Tag Archives: transport

#436530 How Smart Roads Will Make Driving ...

Roads criss-cross the landscape, but while they provide vital transport links, in many ways they represent a huge amount of wasted space. Advances in “smart road” technology could change that, creating roads that can harvest energy from cars, detect speeding, automatically weigh vehicles, and even communicate with smart cars.

“Smart city” projects are popping up in countries across the world thanks to advances in wireless communication, cloud computing, data analytics, remote sensing, and artificial intelligence. Transportation is a crucial element of most of these plans, but while much of the focus is on public transport solutions, smart roads are increasingly being seen as a crucial feature of these programs.

New technology is making it possible to tackle a host of issues including traffic congestion, accidents, and pollution, say the authors of a paper in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A. And they’ve outlined ten of the most promising advances under development or in planning stages that could feature on tomorrow’s roads.

Energy harvesting

A variety of energy harvesting technologies integrated into roads have been proposed as ways to power street lights and traffic signals or provide a boost to the grid. Photovoltaic panels could be built into the road surface to capture sunlight, or piezoelectric materials installed beneath the asphalt could generate current when deformed by vehicles passing overhead.

Musical roads

Countries like Japan, Denmark, the Netherlands, Taiwan, and South Korea have built roads that play music as cars pass by. By varying the spacing of rumble strips, it’s possible to produce a series of different notes as vehicles drive over them. The aim is generally to warn of hazards or help drivers keep to the speed limit.

Automatic weighing

Weight-in-motion technology that measures vehicles’ loads as they drive slowly through a designated lane has been around since the 1970s, but more recently high speed weight-in-motion tech has made it possible to measure vehicles as they travel at regular highway speeds. The latest advance has been integration with automatic licence plate reading and wireless communication to allow continuous remote monitoring both to enforce weight restrictions and monitor wear on roads.

Vehicle charging

The growing popularity of electric vehicles has spurred the development of technology to charge cars and buses as they drive. The most promising of these approaches is magnetic induction, which involves burying cables beneath the road to generate electromagnetic fields that a receiver device in the car then transforms into electrical power to charge batteries.

Smart traffic signs

Traffic signs aren’t always as visible as they should be, and it can often be hard to remember what all of them mean. So there are now proposals for “smart signs” that wirelessly beam a sign’s content to oncoming cars fitted with receivers, which can then alert the driver verbally or on the car’s display. The approach isn’t affected by poor weather and lighting, can be reprogrammed easily, and could do away with the need for complex sign recognition technology in future self-driving cars.

Traffic violation detection and notification

Sensors and cameras can be combined with these same smart signs to detect and automatically notify drivers of traffic violations. The automatic transmission of traffic signals means drivers won’t be able to deny they’ve seen the warnings or been notified of any fines, as a record will be stored on their car’s black box.

Talking cars

Car-to-car communication technology and V2X, which lets cars share information with any other connected device, are becoming increasingly common. Inter-car communication can be used to propagate accidents or traffic jam alerts to prevent congestion, while letting vehicles communicate with infrastructure can help signals dynamically manage timers to keep traffic flowing or automatically collect tolls.

Smart intersections

Combing sensors and cameras with object recognition systems that can detect vehicles and other road users can help increase safety and efficiency at intersections. It can be used to extend green lights for slower road users like pedestrians and cyclists, sense jaywalkers, give priority to emergency vehicles, and dynamically adjust light timers to optimize traffic flow. Information can even be broadcast to oncoming vehicles to highlight blind spots and potential hazards.

Automatic crash detection

There’s a “golden hour” after an accident in which the chance of saving lives is greatly increased. Vehicle communication technology can ensure that notification of a crash reaches the emergency services rapidly, and can also provide vital information about the number and type of vehicles involved, which can help emergency response planning. It can also be used to alert other drivers to slow down or stop to prevent further accidents.

Smart street lights

Street lights are increasingly being embedded with sensors, wireless connectivity, and micro-controllers to enable a variety of smart functions. These include motion activation to save energy, providing wireless access points, air quality monitoring, or parking and litter monitoring. This can also be used to send automatic maintenance requests if a light is faulty, and can even allow neighboring lights to be automatically brightened to compensate.

