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#436491 The Year’s Most Fascinating Tech ...

Last Saturday we took a look at some of the most-read Singularity Hub articles from 2019. This week, we’re featuring some of our favorite articles from the last year. As opposed to short pieces about what’s happening, these are long reads about why it matters and what’s coming next. Some of them make the news while others frame the news, go deep on big ideas, go behind the scenes, or explore the human side of technological progress.

We hope you find them as fascinating, inspiring, and illuminating as we did.

DeepMind and Google: The Battle to Control Artificial Intelligence
Hal Hodson | 1843
“[DeepMind cofounder and CEO Demis] Hassabis thought DeepMind would be a hybrid: it would have the drive of a startup, the brains of the greatest universities, and the deep pockets of one of the world’s most valuable companies. Every element was in place to hasten the arrival of [artificial general intelligence] and solve the causes of human misery.”

The Most Powerful Person in Silicon Valley
Katrina Brooker | Fast Company
“Billionaire Masayoshi Son—not Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Mark Zuckerberg—has the most audacious vision for an AI-powered utopia where machines control how we live. And he’s spending hundreds of billions of dollars to realize it. Are you ready to live in Masa World?”

AR Will Spark the Next Big Tech Platform—Call It Mirrorworld
Kevin Kelly | Wired
“Eventually this melded world will be the size of our planet. It will be humanity’s greatest achievement, creating new levels of wealth, new social problems, and uncountable opportunities for billions of people. There are no experts yet to make this world; you are not late.”

Behind the Scenes of a Radical New Cancer Cure
Ilana Yurkiewicz | Undark
“I remember the first time I watched a patient get his Day 0 infusion. It felt anti-climactic. The entire process took about 15 minutes. The CAR-T cells are invisible to the naked eye, housed in a small plastic bag containing clear liquid. ‘That’s it?’ my patient asked when the nurse said it was over. The infusion part is easy. The hard part is everything that comes next.”

The Promise and Price of Cellular Therapies
Siddhartha Mukherjee | The New Yorker
“We like to imagine medical revolutions as, well, revolutionary—propelled forward through leaps of genius and technological innovation. But they are also evolutionary, nudged forward through the optimization of design and manufacture.”

Impossible Foods’ Rising Empire of Almost Meat
Chris Ip | Engadget
“Impossible says it wants to ultimately create a parallel universe of ersatz animal products from steak to eggs. …Yet as Impossible ventures deeper into the culinary uncanny valley, it also needs society to discard a fundamental cultural idea that dates back millennia and accept a new truth: Meat doesn’t have to come from animals.”

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.”

Boston Dynamics’ Robots Are Preparing to Leave the Lab—Is the World Ready?
James Vincent | The Verge
“After decades of kicking machines in parking lots, the company is set to launch its first ever commercial bot later this year: the quadrupedal Spot. It’s a crucial test for a company that’s spent decades pursuing long-sighted R&D. And more importantly, the success—or failure—of Spot will tell us a lot about our own robot future. Are we ready for machines to walk among us?”

I Cut the ‘Big Five’ Tech Giants From My Life. It Was Hell
Kashmir Hill | Gizmodo
“Critics of the big tech companies are often told, ‘If you don’t like the company, don’t use its products.’ I did this experiment to find out if that is possible, and I found out that it’s not—with the exception of Apple. …These companies are unavoidable because they control internet infrastructure, online commerce, and information flows.”

Why I (Still) Love Tech: In Defense of a Difficult Industry
Paul Ford | Wired
“The mysteries of software caught my eye when I was a boy, and I still see it with the same wonder, even though I’m now an adult. Proudshamed, yes, but I still love it, the mess of it, the code and toolkits, down to the pixels and the processors, and up to the buses and bridges. I love the whole made world. But I can’t deny that the miracle is over, and that there is an unbelievable amount of work left for us to do.”

The Peculiar Blindness of Experts
David Epstein | The Atlantic
“In business, esteemed (and lavishly compensated) forecasters routinely are wildly wrong in their predictions of everything from the next stock-market correction to the next housing boom. Reliable insight into the future is possible, however. It just requires a style of thinking that’s uncommon among experts who are certain that their deep knowledge has granted them a special grasp of what is to come.”

The Most Controversial Tree in the World
Rowan Jacobson | Pacific Standard
“…we are all GMOs, the beneficiaries of freakishly unlikely genetic mash-ups, and the real Island of Dr. Moreau is that blue-green botanical garden positioned third from the sun. Rather than changing the nature of nature, as I once thought, this might just be the very nature of nature.”

How an Augmented Reality Game Escalated Into Real-World Spy Warfare
Elizabeth Ballou | Vice
“In Ingress, players accept that every park and train station could be the site of an epic showdown, but that’s only the first step. The magic happens when other people accept that, too. When players feel like that magic is real, there are few limits to what they’ll do or where they’ll go for the sake of the game. ”

The Shady Cryptocurrency Boom on the Post-Soviet Frontier
Hannah Lucinda Smith | Wired
“…although the tourists won’t guess it as they stand at Kuchurgan’s gates, admiring how the evening light reflects off the silver plaque of Lenin, this plant is pumping out juice to a modern-day gold rush: a cryptocurrency boom that is underway all across the former Soviet Union, from the battlefields of eastern Ukraine to time-warp enclaves like Transnistria and freshly annexed Crimea.”

Scientists Are Totally Rethinking Animal Cognition
Ross Andersen | The Atlantic
“This idea that animals are conscious was long unpopular in the West, but it has lately found favor among scientists who study animal cognition. …For many scientists, the resonant mystery is no longer which animals are conscious, but which are not.”

I Wrote This on a 30-Year-Old Computer
Ian Bogost | The Atlantic
“[Back then] computing was an accompaniment to life, rather than the sieve through which all ideas and activities must filter. That makes using this 30-year-old device a surprising joy, one worth longing for on behalf of what it was at the time, rather than for the future it inaugurated.”

Image Credit: Wes Hicks / Unsplash Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436484 If Machines Want to Make Art, Will ...

Assuming that the emergence of consciousness in artificial minds is possible, those minds will feel the urge to create art. But will we be able to understand it? To answer this question, we need to consider two subquestions: when does the machine become an author of an artwork? And how can we form an understanding of the art that it makes?

Empathy, we argue, is the force behind our capacity to understand works of art. Think of what happens when you are confronted with an artwork. We maintain that, to understand the piece, you use your own conscious experience to ask what could possibly motivate you to make such an artwork yourself—and then you use that first-person perspective to try to come to a plausible explanation that allows you to relate to the artwork. Your interpretation of the work will be personal and could differ significantly from the artist’s own reasons, but if we share sufficient experiences and cultural references, it might be a plausible one, even for the artist. This is why we can relate so differently to a work of art after learning that it is a forgery or imitation: the artist’s intent to deceive or imitate is very different from the attempt to express something original. Gathering contextual information before jumping to conclusions about other people’s actions—in art, as in life—can enable us to relate better to their intentions.

But the artist and you share something far more important than cultural references: you share a similar kind of body and, with it, a similar kind of embodied perspective. Our subjective human experience stems, among many other things, from being born and slowly educated within a society of fellow humans, from fighting the inevitability of our own death, from cherishing memories, from the lonely curiosity of our own mind, from the omnipresence of the needs and quirks of our biological body, and from the way it dictates the space- and time-scales we can grasp. All conscious machines will have embodied experiences of their own, but in bodies that will be entirely alien to us.

We are able to empathize with nonhuman characters or intelligent machines in human-made fiction because they have been conceived by other human beings from the only subjective perspective accessible to us: “What would it be like for a human to behave as x?” In order to understand machinic art as such—and assuming that we stand a chance of even recognizing it in the first place—we would need a way to conceive a first-person experience of what it is like to be that machine. That is something we cannot do even for beings that are much closer to us. It might very well happen that we understand some actions or artifacts created by machines of their own volition as art, but in doing so we will inevitably anthropomorphize the machine’s intentions. Art made by a machine can be meaningfully interpreted in a way that is plausible only from the perspective of that machine, and any coherent anthropomorphized interpretation will be implausibly alien from the machine perspective. As such, it will be a misinterpretation of the artwork.

But what if we grant the machine privileged access to our ways of reasoning, to the peculiarities of our perception apparatus, to endless examples of human culture? Wouldn’t that enable the machine to make art that a human could understand? Our answer is yes, but this would also make the artworks human—not authentically machinic. All examples so far of “art made by machines” are actually just straightforward examples of human art made with computers, with the artists being the computer programmers. It might seem like a strange claim: how can the programmers be the authors of the artwork if, most of the time, they can’t control—or even anticipate—the actual materializations of the artwork? It turns out that this is a long-standing artistic practice.

Suppose that your local orchestra is playing Beethoven’s Symphony No 7 (1812). Even though Beethoven will not be directly responsible for any of the sounds produced there, you would still say that you are listening to Beethoven. Your experience might depend considerably on the interpretation of the performers, the acoustics of the room, the behavior of fellow audience members or your state of mind. Those and other aspects are the result of choices made by specific individuals or of accidents happening to them. But the author of the music? Ludwig van Beethoven. Let’s say that, as a somewhat odd choice for the program, John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No 4 (March No 2) (1951) is also played, with 24 performers controlling 12 radios according to a musical score. In this case, the responsibility for the sounds being heard should be attributed to unsuspecting radio hosts, or even to electromagnetic fields. Yet, the shaping of sounds over time—the composition—should be credited to Cage. Each performance of this piece will vary immensely in its sonic materialization, but it will always be a performance of Imaginary Landscape No 4.

Why should we change these principles when artists use computers if, in these respects at least, computer art does not bring anything new to the table? The (human) artists might not be in direct control of the final materializations, or even be able to predict them but, despite that, they are the authors of the work. Various materializations of the same idea—in this case formalized as an algorithm—are instantiations of the same work manifesting different contextual conditions. In fact, a common use of computation in the arts is the production of variations of a process, and artists make extensive use of systems that are sensitive to initial conditions, external inputs, or pseudo-randomness to deliberately avoid repetition of outputs. Having a computer executing a procedure to build an artwork, even if using pseudo-random processes or machine-learning algorithms, is no different than throwing dice to arrange a piece of music, or to pursuing innumerable variations of the same formula. After all, the idea of machines that make art has an artistic tradition that long predates the current trend of artworks made by artificial intelligence.

