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We’re very familiar with a wide variety of transforming robots—whether for submarines or drones, transformation is a way of making a single robot adaptable to different environments or tasks. Usually, these robots are restricted to a discrete number of configurations—perhaps two or three different forms—because of the constraints imposed by the rigid structures that robots are typically made of.
Soft robotics has the potential to change all this, with robots that don’t have fixed forms but instead can transform themselves into whatever shape will enable them to do what they need to do. At ICRA in Montreal earlier this year, researchers from Yale University demonstrated a creative approach toward a transforming robot powered by string and air, with a body made primarily out of clay.
Photo: Evan Ackerman
The robot is actuated by two different kinds of “skin,” one layered on top of another. There’s a locomotion skin, made of a pattern of pneumatic bladders that can roll the robot forward or backward when the bladders are inflated sequentially. On top of that is the morphing skin, which is cable-driven, and can sculpt the underlying material into a variety of shapes, including spheres, cylinders, and dumbbells. The robot itself consists of both of those skins wrapped around a chunk of clay, with the actuators driven by offboard power and control. Here it is in action:
The Yale researchers have been experimenting with morphing robots that use foams and tensegrity structures for their bodies, but that stuff provides a “restoring force,” springing back into its original shape once the actuation stops. Clay is different because it holds whatever shape it’s formed into, making the robot more energy efficient. And if the dumbbell shape stops being useful, the morphing layer can just squeeze it back into a cylinder or a sphere.
While this robot, and the sample transformation shown in the video, are relatively simplistic, the researchers suggest some ways in which a more complex version could be used in the future:
Photo: IEEE Xplore
This robot’s morphing skin sculpts its clay body into different shapes.
Applications where morphing and locomotion might serve as complementary functions are abundant. For the example skins presented in this work, a search-and-rescue operation could use the clay as a medium to hold a payload such as sensors or transmitters. More broadly, applications include resource-limited conditions where supply chains for materiel are sparse. For example, the morphing sequence shown in Fig. 4 [above] could be used to transform from a rolling sphere to a pseudo-jointed robotic arm. With such a morphing system, it would be possible to robotically morph matter into different forms to perform different functions.
Read this article for free on IEEE Xplore until 5 September 2019
Morphing Robots Using Robotic Skins That Sculpt Clay, by Dylan S. Shah, Michelle C. Yuen, Liana G. Tilton, Ellen J. Yang, and Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio from Yale University, was presented at ICRA 2019 in Montreal.
[ Yale Faboratory ]
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Life is pretty different now than it was 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. It’s sort of exciting, and sort of scary. And hold onto your hat, because it’s going to keep changing—even faster than it already has been.
The good news is, maybe there won’t be too many big surprises, because the future will be shaped by trends that have already been set in motion. According to Singularity University co-founder and XPRIZE founder Peter Diamandis, a lot of these trends are unstoppable—but they’re also pretty predictable.
At SU’s Global Summit, taking place this week in San Francisco, Diamandis outlined some of the meta-trends he believes are key to how we’ll live our lives and do business in the (not too distant) future.
Increasing Global Abundance
Resources are becoming more abundant all over the world, and fewer people are seeing their lives limited by scarcity. “It’s hard for us to realize this as we see crisis news, but what people have access to is more abundant than ever before,” Diamandis said. Products and services are becoming cheaper and thus available to more people, and having more resources then enables people to create more, thus producing even more resources—and so on.
Need evidence? The proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty is currently lower than it’s ever been. The average human life expectancy is longer than it’s ever been. The costs of day-to-day needs like food, energy, transportation, and communications are on a downward trend.
Take energy. In most of the world, though its costs are decreasing, it’s still a fairly precious commodity; we turn off our lights and our air conditioners when we don’t need them (ideally, both to save money and to avoid wastefulness). But the cost of solar energy has plummeted, and the storage capacity of batteries is improving, and solar technology is steadily getting more efficient. Bids for new solar power plants in the past few years have broken each other’s records for lowest cost per kilowatt hour.
“We’re not far from a penny per kilowatt hour for energy from the sun,” Diamandis said. “And if you’ve got energy, you’ve got water.” Desalination, for one, will be much more widely feasible once the cost of the energy needed for it drops.
Knowledge is perhaps the most crucial resource that’s going from scarce to abundant. All the world’s knowledge is now at the fingertips of anyone who has a mobile phone and an internet connection—and the number of people connected is only going to grow. “Everyone is being connected at gigabit connection speeds, and this will be transformative,” Diamandis said. “We’re heading towards a world where anyone can know anything at any time.”
Increasing Capital Abundance
It’s not just goods, services, and knowledge that are becoming more plentiful. Money is, too—particularly money for business. “There’s more and more capital available to invest in companies,” Diamandis said. As a result, more people are getting the chance to bring their world-changing ideas to life.
Venture capital investments reached a new record of $130 billion in 2018, up from $84 billion in 2017—and that’s just in the US. Globally, VC funding grew 21 percent from 2017 to a total of $207 billion in 2018.
Through crowdfunding, any person in any part of the world can present their idea and ask for funding. That funding can come in the form of a loan, an equity investment, a reward, or an advanced purchase of the proposed product or service. “Crowdfunding means it doesn’t matter where you live, if you have a great idea you can get it funded by people from all over the world,” Diamandis said.
All this is making a difference; the number of unicorns—privately-held startups valued at over $1 billion—currently stands at an astounding 360.
One of the reasons why the world is getting better, Diamandis believes, is because entrepreneurs are trying more crazy ideas—not ideas that are reasonable or predictable or linear, but ideas that seem absurd at first, then eventually end up changing the world.
Everyone and Everything, Connected
As already noted, knowledge is becoming abundant thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones and wireless internet; everyone’s getting connected. In the next decade or sooner, connectivity will reach every person in the world. 5G is being tested and offered for the first time this year, and companies like Google, SpaceX, OneWeb, and Amazon are racing to develop global satellite internet constellations, whether by launching 12,000 satellites, as SpaceX’s Starlink is doing, or by floating giant balloons into the stratosphere like Google’s Project Loon.
“We’re about to reach a period of time in the next four to six years where we’re going from half the world’s people being connected to the whole world being connected,” Diamandis said. “What happens when 4.2 billion new minds come online? They’re all going to want to create, discover, consume, and invent.”
And it doesn’t stop at connecting people. Things are becoming more connected too. “By 2020 there will be over 20 billion connected devices and more than one trillion sensors,” Diamandis said. By 2030, those projections go up to 500 billion and 100 trillion. Think about it: there’s home devices like refrigerators, TVs, dishwashers, digital assistants, and even toasters. There’s city infrastructure, from stoplights to cameras to public transportation like buses or bike sharing. It’s all getting smart and connected.
Soon we’ll be adding autonomous cars to the mix, and an unimaginable glut of data to go with them. Every turn, every stop, every acceleration will be a data point. Some cars already collect over 25 gigabytes of data per hour, Diamandis said, and car data is projected to generate $750 billion of revenue by 2030.
“You’re going to start asking questions that were never askable before, because the data is now there to be mined,” he said.
Increasing Human Intelligence
Indeed, we’ll have data on everything we could possibly want data on. We’ll also soon have what Diamandis calls just-in-time education, where 5G combined with artificial intelligence and augmented reality will allow you to learn something in the moment you need it. “It’s not going and studying, it’s where your AR glasses show you how to do an emergency surgery, or fix something, or program something,” he said.
We’re also at the beginning of massive investments in research working towards connecting our brains to the cloud. “Right now, everything we think, feel, hear, or learn is confined in our synaptic connections,” Diamandis said. What will it look like when that’s no longer the case? Companies like Kernel, Neuralink, Open Water, Facebook, Google, and IBM are all investing billions of dollars into brain-machine interface research.
Increasing Human Longevity
One of the most important problems we’ll use our newfound intelligence to solve is that of our own health and mortality, making 100 years old the new 60—then eventually, 120 or 150.
“Our bodies were never evolved to live past age 30,” Diamandis said. “You’d go into puberty at age 13 and have a baby, and by the time you were 26 your baby was having a baby.”
Seeing how drastically our lifespans have changed over time makes you wonder what aging even is; is it natural, or is it a disease? Many companies are treating it as one, and using technologies like senolytics, CRISPR, and stem cell therapy to try to cure it. Scaffolds of human organs can now be 3D printed then populated with the recipient’s own stem cells so that their bodies won’t reject the transplant. Companies are testing small-molecule pharmaceuticals that can stop various forms of cancer.
“We don’t truly know what’s going on inside our bodies—but we can,” Diamandis said. “We’re going to be able to track our bodies and find disease at stage zero.”
The world is far from perfect—that’s not hard to see. What’s less obvious but just as true is that we’re living in an amazing time. More people are coming together, and they have more access to information, and that information moves faster, than ever before.
“I don’t think any of us understand how fast the world is changing,” Diamandis said. “Most people are fearful about the future. But we should be excited about the tools we now have to solve the world’s problems.”
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Trees are a low-tech, high-efficiency way to offset much of humankind’s negative impact on the climate. What’s even better, we have plenty of room for a lot more of them.
A new study conducted by researchers at Switzerland’s ETH-Zürich, published in Science, details how Earth could support almost an additional billion hectares of trees without the new forests pushing into existing urban or agricultural areas. Once the trees grow to maturity, they could store more than 200 billion metric tons of carbon.
