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Science fiction is the siren song of hard science. How many innocent young students have been lured into complex, abstract science, technology, engineering, or mathematics because of a reckless and irresponsible exposure to Arthur C. Clarke at a tender age? Yet Arthur C. Clarke has a very famous quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
It’s the prospect of making that… ahem… magic leap that entices so many people into STEM in the first place. A magic leap that would change the world. How about, for example, having humanoid robots? They could match us in dexterity and speed, perceive the world around them as we do, and be programmed to do, well, more or less anything we can do.
Such a technology would change the world forever.
But how will it arrive? While true sci-fi robots won’t get here right away—the pieces are coming together, and the company best developing them at the moment is Amazon. Where others have struggled to succeed, Amazon has been quietly progressing. Notably, Amazon has more than just a dream, it has the most practical of reasons driving it into robotics.
This practicality matters. Technological development rarely proceeds by magic; it’s a process filled with twists, turns, dead-ends, and financial constraints. New technologies often have to answer questions like “What is this good for, are you being realistic?” A good strategy, then, can be to build something more limited than your initial ambition, but useful for a niche market. That way, you can produce a prototype, have a reasonable business plan, and turn a profit within a decade. You might call these “stepping stone” applications that allow for new technologies to be developed in an economically viable way.
You need something you can sell to someone, soon: that’s how you get investment in your idea. It’s this model that iRobot, developers of the Roomba, used: migrating from military prototypes to robotic vacuum cleaners to become the “boring, successful robot company.” Compare this to Willow Garage, a genius factory if ever there was one: they clearly had ambitions towards a general-purpose, multi-functional robot. They built an impressive device—PR2—and programmed the operating system, ROS, that is still the industry and academic standard to this day.
But since they were unable to sell their robot for much less than $250,000, it was never likely to be a profitable business. This is why Willow Garage is no more, and many workers at the company went into telepresence robotics. Telepresence is essentially videoconferencing with a fancy robot attached to move the camera around. It uses some of the same software (for example, navigation and mapping) without requiring you to solve difficult problems of full autonomy for the robot, or manipulating its environment. It’s certainly one of the stepping-stone areas that various companies are investigating.
Another approach is to go to the people with very high research budgets: the military.
This was the Boston Dynamics approach, and their incredible achievements in bipedal locomotion saw them getting snapped up by Google. There was a great deal of excitement and speculation about Google’s “nightmare factory” whenever a new slick video of a futuristic militarized robot surfaced. But Google broadly backed away from Replicant, their robotics program, and Boston Dynamics was sold. This was partly due to PR concerns over the Terminator-esque designs, but partly because they didn’t see the robotics division turning a profit. They hadn’t found their stepping stones.
This is where Amazon comes in. Why Amazon? First off, they just announced that their profits are up by 30 percent, and yet the company is well-known for their constantly-moving Day One philosophy where a great deal of the profits are reinvested back into the business. But lots of companies have ambition.
One thing Amazon has that few other corporations have, as well as big financial resources, is viable stepping stones for developing the technologies needed for this sort of robotics to become a reality. They already employ 100,000 robots: these are of the “pragmatic, boring, useful” kind that we’ve profiled, which move around the shelves in warehouses. These robots are allowing Amazon to develop localization and mapping software for robots that can autonomously navigate in the simple warehouse environment.
But their ambitions don’t end there. The Amazon Robotics Challenge is a multi-million dollar competition, open to university teams, to produce a robot that can pick and package items in warehouses. The problem of grasping and manipulating a range of objects is not a solved one in robotics, so this work is still done by humans—yet it’s absolutely fundamental for any sci-fi dream robot.
Google, for example, attempted to solve this problem by hooking up 14 robot hands to machine learning algorithms and having them grasp thousands of objects. Although results were promising, the 10 to 20 percent failure rate for grasps is too high for warehouse use. This is a perfect stepping stone for Amazon; should they crack the problem, they will likely save millions in logistics.
Another area where humanoid robotics—especially bipedal locomotion, or walking, has been seriously suggested—is in the last mile delivery problem. Amazon has shown willingness to be creative in this department with their notorious drone delivery service. In other words, it’s all very well to have your self-driving car or van deliver packages to people’s doors, but who puts the package on the doorstep? It’s difficult for wheeled robots to navigate the full range of built environments that exist. That’s why bipedal robots like CASSIE, developed by Oregon State, may one day be used to deliver parcels.
Again: no one more than Amazon stands to profit from cracking this technology. The line from robotics research to profit is very clear.
So, perhaps one day Amazon will have robots that can move around and manipulate their environments. But they’re also working on intelligence that will guide those robots and make them truly useful for a variety of tasks. Amazon has an AI, or at least the framework for an AI: it’s called Alexa, and it’s in tens of millions of homes. The Alexa Prize, another multi-million-dollar competition, is attempting to make Alexa more social.
