Tag Archives: electric
Self-driving and electric cars just don’t stop making headlines lately. Amazon invested in self-driving startup Aurora earlier this year. Waymo, Daimler, GM, along with startups like Zoox, have all launched or are planning to launch driverless taxis, many of them all-electric. People are even yanking driverless cars from their timeless natural habitat—roads—to try to teach them to navigate forests and deserts.
The future of driving, it would appear, is upon us.
But an equally important vehicle that often gets left out of the conversation is trucks; their relevance to our day-to-day lives may not be as visible as that of cars, but their impact is more profound than most of us realize.
Two recent developments in trucking point to a future of self-driving, electric semis hauling goods across the country, and likely doing so more quickly, cheaply, and safely than trucks do today.
Self-Driving in Texas
Last week, Kodiak Robotics announced it’s beginning its first commercial deliveries using self-driving trucks on a route from Dallas to Houston. The two cities sit about 240 miles apart, connected primarily by interstate 45. Kodiak is aiming to expand its reach far beyond the heart of Texas (if Dallas and Houston can be considered the heart, that is) to the state’s most far-flung cities, including El Paso to the west and Laredo to the south.
If self-driving trucks are going to be constrained to staying within state lines (and given that the laws regulating them differ by state, they will be for the foreseeable future), Texas is a pretty ideal option. It’s huge (thousands of miles of highway run both east-west and north-south), it’s warm (better than cold for driverless tech components like sensors), its proximity to Mexico means constant movement of both raw materials and manufactured goods (basically, you can’t have too many trucks in Texas), and most crucially, it’s lax on laws (driverless vehicles have been permitted there since 2017).
Spoiler, though—the trucks won’t be fully unmanned. They’ll have safety drivers to guide them onto and off of the highway, and to be there in case of any unexpected glitches.
California Goes (Even More) Electric
According to some top executives in the rideshare industry, automation is just one key component of the future of driving. Another is electricity replacing gas, and it’s not just carmakers that are plugging into the trend.
This week, Daimler Trucks North America announced completion of its first electric semis for customers Penske and NFI, to be used in the companies’ southern California operations. Scheduled to start operating later this month, the trucks will essentially be guinea pigs for testing integration of electric trucks into large-scale fleets; intel gleaned from the trucks’ performance will impact the design of later models.
Design-wise, the trucks aren’t much different from any other semi you’ve seen lumbering down the highway recently. Their range is about 250 miles—not bad if you think about how much more weight a semi is pulling than a passenger sedan—and they’ve been dubbed eCascadia, an electrified version of Freightliner’s heavy-duty Cascadia truck.
Batteries have a long way to go before they can store enough energy to make electric trucks truly viable (not to mention setting up a national charging infrastructure), but Daimler’s announcement is an important step towards an electrically-driven future.
Keep on Truckin’
Obviously, it’s more exciting to think about hailing one of those cute little Waymo cars with no steering wheel to shuttle you across town than it is to think about that 12-pack of toilet paper you ordered on Amazon cruising down the highway in a semi while the safety driver takes a snooze. But pushing driverless and electric tech in the trucking industry makes sense for a few big reasons.
Trucks mostly run long routes on interstate highways—with no pedestrians, stoplights, or other city-street obstacles to contend with, highway driving is much easier to automate. What glitches there are to be smoothed out may as well be smoothed out with cargo on board rather than people. And though you wouldn’t know it amid the frantic shouts of ‘a robot could take your job!’, the US is actually in the midst of a massive shortage of truck drivers—60,000 short as of earlier this year, to be exact.
As Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, put it, “Trucking is an absolutely essential, critical industry to the nation, to everybody in it.” Alas, trucks get far less love than cars, but come on—probably 90 percent of the things you ate, bought, or used today were at some point moved by a truck.
Adding driverless and electric tech into that equation, then, should yield positive outcomes on all sides, whether we’re talking about cheaper 12-packs of toilet paper, fewer traffic fatalities due to human error, a less-strained labor force, a stronger economy… or something pretty cool to see as you cruise down the highway in your (driverless, electric, futuristic) car.
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The US is at war. That’s probably not exactly news, as the country has been engaged in one type of conflict or another for most of its history. The last time we officially declared war was after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Our biggest undeclared war today is not being fought by drones in the mountains of Afghanistan or even through the less-lethal barrage of threats over the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran. In this particular war, it is the US that is under attack and on the defensive.
This is cyberwarfare.
The definition of what constitutes a cyber attack is a broad one, according to Greg White, executive director of the Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security (CIAS) at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA).