Machinic art is a term that we believe should be reserved for art made by an artificial mind’s own volition, not for that based on (or directed towards) an anthropocentric view of art. From a human point of view, machinic artworks will still be procedural, algorithmic, and computational. They will be generative, because they will be autonomous from a human artist. And they might be interactive, with humans or other systems. But they will not be the result of a human deferring decisions to a machine, because the first of those—the decision to make art—needs to be the result of a machine’s volition, intentions, and decisions. Only then will we no longer have human art made with computers, but proper machinic art.

The problem is not whether machines will or will not develop a sense of self that leads to an eagerness to create art. The problem is that if—or when—they do, they will have such a different Umwelt that we will be completely unable to relate to it from our own subjective, embodied perspective. Machinic art will always lie beyond our ability to understand it because the boundaries of our comprehension—in art, as in life—are those of the human experience.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Image Credit: Rene Böhmer / Unsplash Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436414 Japanese Researchers Teaching Robots to ...

When mobile manipulators eventually make it into our homes, self-repair is going to be a very important function. Hopefully, these robots will be durable enough that they won’t need to be repaired very often, but from time to time they’ll almost certainly need minor maintenance. At Humanoids 2019 in Toronto, researchers from the University of Tokyo showed how they taught a PR2 to perform simple repairs on itself by tightening its own screws. And using that skill, the robot was also able to augment itself, adding accessories like hooks to help it carry more stuff. Clever robot!

To keep things simple, the researchers provided the robot with CAD data that tells it exactly where all of its screws are.

At the moment, the robot can’t directly detect on its own whether a particular screw needs tightening, although it can tell if its physical pose doesn’t match its digital model, which suggests that something has gone wonky. It can also check its screws autonomously from time to time, or rely on a human physically pointing out that it has a screw loose, using the human’s finger location to identify which screw it is. Another challenge is that most robots, like most humans, are limited in the areas on themselves that they can comfortably reach. So to tighten up everything, they might have to find themselves a robot friend to help, just like humans help each other put on sunblock.

The actual tightening is either super easy or quite complicated, depending on the location and orientation of the screw. If the robot is lucky, it can just use its continuous wrist rotation for tightening, but if a screw is located in a tight position that requires an Allen wrench, the robot has to regrasp the tool over and over as it incrementally tightens the screw.

Image: University of Tokyo

In one experiment, the researchers taught a PR2 robot to attach a hook to one of its shoulders. The robot uses one hand to grasp the hook and another hand to grasp a screwdriver. The researchers tested the hook by hanging a tote bag on it.

The other neat trick that a robot can do once it can tighten screws on its own body is to add new bits of hardware to itself. PR2 was thoughtfully designed with mounting points on its shoulders (or maybe technically its neck) and head, and it turns out that it can reach these points with its manipulators, allowing to modify itself, as the researchers explain:

When PR2 wants to have a lot of things, the only two hands are not enough to realize that. So we let PR2 to use a bag the same as we put it on our shoulder. PR2 started attaching the hook whose pose is calculated with self CAD data with a driver on his shoulder in order to put a bag on his shoulder. PR2 finished attaching the hook, and the people put a lot of cans in a tote bag and put it on PR2’s shoulder.

“Self-Repair and Self-Extension by Tightening Screws based on Precise Calculation of Screw Pose of Self-Body with CAD Data and Graph Search with Regrasping a Driver,” by Takayuki Murooka, Kei Okada, and Masayuki Inaba from the University of Tokyo, was presented at Humanoids 2019 in Toronto, Canada. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436263 Skydio 2 Review: This Is the Drone You ...

Let me begin this review by saying that the Skydio 2 is one of the most impressive robots that I have ever seen. Over the last decade, I’ve spent enough time around robots to have a very good sense of what kinds of things are particularly challenging for them, and to set my expectations accordingly. Those expectations include things like “unstructured environments are basically impossible” and “full autonomy is impractically expensive” and “robot videos rarely reflect reality.”

Skydio’s newest drone is an exception to all of this. It’s able to fly autonomously at speed through complex environments in challenging real-world conditions in a way that’s completely effortless and stress-free for the end user, allowing you to capture the kind of video that would be otherwise impossible, even (I’m guessing) for professional drone pilots. When you see this technology in action, it’s (almost) indistinguishable from magic.

Skydio 2 Price
To be clear, the Skydio 2 is not without compromises, and the price of $999 (on pre-order with delivery of the next batch expected in spring of 2020) requires some justification. But the week I’ve had with this drone has left me feeling like its fundamental autonomous capability is so far beyond just about anything that I’ve ever experienced that I’m questioning why I would every fly anything else ever again.

We’ve written extensively about Skydio, beginning in early 2016 when the company posted a video of a prototype drone dodging trees while following a dude on a bike. Even three years ago, Skydio’s tech was way better than anything we’d seen outside of a research lab, and in early 2018, they introduced their first consumer product, the Skydio R1. A little over a year later, Skydio has introduced the Skydio 2, which is smaller, smarter, and much more affordable. Here’s an overview video just to get you caught up:

Skydio sent me a Skydio 2 review unit last week, and while I’m reasonably experienced with drones in general, this is the first time I’ve tried a Skydio drone in person. I had a pretty good idea what to expect, and I was absolutely blown away. Like, I was giggling to myself while running through the woods as the drone zoomed around, deftly avoiding trees and keeping me in sight. Robots aren’t supposed to be this good.

