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As useful as conventional fixed-wing and quadrotor drones have become, they still tend to be relatively complicated, expensive machines that you really want to be able to use more than once. When a one-way trip is all that you have in mind, you want something simple, reliable, and cheap, and we’ve seen a bunch of different designs for drone gliders that more or less fulfill those criteria.
For an even simpler gliding design, you want to minimize both airframe mass and control surfaces, and the maple tree provides some inspiration in the form of samara, those distinctive seed pods that whirl to the ground in the fall. Samara are essentially just an unbalanced wing that spins, and while the natural ones don’t steer, adding an actuated flap to the robotic version and moving it at just the right time results in enough controllability to aim for a specific point on the ground.
Roboticists at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) have been experimenting with samara-inspired drones, and in a new paper in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters they explore what happens if you attach five of the drones together and then separate them in mid air.
Image: Singapore University of Technology and Design
The drone with all five wings attached (top left), and details of the individual wings: (a) smaller 44.9-gram wing for semi-indoor testing; (b) larger 83.4-gram wing able to carry a Pixracer, GPS, and magnetometer for directional control experiments.
Fundamentally, a samara design acts as a decelerator for an aerial payload. You can think of it like a parachute: It makes sure that whatever you toss out of an airplane gets to the ground intact rather than just smashing itself to bits on impact. Steering is possible, but you don’t get a lot of stability or precision control. The RA-L paper describes one solution to this, which is to collaboratively use five drones at once in a configuration that looks a bit like a helicopter rotor.
And once the multi-drone is right where you want it, the five individual samara drones can split off all at once, heading out on their own missions. It's quite a sight:
The concept features a collaborative autorotation in the initial stage of drop whereby several wings are attached to each other to form a rotor hub. The combined form achieves higher rotational energy and a collaborative control strategy is possible. Once closer to the ground, they can exit the collaborative form and continue to descend to unique destinations. A section of each wing forms a flap and a small actuator changes its pitch cyclically. Since all wing-flaps can actuate simultaneously in collaborative mode, better maneuverability is possible, hence higher resistance against environmental conditions. The vertical and horizontal speeds can be controlled to a certain extent, allowing it to navigate towards a target location and land softly.
The samara autorotating wing drones themselves could conceivably carry small payloads like sensors or emergency medical supplies, with these small-scale versions in the video able to handle an extra 30 grams of payload. While they might not have as much capacity as a traditional fixed-wing glider, they have the advantage of being able to descent vertically, and can perform better than a parachute due to their ability to steer. The researchers plan on improving the design of their little drones, with the goal of increasing the rotation speed and improving the control performance of both the individual drones and the multi-wing collaborative version.
“Dynamics and Control of a Collaborative and Separating Descent of Samara Autorotating Wings,” by Shane Kyi Hla Win, Luke Soe Thura Win, Danial Sufiyan, Gim Song Soh, and Shaohui Foong from Singapore University of Technology and Design, appears in the current issue of IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters.
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Universal Robots, already the dominant force in collaborative robots, is flexing its muscles in an effort to further expand its reach in the cobots market. The Danish company is introducing today the UR16e, its strongest robotic arm yet, with a payload capability of 16 kilograms (35.3 lbs), reach of 900 millimeters, and repeatability of +/- 0.05 mm.
Universal says the new “heavy duty payload cobot” will allow customers to automate a broader range of processes, including packaging and palletizing, nut and screw driving, and high-payload and CNC machine tending.
In early 2015, Universal introduced the UR3, its smallest robot, which joined the UR5 and the flagship UR10, offering a payload capability of 3, 5, and 10 kg, respectively. Now the company is going in the other direction, announcing a bigger, stronger arm.
“With Universal joining its competitors in extending the reach and payload capacity of its cobots, a new standard of capability is forming,” Rian Whitton, a senior analyst at ABI Research, in London, tweeted.
Like its predecessors, the UR16e is part of Universal’s e-Series platform, which features 6 degrees of freedom and force/torque sensing on the tool flange. The UR family of cobots have stood out from the competition by being versatile in a variety of applications and, most important, easy to deploy and program. Universal didn’t release UR16e’s price, saying only that it is about 10 percent higher than that of the UR10e, which is about $50,000, depending on the configuration.
Jürgen von Hollen, president of Universal Robots, says the company decided to launch the UR16e after studying the market and talking to customers about their needs. “What came out of that process is we understood payload was a true barrier for a lot of customers,” he tells IEEE Spectrum. The 16 kg payload will be particularly useful for applications that require mounting specialized tools on the arm to perform tasks like screw driving and machine tending, he explains. Customers that could benefit from such applications include manufacturing, material handling, and automotive companies.
“We’ve added the payload, and that will open up that market for us,” von Hollen says.
The difference between Universal and Rethink
Universal has grown by leaps and bounds since its founding in 2008. By 2015, it had sold more than 5,000 robots; that number was close to 40,000 as of last year. During the same period, revenue more than doubled from about $100 million to $234 million. At a time when a string of robot makers have shuttered, including most notably Rethink Robotics, a cobots pioneer and Universal’s biggest rival, Universal finds itself in an enviable position, having amassed a commanding market share, estimated at between 50 to 60 percent.
About Rethink, von Hollen says the Boston-based company was a “good competitor,” helping disseminate the advantages and possibilities of cobots. “When Rethink basically ended it was more of a negative than a positive, from my perspective,” he says. In his view, a major difference between the two companies is that Rethink focused on delivering full-fledged applications to customers, whereas Universal focused on delivering a product to the market and letting the system integrators and sales partners deploy the robots to the customer base.
“We’ve always been very focused on delivering the product, whereas I think Rethink was much more focused on applications, very early on, and they added a level of complexity to their company that made it become very de-focused,” he says.
The collaborative robots market: massive growth
And yet, despite its success, Universal is still tiny when you compare it to the giants of industrial automation, which include companies like ABB, Fanuc, Yaskawa, and Kuka, with revenue in the billions of dollars. Although some of these companies have added cobots to their product portfolios—ABB’s YuMi, for example—that market represents a drop in the bucket when you consider global robot sales: The size of the cobots market was estimated at $700 million in 2018, whereas the global market for industrial robot systems (including software, peripherals, and system engineering) is close to $50 billion.
Von Hollen notes that cobots are expected to go through an impressive growth curve—nearly 50 percent year after year until 2025, when sales will reach between $9 to $12 billion. If Universal can maintain its dominance and capture a big slice of that market, it’ll add up to a nice sum. To get there, Universal is not alone: It is backed by U.S. electronics testing equipment maker Teradyne, which acquired Universal in 2015 for $285 million.
“The amount of resources we invest year over year matches the growth we had on sales,” von Hollen says. Universal currently has more than 650 employees, most based at its headquarters in Odense, Denmark, and the rest scattered in 27 offices in 18 countries. “No other company [in the cobots segment] is so focused on one product.”
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Argonne National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory will be among the first organizations to install AI computers made from the largest silicon chip ever built. Last month, Cerebras Systems unveiled a 46,225-square millimeter chip with 1.2 trillion transistors designed to speed the training of neural networks. Today, such training is often done in large data centers using GPU-based servers. Cerebras plans to begin selling computers based on the notebook-size chip in the 4th quarter of this year.
“The opportunity to incorporate the largest and fastest AI chip ever—the Cerebras WSE—into our advanced computing infrastructure will enable us to dramatically accelerate our deep learning research in science, engineering, and health” Rick Stevens, head of computing at Argonne National Laboratory, said in a press release. “It will allow us to invent and test more algorithms, to more rapidly explore ideas, and to more quickly identify opportunities for scientific progress.”
Argonne and Lawrence Livermore are the first DOE entities to participate in what is expected to be a multi-year, multi-lab partnership. Cerebras plans to expand to other laboratories in the coming months.
Cerebras computers will be integrated into existing supercomputers at the two DOE labs to act as AI accelerators for those machines. In 2021, Argonne plans to become home to the United States’ first exascale computer, named Aurora; it will be capable of more than 1 billion billion calculations per second. Intel and Cray are the leaders on that $500 million project. The national laboratory is already home to Mira, the 24th-most powerful supercomputer in the world, and Theta, the 28th-most powerful. Lawrence Livermore is also on track to achieve exascale with El Capitan, a $600-million, 1.5-exaflop machine set to go live in late 2022. The lab is also home to the number-two-ranked Sierra supercomputer and the number-10-ranked Lassen.
The U.S. Energy Department established the Artificial Intelligence and Technology Office earlier this month to better take advantage of AI for solving the kinds of problems the U.S. national laboratories tackle. Continue reading
After 25 million games, the AI agents playing hide-and-seek with each other had mastered four basic game strategies. The researchers expected that part.
After a total of 380 million games, the AI players developed strategies that the researchers didn’t know were possible in the game environment—which the researchers had themselves created. That was the part that surprised the team at OpenAI, a research company based in San Francisco.
The AI players learned everything via a machine learning technique known as reinforcement learning. In this learning method, AI agents start out by taking random actions. Sometimes those random actions produce desired results, which earn them rewards. Via trial-and-error on a massive scale, they can learn sophisticated strategies.
In the context of games, this process can be abetted by having the AI play against another version of itself, ensuring that the opponents will be evenly matched. It also locks the AI into a process of one-upmanship, where any new strategy that emerges forces the opponent to search for a countermeasure. Over time, this “self-play” amounted to what the researchers call an “auto-curriculum.”
According to OpenAI researcher Igor Mordatch, this experiment shows that self-play “is enough for the agents to learn surprising behaviors on their own—it’s like children playing with each other.”
Reinforcement is a hot field of AI research right now. OpenAI’s researchers used the technique when they trained a team of bots to play the video game Dota 2, which squashed a world-champion human team last April. The Alphabet subsidiary DeepMind has used it to triumph in the ancient board game Go and the video game StarCraft.
Aniruddha Kembhavi, a researcher at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) in Seattle, says games such as hide-and-seek offer a good way for AI agents to learn “foundational skills.” He worked on a team that taught their AllenAI to play Pictionary with humans, viewing the gameplay as a way for the AI to work on common sense reasoning and communication. “We are, however, quite far away from being able to translate these preliminary findings in highly simplified environments into the real world,” says Kembhavi.
AI agents construct a fort during a hide-and-seek game developed by OpenAI.
In OpenAI’s game of hide-and-seek, both the hiders and the seekers received a reward only if they won the game, leaving the AI players to develop their own strategies. Within a simple 3D environment containing walls, blocks, and ramps, the players first learned to run around and chase each other (strategy 1). The hiders next learned to move the blocks around to build forts (2), and then the seekers learned to move the ramps (3), enabling them to jump inside the forts. Then the hiders learned to move all the ramps into their forts before the seekers could use them (4).
The two strategies that surprised the researchers came next. First the seekers learned that they could jump onto a box and “surf” it over to a fort (5), allowing them to jump in—a maneuver that the researchers hadn’t realized was physically possible in the game environment. So as a final countermeasure, the hiders learned to lock all the boxes into place (6) so they weren’t available for use as surfboards.
An AI agent uses a nearby box to surf its way into a competitor’s fort.
In this circumstance, having AI agents behave in an unexpected way wasn’t a problem: They found different paths to their rewards, but didn’t cause any trouble. However, you can imagine situations in which the outcome would be rather serious. Robots acting in the real world could do real damage. And then there’s Nick Bostrom’s famous example of a paper clip factory run by an AI, whose goal is to make as many paper clips as possible. As Bostrom told IEEE Spectrum back in 2014, the AI might realize that “human bodies consist of atoms, and those atoms could be used to make some very nice paper clips.”
Bowen Baker, another member of the OpenAI research team, notes that it’s hard to predict all the ways an AI agent will act inside an environment—even a simple one. “Building these environments is hard,” he says. “The agents will come up with these unexpected behaviors, which will be a safety problem down the road when you put them in more complex environments.”
AI researcher Katja Hofmann at Microsoft Research Cambridge, in England, has seen a lot of gameplay by AI agents: She started a competition that uses Minecraft as the playing field. She says the emergent behavior seen in this game, and in prior experiments by other researchers, shows that games can be a useful for studies of safe and responsible AI.
“I find demonstrations like this, in games and game-like settings, a great way to explore the capabilities and limitations of existing approaches in a safe environment,” says Hofmann. “Results like these will help us develop a better understanding on how to validate and debug reinforcement learning systems–a crucial step on the path towards real-world applications.”
Baker says there’s also a hopeful takeaway from the surprises in the hide-and-seek experiment. “If you put these agents into a rich enough environment they will find strategies that we never knew were possible,” he says. “Maybe they can solve problems that we can’t imagine solutions to.” Continue reading
We humans spend most of our time getting hungry or eating, which must be really inconvenient for the people who have to produce food for everyone. For a sustainable and tasty future, we’ll need to make the most of what we’ve got by growing more food with less effort, and that’s where the robots can help us out a little bit.
FarmWise, a California-based startup, is looking to enhance farming efficiency by automating everything from seeding to harvesting, starting with the worst task of all: weeding. And they’ve just raised US $14.5 million to do it.
FarmWise’s autonomous, AI-enabled robots are designed to solve farmers’ most pressing challenges by performing a variety of farming functions – starting with weeding, and providing personalized care to every plant they touch. Using machine learning models, computer vision and high-precision mechanical tools, FarmWise’s sophisticated robots cleanly pick weeds from fields, leaving crops with the best opportunity to thrive while eliminating harmful chemical inputs. To date, FarmWise’s robots have efficiently removed weeds from more than 10 million plants.
FarmWise is not the first company to work on large mobile farming robots. A few years ago, we wrote about DeepField Robotics and their giant weed-punching robot. But considering how many humans there are, and how often we tend to get hungry, it certainly seems like there’s plenty of opportunity to go around.
FarmWise is collecting massive amounts of data about every single plant in an entire field, which is something that hasn’t been possible before. Above, one of the robots at a farm in Salinas Valley, Calif.
Weeding is just one thing that farm robots are able to do. FarmWise is collecting massive amounts of data about every single plant in an entire field, practically on the per-leaf level, which is something that hasn’t been possible before. Data like this could be used for all sorts of things, but generally, the long-term hope is that robots could tend to every single plant individually—weeding them, fertilizing them, telling them what good plants they are, and then mercilessly yanking them out of the ground at absolute peak ripeness. It’s not realistic to do this with human labor, but it’s the sort of data-intensive and monotonous task that robots could be ideal for.
The question with robots like this is not necessarily whether they can do the job that they were created for, because generally, they can—farms are structured enough environments that they lend themselves to autonomous robots, and the tasks are relatively well defined. The issue right now, I think, is whether robots are really time- and cost-effective for farmers. Capable robots are an expensive investment, and even if there is a shortage of human labor, will robots perform well enough to convince farmers to adopt the technology? That’s a solid maybe, and here’s hoping that FarmWise can figure out how to make it work.
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