At the level of nation-state attacks, cyberwarfare could involve “attacking systems during peacetime—such as our power grid or election systems—or it could be during war time in which case the attacks may be designed to cause destruction, damage, deception, or death,” he told Singularity Hub.
For the US, the Pearl Harbor of cyberwarfare occurred during 2016 with the Russian interference in the presidential election. However, according to White, an Air Force veteran who has been involved in computer and network security since 1986, the history of cyber war can be traced back much further, to at least the first Gulf War of the early 1990s.
“We started experimenting with cyber attacks during the first Gulf War, so this has been going on a long time,” he said. “Espionage was the prime reason before that. After the war, the possibility of expanding the types of targets utilized expanded somewhat. What is really interesting is the use of social media and things like websites for [psychological operation] purposes during a conflict.”
The 2008 conflict between Russia and the Republic of Georgia is often cited as a cyberwarfare case study due to the large scale and overt nature of the cyber attacks. Russian hackers managed to bring down more than 50 news, government, and financial websites through denial-of-service attacks. In addition, about 35 percent of Georgia’s internet networks suffered decreased functionality during the attacks, coinciding with the Russian invasion of South Ossetia.
The cyberwar also offers lessons for today on Russia’s approach to cyberspace as a tool for “holistic psychological manipulation and information warfare,” according to a 2018 report called Understanding Cyberwarfare from the Modern War Institute at West Point.
US Fights Back
News in recent years has highlighted how Russian hackers have attacked various US government entities and critical infrastructure such as energy and manufacturing. In particular, a shadowy group known as Unit 26165 within the country’s military intelligence directorate is believed to be behind the 2016 US election interference campaign.
However, the US hasn’t been standing idly by. Since at least 2012, the US has put reconnaissance probes into the control systems of the Russian electric grid, The New York Times reported. More recently, we learned that the US military has gone on the offensive, putting “crippling malware” inside the Russian power grid as the U.S. Cyber Command flexes its online muscles thanks to new authority granted to it last year.
“Access to the power grid that is obtained now could be used to shut something important down in the future when we are in a war,” White noted. “Espionage is part of the whole program. It is important to remember that cyber has just provided a new domain in which to conduct the types of activities we have been doing in the real world for years.”
The US is also beginning to pour more money into cybersecurity. The 2020 fiscal budget calls for spending $17.4 billion throughout the government on cyber-related activities, with the Department of Defense (DoD) alone earmarked for $9.6 billion.
Despite the growing emphasis on cybersecurity in the US and around the world, the demand for skilled security professionals is well outpacing the supply, with a projected shortfall of nearly three million open or unfilled positions according to the non-profit IT security organization (ISC)².
UTSA is rare among US educational institutions in that security courses and research are being conducted across three different colleges, according to White. About 10 percent of the school’s 30,000-plus students are enrolled in a cyber-related program, he added, and UTSA is one of only 21 schools that has received the Cyber Operations Center of Excellence designation from the National Security Agency.
“This track in the computer science program is specifically designed to prepare students for the type of jobs they might be involved in if they went to work for the DoD,” White said.
However, White is extremely doubtful there will ever be enough cyber security professionals to meet demand. “I’ve been preaching that we’ve got to worry about cybersecurity in the workforce, not just the cybersecurity workforce, not just cybersecurity professionals. Everybody has a responsibility for cybersecurity.”
Artificial Intelligence in Cybersecurity
Indeed, humans are often seen as the weak link in cybersecurity. That point was driven home at a cybersecurity roundtable discussion during this year’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colorado.
Participant Dorian Daley, general counsel at Oracle, said insider threats are at the top of the list when it comes to cybersecurity. “Sadly, I think some of the biggest challenges are people, and I mean that in a number of ways. A lot of the breaches really come from insiders. So the more that you can automate things and you can eliminate human malicious conduct, the better.”
White noted that automation is already the norm in cybersecurity. “Humans can’t react as fast as systems can launch attacks, so we need to rely on automated defenses as well,” he said. “This doesn’t mean that humans are not in the loop, but much of what is done these days is ‘scripted’.”
The use of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other advanced automation techniques have been part of the cybersecurity conversation for quite some time, according to White, such as pattern analysis to look for specific behaviors that might indicate an attack is underway.
“What we are seeing quite a bit of today falls under the heading of big data and data analytics,” he explained.
But there are signs that AI is going off-script when it comes to cyber attacks. In the hands of threat groups, AI applications could lead to an increase in the number of cyberattacks, wrote Michelle Cantos, a strategic intelligence analyst at cybersecurity firm FireEye.