A week is really not enough time to explore everything that the Skydio can do, especially Thanksgiving week in Washington, D.C. (a no-fly zone) in early winter. But I found a nearby state park in which I could legally and safely fly the drone, and I did my best to put the Skydio 2 through its paces.

Note: Throughout this review, we’ve got a bunch of GIFs to help illustrate different features of the drone. To fit them all in, these GIFs had to be heavily compressed. Underneath each GIF is a timestamped link to this YouTube video (also available at the bottom of the post), which you can click on to see the an extended cut of the original 4K 30 fps footage. And there’s a bunch of interesting extra video in there as well.

Skydio 2 Specs

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 is primarily made out of magnesium, which (while light) is both heavier and more rigid and durable than plastic. The offset props (the back pair are above the body, and the front pair are below) are necessary to maintain the field of view of the navigation cameras.

The Skydio 2 both looks and feels like a well-designed and carefully thought-out drone. It’s solid, and a little on the heavy side as far as drones go—it’s primarily made out of magnesium, which (while light) is both heavier and more rigid and durable than plastic. The blue and black color scheme is far more attractive than you typically see with drones.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

To detect and avoid obstacles, the Skydio 2 uses an array of six 4K hemispherical cameras that feed data into an NVIDIA Jetson TX2 at 30 fps, with the drone processing a million points in 3D space per second to plan the safest path.

The Skydio 2 is built around an array of six hemispherical obstacle-avoidance cameras and the NVIDIA Jetson TX2 computing module that they’re connected to. This defines the placement of the gimbal, the motors and props, and the battery, since all of this stuff has to be as much as possible out of the view of the cameras in order for the drone to effectively avoid obstacles in any direction.

Without the bottom-mounted battery attached, the drone is quite flat. The offset props (the back pair are above the body, and the front pair are below) are necessary to maintain the field of view of the obstacle-avoidance cameras. These hemispherical cameras are on the end of each of the prop arms as well as above and below the body of the drone. They look awfully exposed, even though each is protected from ground contact by a little fin. You need to make sure these cameras are clean and smudge-free, and Skydio includes a cleaning cloth for this purpose. Underneath the drone there are slots for microSD cards, one for recording from the camera and a second one that the drone uses to store data. The attention to detail extends to the SD card insertion, which has a sloped channel that guides the card securely into its slot.

Once you snap the battery in, the drone goes from looking streamlined to looking a little chubby. Relative to other drones, the battery almost seems like an afterthought, like Skydio designed the drone and then remembered, “oops we have to add a battery somewhere, let’s just kludge it onto the bottom.” But again, the reason for this is to leave room inside the body for the NVIDIA TX2, while making sure that the battery stays out of view of the obstacle avoidance cameras.

The magnetic latching system for the battery is both solid and satisfying. I’m not sure why it’s necessary, strictly speaking, but I do like it, and it doesn’t seem like the battery will fly off even during the most aggressive maneuvers. Each battery includes an LED array that will display its charge level in 25 percent increments, as well as a button that you push to turn the drone on and off. Charging takes place via a USB-C port in the top of the drone, which I don’t like, because it means that the batteries can’t be charged on their own (like the Parrot Anafi’s battery), and that you can’t charge one battery while flying with another, like basically every other drone ever. A separate battery charger that will charge two at once is available from Skydio for an eyebrow-raising $129.

I appreciate that all of Skydio’s stuff (batteries, controller, and beacon) charges via USB-C, though. The included USB-C adapter with its beefy cable will output at up to 65 watts, which’ll charge a mostly depleted battery in under an hour. The drone turns itself on while charging, which seems unnecessary.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 is not foldable, making it not nearly as easy to transport as some other drones. But it does come with a nice case that mitigates this issue somewhat, and the drone plus two batteries end up as a passably flat package about the size of a laptop case.

The most obvious compromise that Skydio made with the Skydio 2 is that the drone is not foldable. Skydio CEO Adam Bry told us that adding folding joints to the arms of the Skydio 2 would have made calibrating all six cameras a nightmare and significantly impacted performance. This makes complete sense, of course, but it does mean that the Skydio 2 is not nearly as easy to transport as some other drones.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Folded and unfolded: The Skydio 2 compared to the Parrot Anafi (upper left) and the DJI Mavic Pro (upper right).

The Skydio 2 does come with a very nice case that mitigates this issue somewhat, and the drone plus two batteries end up as a passably flat package about the size of a laptop case. Still, it’s just not as convenient to toss into a backpack as my Anafi, although the Mavic Mini might be even more portable.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

While the Skydio 2’s case is relatively compact, the non-foldable drone is overall a significantly larger package than the Parrot Anafi.

The design of the drone leads to some other compromises as well. Since landing gear would, I assume, occlude the camera system, the drone lands directly on the bottom of its battery pack, which has a slightly rubberized pad about the size of a playing card. This does’t feel particularly stable unless you end up on a very flat surface, and made me concerned for the exposed cameras underneath the drone as well as the lower set of props. I’d recommend hand takeoffs and landings—more on those later.

