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“3D map data is the scaffolding of the 21st century.”
–Edward Miller, Founder, Scape Technologies, UK
Covered in cameras, sensors, and a distinctly spaceship looking laser system, Google’s autonomous vehicles were easy to spot when they first hit public roads in 2015. The key hardware ingredient is a spinning laser fixed to the roof, called lidar, which provides the car with a pair of eyes to see the world. Lidar works by sending out beams of light and measuring the time it takes to bounce off objects back to the source. By timing the light’s journey, these depth-sensing systems construct fully 3D maps of their surroundings.
3D maps like these are essentially software copies of the real world. They will be crucial to the development of a wide range of emerging technologies including autonomous driving, drone delivery, robotics, and a fast-approaching future filled with augmented reality.
Like other rapidly improving technologies, lidar is moving quickly through its development cycle. What was an expensive technology on the roof of a well-funded research project is now becoming cheaper, more capable, and readily available to consumers. At some point, lidar will come standard on most mobile devices and is now available to early-adopting owners of the iPhone 12 Pro.
Consumer lidar represents the inevitable shift from wealthy tech companies generating our world’s map data, to a more scalable crowd-sourced approach. To develop the repository for their Street View Maps product, Google reportedly spent $1-2 billion sending cars across continents photographing every street. Compare that to a live-mapping service like Waze, which uses crowd-sourced user data from its millions of users to generate accurate and real-time traffic conditions. Though these maps serve different functions, one is a static, expensive, unchanging map of the world while the other is dynamic, real-time, and constructed by users themselves.
Soon millions of people may be scanning everything from bedrooms to neighborhoods, resulting in 3D maps of significant quality. An online search for lidar room scans demonstrates just how richly textured these three-dimensional maps are compared to anything we’ve had before. With lidar and other depth-sensing systems, we now have the tools to create exact software copies of everywhere and everything on earth.
At some point, likely aided by crowdsourcing initiatives, these maps will become living breathing, real-time representations of the world. Some refer to this idea as a “digital twin” of the planet. In a feature cover story, Kevin Kelly, the cofounder of Wired magazine, calls this concept the “mirrorworld,” a one-to-one software map of everything.
So why is that such a big deal? Take augmented reality as an example.
Of all the emerging industries dependent on such a map, none are more invested in seeing this concept emerge than those within the AR landscape. Apple, for example, is not-so-secretly developing a pair of AR glasses, which they hope will deliver a mainstream turning point for the technology.
For Apple’s AR devices to work as anticipated, they will require virtual maps of the world, a concept AR insiders call the “AR cloud,” which is synonymous with the “mirrorworld” concept. These maps will be two things. First, they will be a tool that creators use to place AR content in very specific locations; like a world canvas to paint on. Second, they will help AR devices both locate and understand the world around them so they can render content in a believable way.
Imagine walking down a street wanting to check the trading hours of a local business. Instead of pulling out your phone to do a tedious search online, you conduct the equivalent of a visual google search simply by gazing at the store. Albeit a trivial example, the AR cloud represents an entirely non-trivial new way of managing how we organize the world’s information. Access to knowledge can be shifted away from the faraway monitors in our pocket, to its relevant real-world location.
Ultimately this describes a blurring of physical and digital infrastructure. Our public and private spaces will thus be comprised equally of both.
No example demonstrates this idea better than Pokémon Go. The game is straightforward enough; users capture virtual characters scattered around the real world. Today, the game relies on traditional GPS technology to place its characters, but GPS is accurate only to within a few meters of a location. For a car navigating on a highway or locating Pikachus in the world, that level of precision is sufficient. For drone deliveries, driverless cars, or placing a Pikachu in a specific location, say on a tree branch in a park, GPS isn’t accurate enough. As astonishing as it may seem, many experimental AR cloud concepts, even entirely mapped cities, are location specific down to the centimeter.