Image Credit: Image by David Mark from Pixabay 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

#436126 Quantum Computing Gets a Boost From AI ...

Illustration: Greg Mably

Anyone of a certain age who has even a passing interest in computers will remember the remarkable breakthrough that IBM made in 1997 when its Deep Blue chess-playing computer defeated Garry Kasparov, then the world chess champion. Computer scientists passed another such milestone in March 2016, when DeepMind (a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company) announced that its AlphaGo program had defeated world-champion player Lee Sedol in the game of Go, a board game that had vexed AI researchers for decades. Recently, DeepMind’s algorithms have also bested human players in the computer games StarCraft IIand Quake Arena III.

Some believe that the cognitive capacities of machines will overtake those of human beings in many spheres within a few decades. Others are more cautious and point out that our inability to understand the source of our own cognitive powers presents a daunting hurdle. How can we make thinking machines if we don’t fully understand our own thought processes?

Citizen science, which enlists masses of people to tackle research problems, holds promise here, in no small part because it can be used effectively to explore the boundary between human and artificial intelligence.

Some citizen-science projects ask the public to collect data from their surroundings (as eButterfly does for butterflies) or to monitor delicate ecosystems (as Eye on the Reef does for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef). Other projects rely on online platforms on which people help to categorize obscure phenomena in the night sky (Zooniverse) or add to the understanding of the structure of proteins (Foldit). Typically, people can contribute to such projects without any prior knowledge of the subject. Their fundamental cognitive skills, like the ability to quickly recognize patterns, are sufficient.

In order to design and develop video games that can allow citizen scientists to tackle scientific problems in a variety of fields, professor and group leader Jacob Sherson founded ScienceAtHome (SAH), at Aarhus University, in Denmark. The group began by considering topics in quantum physics, but today SAH hosts games covering other areas of physics, math, psychology, cognitive science, and behavioral economics. We at SAH search for innovative solutions to real research challenges while providing insight into how people think, both alone and when working in groups.

It is computationally intractable to completely map out a higher-dimensional landscape: It is called the curse of high dimensionality, and it plagues many optimization problems.

We believe that the design of new AI algorithms would benefit greatly from a better understanding of how people solve problems. This surmise has led us to establish the Center for Hybrid Intelligence within SAH, which tries to combine human and artificial intelligence, taking advantage of the particular strengths of each. The center’s focus is on the gamification of scientific research problems and the development of interfaces that allow people to understand and work together with AI.

Our first game, Quantum Moves, was inspired by our group’s research into quantum computers. Such computers can in principle solve certain problems that would take a classical computer billions of years. Quantum computers could challenge current cryptographic protocols, aid in the design of new materials, and give insight into natural processes that require an exact solution of the equations of quantum mechanics—something normal computers are inherently bad at doing.

One candidate system for building such a computer would capture individual atoms by “freezing” them, as it were, in the interference pattern produced when a laser beam is reflected back on itself. The captured atoms can thus be organized like eggs in a carton, forming a periodic crystal of atoms and light. Using these atoms to perform quantum calculations requires that we use tightly focused laser beams, called optical tweezers, to transport the atoms from site to site in the light crystal. This is a tricky business because individual atoms do not behave like particles; instead, they resemble a wavelike liquid governed by the laws of quantum mechanics.

In Quantum Moves, a player manipulates a touch screen or mouse to move a simulated laser tweezer and pick up a trapped atom, represented by a liquidlike substance in a bowl. Then the player must bring the atom back to the tweezer’s initial position while trying to minimize the sloshing of the liquid. Such sloshing would increase the energy of the atom and ultimately introduce errors into the operations of the quantum computer. Therefore, at the end of a move, the liquid should be at a complete standstill.

To understand how people and computers might approach such a task differently, you need to know something about how computerized optimization algorithms work. The countless ways of moving a glass of water without spilling may be regarded as constituting a “solution landscape.” One solution is represented by a single point in that landscape, and the height of that point represents the quality of the solution—how smoothly and quickly the glass of water was moved. This landscape might resemble a mountain range, where the top of each mountain represents a local optimum and where the challenge is to find the highest peak in the range—the global optimum.