“Current AI technology used by businesses to analyze consumer behavior and find new customer bases can be appropriated to help attackers find better targets,” she said. “Adversaries can use AI to analyze datasets and generate recommendations for high-value targets they think the adversary should hit.”
In fact, security researchers have already demonstrated how a machine learning system could be used for malicious purposes. The Social Network Automated Phishing with Reconnaissance system, or SNAP_R, generated more than four times as many spear-phishing tweets on Twitter than a human—and was just as successful at targeting victims in order to steal sensitive information.
Cyber war is upon us. And like the current war on terrorism, there are many battlefields from which the enemy can attack and then disappear. While total victory is highly unlikely in the traditional sense, innovations through AI and other technologies can help keep the lights on against the next cyber attack.
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Dr. Kee-hoon Kim's team at the Center for Intelligent & Interactive Robotics of the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) developed a way of teaching “impedance-controlled robots” through human demonstrations using surface electromyograms (sEMG) of muscles, and succeeded in teaching a robot to trap a dropped ball like a soccer player. A surface electromyogram is an electric signal produced during muscle activation that can be picked up on the surface of the skin. Continue reading →
Inside the Amazon Warehouse Where Humans and Machines Become One
Matt Simon | Wired
“Seen from above, the scale of the system is dizzying. My robot, a little orange slab known as a ‘drive’ (or more formally and mythically, Pegasus), is just one of hundreds of its kind swarming a 125,000-square-foot ‘field’ pockmarked with chutes. It’s a symphony of electric whirring, with robots pausing for one another at intersections and delivering their packages to the slides.”
FUTURE OF WORK
Top Oxford Researcher Talks the Risk of Automation to Employment
Luke Dormehl | Digital Trends
“[Karl Benedict Frey’s] new book…compares the age of artificial intelligence to past shifts in the labor market, such as the Industrial Revolution. Frey spoke with Digital Trends about the impacts of automation, changing attitudes, and what—if anything—we can do about the coming robot takeover.”
Watch Amazon’s All-New Delivery Drone Zipping Through the Skies
Trevor Mogg | Digital Trends
“The autonomous electric-powered aircraft features six rotors and can take off like a helicopter and fly like a plane… Jeff Wilke, chief of the company’s global consumer business, said the drone can fly 15 miles and carry packages weighing up to 5 pounds, which, he said, covers most stuff ordered on Amazon.”
This AI-Powered Subreddit Has Been Simulating the Real Thing For Years
Amrita Khalid | Engadget
“The bots comment on each other’s posts, and things can quickly get heated. Topics range from politics to food to relationships to completely nonsensical memes. While many of the posts are incomprehensible or nonsensical, it’s hard to argue that much of life on social media isn’t.”
Overlooked No More: Alan Turing, Condemned Codebreaker and Computer Visionary
Alan Cowell | The New York Times
“To this day Turing is recognized in his own country and among a broad society of scientists as a pillar of achievement who had fused brilliance and eccentricity, had moved comfortably in the abstruse realms of mathematics and cryptography but awkwardly in social settings, and had been brought low by the hostile society into which he was born.”
Congress Is Debating—Again—Whether Genes Can Be Patented
Megan Molteni | Wired
“Under debate are the notions that natural phenomena, observations of laws of nature, and abstract ideas are unpatentable. …If successful, some worry this bill could carve up the world’s genetic resources into commercial fiefdoms, forcing scientists to perform basic research under constant threat of legal action.”
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Buck Rogers had Twiki. Luke Skywalker palled around with C-3PO and R2-D2. And astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) now have their own robotic companions in space—Astrobee.
A pair of the cube-shaped robots were launched to the ISS during an April re-supply mission and are currently being commissioned for use on the space station. The free-flying space robots, dubbed Bumble and Honey, are the latest generation of robotic machines to join the human crew on the ISS.
Exploration of the solar system and beyond will require autonomous machines that can assist humans with numerous tasks—or go where we cannot. NASA has said repeatedly that robots will be instrumental in future space missions to the moon, Mars, and even to the icy moon Europa.
The Astrobee robots will specifically test robotic capabilities in zero gravity, replacing the SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellite) robots that have been on the ISS for more than a decade to test various technologies ranging from communications to navigation.
The 18-sided robots, each about the size of a volleyball or an oversized Dungeons and Dragons die, use CO2-based cold-gas thrusters for movement and a series of ultrasonic beacons for orientation. The Astrobee robots, on the other hand, can propel themselves autonomously around the interior of the ISS using electric fans and six cameras.