Skydio 2 Camera System

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2’s primary camera is a Sony IMX577 1/2.3″ 12.3-megapixel CMOS sensor. It’s mounted to a three-axis gimbal and records 4K video at 60 fps, or 1080p video at 120 fps.

The Skydio 2 comes with a three-axis gimbal supporting a 12-megapixel camera, just enough to record 4K video at 60 fps, or 1080p video at 120 fps. Skydio has provided plenty of evidence that its imaging system is at least as good if not better than other drone cameras. Tested against my Mavic Pro and Parrot Anafi, I found no reason to doubt that. To be clear, I didn’t do exhaustive pixel-peeping comparisons between them, you’re just getting my subjective opinion that the Skydio 2 has a totally decent camera that you won’t be disappointed with. I will say that I found the HDR photo function to be not all that great under the few situations in which I tested it—after looking at a few muddy sunset shots, I turned it off and was much happier.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2’s 12-megapixel camera is solid, although we weren’t impressed with the HDR option.

The video stabilization is fantastic, to the point where watching the video footage can be underwhelming because it doesn’t reflect the motion of the drone. I almost wish there was a way to change to unstabilized (or less-stabilized) video so that the viewer could get a little more of a wild ride. Or, ideally, there’d be a way for the drone to provide you with a visualization of what it was doing using the data collected by its cameras. That’s probably wishful thinking, though. The drone itself doesn’t record audio because all you’d get would be an annoying buzz, but the app does record audio, so the audio from your phone gets combined with the drone video. Don’t expect great quality, but it’s better than nothing.

Skydio 2 App
The app is very simple compared to every other drone app I’ve tried, and that’s a good thing. Here’s what it looks like:

Image: Skydio

Trackable subjects get a blue “+” sign over them, and if you tap them, the “+” turns into a spinny blue circle. Once you’ve got a subject selected, you can choose from a variety of cinematic skills that the drone will execute while following you.

You get the controls that you need and the information that you need, and nothing else. Manual flight with the on-screen buttons works adequately, and the double-tap to fly function on the phone works surprisingly well, making it easy to direct the drone to a particular spot above the ground.

The settings menus are limited but functional, allowing you to change settings for the camera and a few basic tweaks for controlling the drone. One unique setting to the Skydio 2 is the height floor—since the drone only avoids static obstacles, you can set it to maintain a height of at least 8 feet above the ground while flying autonomously to make sure that if you’re flying around other people, it won’t run into anyone who isn’t absurdly tall and therefore asking for it.

Trackable subjects get a blue “+” sign over them in the app, and if you tap them, the “+” turns into a spinny blue circle. Once you’ve got a subject selected, you can choose from a variety of cinematic skills that the drone will execute while following you, and in addition, you can select “one-shot” skills that involve the drone performing a specific maneuver before returning to the previously selected cinematic skill. For example, you can tell the drone to orbit around you, and then do a “rocket” one-shot where it’ll fly straight up above you (recording the whole time, of course), before returning to its orbiting.

After you’re done flying, you can scroll through your videos and easily clip out excerpts from them and save them to your phone for sharing. Again, it’s a fairly simple interface without a lot of options. You could call it limited, I guess, but I appreciate that it just does a few things that you care about and otherwise doesn’t clutter itself up.

The real limitation of the app is that it uses Wi-Fi to connect to the Skydio 2, which restricts the range. To fly much beyond a hundred meters or so, you’ll need to use the controller or beacon instead.

Skydio 2 Controller and Beacon

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

While the Skydio 2 controller provides a better hands-on flight experience than with the phone, plus an extended range of up to 3.5 km, more experienced pilots may find manual control a bit frustrating, because the underlying autonomy will supersede your maneuvers when you start getting close to objects.

I was looking forward to using the controller, because with every other drone I’ve had, the precision that a physically controller provides is, I find, mandatory for a good flying experience and to get the photos and videos that you want. With Skydio 2, that’s all out the window. It’s not that the controller is useless or anything, it’s just that because the drone tracks you and avoids obstacles on its own, that level of control precision becomes largely unnecessary.

The controller itself is perfectly fine. It’s a rebranded Parrot Skycontroller3, which is the same as the one that you get with a Parrot Anafi. It’s too bad that the sticks don’t unscrew to make it a little more portable, and overall it’s functional rather than fancy, but it feels good to use and includes a sizeable antenna that makes a significant difference to the range that you get (up to 3.5 kilometers).

You definitely get a better hands-on flight experience with the controller than with the phone, so if you want to (say) zip the drone around some big open space for fun, it’s good for that. And it’s nice to be able to hand the controller to someone who’s never flown a drone before and let them take it for a spin without freaking out about them crashing it the whole time. For more experienced pilots, though, the controller is ultimately just a bit frustrating, because the underlying autonomy will supersede your control when you start getting close to objects, which (again) limits how useful the controller is relative to your phone.

I do still prefer the controller over the phone, but I’m not sure that it’s worth the extra $150, unless you plan to fly the Skydio 2 at very long distances or primarily in manual mode. And honestly, if either of those two things are your top priority, the Skydio 2 is probably not the drone for you.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 beacon uses GPS tracking to help the drone follow you, extending range up to 1.5 km. You can also fly the with the beacon alone, no phone necessary.

The purpose of the beacon, according to Skydio, is to give the drone a way of tracking you if it can’t see you, which can happen, albeit infrequently. My initial impression of the beacon was that it was primarily useful as a range-extending bridge between my phone and the drone. But I accidentally left my phone at home one day (oops) and had to fly the drone with only the beacon, and it was a surprisingly decent experience. The beacon allows for full manual control of a sort—you can tap different buttons to rotate, fly forward, and ascend or descend. This is sufficient for takeoff, landing, to make sure that the drone is looking at you when you engage visual tracking, and to rescue it if it gets trapped somewhere.

The rest of the beacon’s control functions are centered around a few different tracking modes, and with these, it works just about as well as your phone. You have fewer options overall, but all the basic stuff is there with just a few intuitive button clicks, including tracking range and angle. If you’re willing to deal with this relatively minor compromise, it’s nice to not have your phone available for other things rather than being monopolized by the drone.

Skydio 2 In Flight

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Hand takeoffs are simple and reliable.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

Starting up the Skydio 2 doesn’t require any kind of unusual calibration steps or anything like that. It prefers to be kept still, but you can start it up while holding it, it’ll just take a few seconds longer to tell you that it’s ready to go. While the drone will launch from any flat surface with significant clearance around it (it’ll tell you if it needs more room), the small footprint of the battery means that I was more comfortable hand launching it. This is not a “throw” launch; you just let the drone rest on your palm, tell it to take off, and then stay still while it gets its motors going and then gently lifts off. The lift off is so gentle that you have to be careful not to pull your hand away too soon—I did that once and the drone, being not quite ready, dropped towards the ground, but managed to recover without much drama.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Hand landings always look scary, but the Skydio 2 is incredibly gentle. After trying this once, it became the only way I ever landed the drone.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

Catching the drone for landing is perhaps very slightly more dangerous, but not any more difficult. You put the drone above and in front of you facing away, tell it to land in the app or with the beacon, and then put your hand underneath it to grasp it as it slowly descends. It settles delicately and promptly turns itself off. Every drone should land this way. The battery pack provides a good place to grip, although you do have to be mindful of the forward set of props, which (since they’re the pair that are beneath the body of drone) are quite close to your fingers. You’ll certainly be mindful after you catch a blade with your fingers once. Which I did. For the purposes of this review and totally not by accident. No damage, for the record.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

You won’t be disappointed with the Skydio 2’s in-flight performance, unless you’re looking for a dedicated racing drone.

In normal flight, the Skydio 2 performs as well as you’d expect. It’s stable and manages light to moderate wind without any problems, although I did notice some occasional lateral drifting when the drone should have been in a stationary hover. While the controller gains are adjustable, the Skydio 2 isn’t quite as aggressive in flight as my Mavic Pro on Sport Mode, but again, if you’re looking for a high-speed drone, that’s really not what the Skydio is all about.

The Skydio 2 is substantially louder than my Anafi, although the Anafi is notably quiet for a drone. It’s not annoying to hear (not a high-pitched whine), but you can hear it from a ways away, and farther away than my Mavic Pro. I’m not sure whether that’s because of the absolute volume or the volume plus the pitch. In some ways, this is a feature, since you can hear the drone following you even if you’re not looking at it, you just need to be aware of the noise it makes when you’re flying it around people.

Obstacle Avoidance
The primary reason Skydio 2 is the drone that you want to fly is because of its autonomous subject tracking and obstacle avoidance. Skydio’s PR videos make this capability look almost too good, and since I hadn’t tried out one of their drones before, the first thing I did with it was exactly what you’d expect: attempt to fly it directly into the nearest tree.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 deftly slides around trees and branches. The control inputs here were simple “forward” or “turn,” all obstacle avoidance is autonomous.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

And it just won’t do it. It slows down a bit, and then slides right around one tree after another, going over and under and around branches. I pointed the drone into a forest and just held down “forward” and away it went, without any fuss, effortlessly ducking and weaving its way around. Of course, it wasn’t effortless at all—six 4K cameras were feeding data into the NVIDIA TX2 at 30 fps, and the drone was processing a million points in 3D space per second to plan the safest path while simultaneously taking into account where I wanted it to go. I spent about 10 more minutes doing my level best to crash the drone into anything at all using a flying technique probably best described as “reckless,” but the drone was utterly unfazed. It’s incredible.

What knocked my socks off was telling the drone to pass through treetops—in the clip below, I’m just telling the drone to fly straight down. Watch as it weaves its way through gaps between the branches:

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The result of parking the Skydio 2 above some trees and holding “down” on the controller is this impressive fully autonomous descent through the branches.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

Here’s one more example, where I sent the drone across a lake and started poking around in a tree. Sometimes the Skydio 2 isn’t sure where you want it to go, and you have to give it a little bit of a nudge in a clear direction, but that’s it.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

In obstacle-heavy environments, the Skydio 2 prudently slows down, but it can pick its way through almost anything that it can see.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

It’s important to keep in mind that all of the Skydio 2’s intelligence is based on vision. It uses cameras to see the world, which means that it has similar challenges as your eyes do. Specifically, Skydio warns against flying in the following conditions:

Skydio 2 can’t see certain visually challenging obstacles. Do not fly around thin branches, telephone or power lines, ropes, netting, wires, chain link fencing or other objects less than ½ inch in diameter.
Do not fly around transparent surfaces like windows or reflective surfaces like mirrors greater than 60 cm wide.
When the sun is low on the horizon, it can temporarily blind Skydio 2’s cameras depending on the angle of flight. Your drone may be cautious or jerky when flying directly toward the sun.