Illustration: Greg Mably

Researchers must compromise between searching the landscape for taller mountains (“exploration”) and climbing to the top of the nearest mountain (“exploitation”). Making such a trade-off may seem easy when exploring an actual physical landscape: Merely hike around a bit to get at least the general lay of the land before surveying in greater detail what seems to be the tallest peak. But because each possible way of changing the solution defines a new dimension, a realistic problem can have thousands of dimensions. It is computationally intractable to completely map out such a higher-dimensional landscape. We call this the curse of high dimensionality, and it plagues many optimization problems.

Although algorithms are wonderfully efficient at crawling to the top of a given mountain, finding good ways of searching through the broader landscape poses quite a challenge, one that is at the forefront of AI research into such control problems. The conventional approach is to come up with clever ways of reducing the search space, either through insights generated by researchers or with machine-learning algorithms trained on large data sets.

At SAH, we attacked certain quantum-optimization problems by turning them into a game. Our goal was not to show that people can beat computers in this arena but rather to understand the process of generating insights into such problems. We addressed two core questions: whether allowing players to explore the infinite space of possibilities will help them find good solutions and whether we can learn something by studying their behavior.

Today, more than 250,000 people have played Quantum Moves, and to our surprise, they did in fact search the space of possible moves differently from the algorithm we had put to the task. Specifically, we found that although players could not solve the optimization problem on their own, they were good at searching the broad landscape. The computer algorithms could then take those rough ideas and refine them.

Herbert A. Simon said that “solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make the solution transparent.” Apparently, that’s what our games can do with their novel user interfaces.

Perhaps even more interesting was our discovery that players had two distinct ways of solving the problem, each with a clear physical interpretation. One set of players started by placing the tweezer close to the atom while keeping a barrier between the atom trap and the tweezer. In classical physics, a barrier is an impenetrable obstacle, but because the atom liquid is a quantum-mechanical object, it can tunnel through the barrier into the tweezer, after which the player simply moved the tweezer to the target area. Another set of players moved the tweezer directly into the atom trap, picked up the atom liquid, and brought it back. We called these two strategies the “tunneling” and “shoveling” strategies, respectively.

Such clear strategies are extremely valuable because they are very difficult to obtain directly from an optimization algorithm. Involving humans in the optimization loop can thus help us gain insight into the underlying physical phenomena that are at play, knowledge that may then be transferred to other types of problems.

Quantum Moves raised several obvious issues. First, because generating an exceptional solution required further computer-based optimization, players were unable to get immediate feedback to help them improve their scores, and this often left them feeling frustrated. Second, we had tested this approach on only one scientific challenge with a clear classical analogue, that of the sloshing liquid. We wanted to know whether such gamification could be applied more generally, to a variety of scientific challenges that do not offer such immediately applicable visual analogies.

We address these two concerns in Quantum Moves 2. Here, the player first generates a number of candidate solutions by playing the original game. Then the player chooses which solutions to optimize using a built-in algorithm. As the algorithm improves a player’s solution, it modifies the solution path—the movement of the tweezer—to represent the optimized solution. Guided by this feedback, players can then improve their strategy, come up with a new solution, and iteratively feed it back into this process. This gameplay provides high-level heuristics and adds human intuition to the algorithm. The person and the machine work in tandem—a step toward true hybrid intelligence.

In parallel with the development of Quantum Moves 2, we also studied how people collaboratively solve complex problems. To that end, we opened our atomic physics laboratory to the general public—virtually. We let people from around the world dictate the experiments we would run to see if they would find ways to improve the results we were getting. What results? That’s a little tricky to explain, so we need to pause for a moment and provide a little background on the relevant physics.

One of the essential steps in building the quantum computer along the lines described above is to create the coldest state of matter in the universe, known as a Bose-Einstein condensate. Here millions of atoms oscillate in synchrony to form a wavelike substance, one of the largest purely quantum phenomena known. To create this ultracool state of matter, researchers typically use a combination of laser light and magnetic fields. There is no familiar physical analogy between such a strange state of matter and the phenomena of everyday life.

The result we were seeking in our lab was to create as much of this enigmatic substance as was possible given the equipment available. The sequence of steps to accomplish that was unknown. We hoped that gamification could help to solve this problem, even though it had no classical analogy to present to game players.

Images: ScienceAtHome

Fun and Games: The
Quantum Moves game evolved over time, from a relatively crude early version [top] to its current form [second from top] and then a major revision,
Quantum Moves 2 [third from top].
Skill Lab: Science Detective games [bottom] test players’ cognitive skills.

In October 2016, we released a game that, for two weeks, guided how we created Bose-Einstein condensates in our laboratory. By manipulating simple curves in the game interface, players generated experimental sequences for us to use in producing these condensates—and they did so without needing to know anything about the underlying physics. A player would generate such a solution, and a few minutes later we would run the sequence in our laboratory. The number of ultracold atoms in the resulting Bose-Einstein condensate was measured and fed back to the player as a score. Players could then decide either to try to improve their previous solution or to copy and modify other players’ solutions. About 600 people from all over the world participated, submitting 7,577 solutions in total. Many of them yielded bigger condensates than we had previously produced in the lab.

So this exercise succeeded in achieving our primary goal, but it also allowed us to learn something about human behavior. We learned, for example, that players behave differently based on where they sit on the leaderboard. High-performing players make small changes to their successful solutions (exploitation), while poorly performing players are willing to make more dramatic changes (exploration). As a collective, the players nicely balance exploration and exploitation. How they do so provides valuable inspiration to researchers trying to understand human problem solving in social science as well as to those designing new AI algorithms.

How could mere amateurs outperform experienced experimental physicists? The players certainly weren’t better at physics than the experts—but they could do better because of the way in which the problem was posed. By turning the research challenge into a game, we gave players the chance to explore solutions that had previously required complex programming to study. Indeed, even expert experimentalists improved their solutions dramatically by using this interface.

Insight into why that’s possible can probably be found in the words of the late economics Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon: “Solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make the solution transparent [PDF].” Apparently, that’s what our games can do with their novel user interfaces. We believe that such interfaces might be a key to using human creativity to solve other complex research problems.

Eventually, we’d like to get a better understanding of why this kind of gamification works as well as it does. A first step would be to collect more data on what the players do while they are playing. But even with massive amounts of data, detecting the subtle patterns underlying human intuition is an overwhelming challenge. To advance, we need a deeper insight into the cognition of the individual players.

As a step forward toward this goal, ScienceAtHome created Skill Lab: Science Detective, a suite of minigames exploring visuospatial reasoning, response inhibition, reaction times, and other basic cognitive skills. Then we compare players’ performance in the games with how well these same people did on established psychological tests of those abilities. The point is to allow players to assess their own cognitive strengths and weaknesses while donating their data for further public research.

In the fall of 2018 we launched a prototype of this large-scale profiling in collaboration with the Danish Broadcasting Corp. Since then more than 20,000 people have participated, and in part because of the publicity granted by the public-service channel, participation has been very evenly distributed across ages and by gender. Such broad appeal is rare in social science, where the test population is typically drawn from a very narrow demographic, such as college students.

Never before has such a large academic experiment in human cognition been conducted. We expect to gain new insights into many things, among them how combinations of cognitive abilities sharpen or decline with age, what characteristics may be used to prescreen for mental illnesses, and how to optimize the building of teams in our work lives.

And so what started as a fun exercise in the weird world of quantum mechanics has now become an exercise in understanding the nuances of what makes us human. While we still seek to understand atoms, we can now aspire to understand people’s minds as well.

This article appears in the November 2019 print issue as “A Man-Machine Mind Meld for Quantum Computing.”

About the Authors
Ottó Elíasson, Carrie Weidner, Janet Rafner, and Shaeema Zaman Ahmed work with the ScienceAtHome project at Aarhus University in Denmark. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436094 Agility Robotics Unveils Upgraded Digit ...

Last time we saw Agility Robotics’ Digit biped, it was picking up a box from a Ford delivery van and autonomously dropping it off on a porch, while at the same time managing to not trip over stairs, grass, or small children. As a demo, it was pretty impressive, but of course there’s an enormous gap between making a video of a robot doing a successful autonomous delivery and letting that robot out into the semi-structured world and expecting it to reliably do a good job.

Agility Robotics is aware of this, of course, and over the last six months they’ve been making substantial improvements to Digit to make it more capable and robust. A new video posted today shows what’s new with the latest version of Digit—Digit v2.

We appreciate Agility Robotics foregoing music in the video, which lets us hear exactly what Digit sounds like in operation. The most noticeable changes are in Digit’s feet, torso, and arms, and I was particularly impressed to see Digit reposition the box on the table before grasping it to make sure that it could get a good grip. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell what’s new, so we asked Agility Robotics’ CEO Damion Shelton to get us up to speed.

IEEE Spectrum: Can you summarize the differences between Digit v1 and v2? We’re particularly interested in the new feet.

Damion Shelton: The feet now include a roll degree of freedom, so that Digit can resist lateral forces without needing to side step. This allows Digit v2 to balance on one foot statically, which Digit v1 and Cassie could not do. The larger foot also dramatically decreases load per unit area, for improved performance on very soft surfaces like sand.

The perception stack includes four Intel RealSense cameras used for obstacle detection and pick/place, plus the lidar. In Digit v1, the perception systems were brought up incrementally over time for development purposes. In Digit v2, all perception systems are active from the beginning and tied to a dedicated computer. The perception system is used for a number of additional things beyond manipulation, which we’ll start to show in the next few weeks.

The torso changes are a bit more behind-the-scenes. All of the electronics in it are now fully custom, thermally managed, and environmentally sealed. We’ve also included power and ethernet to a payload bay that can fit either a NUC or Jetson module (or other customer payload).

What exactly are we seeing in the video in terms of Digit’s autonomous capabilities?

At the moment this is a demonstration of shared autonomy. Picking and placing the box is fully autonomous. Balance and footstep placement are fully autonomous, but guidance and obstacle avoidance are under local teleop. It’s no longer a radio controller as in early videos; we’re not ready to reveal our current controller design but it’s a reasonably significant upgrade. This is v2 hardware, so there’s one more full version in development prior to the 2020 launch, which will expand the autonomy envelope significantly.

“This is a demonstration of shared autonomy. Picking and placing the box is fully autonomous. Balance and footstep placement are fully autonomous, but guidance and obstacle avoidance are under local teleop. It’s no longer a radio controller as in early videos; we’re not ready to reveal our current controller design but it’s a reasonably significant upgrade”
—Damion Shelton, Agility Robotics

What are some unique features or capabilities of Digit v2 that might not be obvious from the video?

For those who’ve used Cassie robots, the power-up and power-down ergonomics are a lot more user friendly. Digit can be disassembled into carry-on luggage sized pieces (give or take) in under 5 minutes for easy transport. The battery charges in-situ using a normal laptop-style charger.

I’m curious about this “stompy” sort of gait that we see in Digit and many other bipedal robots—are there significant challenges or drawbacks to implementing a more human-like (and presumably quieter) heel-toe gait?

There are no drawbacks other than increased complexity in controls and foot design. With Digit v2, the larger surface area helps with the noise, and v2 has similar or better passive-dynamic performance as compared to Cassie or Digit v1. The foot design is brand new, and new behaviors like heel-toe are an active area of development.

How close is Digit v2 to a system that you’d be comfortable operating commercially?

We’re on track for a 2020 launch for Digit v3. Changes from v2 to v3 are mostly bug-fix in nature, with a few regulatory upgrades like full battery certification. Safety is a major concern for us, and we have launch customers that will be operating Digit in a safe environment, with a phased approach to relaxing operational constraints. Digit operates almost exclusively under force control (as with cobots more generally), but at the moment we’ll err on the side of caution during operation until we have the stats to back up safety and reliability. The legged robot industry has too much potential for us to screw it up by behaving irresponsibly.

It will be a while before Digit (or any other humanoid robot) is operating fully autonomously in crowds of people, but there are so many large market opportunities (think indoor factory/warehouse environments) to address prior to that point that we expect to mature the operational safety side of things well in advance of having saturated the more robot-tolerant markets.

[ Agility Robotics ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435765 The Four Converging Technologies Giving ...

How each of us sees the world is about to change dramatically.

For all of human history, the experience of looking at the world was roughly the same for everyone. But boundaries between the digital and physical are beginning to fade.

The world around us is gaining layer upon layer of digitized, virtually overlaid information—making it rich, meaningful, and interactive. As a result, our respective experiences of the same environment are becoming vastly different, personalized to our goals, dreams, and desires.

Welcome to Web 3.0, or the Spatial Web. In version 1.0, static documents and read-only interactions limited the internet to one-way exchanges. Web 2.0 provided quite an upgrade, introducing multimedia content, interactive web pages, and participatory social media. Yet, all this was still mediated by two-dimensional screens.

Today, we are witnessing the rise of Web 3.0, riding the convergence of high-bandwidth 5G connectivity, rapidly evolving AR eyewear, an emerging trillion-sensor economy, and powerful artificial intelligence.

As a result, we will soon be able to superimpose digital information atop any physical surrounding—freeing our eyes from the tyranny of the screen, immersing us in smart environments, and making our world endlessly dynamic.

In the third post of our five-part series on augmented reality, we will explore the convergence of AR, AI, sensors, and blockchain and dive into the implications through a key use case in manufacturing.

A Tale of Convergence
Let’s deconstruct everything beneath the sleek AR display.

It all begins with graphics processing units (GPUs)—electric circuits that perform rapid calculations to render images. (GPUs can be found in mobile phones, game consoles, and computers.)

However, because AR requires such extensive computing power, single GPUs will not suffice. Instead, blockchain can now enable distributed GPU processing power, and blockchains specifically dedicated to AR holographic processing are on the rise.

Next up, cameras and sensors will aggregate real-time data from any environment to seamlessly integrate physical and virtual worlds. Meanwhile, body-tracking sensors are critical for aligning a user’s self-rendering in AR with a virtually enhanced environment. Depth sensors then provide data for 3D spatial maps, while cameras absorb more surface-level, detailed visual input. In some cases, sensors might even collect biometric data, such as heart rate and brain activity, to incorporate health-related feedback in our everyday AR interfaces and personal recommendation engines.

The next step in the pipeline involves none other than AI. Processing enormous volumes of data instantaneously, embedded AI algorithms will power customized AR experiences in everything from artistic virtual overlays to personalized dietary annotations.

In retail, AIs will use your purchasing history, current closet inventory, and possibly even mood indicators to display digitally rendered items most suitable for your wardrobe, tailored to your measurements.

In healthcare, smart AR glasses will provide physicians with immediately accessible and maximally relevant information (parsed from the entirety of a patient’s medical records and current research) to aid in accurate diagnoses and treatments, freeing doctors to engage in the more human-centric tasks of establishing trust, educating patients and demonstrating empathy.

Image Credit: PHD Ventures.
Convergence in Manufacturing
One of the nearest-term use cases of AR is manufacturing, as large producers begin dedicating capital to enterprise AR headsets. And over the next ten years, AR will converge with AI, sensors, and blockchain to multiply manufacturer productivity and employee experience.

(1) Convergence with AI
In initial application, digital guides superimposed on production tables will vastly improve employee accuracy and speed, while minimizing error rates.

Already, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) — whose airlines supply 82 percent of air travel — recently implemented industrial tech company Atheer’s AR headsets in cargo management. And with barely any delay, IATA reported a whopping 30 percent improvement in cargo handling speed and no less than a 90 percent reduction in errors.

With similar success rates, Boeing brought Skylight’s smart AR glasses to the runway, now used in the manufacturing of hundreds of airplanes. Sure enough—the aerospace giant has now seen a 25 percent drop in production time and near-zero error rates.

Beyond cargo management and air travel, however, smart AR headsets will also enable on-the-job training without reducing the productivity of other workers or sacrificing hardware. Jaguar Land Rover, for instance, implemented Bosch’s Re’flekt One AR solution to gear technicians with “x-ray” vision: allowing them to visualize the insides of Range Rover Sport vehicles without removing any dashboards.

And as enterprise capabilities continue to soar, AIs will soon become the go-to experts, offering support to manufacturers in need of assembly assistance. Instant guidance and real-time feedback will dramatically reduce production downtime, boost overall output, and even help customers struggling with DIY assembly at home.

Perhaps one of the most profitable business opportunities, AR guidance through centralized AI systems will also serve to mitigate supply chain inefficiencies at extraordinary scale. Coordinating moving parts, eliminating the need for manned scanners at each checkpoint, and directing traffic within warehouses, joint AI-AR systems will vastly improve workflow while overseeing quality assurance.

After its initial implementation of AR “vision picking” in 2015, leading courier company DHL recently announced it would continue to use Google’s newest smart lens in warehouses across the world. Motivated by the initial group’s reported 15 percent jump in productivity, DHL’s decision is part of the logistics giant’s $300 million investment in new technologies.

And as direct-to-consumer e-commerce fundamentally transforms the retail sector, supply chain optimization will only grow increasingly vital. AR could very well prove the definitive step for gaining a competitive edge in delivery speeds.

As explained by Vital Enterprises CEO Ash Eldritch, “All these technologies that are coming together around artificial intelligence are going to augment the capabilities of the worker and that’s very powerful. I call it Augmented Intelligence. The idea is that you can take someone of a certain skill level and by augmenting them with artificial intelligence via augmented reality and the Internet of Things, you can elevate the skill level of that worker.”

Already, large producers like Goodyear, thyssenkrupp, and Johnson Controls are using the Microsoft HoloLens 2—priced at $3,500 per headset—for manufacturing and design purposes.

Perhaps the most heartening outcome of the AI-AR convergence is that, rather than replacing humans in manufacturing, AR is an ideal interface for human collaboration with AI. And as AI merges with human capital, prepare to see exponential improvements in productivity, professional training, and product quality.

(2) Convergence with Sensors
On the hardware front, these AI-AR systems will require a mass proliferation of sensors to detect the external environment and apply computer vision in AI decision-making.

To measure depth, for instance, some scanning depth sensors project a structured pattern of infrared light dots onto a scene, detecting and analyzing reflected light to generate 3D maps of the environment. Stereoscopic imaging, using two lenses, has also been commonly used for depth measurements. But leading technology like Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 and Intel’s RealSense 400-series camera implement a new method called “phased time-of-flight” (ToF).

In ToF sensing, the HoloLens 2 uses numerous lasers, each with 100 milliwatts (mW) of power, in quick bursts. The distance between nearby objects and the headset wearer is then measured by the amount of light in the return beam that has shifted from the original signal. Finally, the phase difference reveals the location of each object within the field of view, which enables accurate hand-tracking and surface reconstruction.

With a far lower computing power requirement, the phased ToF sensor is also more durable than stereoscopic sensing, which relies on the precise alignment of two prisms. The phased ToF sensor’s silicon base also makes it easily mass-produced, rendering the HoloLens 2 a far better candidate for widespread consumer adoption.

To apply inertial measurement—typically used in airplanes and spacecraft—the HoloLens 2 additionally uses a built-in accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer. Further equipped with four “environment understanding cameras” that track head movements, the headset also uses a 2.4MP HD photographic video camera and ambient light sensor that work in concert to enable advanced computer vision.

For natural viewing experiences, sensor-supplied gaze tracking increasingly creates depth in digital displays. Nvidia’s work on Foveated AR Display, for instance, brings the primary foveal area into focus, while peripheral regions fall into a softer background— mimicking natural visual perception and concentrating computing power on the area that needs it most.

Gaze tracking sensors are also slated to grant users control over their (now immersive) screens without any hand gestures. Conducting simple visual cues, even staring at an object for more than three seconds, will activate commands instantaneously.

And our manufacturing example above is not the only one. Stacked convergence of blockchain, sensors, AI and AR will disrupt almost every major industry.

Take healthcare, for example, wherein biometric sensors will soon customize users’ AR experiences. Already, MIT Media Lab’s Deep Reality group has created an underwater VR relaxation experience that responds to real-time brain activity detected by a modified version of the Muse EEG. The experience even adapts to users’ biometric data, from heart rate to electro dermal activity (inputted from an Empatica E4 wristband).

Now rapidly dematerializing, sensors will converge with AR to improve physical-digital surface integration, intuitive hand and eye controls, and an increasingly personalized augmented world. Keep an eye on companies like MicroVision, now making tremendous leaps in sensor technology.

While I’ll be doing a deep dive into sensor applications across each industry in our next blog, it’s critical to first discuss how we might power sensor- and AI-driven augmented worlds.

(3) Convergence with Blockchain
Because AR requires much more compute power than typical 2D experiences, centralized GPUs and cloud computing systems are hard at work to provide the necessary infrastructure. Nonetheless, the workload is taxing and blockchain may prove the best solution.

A major player in this pursuit, Otoy aims to create the largest distributed GPU network in the world, called the Render Network RNDR. Built specifically on the Ethereum blockchain for holographic media, and undergoing Beta testing, this network is set to revolutionize AR deployment accessibility.

Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt (an investor in Otoy’s network), has even said, “I predicted that 90% of computing would eventually reside in the web based cloud… Otoy has created a remarkable technology which moves that last 10%—high-end graphics processing—entirely to the cloud. This is a disruptive and important achievement. In my view, it marks the tipping point where the web replaces the PC as the dominant computing platform of the future.”

Leveraging the crowd, RNDR allows anyone with a GPU to contribute their power to the network for a commission of up to $300 a month in RNDR tokens. These can then be redeemed in cash or used to create users’ own AR content.

In a double win, Otoy’s blockchain network and similar iterations not only allow designers to profit when not using their GPUs, but also democratize the experience for newer artists in the field.

And beyond these networks’ power suppliers, distributing GPU processing power will allow more manufacturing companies to access AR design tools and customize learning experiences. By further dispersing content creation across a broad network of individuals, blockchain also has the valuable potential to boost AR hardware investment across a number of industry beneficiaries.

On the consumer side, startups like Scanetchain are also entering the blockchain-AR space for a different reason. Allowing users to scan items with their smartphone, Scanetchain’s app provides access to a trove of information, from manufacturer and price, to origin and shipping details.

Based on NEM (a peer-to-peer cryptocurrency that implements a blockchain consensus algorithm), the app aims to make information far more accessible and, in the process, create a social network of purchasing behavior. Users earn tokens by watching ads, and all transactions are hashed into blocks and securely recorded.

The writing is on the wall—our future of brick-and-mortar retail will largely lean on blockchain to create the necessary digital links.

Final Thoughts
Integrating AI into AR creates an “auto-magical” manufacturing pipeline that will fundamentally transform the industry, cutting down on marginal costs, reducing inefficiencies and waste, and maximizing employee productivity.

Bolstering the AI-AR convergence, sensor technology is already blurring the boundaries between our augmented and physical worlds, soon to be near-undetectable. While intuitive hand and eye motions dictate commands in a hands-free interface, biometric data is poised to customize each AR experience to be far more in touch with our mental and physical health.

And underpinning it all, distributed computing power with blockchain networks like RNDR will democratize AR, boosting global consumer adoption at plummeting price points.

As AR soars in importance—whether in retail, manufacturing, entertainment, or beyond—the stacked convergence discussed above merits significant investment over the next decade. The augmented world is only just getting started.

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Share this with your friends, especially if they are interested in any of the areas outlined above.

(2) Abundance-Digital Online Community: I’ve also created a Digital/Online community of bold, abundance-minded entrepreneurs called Abundance-Digital. Abundance-Digital is Singularity University’s ‘onramp’ for exponential entrepreneurs — those who want to get involved and play at a higher level. Click here to learn more.

This article originally appeared on Diamandis.com

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