Great news indeed, but it still leaves us with some huge unanswered questions. Where and how are we going to plant all the new trees? What kind of trees should we plant? How can we ensure that the new forests become a boon for people in those areas?
Answers to all of the above likely involve technology.
Math + Trees = Challenges
The ETH-Zürich research team combined Google Earth mapping software with a database of nearly 80,000 existing forests to create a predictive model for optimal planting locations. In total, 0.9 billion hectares of new, continuous forest could be planted. Once mature, the 500 billion new trees in these forests would be capable of storing about two-thirds of the carbon we have emitted since the industrial revolution.
Other researchers have noted that the study may overestimate how efficient trees are at storing carbon, as well as underestimate how much carbon humans have emitted over time. However, all seem to agree that new forests would offset much of our cumulative carbon emissions—still an impressive feat as the target of keeping global warming this century at under 1.5 degrees Celsius becomes harder and harder to reach.
Recently, there was a story about a Brazilian couple who replanted trees in the valley where they live. The couple planted about 2.7 million trees in two decades. Back-of-the-napkin math shows that they on average planted 370 trees a day, meaning planting 500 billion trees would take about 3.7 million years. While an over-simplification, the point is that planting trees by hand is not realistic. Even with a million people going at a rate of 370 trees a day, it would take 83 years. Current technologies are also not likely to be able to meet the challenge, especially in remote locations.
Technology can speed up the planting process, including a new generation of drones that take tree planting to the skies. Drone planting generally involves dropping biodegradable seed pods at a designated area. The pods dissolve over time, and the tree seeds grow in the earth below. DroneSeed is one example; its 55-pound drones can plant up to 800 seeds an hour. Another startup, Biocarbon Engineering, has used various techniques, including drones, to plant 38 different species of trees across three continents.
Drone planting has distinct advantages when it comes to planting in hard-to-access areas—one example is mangrove forests, which are disappearing rapidly, increasing the risk of floods and storm surges.
Challenges include increasing the range and speed of drone planting, and perhaps most importantly, the success rate, as automatic planting from a height is still likely to be less accurate when it comes to what depth the tree saplings are planted. However, drones are already showing impressive numbers for sapling survival rates.
AI, Sensors, and Eye-In-the-Sky
Planting the trees is the first step in a long road toward an actual forest. Companies are leveraging artificial intelligence and satellite imagery in a multitude of ways to increase protection and understanding of forested areas.
20tree.ai, a Portugal-based startup, uses AI to analyze satellite imagery and monitor the state of entire forests at a fraction of the cost of manual monitoring. The approach can lead to faster identification of threats like pest infestation and a better understanding of the state of forests.
AI can also play a pivotal role in protecting existing forest areas by predicting where deforestation is likely to occur.
Closer to the ground—and sometimes in it—new networks of sensors can provide detailed information about the state and needs of trees. One such project is Trace, where individual trees are equipped with a TreeTalker, an internet of things-based device that can provide real-time monitoring of the tree’s functions and well-being. The information can be used to, among other things, optimize the use of available resources, such as providing the exact amount of water a tree needs.
Budding Technologies Are Controversial
Trees are in many ways fauna’s marathon runners—slow-growing and sturdy, but still susceptible to sickness and pests. Many deforested areas are likely not as rich in nutrients as they once were, which could slow down reforestation. Much of the positive impact that said trees could have on carbon levels in the atmosphere is likely decades away.
Bioengineering, for example through CRISPR, could provide solutions, making trees more resistant and faster-growing. Such technologies are being explored in relation to Ghana’s at-risk cocoa trees. Other exponential technologies could also hold much future potential—for instance micro-robots to assist the dwindling number of bees with pollination.
These technologies remain mired in controversy, and perhaps rightfully so. Bioengineering’s massive potential is for many offset by the inherent risks of engineered plants out-competing existing fauna or growing beyond our control. Micro-robots for pollination may solve a problem, but don’t do much to address the root cause: that we seem to be disrupting and destroying integral parts of natural cycles.
Tech Not The Whole Answer
So, is it realistic to plant 500 billion new trees? The short answer would be that yes, it’s possible—with the help of technology.
However, there are many unanswered challenges. For example, many of areas identified by the ETH-Zürich research team are not readily available for reforestation. Some are currently reserved for grazing, others owned by private entities, and others again are located in remote areas or areas prone to political instability, beyond the reach of most replanting efforts.
If we do wish to plant 500 billion trees to offset some of the negative impacts we have had on the planet, we might well want to combine the best of exponential technology with reforestation as well as a move to other forms of agriculture.
Such an approach might also help address a major issue: that few of the proposed new forests will likely succeed without ensuring that people living in and around the areas where reforestation takes place become involved, and can reap rewards from turning arable land into forests.
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