Basically, if you’d have trouble seeing a thing, or seeing under some specific flight conditions, then the Skydio 2 almost certainly will also. It gets even more problematic when challenging obstacles are combined with challenging flight conditions, which is what I’m pretty sure led to the only near-crash I had with the drone. Here’s a video:

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Flying around very thin branches and into the sun can cause problems for the Skydio 2’s obstacle avoidance.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

I had the Skydio 2 set to follow me on my bike (more about following and tracking in a bit). It was mid afternoon, but since it’s late fall here in Washington, D.C., the sun doesn’t get much higher than 30 degrees above the horizon. Late fall also means that most of the deciduous trees have lost their leaves, and so there are a bunch of skinny branches all over the place. The drone was doing a pretty good job of following me along the road at a relatively slow speed, and then it clipped the branch that you can just barely see in the video above. It recovered in an acrobatic maneuver that has been mostly video-stabilized out, and resumed tracking me before I freaked and told it to land. You can see another example here, where the drone (again) clips a branch that has the sun behind it, and this clip shows me stopping my bike before the drone runs into another branch in a similar orientation. As the video shows, it’s very hard to see the branches until it’s too late.

As far as I can tell, the drone is no worse for wear from any of this, apart from a small nick in one of the props. But, this is a good illustration of a problematic situation for the Skydio 2: flying into a low sun angle around small bare branches. Should I not have been flying the drone in this situation? It’s hard to say. These probably qualify as “thin branches,” although there was plenty of room along with middle of the road. There is an open question with the Skydio 2 as to exactly how much responsibility the user should have about when and where it’s safe to fly—for branches, how thin is too thin? How low can the sun be? What if the branches are only kinda thin and the sun is only kinda low, but it’s also a little windy? Better to be safe than sorry, of course, but there’s really no way for the user (or the drone) to know what it can’t handle until it can’t handle it.

Edge cases like these aside, the obstacle avoidance just works. Even if you’re not deliberately trying to fly into branches, it’s keeping a lookout for you all the time, which means that flying the drone goes from somewhat stressful to just pure fun. I can’t emphasize enough how amazing it is to be able to fly without worrying about running into things, and how great it feels to be able to hand the controller to someone who’s never flown a drone before and say, with complete confidence, “go ahead, fly it around!”

Skydio 2 vs. DJI Mavic

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Both the Skydio 2 and many models of DJI’s Mavic use visual obstacle avoidance, but the Skydio 2 is so much more advanced that you can’t really compare the two systems.

It’s important to note that there’s a huge difference between the sort of obstacle avoidance that you get with a DJI Mavic, and the sort of obstacle avoidance that you get with the Skydio 2. The objective of the Mavic’s obstacle avoidance is really there to prevent you from accidentally running into things, and in that capacity, it usually works. But there are two things to keep in mind here—first, not running into things is not the same as avoiding things, because avoiding things means planning several steps ahead, not just one step.

Second, there’s the fact that the Mavic’s obstacle detection only works most of the time. Fundamentally, I don’t trust my Mavic Pro, because sometimes the safety system doesn’t kick in for whatever reason and the drone ends up alarmingly close to something. And that’s actually fine, because with the Mavic, I expect to be piloting it. It’s for this same reason that I don’t care that my Parrot Anafi doesn’t have obstacle avoidance at all: I’m piloting it anyway, and I’m a careful pilot, so it just doesn’t matter. The Skydio 2 is totally and completely different. It’s in a class by itself, and you can’t compare what it can do to what anything else out there right now. Period.

Skydio 2 Tracking
Skydio’s big selling point on the Skydio 2 is that it’ll autonomously track you while avoiding obstacles. It does this visually, by watching where you go, predicting your future motion, and then planning its own motion to keep you in frame. The works better than you might expect, in that it’s really very good at not losing you. Obviously, the drone prioritizes not running into stuff over tracking you, which means that it may not always be where you feel like it should be. It’s probably trying to get there, but in obstacle dense environments, it can take some creative paths.

Having said that, I found it to be very consistent with keeping me in the frame, and I only managed to lose it when changing direction while fully occluded by an obstacle, or while it was executing an avoidance maneuver that was more dynamic than normal. If you deliberately try to hide from the drone it’s not that hard to do so if there are enough obstacles around, but I didn’t find the tracking to be something that I had to worry about it most cases. When tracking does fail and you’re not using the beacon, the drone will come to a hover. It won’t try and find you, but it will reacquire you if you get back into its field of view.

The Skydio 2 had no problem tracking me running through fairly dense trees:

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 had no problem chasing me around through these trees, even while I was asking it to continually change its tracking angle.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

It also managed to keep up with me as I rode my bike along a tree-lined road:

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 is easily fast enough to keep up with me on a bike, even while avoiding tree branches.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

It lost me when I asked it to follow very close behind me as I wove through some particularly branch-y trees, but it fails more or less gracefully by just sort of nope-ing out of situations when they start to get bad and coming to a hover somewhere safe.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Skydio 2 knows better than to put itself into situations that it can’t handle, and will bail to a safe spot if things get too complicated.
Click here for a full resolution clip.