Niantic, the $4 billion publisher behind Pokémon Go, is aggressively working on developing a crowd-sourced approach to building better AR Cloud maps by encouraging their users to scan the world for them. Their recent acquisition of 6D.ai, a mapping software company developed by the University of Oxford’s Victor Prisacariu through his work at Oxford’s Active Vision Lab, indicates Niantic’s ambition to compete with the tech giants in this space.
With 6D.ai’s technology, Niantic is developing the in-house ability to generate their own 3D maps while gaining better semantic understanding of the world. By going beyond just knowing there’s a temporary collection of orange cones in a certain location, for example, the game may one day understand the meaning behind this; that a temporary construction zone means no Pokémon should spawn here to avoid drawing players to this location.
Niantic is not the only company working on this. Many of the big tech firms you would expect have entire teams focused on map data. Facebook, for example, recently acquired the UK-based Scape technologies, a computer vision startup mapping entire cities with centimeter precision.
As our digital maps of the world improve, expect a relentless and justified discussion of privacy concerns as well. How will society react to the idea of a real-time 3D map of their bedroom living on a Facebook or Amazon server? Those horrified by the use of facial recognition AI being used in public spaces are unlikely to find comfort in the idea of a machine-readable world subject to infinite monitoring.
The ability to build high-precision maps of the world could reshape the way we engage with our planet and promises to be one of the biggest technology developments of the next decade. While these maps may stay hidden as behind-the-scenes infrastructure powering much flashier technologies that capture the world’s attention, they will soon prop up large portions of our technological future.
Keep that in mind when a car with no driver is sharing your road.
Image credit: sergio souza / Pexels Continue reading
Last week’s announcement that Hyundai acquired Boston Dynamics from SoftBank left us with a lot of questions. We attempted to answer many of those questions ourselves, which is typically bad practice, but sometimes it’s the only option when news like that breaks.
Fortunately, yesterday we were able to speak with Michael Patrick Perry, vice president of business development at Boston Dynamics, who candidly answered our questions about Boston Dynamics’ new relationship with Hyundai and what the near future has in store.
IEEE Spectrum: Boston Dynamics is worth 1.1 billion dollars! Can you put that valuation into context for us?
Michael Patrick Perry: Since 2018, we’ve shifted to becoming a commercial organization. And that’s included a number of things, like taking our existing technology and bringing it to market for the first time. We’ve gone from zero to 400 Spot robots deployed, building out an ecosystem of software developers, sensor providers, and integrators. With that scale of deployment and looking at the pipeline of opportunities that we have lined up over the next year, I think people have started to believe that this isn’t just a one-off novelty—that there’s actual value that Spot is able to create. Secondly, with some of our efforts in the logistics market, we’re getting really strong signals both with our Pick product and also with some early discussions around Handle’s deployment in warehouses, which we think are going to be transformational for that industry.
So, the thing that’s really exciting is that two years ago, we were talking about this vision, and people said, “Wow, that sounds really cool, let’s see how you do.” And now we have the validation from the market saying both that this is actually useful, and that we’re able to execute. And that’s where I think we’re starting to see belief in the long-term viability of Boston Dynamics, not just as a cutting-edge research shop, but also as a business.
Photo: Boston Dynamics
Boston Dynamics says it has deployed 400 Spot robots, building out an “ecosystem of software developers, sensor providers, and integrators.”
How would you describe Hyundai’s overall vision for the future of robotics, and how do they want Boston Dynamics to fit into that vision?
In the immediate term, Hyundai’s focus is to continue our existing trajectories, with Spot, Handle, and Atlas. They believe in the work that we’ve done so far, and we think that combining with a partner that understands many of the industries in which we’re targeting, whether its manufacturing, construction, or logistics, can help us improve our products. And obviously as we start thinking about producing these robots at scale, Hyundai’s expertise in manufacturing is going to be really helpful for us.
Looking down the line, both Boston Dynamics and Hyundai believe in the value of smart mobility, and they’ve made a number of plays in that space. Whether it’s urban air mobility or autonomous driving, they’ve been really thinking about connecting the digital and the physical world through moving systems, whether that’s a car, a vertical takeoff and landing multi-rotor vehicle, or a robot. We are well positioned to take on robotics side of that while also connecting to some of these other autonomous services.
Can you tell us anything about the kind of robotics that the Hyundai Motor Group has going on right now?
So they’re working on a lot of really interesting stuff—exactly how that connects, you know, it’s early days, and we don’t have anything explicitly to share. But they’ve got a smart and talented robotics team that’s working in a variety of directions that shares overlap with us. Obviously, a lot of things related to autonomous driving shares some DNA with the work that we’re doing in autonomy for Spot and Handle, so it’s pretty exciting to see.
What are you most excited about here? How do you think this deal will benefit Boston Dynamics?
I think there are a number of things. One is that they have an expertise in hardware, in a way that’s unique. They understand and appreciate the complexity of creating large complex robotic systems. So I think there’s some shared understanding of what it takes to create a great hardware product. And then also they have the resources to help us actually build those products with them together—they have manufacturing resources and things like that.
“Robotics isn’t a short term game. We’ve scaled pretty rapidly but if you start looking at what the full potential of a company like Boston Dynamics is, it’s going to take years to realize, and I think Hyundai is committed to that long-term vision”
Another thing that’s exciting is that Hyundai has some pretty visionary bets for autonomous driving and unmanned aerial systems, and all of that fits very neatly into the connected vision of robotics that we were talking about before. Robotics isn’t a short term game. We’ve scaled pretty rapidly for a robotics company in terms of the scale of robots we’ve able to deploy in the field, but if you start looking at what the full potential of a company like Boston Dynamics is, it’s going to take years to realize, and I think Hyundai is committed to that long-term vision.
And when you’ve been talking with Hyundai, what are they most excited about?
I think they’re really excited about our existing products and our technology. Looking at some of the things that Spot, Pick, and Handle are able to do now, there are applications that many of Hyundai’s customers could benefit from in terms of mobility, remote sensing, and material handling. Looking down the line, Hyundai is also very interested in smart city technology, and mobile robotics is going to be a core piece of that.
We tend to focus on Spot and Handle and Atlas in terms of platform capabilities, but can you talk a bit about some of the component-level technology that’s unique to Boston Dynamics, and that could be of interest to Hyundai?
Creating very power-dense actuator design is something that we’ve been successful at for several years, starting back with BigDog and LS3. And Handle has some hydraulic actuators and valves that are pretty unique in terms of their design and capability. Fundamentally, we have a systems engineering approach that brings together both hardware and software internally. You’ll often see different groups that specialize in something, like great mechanical or electrical engineering groups, or great controls teams, but what I think makes Boston Dynamics so special is that we’re able to put everything on the table at once to create a system that’s incredibly capable. And that’s why with something like Spot, we’re able to produce it at scale, while also making it flexible enough for all the different applications that the robot is being used for right now.
It’s hard to talk specifics right now, but there are obviously other disciplines within mechanical engineering or electrical engineering or controls for robots or autonomous systems where some of our technology could be applied.
Photo: Boston Dynamics
Boston Dynamics is in the process of commercializing Handle, iterating on its design and planning to get box-moving robots on-site with customers in the next year or two.
While Boston Dynamics was part of Google, and then SoftBank, it seems like there’s been an effort to maintain independence. Is it going to be different with Hyundai? Will there be more direct integration or collaboration?
Obviously it’s early days, but right now, we have support to continue executing against all the plans that we have. That includes all the commercialization of Spot, as well as things for Atlas, which is really going to be pushing the capability of our team to expand into new areas. That’s going to be our immediate focus, and we don’t see anything that’s going to pull us away from that core focus in the near term.
As it stands right now, Boston Dynamics will continue to be Boston Dynamics under this new ownership.
How much of what you do at Boston Dynamics right now would you characterize as fundamental robotics research, and how much is commercialization? And how do you see that changing over the next couple of years?
We have been expanding our commercial team, but we certainly keep a lot of the core capabilities of fundamental robotics research. Some of it is very visible, like the new behavior development for Atlas where we’re pushing the limits of perception and path planning. But a lot of the stuff that we’re working on is a little bit under the hood, things that are less obvious—terrain handling, intervention handling, how to make safe faults, for example. Initially when Spot started slipping on things, it would flail around trying to get back up. We’ve had to figure out the right balance between the robot struggling to stand, and when it should decide to just lock its limbs and fall over because it’s safer to do that.
I’d say the other big thrust for us is manipulation. Our gripper for Spot is coming out early next year, and that’s going to unlock a new set of capabilities for us. We have years and years of locomotion experience, but the ability to manipulate is a space that’s still relatively new to us. So we’ve been ramping up a lot of work over the last several years trying to get to an early but still valuable iteration of the technology, and we’ll continue pushing on that as we start learning what’s most useful to our customers.
“I’d say the other big thrust for us is manipulation. Our gripper for Spot is coming out early next year, and that’s going to unlock a new set of capabilities for us. We have years and years of locomotion experience, but the ability to manipulate is a space that’s still relatively new to us”
Looking back, Spot as a commercial robot has a history that goes back to robots like LS3 and BigDog, which were very ambitious projects funded by agencies like DARPA without much in the way of commercial expectations. Do you think these very early stage, very expensive, very technical projects are still things that Boston Dynamics can take on?
Yes—I would point to a lot of the things we do with Atlas as an example of that. While we don’t have immediate plans to commercialize Atlas, we can point to technologies that come out of Atlas that have enabled some of our commercial efforts over time. There’s not necessarily a clear roadmap of how every piece of Atlas research is going to feed over into a commercial product; it’s more like, this is a really hard fundamental robotics challenge, so let’s tackle it and learn things that we can then benefit from across the company.
And fundamentally, our team loves doing cool stuff with robots, and you’ll continue seeing that in the months to come.
Photo: Boston Dynamics
Spot’s arm with gripper is coming out early next year, and Boston Dynamics says that’s going to “unlock a new set of capabilities for us.”
What would it take to commercialize Atlas? And are you getting closer with Handle?
We’re in the process of commercializing Handle. We’re at a relatively early stage, but we have a plan to get the first versions for box moving on-site with customers in the next year or two. Last year, we did some on-site deployments as proof-of-concept trials, and using the feedback from that, we did a new design pass on the robot, and we’re looking at increasing our manufacturing capability. That’s all in progress.
For Atlas, it’s like the Formula 1 of robots—you’re not going to take a Formula 1 car and try to make it less capable so that you can drive it on the road. We’re still trying to see what are some applications that would necessitate an energy and computationally intensive humanoid robot as opposed to something that’s more inherently stable. Trying to understand that application space is something that we’re interested in, and then down the line, we could look at creating new morphologies to help address specific applications. In many ways, Handle is the first version of that, where we said, “Atlas is good at moving boxes but it’s very complicated and expensive, so let’s create a simpler and smaller design that can achieve some of the same things.”
The press release mentioned a mobile robot for warehouses that will be introduced next year—is that Handle?
Yes, that’s the work that we’re doing on Handle.
As we start thinking about a whole robotic solution for the warehouse, we have to look beyond a high power, low footprint, dynamic platform like Handle and also consider things that are a little less exciting on video. We need a vision system that can look at a messy stack of boxes and figure out how to pick them up, we need an interface between a robot and an order building system—things where people might question why Boston Dynamics is focusing on them because it doesn’t fit in with our crazy backflipping robots, but it’s really incumbent on us to create that full end-to-end solution.
Are you confident that under Hyundai’s ownership, Boston Dynamics will be able to continue taking the risks required to remain on the cutting edge of robotics?
I think we will continue to push the envelope of what robots are capable of, and I think in the near term, you’ll be able to see that realized in our products and the research that we’re pushing forward with. 2021 is going to be a great year for us. Continue reading
Replicating the human sense of touch is complicated—electronic skins need to be flexible, stretchable, and sensitive to temperature, pressure and texture; they need to be able to read biological data and provide electronic readouts. Therefore, how to power electronic skin for continuous, real-time use is a big challenge.
To address this, researchers from Glasgow University have developed an energy-generating e-skin made out of miniaturized solar cells, without dedicated touch sensors. The solar cells not only generate their own power—and some surplus—but also provide tactile capabilities for touch and proximity sensing. An early-view paper of their findings was published in IEEE Transactions on Robotics.
When exposed to a light source, the solar cells on the s-skin generate energy. If a cell is shadowed by an approaching object, the intensity of the light, and therefore the energy generated, reduces, dropping to zero when the cell makes contact with the object, confirming touch. In proximity mode, the light intensity tells you how far the object is with respect to the cell. “In real time, you can then compare the light intensity…and after calibration find out the distances,” says Ravinder Dahiya of the Bendable Electronics and Sensing Technologies (BEST) Group, James Watt School of Engineering, University of Glasgow, where the study was carried out. The team used infra-red LEDs with the solar cells for proximity sensing for better results.
To demonstrate their concept, the researchers wrapped a generic 3D-printed robotic hand in their solar skin, which was then recorded interacting with its environment. The proof-of-concept tests showed an energy surplus of 383.3 mW from the palm of the robotic arm. “The eSkin could generate more than 100 W if present over the whole body area,” they reported in their paper.
“If you look at autonomous, battery-powered robots, putting an electronic skin [that] is consuming energy is a big problem because then it leads to reduced operational time,” says Dahiya. “On the other hand, if you have a skin which generates energy, then…it improves the operational time because you can continue to charge [during operation].” In essence, he says, they turned a challenge—how to power the large surface area of the skin—into an opportunity—by turning it into an energy-generating resource.
Dahiya envisages numerous applications for BEST’s innovative e-skin, given its material-integrated sensing capabilities, apart from the obvious use in robotics. For instance, in prosthetics: “[As] we are using [a] solar cell as a touch sensor itself…we are also [making it] less bulkier than other electronic skins.” This, he adds, will help create prosthetics that are of optimal weight and size, thus making it easier for prosthetics users. “If you look at electronic skin research, the the real action starts after it makes contact… Solar skin is a step ahead, because it will start to work when the object is approaching…[and] have more time to prepare for action.” This could effectively reduce the time lag that is often seen in brain–computer interfaces.
There are also possibilities in the automation sector, particularly in electrical and interactive vehicles. A car covered with solar e-skin, because of its proximity-sensing capabilities, would be able to “see” an approaching obstacle or a person. It isn’t “seeing” in the biological sense, Dahiya clarifies, but from the point of view of a machine. This can be integrated with other objects, not just cars, for a variety of uses. “Gestures can be recognized as well…[which] could be used for gesture-based control…in gaming or in other sectors.”
In the lab, tests were conducted with a single source of white light at 650 lux, but Dahiya feels there are interesting possibilities if they could work with multiple light sources that the e-skin could differentiate between. “We are exploring different AI techniques [for that],” he says, “processing the data in an innovative way [so] that we can identify the the directions of the light sources as well as the object.”
The BEST team’s achievement brings us closer to a flexible, self-powered, cost-effective electronic skin that can touch as well as “see.” At the moment, however, there are still some challenges. One of them is flexibility. In their prototype, they used commercial solar cells made of amorphous silicon, each 1cm x 1cm. “They are not flexible, but they are integrated on a flexible substrate,” Dahiya says. “We are currently exploring nanowire-based solar cells…[with which] we we hope to achieve good performance in terms of energy as well as sensing functionality.” Another shortcoming is what Dahiya calls “the integration challenge”—how to make the solar skin work with different materials. Continue reading