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#436946 Coronavirus May Mean Automation Is ...

We’re in the midst of a public health emergency, and life as we know it has ground to a halt. The places we usually go are closed, the events we were looking forward to are canceled, and some of us have lost our jobs or fear losing them soon.

But although it may not seem like it, there are some silver linings; this crisis is bringing out the worst in some (I’m looking at you, toilet paper hoarders), but the best in many. Italians on lockdown are singing together, Spaniards on lockdown are exercising together, this entrepreneur made a DIY ventilator and put it on YouTube, and volunteers in Italy 3D printed medical valves for virus treatment at a fraction of their usual cost.

Indeed, if you want to feel like there’s still hope for humanity instead of feeling like we’re about to snowball into terribleness as a species, just look at these examples—and I’m sure there are many more out there. There’s plenty of hope and opportunity to be found in this crisis.

Peter Xing, a keynote speaker and writer on emerging technologies and associate director in technology and growth initiatives at KPMG, would agree. Xing believes the coronavirus epidemic is presenting us with ample opportunities for increased automation and remote delivery of goods and services. “The upside right now is the burgeoning platform of the digital transformation ecosystem,” he said.

In a thought-provoking talk at Singularity University’s COVID-19 virtual summit this week, Xing explained how the outbreak is accelerating our transition to a highly-automated society—and painted a picture of what the future may look like.

Confronting Scarcity
You’ve probably seen them by now—the barren shelves at your local grocery store. Whether you were in the paper goods aisle, the frozen food section, or the fresh produce area, it was clear something was amiss; the shelves were empty. One of the most inexplicable items people have been panic-bulk-buying is toilet paper.

Xing described this toilet paper scarcity as a prisoner’s dilemma, pointing out that we have a scarcity problem right now in terms of our mindset, not in terms of actual supply shortages. “It’s a prisoner’s dilemma in that we’re all prisoners in our homes right now, and we can either hoard or not hoard, and the outcomes depend on how we collaborate with each other,” he said. “But it’s not a zero-sum game.”

Xing referenced a CNN article about why toilet paper, of all things, is one of the items people have been panic-buying most (I, too, have been utterly baffled by this phenomenon). But maybe there’d be less panic if we knew more about the production methods and supply chain involved in manufacturing toilet paper. It turns out it’s a highly automated process (you can learn more about it in this documentary by National Geographic) and requires very few people (though it does require about 27,000 trees a day—so stop bulk-buying it! Just stop!).

The supply chain limitation here is in the raw material; we certainly can’t keep cutting down this many trees a day forever. But—somewhat ironically, given the Costco cartloads of TP people have been stuffing into their trunks and backseats—thanks to automation, toilet paper isn’t something stores are going to stop receiving anytime soon.

Automation For All
Now we have a reason to apply this level of automation to, well, pretty much everything.

Though our current situation may force us into using more robots and automated systems sooner than we’d planned, it will end up saving us money and creating opportunity, Xing believes. He cited “fast-casual” restaurants (Chipotle, Panera, etc.) as a prime example.

Currently, people in the US spend much more to eat at home than we do to eat in fast-casual restaurants if you take into account the cost of the food we’re preparing plus the value of the time we’re spending on cooking, grocery shopping, and cleaning up after meals. According to research from investment management firm ARK Invest, taking all these costs into account makes for about $12 per meal for food cooked at home.

That’s the same as or more than the cost of grabbing a burrito or a sandwich at the joint around the corner. As more of the repetitive, low-skill tasks involved in preparing fast casual meals are automated, their cost will drop even more, giving us more incentive to forego home cooking. (But, it’s worth noting that these figures don’t take into account that eating at home is, in most cases, better for you since you’re less likely to fill your food with sugar, oil, or various other taste-enhancing but health-destroying ingredients—plus, there are those of us who get a nearly incomparable amount of joy from laboring over then savoring a homemade meal).

Now that we’re not supposed to be touching each other or touching anything anyone else has touched, but we still need to eat, automating food preparation sounds appealing (and maybe necessary). Multiple food delivery services have already implemented a contactless delivery option, where customers can choose to have their food left on their doorstep.

Besides the opportunities for in-restaurant automation, “This is an opportunity for automation to happen at the last mile,” said Xing. Delivery drones, robots, and autonomous trucks and vans could all play a part. In fact, use of delivery drones has ramped up in China since the outbreak.

Speaking of deliveries, service robots have steadily increased in numbers at Amazon; as of late 2019, the company employed around 650,000 humans and 200,000 robots—and costs have gone down as robots have gone up.

ARK Invest’s research predicts automation could add $800 billion to US GDP over the next 5 years and $12 trillion during the next 15 years. On this trajectory, GDP would end up being 40 percent higher with automation than without it.

Automating Ourselves?
This is all well and good, but what do these numbers and percentages mean for the average consumer, worker, or citizen?

“The benefits of automation aren’t being passed on to the average citizen,” said Xing. “They’re going to the shareholders of the companies creating the automation.” This is where policies like universal basic income and universal healthcare come in; in the not-too-distant future, we may see more movement toward measures like these (depending how the election goes) that spread the benefit of automation out rather than concentrating it in a few wealthy hands.

In the meantime, though, some people are benefiting from automation in ways that maybe weren’t expected. We’re in the midst of what’s probably the biggest remote-work experiment in US history, not to mention remote learning. Tools that let us digitally communicate and collaborate, like Slack, Zoom, Dropbox, and Gsuite, are enabling remote work in a way that wouldn’t have been possible 20 or even 10 years ago.

In addition, Xing said, tools like DataRobot and H2O.ai are democratizing artificial intelligence by allowing almost anyone, not just data scientists or computer engineers, to run machine learning algorithms. People are codifying the steps in their own repetitive work processes and having their computers take over tasks for them.

As 3D printing gets cheaper and more accessible, it’s also being more widely adopted, and people are finding more applications (case in point: the Italians mentioned above who figured out how to cheaply print a medical valve for coronavirus treatment).

The Mother of Invention
This movement towards a more automated society has some positives: it will help us stay healthy during times like the present, it will drive down the cost of goods and services, and it will grow our GDP in the long run. But by leaning into automation, will we be enabling a future that keeps us more physically, psychologically, and emotionally distant from each other?

We’re in a crisis, and desperate times call for desperate measures. We’re sheltering in place, practicing social distancing, and trying not to touch each other. And for most of us, this is really unpleasant and difficult. We can’t wait for it to be over.

For better or worse, this pandemic will likely make us pick up the pace on our path to automation, across many sectors and processes. The solutions people implement during this crisis won’t disappear when things go back to normal (and, depending who you talk to, they may never really do so).

But let’s make sure to remember something. Even once robots are making our food and drones are delivering it, and our computers are doing data entry and email replies on our behalf, and we all have 3D printers to make anything we want at home—we’re still going to be human. And humans like being around each other. We like seeing one another’s faces, hearing one another’s voices, and feeling one another’s touch—in person, not on a screen or in an app.

No amount of automation is going to change that, and beyond lowering costs or increasing GDP, our greatest and most crucial responsibility will always be to take care of each other.

Image Credit: Gritt Zheng on Unsplash Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436462 Robotic Exoskeletons, Like This One, Are ...

When you imagine an exoskeleton, chances are it might look a bit like the Guardian XO from Sarcos Robotics. The XO is literally a robot you wear (or maybe, it wears you). The suit’s powered limbs sense your movements and match their position to yours with little latency to give you effortless superstrength and endurance—lifting 200 pounds will feel like 10.

A vision of robots and humankind working together in harmony. Now, isn’t that nice?

Of course, there isn’t anything terribly novel about an exoskeleton. We’ve seen plenty of concepts and demonstrations in the last decade. These include light exoskeletons tailored to industrial settings—some of which are being tested out by the likes of Honda—and healthcare exoskeletons that support the elderly or folks with disabilities.

Full-body powered robotic exoskeletons are a bit rarer, which makes the Sarcos suit pretty cool to look at. But like all things in robotics, practicality matters as much as vision. It’s worth asking: Will anyone buy and use the thing? Is it more than a concept video?

Sarcos thinks so, and they’re excited about it. “If you were to ask the question, what does 30 years and $300 million look like,” Sarcos CEO, Ben Wolff, told IEEE Spectrum, “you’re going to see it downstairs.”

The XO appears to check a few key boxes. For one, it’s user friendly. According to Sarcos, it only takes a few minutes for the uninitiated to strap in and get up to speed. Feeling comfortable doing work with the suit takes a few hours. This is thanks to a high degree of sensor-based automation that allows the robot to seamlessly match its user’s movements.

The XO can also operate for more than a few minutes. It has two hours of battery life, and with spares on hand, it can go all day. The batteries are hot-swappable, meaning you can replace a drained battery with a new one without shutting the system down.

The suit is aimed at manufacturing, where workers are regularly moving heavy stuff around. Additionally, Wolff told CNET, the suit could see military use. But that doesn’t mean Avatar-style combat. The XO, Wolff said, is primarily about logistics (lifting and moving heavy loads) and isn’t designed to be armored, so it won’t likely see the front lines.

The system will set customers back $100,000 a year to rent, which sounds like a lot, but for industrial or military purposes, the six-figure rental may not deter would-be customers if the suit proves itself a useful bit of equipment. (And it’s reasonable to imagine the price coming down as the technology becomes more commonplace and competitors arrive.)

Sarcos got into exoskeletons a couple decades ago and was originally funded by the military (like many robotics endeavors). Videos hit YouTube as long ago as 2008, but after announcing the company was taking orders for the XO earlier this year, Sarcos says they’ll deliver the first alpha units in January, which is a notable milestone.

Broadly, robotics has advanced a lot in recent years. YouTube sensations like Boston Dynamics have regularly earned millions of views (and inevitably, headlines stoking robot fear). They went from tethered treadmill sessions to untethered backflips off boxes. While today’s robots really are vastly superior to their ancestors, they’ve struggled to prove themselves useful. A counterpoint to flashy YouTube videos, the DARPA Robotics Challenge gave birth to another meme altogether. Robots falling over. Often and awkwardly.

This year marks some of the first commercial fruits of a few decades’ research. Boston Dynamics recently started offering its robot dog, Spot, to select customers in 2019. Whether this proves to be a headline-worthy flash in the pan or something sustainable remains to be seen. But between robots with more autonomy and exoskeletons like the XO, the exoskeleton variety will likely be easier to make more practical for various uses.

Whereas autonomous robots require highly advanced automation to navigate uncertain and ever-changing conditions—automation which, at the moment, remains largely elusive (though the likes of Google are pairing the latest AI with robots to tackle the problem)—an exoskeleton mainly requires physical automation. The really hard bits, like navigating and recognizing and interacting with objects, are outsourced to its human operator.

As it turns out, for today’s robots the best AI is still us. We may yet get chipper automatons like Rosy the Robot, but until then, for complicated applications, we’ll strap into our mechs for their strength and endurance, and they’ll wear us for our brains.

Image Credit: Sarcos Robotics 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

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#436255 Are cyborg employees in our future? ...

Image by 849356 from Pixabay There’s been a disturbing recent YouTube post – a video purportedly showed a military-type robot shooting at targets while itself being intermittently thumped and shoved, only to turn on and shoot one of its human handlers. However, a quick check over at Snopes proves the video is false. Kudos to …

The post Are cyborg employees in our future? Advancing AI could replace human workers appeared first on TFOT. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436220 How Boston Dynamics Is Redefining Robot ...

Gif: Bob O’Connor/IEEE Spectrum

With their jaw-dropping agility and animal-like reflexes, Boston Dynamics’ bioinspired robots have always seemed to have no equal. But that preeminence hasn’t stopped the company from pushing its technology to new heights, sometimes literally. Its latest crop of legged machines can trudge up and down hills, clamber over obstacles, and even leap into the air like a gymnast. There’s no denying their appeal: Every time Boston Dynamics uploads a new video to YouTube, it quickly racks up millions of views. These are probably the first robots you could call Internet stars.

Spot

Photo: Bob O’Connor

84 cm HEIGHT

25 kg WEIGHT

5.76 km/h SPEED

SENSING: Stereo cameras, inertial measurement unit, position/force sensors

ACTUATION: 12 DC motors

POWER: Battery (90 minutes per charge)

Boston Dynamics, once owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, and now by the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, has long been secretive about its designs. Few publications have been granted access to its Waltham, Mass., headquarters, near Boston. But one morning this past August, IEEE Spectrum got in. We were given permission to do a unique kind of photo shoot that day. We set out to capture the company’s robots in action—running, climbing, jumping—by using high-speed cameras coupled with powerful strobes. The results you see on this page: freeze-frames of pure robotic agility.

We also used the photos to create interactive views, which you can explore online on our Robots Guide. These interactives let you spin the robots 360 degrees, or make them walk and jump on your screen.

Boston Dynamics has amassed a minizoo of robotic beasts over the years, with names like BigDog, SandFlea, and WildCat. When we visited, we focused on the two most advanced machines the company has ever built: Spot, a nimble quadruped, and Atlas, an adult-size humanoid.

Spot can navigate almost any kind of terrain while sensing its environment. Boston Dynamics recently made it available for lease, with plans to manufacture something like a thousand units per year. It envisions Spot, or even packs of them, inspecting industrial sites, carrying out hazmat missions, and delivering packages. And its YouTube fame has not gone unnoticed: Even entertainment is a possibility, with Cirque du Soleil auditioning Spot as a potential new troupe member.

“It’s really a milestone for us going from robots that work in the lab to these that are hardened for work out in the field,” Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert says in an interview.

Atlas

Photo: Bob O’Connor

150 cm HEIGHT

80 kg WEIGHT

5.4 km/h SPEED

SENSING: Lidar and stereo vision

ACTUATION: 28 hydraulic actuators

POWER: Battery

Our other photographic subject, Atlas, is Boston Dynamics’ biggest celebrity. This 150-centimeter-tall (4-foot-11-inch-tall) humanoid is capable of impressive athletic feats. Its actuators are driven by a compact yet powerful hydraulic system that the company engineered from scratch. The unique system gives the 80-kilogram (176-pound) robot the explosive strength needed to perform acrobatic leaps and flips that don’t seem possible for such a large humanoid to do. Atlas has inspired a string of parody videos on YouTube and more than a few jokes about a robot takeover.

While Boston Dynamics excels at making robots, it has yet to prove that it can sell them. Ever since its founding in 1992 as a spin-off from MIT, the company has been an R&D-centric operation, with most of its early funding coming from U.S. military programs. The emphasis on commercialization seems to have intensified after the acquisition by SoftBank, in 2017. SoftBank’s founder and CEO, Masayoshi Son, is known to love robots—and profits.

The launch of Spot is a significant step for Boston Dynamics as it seeks to “productize” its creations. Still, Raibert says his long-term goals have remained the same: He wants to build machines that interact with the world dynamically, just as animals and humans do. Has anything changed at all? Yes, one thing, he adds with a grin. In his early career as a roboticist, he used to write papers and count his citations. Now he counts YouTube views.

In the Spotlight

Photo: Bob O’Connor

Boston Dynamics designed Spot as a versatile mobile machine suitable for a variety of applications. The company has not announced how much Spot will cost, saying only that it is being made available to select customers, which will be able to lease the robot. A payload bay lets you add up to 14 kilograms of extra hardware to the robot’s back. One of the accessories that Boston Dynamics plans to offer is a 6-degrees-of-freedom arm, which will allow Spot to grasp objects and open doors.

Super Senses

Photo: Bob O’Connor

Spot’s hardware is almost entirely custom-designed. It includes powerful processing boards for control as well as sensor modules for perception. The ­sensors are located on the front, rear, and sides of the robot’s body. Each module consists of a pair of stereo cameras, a wide-angle camera, and a texture projector, which enhances 3D sensing in low light. The sensors allow the robot to use the navigation method known as SLAM, or simultaneous localization and mapping, to get around autonomously.

Stepping Up

Photo: Bob O’Connor

In addition to its autonomous behaviors, Spot can also be steered by a remote operator with a game-style controller. But even when in manual mode, the robot still exhibits a high degree of autonomy. If there’s an obstacle ahead, Spot will go around it. If there are stairs, Spot will climb them. The robot goes into these operating modes and then performs the related actions completely on its own, without any input from the operator. To go down a flight of stairs, Spot walks backward, an approach Boston Dynamics says provides greater stability.

Funky Feet

Gif: Bob O’Connor/IEEE Spectrum

Spot’s legs are powered by 12 custom DC motors, each geared down to provide high torque. The robot can walk forward, sideways, and backward, and trot at a top speed of 1.6 meters per second. It can also turn in place. Other gaits include crawling and pacing. In one wildly popular YouTube video, Spot shows off its fancy footwork by dancing to the pop hit “Uptown Funk.”

Robot Blood

Photo: Bob O’Connor

Atlas is powered by a hydraulic system consisting of 28 actuators. These actuators are basically cylinders filled with pressurized fluid that can drive a piston with great force. Their high performance is due in part to custom servo valves that are significantly smaller and lighter than the aerospace models that Boston Dynamics had been using in earlier designs. Though not visible from the outside, the innards of an Atlas are filled with these hydraulic actuators as well as the lines of fluid that connect them. When one of those lines ruptures, Atlas bleeds the hydraulic fluid, which happens to be red.

Next Generation

Gif: Bob O’Connor/IEEE Spectrum

The current version of Atlas is a thorough upgrade of the original model, which was built for the DARPA Robotics Challenge in 2015. The newest robot is lighter and more agile. Boston Dynamics used industrial-grade 3D printers to make key structural parts, giving the robot greater strength-to-weight ratio than earlier designs. The next-gen Atlas can also do something that its predecessor, famously, could not: It can get up after a fall.

Walk This Way

Photo: Bob O’Connor

To control Atlas, an operator provides general steering via a manual controller while the robot uses its stereo cameras and lidar to adjust to changes in the environment. Atlas can also perform certain tasks autonomously. For example, if you add special bar-code-type tags to cardboard boxes, Atlas can pick them up and stack them or place them on shelves.

Biologically Inspired

Photos: Bob O’Connor

Atlas’s control software doesn’t explicitly tell the robot how to move its joints, but rather it employs mathematical models of the underlying physics of the robot’s body and how it interacts with the environment. Atlas relies on its whole body to balance and move. When jumping over an obstacle or doing acrobatic stunts, the robot uses not only its legs but also its upper body, swinging its arms to propel itself just as an athlete would.

This article appears in the December 2019 print issue as “By Leaps and Bounds.” Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots