control and automation for improved grasping and manipulation. This interdisciplinary proof-of-concept between neuroengineering and robotics was successfully tested on three amputees and seven healthy subjects.

    [ EPFL ]


    This video is a few years old, but we’ll take any excuse to watch the majestic sage-grouse be majestic in all their majesticness.

    [ UC Davis ]


    I like the idea of a game of soccer (or, football to you weirdos in the rest of the world) where the ball has a mind of its own.

    [ Sphero ]


    Looks like the whole delivery glider idea is really taking off! Or, you know, not taking off.

    Weird that they didn’t show the landing, because it sure looked like it was going to plow into the side of the hill at full speed.

    [ Yates ] via [ sUAS News ]


    This video is from a 2018 paper, but it’s not like we ever get tired of seeing quadrupeds do stuff, right?

    [ MIT ]


    Founder and Head of Product, Ian Bernstein, and Head of Engineering, Morgan Bell, have been involved in the Misty project for years and they have learned a thing or two about building robots. Hear how and why Misty evolved into a robot development platform, learn what some of the earliest prototypes did (and why they didn’t work for what we envision), and take a deep dive into the technology decisions that form the Misty II platform.

    [ Misty Robotics ]


    Lex Fridman interviews Vijay Kumar on the Artifiical Intelligence Podcast.

    [ AI Podcast ]


    This week’s CMU RI Seminar is from Ross Knepper at Cornell, on Formalizing Teamwork in Human-Robot Interaction.

    Robots out in the world today work for people but not with people. Before robots can work closely with ordinary people as part of a human-robot team in a home or office setting, robots need the ability to acquire a new mix of functional and social skills. Working with people requires a shared understanding of the task, capabilities, intentions, and background knowledge. For robots to act jointly as part of a team with people, they must engage in collaborative planning, which involves forming a consensus through an exchange of information about goals, capabilities, and partial plans. Often, much of this information is conveyed through implicit communication. In this talk, I formalize components of teamwork involving collaboration, communication, and representation. I illustrate how these concepts interact in the application of social navigation, which I argue is a first-class example of teamwork. In this setting, participants must avoid collision by legibly conveying intended passing sides via nonverbal cues like path shape. A topological representation using the braid groups enables the robot to reason about a small enumerable set of passing outcomes. I show how implicit communication of topological group plans achieves rapid covergence to a group consensus, and how a robot in the group can deliberately influence the ultimate outcome to maximize joint performance, yielding pedestrian comfort with the robot.

    [ CMU RI ]


    In this week’s episode of Robots in Depth, Per speaks with Julien Bourgeois about Claytronics, a project from Carnegie Mellon and Intel to develop "programmable matter."

    Julien started out as a computer scientist. He was always interested in robotics privately but then had the opportunity to get into micro robots when his lab was merged into the FEMTO-ST Institute. He later worked with Seth Copen Goldstein at Carnegie Mellon on the Claytronics project.

    Julien shows an enlarged mock-up of the small robots that make up programmable matter, catoms, and speaks about how they are designed. Currently he is working on a unit that is one centimeter in diameter and he shows us the very small CPU that goes into that model.

    [ Robots in Depth ]


  • 12 Sep 2019

    At ICRA 2015, the Aerial Robotics Lab at the Imperial College London presented a concept for a multimodal flying swimming robot called AquaMAV. The really difficult thing about a flying and swimming robot isn’t so much the transition from the first to the second, since you can manage that even if your robot is completely dead (thanks to gravity), but rather the other way: going from water to air, ideally in a stable and repetitive way. The AquaMAV concept solved this by basically just applying as much concentrated power as possible to the problem, using a jet thruster to hurl the robot out of the water with quite a bit of velocity to spare.

    In a paper appearing in Science Robotics this week, the roboticists behind AquaMAV present a fully operational robot that uses a solid-fuel powered chemical reaction to generate an explosion that powers the robot into the air.

    The 2015 version of AquaMAV, which was mostly just some very vintage-looking computer renderings and a little bit of hardware, used a small cylinder of CO2 to power its water jet thruster. This worked pretty well, but the mass and complexity of the storage and release mechanism for the compressed gas wasn’t all that practical for a flying robot designed for long-term autonomy. It’s a familiar challenge, especially for pneumatically powered soft robots—how do you efficiently generate gas on-demand, especially if you need a lot of pressure all at once?

    An explosion propels the drone out of the water

    There’s one obvious way of generating large amounts of pressurized gas all at once, and that’s explosions. We’ve seen robots use explosive thrust for mobility before, at a variety of scales, and it’s very effective as long as you can both properly harness the explosion and generate the fuel with a minimum of fuss, and this latest version of AquaMAV manages to do both:

    The water jet coming out the back of this robot aircraft is being propelled by a gas explosion. The gas comes from the reaction between a little bit of calcium carbide powder stored inside the robot, and water. Water is mixed with the powder one drop at a time, producing acetylene gas, which gets piped into a combustion chamber along with air and water. When ignited, the acetylene air mixture explodes, forcing the water out of the combustion chamber and providing up to 51 N of thrust, which is enough to launch the 160-gram robot 26 meters up and over the water at 11 m/s. It takes just 50 mg of calcium carbide (mixed with 3 drops of water) to generate enough acetylene for each explosion, and both air and water are of course readily available. With 0.2 g of calcium carbide powder on board, the robot has enough fuel for multiple jumps, and the jump is powerful enough that the robot can get airborne even under fairly aggressive sea conditions.

    Next step: getting the robot to fly autonomously

    Providing adequate thrust is just one problem that needs to be solved when attempting to conquer the water-air transition with a fixed-wing robot. The overall design of the robot itself is a challenge as well, because the optimal design and balance for the robot is quite different in each phase of operation, as the paper describes:

    For the vehicle to fly in a stable manner during the jetting phase, the center of mass must be a significant distance in front of the center of pressure of the vehicle. However, to maintain a stable floating position on the water surface and the desired angle during jetting, the center of mass must be located behind the center of buoyancy. For the gliding phase, a fine balance between the center of mass and the center of pressure must be struck to achieve static longitudinal flight stability passively. During gliding, the center of mass should be slightly forward from the wing’s center of pressure. 

    The current version is mostly optimized for the jetting phase of flight, and doesn’t have any active flight control surfaces yet, but the researchers are optimistic that if they added some they’d have no problem getting the robot to fly autonomously. It’s just a glider at the moment, but a low-power propeller is the obvious step after that, and to get really fancy, a switchable gearbox could enable efficient movement on water as well as in the air. Long-term, the idea is that robots like these would be useful for tasks like autonomous water sampling over large areas, but I’d personally be satisfied with a remote controlled version that I could take to the beach.

    “Consecutive aquatic jump-gliding with water-reactive fuel,” by R. Zufferey, A. Ortega Ancel, A. Farinha, R. Siddall, S. F. Armanini, M. Nasr, R. V. Brahmal, G. Kennedy, and M. Kovac from Imperial College in London, is published in the current issue of Science Robotics.

  • 10 Sep 2019

    Drones may soon carry electronic license plates, thanks to new guidelines for a remote ID system for unmanned aircraft recently submitted for approval.

    The newly proposed standard, ASTM WK65041, sets up guidelines for how drones can identify themselves to remote observers, as well as for how to set up systems to read that data. Developed with input from civil aviation authorities such as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Transport Canada, as well as leaders in the drone industry, the would be standard was submitted to global standards organization ASTM International (originally the American Society for Testing and Materials) on 5 September and will be out for ballot on 9 September.

    “We’re working with a lot of drone manufacturers on this standard—DJI, for instance,” says Philip Kenul, chairman of ASTM International’s Committee F38 on Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which helped develop the newly proposed standard. “Many other companies are working with us as well, such as Google Wing and Amazon, and will comply with the standard.”

    The standard’s developers envision drones continuously broadcasting ID data via WiFi or Bluetooth as part of the messages such technologies normally transmit to allow other devices to discover and link with the broadcasting device. These ID signals are readable from a distance of 350 to 450 meters.

    “Intel has done studies showing that when Bluetooth 5 comes out, we could expect a range of up to a kilometer,” Kenul says.

    Apps on smartphones or other devices can then connect to the Internet to look up data on the drone. The public will likely only be able to read the drone's ID number, which might be the drone's serial number, or a registration number from the FAA or other civil aviation authorities. Law enforcement can get more information about the drone from its ID data, such as its latitude, longitude, altitude, speed, direction, and takeoff point, plus its owner and operator data, and the stated purpose of the flight.

    “You can just take a phone, point it up at a drone and get its electronic ID if you see it doing something dangerous. [And you can report it] just like reporting a car’s license plate number,” Kenul says.

    The drone can also be identified if it is connected to the Internet—say, over a cellular link through its operator. This option can prove helpful if an observer does not have the remote ID app, if the drone is out of range or moving too quickly for the app to acquire its Bluetooth or WiFi signals, or if high humidity in the air is degrading the Bluetooth or WiFi signals.

    New drones can come automatically outfitted with such electronic license plates. Old drones can be retrofitted with ID chips that would plug into their USB ports and might cost $7 to $12, Kenul says. When it comes to radio-controlled model aircraft, the remote pilots of these vehicles can use a smartphone app to report the ID of the aircraft and the location and time of operation to remote ID authorities.

    Remote ID systems are key to the development of a UAS traffic management (UTM) system, Kenul says. “Everyone knows UTM is important for drone applications, from package delivery to medical delivery, to urban area inspections, to operations after a hurricane,” he notes. “Remote ID is the first building block for UTM.”

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