To develop a conversational AI, at least using the current methods of machine learning, you need data on tens of millions of conversations. You need to understand how people will try to interact with the AI. Amazon has access to this in Alexa, and they’re using it. As owners of the leading voice-activated personal assistant, they have an ecosystem of developers creating apps for Alexa. It will be integrated with the smart home and the Internet of Things. It is a very marketable product, a stepping stone for robot intelligence.
What’s more, the company can benefit from its huge sales infrastructure. For Amazon, having an AI in your home is ideal, because it can persuade you to buy more products through its website. Unlike companies like Google, Amazon has an easy way to make a direct profit from IoT devices, which could fuel funding.
For a humanoid robot to be truly useful, though, it will need vision and intelligence. It will have to understand and interpret its environment, and react accordingly. The way humans learn about our environment is by getting out and seeing it. This is something that, for example, an Alexa coupled to smart glasses would be very capable of doing. There are rumors that Alexa’s AI will soon be used in security cameras, which is an ideal stepping stone task to train an AI to process images from its environment, truly perceiving the world and any threats it might contain.
It’s a slight exaggeration to say that Amazon is in the process of building a secret robot army. The gulf between our sci-fi vision of robots that can intelligently serve us, rather than mindlessly assemble cars, is still vast. But in quietly assembling many of the technologies needed for intelligent, multi-purpose robotics—and with the unique stepping stones they have along the way—Amazon might just be poised to leap that gulf. As if by magic.
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Toyota Is Trusting a Startup for a Crucial Part of Its Newest Self-Driving CarsJohana Bhuiyan | Recode “Toyota unveiled the next generation of its self-driving platform today, which features more accurate object detection technology and mapping, among other advancements. These test cars—which Toyota is testing on both a closed driving course and on some public roads—will also be using Luminar’s lidar sensors, or radars that use lasers to detect the distance to an object.”
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It’s not every day you meet a high school student who’s been building functional robots since age 10. Then again, Mihir Garimella is definitely not your average teenager.
When I sat down to interview him recently at Singularity University’s Global Summit, that much was clear.
Mihir’s curiosity for robotics began at age two when his parents brought home a pet dog—well, a robotic dog. A few years passed with this robotic companion by his side, and Mihir became fascinated with how software and hardware could bring inanimate objects to “life.”
When he was 10, Mihir built a robotic violin tuner called Robo-Mozart to help him address a teacher’s complaints about his always-out-of-tune violin. The robot analyzes the sound of the violin, determines which strings are out of tune, and then uses motors to turn the tuning pegs.
Robo-Mozart and other earlier projects helped Mihir realize he could use robotics to solve real problems. Fast-forward to age 14 and Flybot, a tiny, low-cost emergency response drone that won Mihir top honors in his age category at the 2015 Google Science Fair.
The small drone is propelled by four rotors and is designed to mimic how fruit flies can speedily see and react to surrounding threats. It’s a design idea that hit Mihir when he and his family returned home after a long vacation to discover they had left bananas on their kitchen counter. The house was filled with fruit flies.
After many failed attempts to swat the flies, Mihir started wondering how these tiny creatures with small brains and horrible vision were such masterful escape artists. He began digging through research papers on fruit flies and came to an interesting conclusion.
Since fruit flies can’t see a lot of detail, they compensate by processing visual information very fast—ten times faster than people do.
“That’s what enables them to escape so effectively,” says Mihir.
Escaping a threat for a fruit fly could mean quickly avoiding a fatal swat from a human hand. Applied to a search-and-response drone, the scenario shifts—picture a drone instantaneously detecting and avoiding a falling ceiling while searching for survivors inside a collapsing building.
Now, at 17, Mihir is still pushing Flybot forward. He’s developing software to enable the drone to operate autonomously and hopes it will be able to navigate environments such as a burning building, or a structure that’s been hit by an earthquake. The drone is also equipped with intelligent sensors to collect spatial data it will use to maneuver around obstacles and detect things like a trapped person or the location of a gas leak.
For everyone concerned about robots eating jobs, Flybot is a perfect example of how technology can aid existing jobs.
Flybot could substitute for a first responder entering a dangerous situation or help a firefighter make a quicker rescue by showing where victims are trapped. With its small and fast design, the drone could also presumably carry out an initial search-and-rescue sweep in just a few minutes.
Mihir is committed to commercializing the product and keeping it within a $250–$500 price range, which is a fraction of the cost of many current emergency response drones. He hopes the low cost will allow the technology to be used in developing countries.
Next month, Mihir starts his freshman year at Stanford, where he plans to keep up his research and create a company to continue work on the drone.
When I asked Mihir what fuels him, he said, “Curiosity is a great skill for inventors. It lets you find inspiration in a lot of places that you may not look. If I had started by trying to build an escape algorithm for these drones, I wouldn’t know where to start. But looking at fruit flies and getting inspired by them, it gave me a really good place to look for inspiration.”
It’s a bit mind boggling how much Mihir has accomplished by age 17, but I suspect he’s just getting started.
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