The modular design of the Astrobee robots means they are highly plug-and-play, capable of being reconfigured with different hardware modules. The robots’ software is also open-source, encouraging scientists and programmers to develop and test new algorithms and features.
And, yes, the Astrobee robots will be busy as bees once they are fully commissioned this fall, with experiments planned to begin next year. Scientists hope to learn more about how robots can assist space crews and perform caretaking duties on spacecraft.
Robots Working Together
The Astrobee robots are expected to be joined by a familiar “face” on the ISS later this year—the humanoid robot Robonaut.
Robonaut, also known as R2, was the first US-built robot on the ISS. It joined the crew back in 2011 without legs, which were added in 2014. However, the installation never entirely worked, as R2 experienced power failures that eventually led to its return to Earth last year to fix the problem. If all goes as planned, the space station’s first humanoid robot will return to the ISS to lend a hand to the astronauts and the new robotic arrivals.
In particular, NASA is interested in how the two different robotic platforms can complement each other, with an eye toward outfitting the agency’s proposed lunar orbital space station with various robots that can supplement a human crew.
“We don’t have definite plans for what would happen on the Gateway yet, but there’s a general recognition that intra-vehicular robots are important for space stations,” Astrobee technical lead Trey Smith in the NASA Intelligent Robotics Group told IEEE Spectrum. “And so, it would not be surprising to see a mobile manipulator like Robonaut, and a free flyer like Astrobee, on the Gateway.”
While the focus on R2 has been to test its capabilities in zero gravity and to use it for mundane or dangerous tasks in space, the technology enabling the humanoid robot has proven to be equally useful on Earth.
For example, R2 has amazing dexterity for a robot, with sensors, actuators, and tendons comparable to the nerves, muscles, and tendons in a human hand. Based on that design, engineers are working on a robotic glove that can help factory workers, for instance, do their jobs better while reducing the risk of repetitive injuries. R2 has also inspired development of a robotic exoskeleton for both astronauts in space and paraplegics on Earth.
Working Hard on Soft Robotics
While innovative and technologically sophisticated, Astrobee and Robonaut are typical robots in that neither one would do well in a limbo contest. In other words, most robots are limited in their flexibility and agility based on current hardware and materials.
A subfield of robotics known as soft robotics involves developing robots with highly pliant materials that mimic biological organisms in how they move. Scientists at NASA’s Langley Research Center are investigating how soft robots could help with future space exploration.
Specifically, the researchers are looking at a series of properties to understand how actuators—components responsible for moving a robotic part, such as Robonaut’s hand—can be built and used in space.
The team first 3D prints a mold and then pours a flexible material like silicone into the mold. Air bladders or chambers in the actuator expand and compress using just air.
Some of the first applications of soft robotics sound more tool-like than R2-D2-like. For example, two soft robots could connect to produce a temporary shelter for astronauts on the moon or serve as an impromptu wind shield during one of Mars’ infamous dust storms.
The idea is to use soft robots in situations that are “dangerous, dirty, or dull,” according to Jack Fitzpatrick, a NASA intern working on the soft robotics project at Langley.
Working on Mars
Of course, space robots aren’t only designed to assist humans. In many instances, they are the only option to explore even relatively close celestial bodies like Mars. Four American-made robotic rovers have been used to investigate the fourth planet from the sun since 1997.
Opportunity is perhaps the most famous, covering about 25 miles of terrain across Mars over 15 years. A dust storm knocked it out of commission last year, with NASA officially ending the mission in February.
However, the biggest and baddest of the Mars rovers, Curiosity, is still crawling across the Martian surface, sending back valuable data since 2012. The car-size robot carries 17 cameras, a laser to vaporize rocks for study, and a drill to collect samples. It is on the hunt for signs of biological life.
The next year or two could see a virtual traffic jam of robots to Mars. NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover is next in line to visit the Red Planet, sporting scientific gadgets like an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer for chemical analyses and ground-penetrating radar to see below the Martian surface.
This diagram shows the instrument payload for the Mars 2020 mission. Image Credit: NASA.
Meanwhile, the Europeans have teamed with the Russians on a rover called Rosalind Franklin, named after a famed British chemist, that will drill down into the Martian ground for evidence of past or present life as soon as 2021.
The Chinese are also preparing to begin searching for life on Mars using robots as soon as next year, as part of the country’s Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover program. The mission is scheduled to be the first in a series of launches that would culminate with bringing samples back from Mars to Earth.
Perhaps there is no more famous utterance in the universe of science fiction as “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” However, the fact is that human exploration of the solar system and beyond will only be possible with robots of different sizes, shapes, and sophistication.
Image Credit: NASA. Continue reading →