After a few days of playing with the drone, I started to get to the point where I could set it to track me and then just forget about it while I rode my bike or whatever, as opposed to constantly turning around to make sure it was still behind me, which is what I was doing initially. It’s a level of trust that I don’t think would be possible with any other drone.

Should You Buy a Skydio 2?

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

We think the Skydio 2 is fun and relaxing to fly, with unique autonomous intelligence that makes it worth the cost.

In case I haven’t said it often enough in this review, the Skydio 2 is an incredible piece of technology. As far as I know (as a robotics journalist, mind you), this represents the state of the art in commercial drone autonomy, and quite possibly the state of the art in drone autonomy, period. And it’s available for $999, which is expensive, but less money than a Mavic Pro 2. If you’re interested in a new drone, you should absolutely consider the Skydio 2.

There are some things to keep in mind—battery life is a solid but not stellar 20 minutes. Extra batteries are expensive at $99 each (the base kit includes just one). The controller and the beacon are also expensive, at $150 each. And while I think the Skydio 2 is definitely the drone you want to fly, it may not be the drone you want to travel with, since it’s bulky compared to other options.

But there’s no denying the fact that the experience is uniquely magical. Once you’ve flown the Skydio 2, you won’t want to fly anything else. This drone makes it possible to get pictures and videos that would be otherwise impossible, and you can do it completely on your own. You can trust the drone to do what it promises, as long as you’re mindful of some basic and common sense safety guidelines. And we’ve been told that the drone is only going to get smarter and more capable over time.

If you buy a Skydio 2, it comes with the following warranty from Skydio:

“If you’re operating your Skydio 2 within our Safe Flight guidelines, and it crashes, we’ll repair or replace it for free.”

Skydio trusts their drone to go out into a chaotic and unstructured world and dodge just about anything that comes its way. And after a week with this drone, I can see how they’re able to offer this kind of guarantee. This is the kind of autonomy that robots have been promising for years, and the Skydio 2 makes it real.

Detailed technical specifications are available on Skydio’s website, and if you have any questions, post a comment—we’ve got this drone for a little while longer, and I’d be happy to try out (nearly) anything with it.

Skydio 2 Review Video Highlights
This video is about 7 minutes of 4K, 30 fps footage directly from the Skydio 2. The only editing I did was cutting clips together, no stabilization or color correcting or anything like that. The drone will record in 4K 60 fps, so it gets smoother than this, but I, er, forgot to change the setting.

[ Skydio ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436256 Alphabet Is Developing a Robot to Take ...

Robots excel at carrying out specialized tasks in controlled environments, but put them in your average office and they’d be lost. Alphabet wants to change that by developing what they call the Everyday Robot, which could learn to help us out with our daily chores.

For a long time most robots were painstakingly hand-coded to carry out their functions, but since the deep learning revolution earlier this decade there’s been a growing effort to imbue them with AI that lets them learn new tasks through experience.

That’s led to some impressive breakthroughs, like a robotic hand nimble enough to solve a Rubik’s cube and a robotic arm that can accurately toss bananas across a room.

And it turns out Alphabet’s early-stage research and development division, Alphabet X, has also secretly been using similar machine learning techniques to develop robots adaptable enough to carry out a range of tasks in cluttered and unpredictable human environments like homes and offices.

The robots they’ve built combine a wheeled base with a single arm and a head full of sensors (including LIDAR) for 3D scanning, borrowed from Alphabet’s self-driving car division, Waymo.

At the minute, though, they’re largely restricted to sorting trash for recycling, project leader Hans Peter Brondmo writes in a blog post. While that might sound mundane, identifying different kinds of trash, grasping it, and moving it to the correct bin is still a difficult thing for a robot to do consistently. Some of the robots also have to navigate around the office to sort trash at various recycling stations.

Alphabet says even its human staff were getting it wrong 20 percent of the time, but after several months of training the robots have managed to get that down to 3.5 percent.

Every day, 30 robots toil away in what’s been dubbed the “playpen” sorting trash, and then every night thousands of virtual robots continue to practice in a simulation. This experience is then used to update the robots’ control algorithms each night. All the robots also share their experiences with the others through a process called collaborative learning.

The process isn’t flawless, though. Simonite notes that while the robots exhibit some uncannily smart behaviors, like stirring piles of rubbish to make it easier to grab specific items, they also frequently miss or fumble the objects they’re trying to grasp.

Nonetheless, the project’s leaders are happy with their progress so far. And the hope is that creating robots that are able to learn from little more than experience in complex environments like an office should be a first step towards general-purpose robots that can pick up a variety of useful skills to assist humans.

Taking that next step will be the major test of the project. So far there’s been limited evidence that experience gained by robots in one task can be transferred to learning another. That’s something the group hopes to demonstrate next year.

And it seems there may be more robot news coming out of Alphabet X soon. The group has several other robotics “moonshots” in the pipeline, built on technology and talent transferred over in 2016 from the remains of a broadly unsuccessful splurge on robotics startups by former Google executive Andy Rubin.

Whether this robotics renaissance at Alphabet will finally help robots break into our homes and offices remains to be seen, but with the resources they have at hand, they just may be able to make it happen.

Image Credit: Everyday Robot, Alphabet X Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots