June 14, 2011
America's Cup Catamaran Capsizes in SF Bay
The build up to the America's Cup race in San Francisco in 2013 has already started with their one design, the AC-45. That is, the teams race essentially the same boat, designed by our friends at Morrelli Melvin Design.
The actual race is with the AC-72, which is much bigger, but they have been learning to sail these winged cats using the smaller '45s. They are using a rigid wing for the main sail, but still have a cloth genoa for their foresail, which makes an interesting hybrid. Also, unlike my thesis design, the wing is most definitely not self-trimming.
Today, on a practice run in San Francisco bay, one of them capsized. Actually, it pitch-poled, which is to say it buried the leading hull and went over the long way, not to the side. One of the things to notice is that as the boat is pitching over, the airflow from the rotation caused the wing to align to the relative wind and hit the water leading edge first. I am quite surprised that the wing did not break in the water, but one of the crew members did fall through the wing during the capsize (he suffered only minor injuries).
The article is quite light on the details, but the video is key.
May 31, 2011
My wife and I welcomed our son, Avi Caleb Elkaim, into the world this past weekend, at 7lbs 9oz, and 19 1/2 inches long. Mother and son are both doing very well.
Here is The Family Elkaim, on 28-May-2011.
Future posting will be very light for a while.
Very cool Bernoulli pads on Mobile Robot
ICRA, the IEEE Conference on Robotics and Automation, is always a big conference for showing off cool new toys and methods for robotics. It is very difficult to get a paper there, and I am hoping that I can get one in for next year.
In the meantime, check out this very cool video of a robot with Bernoulli pads climbing across several different surfaces. Bernoulli pads work by sending a high speed jet of air out of the pad that generates a low pressure. This tries to suck the pad down to the surface. What is very cool is that the pad makes no contact with the surface.
The video for your enjoyment:
The short article is here, courtesy of the IEEE Automaton Blog.
May 1, 2011
And this is why I spend so much time teaching...
A boy looks out over the table of robots from my Introduction to Mechatronics class, presented at the "Day by the Bay" alumni event this past weekend.
And this is why I spend so much time, effort, and care with the students teaching them how to do this, for this exact moment. Because in about 10 years, that little boy in going to be interested in knowing how the world works, and willing to study hard to gain mastery over the subject matter. And because some day, that will be my own son(s), looking across the table and wondering how it works, and being inspired.
Many thanks to Carolyn for letting me use the picture.
April 26, 2011
This is a fantastic TED talk by the CEO of XCOR, one of the Mohave rocket startups. It is rather interesting that he left a (lucrative) job at Intel to do this, and that his main motivation was that we have regressed from where we were relative to the 1960's.
I have long argued that the Apollo program was a mixed success for the United States. The enormous expenditures and pressure of the Cold War had the effect of reaching into the 21st century, and borrowing a decade from the future. The downside is that we have languished ever since. I find it interesting that most of the excitement and progress these days is in the startup world--an while they are certainly not at the point of a moon launch, they are making progress.
Engineering a Seagull
This is a nice documentary/PR piece by Festo on building a flapping robotic seagull. There are quite a few details about the trials and tribulations of getting something like this to work, managing the center of gravity, and making the entire structure light enough for flight. All in all, worth the time to watch.
PS: I'll try to keep this blog a bit more updated than it has been.
May 19, 2010
Making the Paralayzed walk again
This is just one of the coolest things I have ever seen. We've got a faculty member at UCSC who is working on exoskeletons, but this is far and away the most advanced one I have seen for paralyzed people.
After being paralyzed for the past 20 years, Radi Kaiof began to walk down a street in Israel to the sound of a dim mechanical hum. That was the sound of an electronic exoskeleton, developed by a small Israeli high-tech company, propelling the 41 year old paraplegic down the street with a proud expression on his face. The device, called ReWalk, is the brain child of engineer Amit Goffer, founder of Argo Medical Technologies. While ReWalk helps paraplegics, people paralyzed below the waist, to walk, stand and climb stairs, for Goffer, the device has a much more important impact on the user. Goffer himself was paralyzed in an accident in 1997, but he cannot use his own invention because he does not have full function of his arms. The product, slated for commercial sales in 2010, is not cheap. The company said it will cost as much as the more sophisticated wheelchairs on the market, which sell for about 20,000 U.S. dollars. The system consists of motorized leg supports, body sensors and a backpack containing a computerized control box and rechargeable batteries. The user picks a setting with a remote control wrist band - stand, sit, walk, descend or climb - and then leans forward, activating the body sensors and setting the robotic legs in motion. The ReWalk is now in clinical trials in Tel Aviv's Sheba Medical Centre and will soon be used in trials at the Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute in Pennsylvania. Goffer says his aim is not only to ease the lives of those strapped to wheelchairs but also to allow them to lead a 'normal' life. Yet for Radi Kaiof, who has not risen from his wheelchair for the past 20 years, the effects of ReWalk are not just normal, they are life-changing.
May 9, 2010
Execution is everything
My first Ph.D. student sent me a link to another blog post that talked about the differences between ideas and execution, which we both found rather compelling. The short of it is that ideas are quite literally a dime a dozen, and that even if they are any good, you will have to fight quite hard tot get people to accept them. Whereas execution or delivery is everything, it gives the idea body, life.
In the first of the two articles on this, the main point is that execution has a multiplier effect on the original idea--if the idea is worth something like $20, the (very well) executed idea is worth $20,000,000.
I wouldn't call ideas worthless, per se, but it's clear that ideas alone are a hollow sort of currency. Success is rarely determined by the quality of your ideas. But it is frequently determined by the quality of your execution. So instead of worrying about whether the Next Big Idea you're all working on is sufficiently brilliant, worry about how well you're executing.
It doesn't matter how good or how new my idea is. It matters how well I carry it out in the real world.
Now, our history books worship the inventors, not the executors. We are taught all about the people who invent new things, come up with new ideas, and plough new trails. But look around you in present time and in the recent past, and you'll see that the most successful people are the ones who carried out the idea really well, not the people who came up with the idea.
Both articles are well worth the read.
As someone who sees lots of good ideas (and has them) during my research, this makes great intuitive sense--ideas in and of themselves have little value to offer; only the concrete implementation of them demonstrates both their viability and utility. Now, if only I could get the funding agencies to realize this.
April 30, 2010
How Robots Learn to Reason
There is a very nice article from Ars Technica on how Robots learn to think. Largely it is a nice explanation of both Bayes rule and estimation in general. Still, it is a good reference for the lay person, and a decent look at how some of these things are implemented.
Today's robots are starting to be able to make these difficult determinations. The question we're here to answer is: how? What allowed robots to go from blind, dumb, immobile automatons to fully autonomous entities able to operate in unstructured environments like the streets of a city? The most obvious answer is Moore's Law, and it has certainly been a huge factor. But raw processing power is useless without the right algorithms. A revolution has taken place in the robotics world. By embracing uncertainty and using the tools of probability, robots are able to make sense of their surroundings like never before.
In this article, we'll explore how robots use their sensors to make sense of the world. This discussion applies mostly to robots that carry an internal representation of the world and act according to that representation. There are lots of successful robots that don't do such "thinking": the military's UAVs are mostly remotely piloted, linked by an electronic tether to human eyes and brains on the ground. The Roomba does its job without building a map of your house; it just has a series of simple behaviors that are triggered by timing or bumping into things. These robots are very good at what they do, but to autonomously carry out more complicated tasks like driving, a robot needs to have some understanding of the world around it. The robot needs to know where it is, where it can and can't go, and decide what to do and where to go. We'll be discussing how modern robots answer these questions.
Worth a look.
December 8, 2009
SpaceShip Two unveiled
Richard Branson and Burt Rutan unveiled the new SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo carrier in Mohave to much fanfare and media glitz.
Virgin Galactic's unveiling of the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane drew hundreds of paying space tourists and travel agents, rocket geeks and glitterati to the Mojave Air and Space Port. For a while, it looked as if stormy skies and brisk winds would force a change in Virgin billionaire founder Richard Branson's plans for an after-dark, outdoor debut.
But in the end, the spotlights went on and the music blared as scheduled, despite the near-freezing temperatures, the wind and the puddles of rain. SpaceShipTwo rolled down the runway, suspended from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson stepped out and smashed bottles of champagne - and Branson's daughter, Holly, officially gave the 60-foot-long craft its new name: the VSS Enterprise.
See the full article here.
December 13, 2008
PRT makes Forbes
As the three of you who actually follow this blog know, I have a project building a personal rapid transit (PRT) simulator that can be used to asses both the energy costs as well as the economic return for such a system.
As a society, I believe that we need to address the issue of transportation efficiency (both in terms of fuel and time), and that PRT is an elegant technological solution to both problems. It is forward thinking, and definitely not within the mainstream discussion of the problem.
Forbes magazine has a nice article on future transportation that includes PRT in the mix:
Indeed, 2007 marked the first time that a majority of the world's 6 billion people were living in urban areas. By 2025, 61% of the world's population will be living in cities of 1 million or more. The Urban Age Institute forecasts 27 "mega-cities"--those with 10 million or more people--by 2015. Eighteen of them, it says, will be in Asia.
To deal with the challenge, automakers are dreaming up all kinds of high-tech solutions. GM's Burns envisions a world where autonomous electric cars talk to one another and thus avoid crashing. With an assigned time and path, these lightweight, self-guided cars would proceed steadily through crowded intersections without all the stop-and-go that chokes roadways and saps fuel efficiency. Many of the enabling technologies, such as adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning systems, already exist.
Or imagine commuting in a lightweight, computer-driven podcar that rides on elevated guideways that extend into every neighborhood in the city. Bill N. Reinert, national manager for Toyota (nyse: TM - news - people )'s advanced technology group, suggests that an on-demand, personal rapid transit system might be just as effective and no more costly than self-guided cars. Riders would reserve a vehicle on a phone and the car would be waiting at a nearby station (rather than the other way around).
December 11, 2008
There are a few groups working on the micro Transat project to make a small sailboat sail across the Atlantic autonomously. The team that won the first competition, Roboat has recently made the news with a bunch of articles.
Few types of transport require as much thinking per mile as sailing - the sailor has to measure the speed and direction of both the water and the wind, which can constantly change, and then manage an array of sails and underwater hydrofoils at the correct angles to create motion in the desired direction. Navigation is its own challenge too, as it's impossible to sail directly into the wind and boats must 'tack' forward in zigzag patterns to make progress. All of which makes it quite remarkable that a group of European enthusiasts have created a Linux-brained autonomous sailboat bristling with sensors and capable of working its way around pre-set race courses or sailing to pretty much any nautical destination without any human intervention. Earlier this year, the ASV 'Roboat' became the first world robotic sailing champion at an event in Austria.
The ASV Roboat is a 3.75m Laerling - a beginner's sailboat that has been adapted to become a completely autonomous sailing vessel. The Laerling design was chosen because of its 60kg keel ballast and large, buoyant foam-filled body, which combine to make it very difficult to tip over and virtually unsinkable.
The 800MHz/512 MB Mini-ITX computer controlling the Roboat runs a Linux operating system and a control software suite using Java and C++. Onboard sensors bring in GPS data for position and speed over ground, speed through water, ultrasonic wind speed and direction data, tilt-compensated compass, humidity, air and water temperature and water depth.
Solar panels make the Roboat largely energy-independent, although there's a direct methanol fuel cell to top up the batteries as a backup.
Once destination parameters are entered, the Roboat calculates and recalculates its route depending on the constant stream of data it receives. Chain-drive motors operate the mainsail, jib, rudder and boom to sail the boat to its destination.
Some nice technology. My own autonomous boat is too big to transport to the contest, and not robust enough (yet) to do the long duration missions. Very nice to see this catching on.
October 5, 2008
I just set up some google alerts for the terms "Robotic Sailboat" and "Autonomous Catamaran" and a few others, just to catch things as they popped onto the net. I got this video below from the alert set to "Autonomous Sailboat."
It is a video from the microtransat group, but the link to their website is dead, leaving only this (sad) video behind.
UPDATE: I found a live webpage for the project.
Somewhere, someone remembers all of the work they put into this.
September 25, 2008
Autonomous Parachute Drop
Some time ago, I had proposed using high performance ram wing parachutes to do precision guided drops of equipment and material. The basic idea is that the aircraft don't like to fly low (usually because they are getting shot at), but if they drop the cargo from high up it tends to drift with the wind and land far from the intended site. This was demonstrated in a rather memorable scene from the movie "A Bridge Too Far," in which a paratrooper is killed rescuing an airdropped canister which turns out to be full of berets.
Which is why this press release announcing the successful test drop of a 30000 lb payload using an autonomously guided ram wing parachute caught my attention.
The new system, called the GigaFly, was successfully deployed from a C-130 aircraft at 15,000 feet carrying a 33,000 lb load. The system landed fully autonomously at a gentle 14 feet per second rate-of-descent less than 275-m from the intended point of impact.
GigaFly is a 10,400 square foot ram-air parachute, also known as a parafoil, with a wingspan of 195 feet it is nearly as wide as the wings on a Boeing 747 (211-ft). Designed for airdrop at altitudes as high as 25,000 feet, GigaFly guides itself to a designated point on the ground from up to 22 kilometers away using its specially designed on board GPS guidance unit and software.
August 24, 2008
Solar UAV sets endurance record
Solar powered aircraft have had the theoretical capability of being "atmospheric" satellites as long as they could store some energy on-board (or fly high enough that they would glide down during the night). The BBC is reporting about a three day record from the Zephyr, built by the QuinetiQ company.
The latest flight was conducted at the US Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.
The Zephyr flew non-stop for 82 hours, 37 minutes.
That time beats the current official world record for unmanned flight set by the US robot plane Global Hawk - of 30 hours, 24 minutes - and even Zephyr's own previous best of 54 hours achieved last year.
However, the Yuma mark remains "unofficial" because QinetiQ did not involve the FAI (Federation Aeronautique Internationale), the world air sports federation, which sanctions all record attempts.
The US Department of Defense funded the demonstration flight under its Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (JCTD) programme.
This programme is designed to advance the technologies American commanders would most like to see in the field.
"We think Zephyr is very close to an operational system - within the next two years is what we're aiming for," Mr Kelleher said. "We have one more step of improvements; we trying to design a robust and reliable system that will really sit up there for months; and we want to push the performance."
There is some nice video of the launch of the craft over at the BBC site.
August 12, 2008
The Boat makes EngineeringTV
Well, it is not everyday that your project makes EngineeringTV. The gentleman talking is Ken Childress, the marketing guy, and this was filmed down at the AUSVI conference in San Diego earlier this year. Still, that is my boat, and there is no uncertain amount of pride seeing it go through its paces in the video.
The Harbor Wing Autonomous Unmanned Surface Vehicle (AUSV) is unique. Defined by three innovative components: the WingSail, the Hydrofoils, and the Guidance System, it will perform a range of critical missions. The design and integration of these components is the product of world class expertise and vision from Harbor Wing's team. By providing situational awareness to operational commanders, Harbor Wing's high-tech AUSV will meet fundamental requirements of military, government, and commercial customers.
May 27, 2008
Phoenix has landed!
The NASA Mars lander, Phoenix, has landed on the planet surface and is reportedly in good health and sending back data.
NASA's Phoenix spacecraft landed in the northern polar region of Mars today to begin three months of examining a site chosen for its likelihood of having frozen water within reach of the lander's robotic arm.
Radio signals received at 4:53:44 p.m. Pacific Time (7:53:44 p.m. Eastern Time) confirmed the Phoenix Mars Lander had survived its difficult final descent and touchdown 15 minutes earlier. The signals took that long to travel from Mars to Earth at the speed of light.
Mission team members at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.; Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver; and the University of Arizona, Tucson, cheered confirmation of the landing and eagerly awaited further information from Phoenix later tonight.
There is a ton of information on the NASA site, including pictures, press releases, and explanations of the science packages.
May 24, 2008
Hummingbird sets endurance record
I used to know a few people at Frontier, the builders of the hummingbird unmanned helicopter before it got acquired by Boeing. The project was always very cool, and several novel control techniques were being used on it.
I am happy to see that they have set an endurance record, and are proceeding well.
May 23, 2008 Gizmag first reported on Boeing’s A160T Hummingbird Unmanned Rotorcraft back in 2005 and again in 2007 when the craft made its first flight. Now the craft has come very close to achieving the original 20 hour flight times envisioned (and unofficially broken a world record for unmanned aerial vehicles along the way) by remaining in the air for 18.7 hours.
The unofficial endurance world record (the company has lodged an application to make it official) claimed by Boeing for the performance of its rotorcraft is for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) weighing between 1,102 and 5,511 pounds (500 to 2,500 kilograms). According to Boeing Advanced Systems’ A160T program manager, Jim Martin, the team didn’t set out to establish a world record, but it was a great accomplishment. “This 18-hour endurance flight is the culmination of thousands of hours of systems, ground and flight testing. The aircraft performed flawlessly, flying un-refueled longer than any other current unmanned rotorcraft,” he said. During the flight at the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground in southwestern Arizona, the turbine-powered aircraft carried a 300-pound internal payload at altitudes up to 15,000 feet, landing with better than 90 minutes of fuel in reserve.
May 23, 2008
Largest Drawing in the World
UPDATE: This is a fake! Apparently this was a hoax. Too bad, neat idea.
Some people dream big, and other dream REALLY big. Artist Erik Nordenankar sent a GPS tracking device using DHL to create a self portrait that literally spans the globe. Using the ground track of the device as his pen, and DHL to move the pen from place to place, it took 55 days to create the image.
There are several videos at the site.
May 14, 2008
Well, even though my booth--with the Mechatronics class robots--was quite popular with the under 8 crowd, we did not get mentioned in this NY Times article on the Maker Faire. Nonetheless, it is a good article and captures the flair of the faire quite well.
Personally, I am a little disappointed that the life-size scale replica of the mousetrap game did not get further mention--it was very cool to watch (and it used bowling balls instead of marbles).
At first blush, then, this festival, sponsored by Make magazine, is a gathering place of pyromaniacs and noise junkies, the multiply pierced and the extensively tattooed. But wander awhile, and the showy surface gives way to a wondrous thing: the gathering of folks from all walks of life who blend science, technology, craft and art to make things both goofy and grand.
The makers, as they call themselves, are a varied bunch. Cris Benton, the former chairman of the architecture department at the University of California, Berkeley, stood at the Faire, patiently explaining how he and his like-minded friends take aerial photographs by hoisting cameras on kites, a cunning combination of high tech and old crafts.
In the darkened building next door, Terry Schalk, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, fires up an enormous, arc-throwing Tesla coil in hopes of getting youngsters more interested in science.
“This is a real geek fest,” says Professor Schalk, a high-energy physicist in both senses of the phrase.
“If I was a kid, I’d wet my pants here,” he joked.
Some 65,000 people came to see the sprawling display of inventiveness and potentially hazardous fun. Many of them read Make magazine and its sister publication, Craft, and go to Web sites like Instructables.com that encourage people to take on projects and share what they learn. (Recent online projects have shown people how to convert a novelty French-fry telephone into a carrying case for an iPod; how to make a computer-powered coffee warmer from an old Intel Pentium chip plugged into a P.C.’s U.S.B. port; and how parents and children can build a small vibrating robot together.)
Armchair MacGyvers visit Web sites like BoingBoing.net that lovingly chronicle the more audacious projects here and at events like the anarchic Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. These overlapping, even incestuous, communities form the “maker movement” of do-it-yourself enlightenment. In an age where just about every human activity, from shopping to sex, can be performed in the virtual world, they choose to get their hands dirty.
This is part of the Bay Area’s high-tech, adamantly nonconformist culture, steeped in engineering and art and innovation in garages that incubate billionaires and crowded with guys who make late-night runs to the pharmacy for bandages and burn cream. But it is not just a California thing. Make has fans around the world, with a paid circulation of 100,000; its Web site gets 2.5 million visitors each month. The publisher has started a second Faire in Austin, Tex., with hopes of further expansion.
Robotic Sailboat Racing
So, everyone and their brother has sent me a link to articles on the upcoming autonomous sailboat races across the Atlantic, and asked me why our boat is not participating. See this article on one of the entries, the Pinta.
Unfortunately, while I would love to participate in such a thing, our budget does not allow us the freedom to do so. I will definitely be watching this quite closely, however.
The Times of London reports that seven robotic craft will compete in a race across the Atlantic Ocean in October 2008. One of them, ‘Pinta the robot sailing boat,’ has been designed at Aberystwyth University, Wales, UK. Pinta is expected to sail for three months at a maximum speed of four knots (about 4.6 mph or 7.4 kilometers per hour). Its designers hope the Pinta will become the first robot to cross an ocean using only wind power. This 150-kilogram sailing robot costs only £2,500 (US $4,900 or €3,200). The transatlantic race will start between September 29 and October 5, 2008 from Viana do Castelo, Portugal. The winner will be the first boat to reach a finishing line between the Northern tip of St. Lucia and the Southern tip of Martinique in the Caribbean.
These sailing robots have been designed at Aberystwyth University, Wales, UK, by Mark Neal, Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and member of the Intelligent Robotics Group. For more information about what he does, you can read two pages about Biologically Inspired Robotics and
a previous autonomous sailing robot.
Here is a quote from Mark Neal about these sailing robots. “This is the first time anybody has attempted to sail across any ocean with an automated boat. The big issue in robotics at the moment is longevity and flexibility in a complicated environment. Something that can survive for two to three months completely unassisted while doing something interesting is a major challenge. If it does get there I will be seriously cheerful. It will open up all the oceans to environmental monitoring by robots.”
May 8, 2008
PRT in Abu Dhabi
With all of the money flowing into the middle east due to high oil prices, they have the luxury of trying some far flung ideas to see how well they will work. Case in point, Abu Dhabi is building a zero-emissions city.
The part that excites me is the PRT, or personal rapid transportation. Done correctly, this is the people moving equivalent of a packet switched network (ie: the Internet). I have a small grant to do some simulations of this type of system, and would love to be able to ride it one day.
The new zero-emissions city, which is being built near the city of Abu Dhabi in the center of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is part of the Masdar Initiative, a $15 billion government-funded investment program designed in part to ensure that the UAE's prosperity won't be linked exclusively to its oil. Its leaders say that the project will give the country a leadership position in renewable energy. If it's successful, says Sultan al Jaber, Masdar's CEO, "we'll be sitting on top of the world."
Designing the city from the ground up will bring a number of advantages. About half of the cost of solar energy comes from installation materials and labor. In Masdar, thin-film solar cells can be incorporated directly into the facades of buildings in place of conventional construction materials, reducing the costs of the solar power. Energy needed for cooling will be reduced by controlling the orientation and design of the city's buildings, streets, and green spaces to find a balance between shade and sun, and to promote natural-air circulation. Air conditioners will use absorption chillers that run on heat from the sun in place of conventional compressors.
Energy for transportation will also be reduced. Efficient electric transports will provide door-to-door service: just type in your destination, and the transport will come to your door and take you automatically to your destination. The power will be generated by renewable energy and stored onboard in batteries. On Monday, Masdar received the first bids on the system, which will likely use battery-powered vehicles running on tracks or powered by magnetic levitation.
April 28, 2008
This self-docking wheelchair is a very nice marriage of technology with necessity. As can be seen from the video below, getting the wheelchair onto its platform from where you are sitting is quite a challenge, and making the process automatic is a great application of technology. I am not sure if the guidance is based on video or laser ranging, but it looks very cool. The engineering "trick" is to see the essence of the problem (docking) without being distracted by the much larger problem (autonomous driving). This is the way that robotics becomes more and more acceptable to society.
Using the new system, the user opens the door of their van and presses a button to lower the front seat so they can climb in. A remote control is then used to drive the chair round to the back of the van.
From here on, a computer inside the vehicle takes over. Using radio signals and laser guidance, it positions the chair onto the forks of a lift that hauls the wheelchair on board, and closes the door.
The process is reversed once the driver reaches their destination.
he researchers had originally planned to let users dock the empty wheelchair onto the forklift themselves, using the remote control and a camera mounted on the van. But it proved too difficult to position the chair accurately on the lift.
"The real challenge is to dock with 100% reliability. That is something you can't do with remote control," says John Spletzer, a roboticist at Lehigh who helped develop the system.
Instead they developed an on-board computer that uses a LIDAR (light detecting and ranging) system to position the chair. It bounces laser light off two reflectors on the armrests of the chair to track its position and align it with the forklift.
April 17, 2008
The NASCAR for Rocket Scientists
The NY Times has an article on the new rocket racing league, and all the risk that it entails. This had been coming along ever since Jack Norton and Alexander Lippisch experimented with rocket powered interceptors during WWII.
The Rocket Racing League, a long-promised attempt to create a kind of Nascar of the skies, will hold its first exhibition races this year, its founders said.
The races are promised as a kind of living video game — but louder — with a virtual raceway laid out in the sky that will be visible on projection screens at the site of each event.
Racers in rocket-powered aircraft will fly four laps around a five-mile “track” at anywhere from 150 feet to 1,500 feet above the ground. The planes, designed to fly at 340 miles an hour, will start side by side, two at a time. The pilots include professional test pilots who received their training in the military and a former astronaut.
This is definitely not for the weak of heart!
April 4, 2008
Jules Verne Auto-Docking
Well, I have been a bit behind in posting anything in a while, but perhaps now with the Mechatronics demo behind me, I will have a bit more time.
In the meantime, some very interesting technological feats have happened, and one I thought to bring to your attention was the automated docking of the Jules Verne space truck to the International Space Station.
After assessing results of two days of trial maneuvers around the station, including having the two craft close to within 36 feet of one another, the Mission Management Team of international partners in the project gave approval for an attempt on Thursday to link the ships.
The Jules Verne, named for the visionary French author, is the first of a new class of robot station supply ships called Automatic Transfer Vehicles or A.T.V.’s. The robot ship was built by the member nations of the European Space Agency as one of Europe’s major contributions to the international station.
The ship is to maneuver and dock itself automatically using Global Positioning System satellite navigation, as well as a new optical guidance system for close approach to the station. A twin laser system is to fire pulses of light at reflectors positioned on the end of Zvezda to determine the craft’s orientation, distance and closing rate to the space station.
It seems the Russians have been doing this since 1985, but it is still very exciting to see happen.
March 12, 2008
So, that time of year is upon us, and the Introduction to Mechatronics class public demo is tonight. Ten weeks of tremendous effort have resulted in 11 robots (10 from the class, and the stealth TA entry in 24 hours).
The task this year is basketball, with the Slug Madness being a riff on the NCAA March Madness. Each robot must autonomously start from behind the three point line, and fire ping pong balls into one of three baskets made from milk crates. Baskets are only valid if the IR beacon on top of each backboard is lit, and points are determined by range (the beacon changes to a different basket every 10 seconds).
Note that these are autonomous, no input is allowed other than turning it on. The robots that my students have built range from the beautiful to the rugged, and it should be quite a show tonight. As of 3AM, 6 of the 10 teams had met minimum functionality.
November 5, 2007
The DARPA Urban Challenge
Only three years after the initial DARPA Grand Challenge, where not a single vehicle made it past the 7 mile mark, several teams have succesfully managed to complete the vastly more complicated Urban Challenge.
Though I was not present, my own brother-in-law road tripped down to southern California to see the event. He described that each of the vehicles had personality and that his own estimate of when we would be chauffeured by autonomous vehicles went from 50 years to much less.
This article in the New Scientist describes exactly that personality phenomenon.
A sports utility vehicle with a mind of its own was declared the winner of DARPA's urban robot car race on Sunday. It travelled autonomously through traffic for six hours and 60 miles (100 kilometres) around a ghost town in California, US, to scoop the prize.
Nicknamed Boss, the vehicle developed at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, won a $2 million prize in the third such race sponsored by the US Department of Defense, which wants military supply vehicles to one day drive themselves.
The entrants included several station wagons and a huge green military truck decked out with flashing lights, warning sirens, spinning laser range finders and cameras. Only six of 11 finalists finished the course, at an abandoned military base, on Saturday.
The winners of the DARPA Urban Challenge were decided overnight, based on their ability to steer safely around the course, as well as their speed. Stanford University, which won a 2005 race, came in second and Virginia Tech finished third.
One of the best write-ups that I saw on the urban challenge is a series of posts on a blog I read called Due Diligence:
Looking at the crowds at the 2007 Urban Challenge, you'd be forgiven for wondering if DARPA has touched off another of the famous side-effects from its research projects.
The event was open and free to the public. While the teams and DARPA staff were present for the duration, the spectators came and went through the day, making it hard to judge the crowd. But I'd say at least a third and maybe half of the attendees were fans. Some seemed to have found a new kind of southern California entertainment.
In reality, the goals of DARPA and the tastes of race fans are in conflict. Safety and reliability aren't usually compatible with speed and risk. (There could be a future for autonomous bot races on the tube, however. Rumor had it that the presence of Discovery Channel talent indicated a forthcoming special or mini-series on the Urban Challenge.)
The Urban Challenge vehicles are also prototypes, and most teams will readily admit it. Sensors protrude, need to be cleaned periodically, and flake out from RFI, sun glare and dust. Server room rack mounts or Apple's consumer machines crammed into cargo areas are hardly milspec. The uniformed armed forces attendees on Friday were invariably polite, but I'm sure a number of them later had a good laugh considering how these machines would bear up in the heat, vibration and dirt of the sand box.
Miniaturization, environmental hardening, integration, testing and on and on. All of these are capital intensive, are required before seeing a return on the investment, and are beyond the charter or means of academic researchers and do-it-yourself teams. The barrier to entry is going up rapidly.
My hat is off to the teams, 6 out of 11 which finished the race. This is truly a difficult task, and the teams that accomplished this have much to be proud of.
October 31, 2007
Pumpkin Carving with a Laser Cutter
About two weeks before Halloween, I asked one of our more enterprising graduate students if he thought that the laser cutter would cut through a pumpkin. The student in question took one look at me and said, "Oh, you know we are going to find out!"
Maybe thirteen or fourteen pumpkins later, he had used the laser cutter to build essentially a rolling rotisserie rack to hold the pumpkin and rotate it as the laser scanned back and forth (keeping the laser close to and perpendicular to the surface, as well as flipping the image).
Among the many things discovered were (1) Etching effectively flays the pumpkin flesh, (2) You need very high power settings to pierce all the way through the pumpkin, and (3) It is much better to open and seed the pumpkin before using the laser cutter to make intricate carvings in it.
The end result was perhaps the world's most expensive pumpkin carving arrangement, but one which can produce carvings with exquisite precision (as seen by the monogram above). Someday, the lab is going to have to figure out how to capitalize on such innovation, but for now I present you with the video, showing the cutting in action.
October 28, 2007
As the three people who actually read this blog may have noticed, I have not been posting for the past few months. I do, actually, have a good excuse. During that time, I got married! And since our fabulous photographers have gotten back to us with the pictures, I thought I would share one with you.
It was a beautiful day, wonderful service, lovely setting, and the bride was simply radiant.
July 22, 2007
The walls between art and engineering exist only in our minds
Every once in a while, you see something that restores your faith in humanity, something sublime, illuminating, and so creative as to hold your attention fixed while the world continues to madly swirl around. Click on the image to see the video.
His name is Theo Jansen, and he makes kinetic sculptures that are wind powered and walk across the beach.
A scientist-turned-artist, Jansen's bizarre beach animals have their roots in a computer program that he designed 17 years ago in which virtual four-legged creatures raced against each other to identify survivors fit enough to reproduce. Determined to translate the evolutionary process off-screen, Jansen went to a local shop and found his own alternative to the biological cell -- the humble plastic tube.
"Animals are machines as well," said Jansen. "I was making animals with just the tubes because they were cheap but later on they turned out to be very helpful in making artificial life because they are very flexible and multifunctional as well. I see it now as a sort of protein -- in nature, everything is almost made of protein and you have various uses of protein; you can make nails, hair, skin and bones. There's a lot of variety in what you can do with just one material and this is what I try to do as well."
June 26, 2007
Boat on the Water
I have just finished putting together a short video of our most recent autonomous wing-sailed catamaran test off of Pearl Harbor. We had done a previous test in the harbor, and it worked fine, so we went out to sea and tested several miles off the Oahu coast.
The wind started out very nicely at 17 knots, but this was more swell than we had previously worked with. Based on the experience of the chase boat captain, we aborted the test after 8 nautical miles with the wind at 25 knots, and motored back to our berth. While the data revealed we still had good stability in terms of capsizing, we also discovered that the welds on the rear support beam had broken and were slowly tearing the metal apart.
Click on the image to see the video.
Right call (abort), wrong reason. As always, it is better to be lucky than good.
June 23, 2007
Sebastian in the News Again
Sebastian Thrun, who led Stanford to the winning run in the DARPA Grand Challenge is in the news again, this time preparing for the DARPA Urban Challenge. They have developed a new car, Junior, which is based on a Volkswagen Passat, and has quite a few more sensors than Stanley had.
A robotic automotive vehicle — which, Thrun says, would "combine the convenience of a train with the convenience of a car" — is a long way from commercial viability. But the Stanford Racing Team will put a driverless Volkswagen Passat wagon named Junior to the test in November in the 2007 Urban Challenge, sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's research arm.
Junior's predecessor, a modified VW Touareg sport utility vehicle called Stanley, won the 2005 Grand Challenge race in the Nevada desert. This year, Junior and 52 competitors must master far more than pure speed.
The Urban Challenge will be a 60-mile test of city driving, replete with intersections, rights-of-way, stop signs, lane changes and that most annoying variable: traffic.
Keep your eyes on this, as the competition should be exciting.
June 20, 2007
When Politics and Technology Collide
I've now heard about this story twice, from different sources. Wired has a nice write-up. Basically, a company in San Diego, Vision Robotics, is working on an automated fruit picker for the agricultural industry. The interesting thing is that they are funded entirely by agricultural associations, who are trying to hedge their bets against future immigration reform. The team has had some insights into the problem, and why it has been technically difficult in the past.
It's a surprising new market for Vision Robotics, which had been focused on developing consumer devices, including a robotic vacuum cleaner to compete with iRobot's Roomba.
When a member of the California Citrus Research Board approached the company in 2004, Morikawa was doubtful that an effective robotic picker was even feasible. A citrus grower brought the skeptical engineers to an orange farm in California's fertile Central Valley, where they walked down the neat rows of trees and stared at the oranges hanging in the branches.
Previous attempts at making a mechanical harvester were thwarted by inefficiency, explains Morikawa. In the past, experimental machines approached a tree as a human would, picking one piece of fruit and then looking for the next. In this slow process, the machine circled the tree repeatedly until it was sure it had picked all the fruit.
Morikawa says his engineers had their breakthrough idea right there in the orange grove. They realized that the task could be divided between two robots: One would locate all the oranges, and the second would pick them. "Once you know where all the fruit is, then it becomes an easy job to calculate the most efficient way to pick it all," says Morikawa.
The funny thing about this is that is corroborates a different viewpoint I saw on another block about "energy slaves." This one is over here, at the Power and Control Blog, where he talks about the concept of energy slaves, and uses the thermostat as an example.
Early energy slaves replaced draft animals - the early age of steam. Then they replaced humans for simple repetitive tasks - like sealing cans of peaches at a peach canning factory. Now our energy slaves are smarter and can think for themselves to a certain extent and will follow orders without complaint. Like the thermostat that will make sure in the winter that during the day the house is warm but at night it is cooler except on Saturday night when it is kept warmer for the traditional Saturday night party. 24/7/365 for decades. Change the timing when you like. Down to the minute.
These energy slaves are getting smarter every day. They are precision machinists that can work at a speed and keep tolerances no manual machine could dream of. Some of them have hands. As many hands as needed.
One of the reasons slavery not to mention work is going out of style. Machines (energy slaves) can do it better, faster, and cheaper. John Henry couldn't defeat steam. He has no chance what so ever against electricity.
May 7, 2007
Don't Anthropomorphize Robots, they Don't Like It
The Washington Post has a rather long article on the way the soldiers in the field are relating to the robots that they use to help them do their jobs. It is quite long, and a very interesting case study in the psychology of human machine interaction. It is also quite entertaining to read, and I recommend it highly.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have become an unprecedented field study in human relationships with intelligent machines. These conflicts are the first in history to see widespread deployment of thousands of battle bots. Flying bots range in size from Learjets to eagles. Some ground bots are like small tanks. Others are the size of two-pound dumbbells, designed to be thrown through a window to scope out the inside of a room. Bots search caves for bad guys, clear roads of improvised explosive devices, scoot under cars to look for bombs, spy on the enemy and, sometimes, kill humans.
Even more startling than these machines' capabilities, however, are the effects they have on their friendly keepers who, for example, award their bots "battlefield promotions" and "purple hearts." "Ours was called Sgt. Talon," says Sgt. Michael Maxson of the 737th Ordnance Company (EOD). "We always wanted him as our main robot. Every time he was working, nothing bad ever happened. He always got the job done. He took a couple of detonations in front of his face and didn't stop working. One time, he actually did break down in a mission, and we sent another robot in and it got blown to pieces. It's like he shut down because he knew something bad would happen." The troops promoted the robot to staff sergeant -- a high honor, since that usually means a squad leader. They also awarded it three "purple hearts."
April 5, 2007
The X-prize group has just released the draft standard for their automotive X-prize. Just as the original Ansari X-Prize was a 10 million purse for the first vehicle to successfully reach exo-atmospheric flight twice within a two week period. Their Automotive X-prize has two parts, one for a conventional 4 wheeled, 4 passenger vehicle that gets better than 100 mpg, the other for unconventional vehicles.
In draft guidelines to be released at the New York Auto Show, the AXP outlines an independent competition that will result in clean, efficient vehicles that help break our addiction to oil and stem the effects of climate change. The AXP also invites interested teams - major auto companies and innovators alike - to execute letters of intent to participate as the AXP moves toward an official launch later this year.
"We invite the world's best and brightest minds to look at this independent, high-profile competition as a way to make a difference for generations to come," said Mark Goodstein, executive director, Automotive X PRIZE. "In the spirit of grand competitions throughout history - including Lindbergh's historic flight across the Atlantic 80 years ago - we expect that the Automotive X PRIZE will bring about change and innovation for the benefit of everybody. This competition will help level the playing field and capture entrepreneurial, scientific and technical energy to bring about viable cars that consumers want to buy."
The draft guidelines outline a challenging multi-year competition with a multi-million-dollar cash purse. Teams first are required to meet arduous standards proving they are capable of designing and building production-capable, super-efficient vehicles. The vehicles then will compete in a series of rigorous stage races that test the vehicles under real-world driving requirements and conditions. Vehicles will compete in two different categories - Mainstream (4+ passengers, 4+ wheels) and Alternative (2+ passengers, no requirement on number of wheels). Winning vehicles must exceed 100 miles per gallon or its equivalent, while also meeting rigorous emission requirements.
April 4, 2007
Mouse Brain Hacking
While I don't write a whole lot about biological phenomena, I ran across this article which may, in fact, be one of the strangest things that I have ever read.
A mere parasite controls the fate of rats and mice by hijacking the part of the brain that makes the rodents naturally fear cats, a new study shows.
Rats and mice normally flee if they smell cat urine, but not if they're infected by the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii. The parasite can only complete its life cycle if its rodent host is eaten by a cat, so it "brainwashes" the creature into apparently liking the scent.
I almost cannot imagine the sequence of random variation that allows the parasite to so exquisitely tune its action on the rodents. Let alone why the parasite needs the mouse to be eaten by a mouse.
March 12, 2007
This aired recently on an episode of Future Weapons: developed by Rafael and Lockheed Martin. Of course, this is motor driven, but it has a special appeal to me.
A high-speed, stealthy and futuristic shaped boat appeared through the twilight, as if taken out of a science fiction scene. It sliced the water quickly and gracefully, closing-in on the target vessel with extreme agility. A gun barrel at the bow, kept its aim steady on the same point of the target vessel, in spite of the boat's movement through the water and the swell of the sea, as if it was firmly connected with invisible wire. A close look would reveal a somewhat surrealistic picture, as no personnel is seen onboard the fast maneuvering boat. Where is the crew that operates this highly-capable patrol boat?
No, it's not science fiction. It is Rafael's 'Protector', an unmanned integrated naval combat system, based on unmanned surface vehicles (USV). Highly autonomous and remotely controlled, Protector is able to conduct a wide spectrum of critical missions, while eliminating unnecessary risk to personnel and capital assets.
Note that you can find video available here.
January 15, 2007
I recently stumbled upon this while looking for something else, and has a nice time procrastinating by reading through it. Bussard (of the Bussard Ramjet fame) has been working for the last 12 years on a practical fusion device, quite different from the Tokamak. Frankly, after reading it, I really don't understand the physics behind it, but I found it fascinating to read nonetheless.
It is one of those things which seems like a reasonable thing to spend R&D money on. If it works, it changes everything. If it doesn't, we still learn a great deal about the physics involved.
The original video of the presentation "Should Google go nuclear?" is here.
January 14, 2007
Living on Earth and Robots
The NPR show Living on Earth has a very nice show on Robotics that ties into the home robots that were on display at CES this year. They interview some of the people at the MIT robotics lab, and some of the stuff that they are working on is truly fascinating.
Increasingly, living on earth means living with robots; sharing the planet with ever more intelligent machines that perform tasks from the mundane like the robo lawn mower that cuts your grass, to the highly specialized like robo-docs that do surgery. The word robot comes from the Slavic word "rabota," or work and was first used by Czech science fiction writer Caral Chepeck in 1921. Ever since, robots have stirred and captured our imaginations.
Robosapiens, life-like robots that obey our every command are still the stuff of Hollywood. But at the just concluded consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, robots for the home were being hailed as the next big thing. It's an industry poised to amaze.
To see first hand where things are headed check out MIT's humanoid robotics group. Here on the Cambridge, Massachusetts campus, grad student Aaron Edsinger has just put the finishing touches on one of the world's most advanced robots.
January 12, 2007
Saudades do Brasil
As anyone who has read my bio knows, I grew up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A good friend of mine sent me this link to a Walt Disney cartoon, Acquarela do Brasil (Watercolor of Brazil). It is quite dated, but wonderful as well. Like a miniature version of Fantasia, but with a specific geographic theme.
January 5, 2007
Robots at CES
There seem to be a whole lot of Robots at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this year. This article by the BBC has a survey of some of the more ubiquitous ones.
Any robotic technology which makes people more accepting of having robots in their home is great.
"We have all grown up with movies like Star Wars and Terminator and have a very definitive perception of what robots are.
"We are trying to change that perception with Asimo.
"The reality of humanoid robots is going to be much different from what we have seen on television."
The next hurdle for Asimo is better artificial intelligence.
"We need Asimo to be smart enough to understand what we want it to do and they go and do it.
"We are still in the infancy of artificial intelligence."
November 26, 2006
There are many people who view science and engineering as some sort of mysterious and arcane practice, as something akin to magic in certain ways. Others view the fields as mind numbingly dull, devoid of all creativity.
I, of course, have a very different take on the whole endeavor. Neither arcane, nor dull, merely the language of the physical world and with that language threads of poetry become apparent.
Though I have seen this data before (it is the patters of aircraft over the United States), the presentation is a marriage of art and technology, and something which I highly recommend.
The following flight pattern visualizations are the result of experiments leading to the project Celestial Mechanics by Scott Hessels and Gabriel Dunne. FAA data was parsed and plotted using the Processing programming environment. The frames were composited with Adobe After Effects and/or Maya.
What interesting patterns it is that we create...
September 17, 2006
The Imagination Engine
The Air Force is looking into the work of Stephen Thaler for building up an AI engine for controlling both single and multiple robot swarms. While I am not directly familiar with his work, he seems to have done something quite interesting with Neural Nets by injecting noise and feedback into the system. The article in Wired is an interesting read, and certainly looks promising.
It's based on work by Stephen Thaler, who came to prominence 10 years ago with his brainchild the Creativity Machine. This is software for generating new ideas on the basis of existing ones, and it has already written music, designed soft drinks, and discovered novel minerals that may rival diamonds in hardness.
The software is a type of neural network with two special features. One introduces perturbations, or "noise," into the network so that existing ideas get jumbled into new forms. The second is a filter that assesses the new ideas against existing knowledge and discards those that are unsuitable. Current applications range from detecting intruders in computer networks to developing new types of concrete and optimizing missile warheads.
August 26, 2006
GPS World Cover Story!
OK, this is a shameless plug! An article I wrote on out Marine Mammal Marking Tag (MAMMARK), was the cover story of the August 2006 issue of GPS World. The article can be found here.
The observation technology used by wildlife researchers can limit their understanding of the behavior of marine mammals. Surface tracking using geolocation and Service Argos tags have shown that these mammals range much farther than previously thought. Relatively simple time/depth recorders (TDRs) show that they dive more than 1,000 meters deep and for longer than one hour. To further the understanding of these aquatic creatures, we developed a smaller and more capable tag with more sensing capabilities that can be deployed for longer durations. The MAMMARK tag, measuring 2.5 × 4 centimeters, carries a low-power microprocessor and a set of sensors that can be multiplexed through a high-resolution analog-to-digital converter (ADC).
August 21, 2006
The Robots are Coming!
Forbes magazine this month features an article on some robots that are up and coming, and others that have already been made. While it is clear to everyone that robots will be part of our future, how we (as a society) get there from here is not necessarily clear. The nice thing about this article is that is has stories on all of the robots featured. A recommended read.
The robots are on the move--leaping, scrambling, rolling, flying, climbing. They are figuring out how to get here on their own. They come to help us, protect us, amuse us--and some even do floors.
Since Czech playwright Karel Capek popularized the term ("robota" means "forced labor" in Czech) in 1921, we have imagined what robots could do. But reality fell short of our plans: Honda Motor trotted out its Asimo in 2000, but for now it's been relegated to temping as a receptionist at Honda and doing eight shows a week at Disneyland. The majority of the world's robots are bolted to a spot on a factory floor, sentenced to a repetitive choreography of welding, stamping and cutting.
No more. In our eighth annual E-Gang (our group of tech innovators to watch), we present the masters of robotic innovation--entrepreneurs and researchers who are fusing advances in biomechanics, software, sensor technology, materials science and computing to create new generations of robotic assistants.
August 19, 2006
Flying on Water
While this is not a robot in any sense of the word, it is just very, very cool. Though it is only a short article in Scuttlebutt, the video of this very large hyrofoil sailboat is quite impressive.
Hydroptère means, in greek, marine wing. To get free from the Archimedes’ principle, it is a matter of lifting up the hulls of the boat thanks to a vertical pushing developed by some kind of sea wings, the foils. People have been dreaming for a while not of floating on but of flying over the water."
August 2, 2006
Autonomous Autogyro Flight
This is fairly interesting, combining two of my great interests: Autogyros and Robotics. The Piasecki corporation has recently (according to this press release) demonstrated autonomous flight with an autogyro. I have always felt that autogyros could be quite useful in the autonomous role, and think that this is a good step forward.
Piasecki Aircraft Corporation (PiAC) announced today the successful flight of the world’s first autogyro with Level 4 autonomy; flying a mission consisting of navigation through multiple pre-programmed waypoints. The system incorporates a 6-DoF model provided by Georgia Tech with autonomy system components supplied by Geneva Aerospace and integrated by Piasecki onto a commercial kit autogyro platform. The system was flown as part of a company funded technology demonstration program supporting the development of a system for the US Army FCS Air Guard Class III UAV program.
Building on this success, PiAC will continue expanding the flight envelope of the
system, incorporating Level 5 autonomous take-off and landing, as well as
integration of a mission management and control system being developed by
team member Lockheed Martin Systems Integration Owego, NY (LMSI-O). The
FCS Air Guard Team includes PiAC, LMSI-O, and Belzon (Huntsville, AL).
July 5, 2006
This is encouraging. VW has developed a self-driving Golf, for research purposes. I'm going to guess that the work that they did with Stanford on Stanley is well represented in this prototype. No word on when it will reach market (read: never). Still, an exciting development.
German car giant Volkswagen has turned fiction into reality by unveiling a fully automatic car which really can drive itself - and at speeds of up to 150mph.
It can weave with tyres screeching around tricky bends and chicanes, and through tightly coned off tracks - without any help or intervention from a human.
The remarkable car is the VW Golf GTi '53 plus 1' codenamed after the number '53' which Herbie carried when racing in his big screen adventures.
The GTi has electronic 'eyes' that use radar and laser sensors in the grille to 'read' the road and send the details back to its computer brain. A sat-nav system tracks its exact position with pin-point precision to within an inch.
The car can then work out the twists and turns it has to negotiate - before setting off at break-neck speed through a laid out course on a test track.
On a race circuit, it drove itself faster and more precisely than the VW engineers could manage - and can accelerate independently up to its top speed of 150mph.
To prove it is no trick, guests were invited to design for themselves a variety of different courses - using road cones - and then watch the car fly around them on its own at a test track near their world headquarters in Wolfsburg in northern Germany.
Here is the video.
June 28, 2006
Biomimicry in the News
An interesting article appears in Business Week about the Office of Naval Research's program on Bio-Inspired Robotics and Research. This is an interesting area, as very clearly evolutionary pressures have made some very efficient structures and methods for locomotion.
It's a field known as biomimetics or biomimicry, though not everyone approves of those terms. Promode Bandyopadhyay of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, R.I., says his work is not an imitation of biology, but biologically inspired. "We are learning from nature's design," he says.
MORE THAN A COPY. A senior research scientist at the center, Bandyopadhyay has worked with the Office of Naval Research to develop a Bio-Inspired Autonomous Undersea Vehicle, or BUAV, which draws on the principles behind fly wings and fish fins in its propulsion and maneuvering.
The tried-and-true designs of many insects are the product of millions of years of evolution. Even so, they are not perfect models. Natural selection isn't just a matter of physiological perfection, but how an organism's traits suit it for a particular environment, scientists say. For this reason, Bandyopadhyay stresses it is important not to just copy nature's work, but to take the best parts of it and apply it elsewhere. "I am against mimicry," he says. "I am against making a mechanical zoo. There is no science in that. It is imperative to understand the science first."
It's in that vein that Bandyopadhyay has overseen study by the Office of Naval Research into biomimetic robots developed by Northeastern University's Joseph Ayers. The robots may be implemented by the military to disable mines in shallow waters.
June 25, 2006
Lego NXT has arrived
According to LEGO, the new mindstorms kits (the NXT) has begun to ship. Those of you who are looking for a low-cost entry into robotics, this is the think. It also makes a great valentine's day present for those engineers. :)
LEGO Group today announced it will showcase LEGO® MINDSTORMS® NXT, its highly-anticipated robotics toolset, for the first time to a consumer audience at the premiere Maker Faire, a two-day family-friendly event celebrating science and technology projects and the DIY mindset. Conceived of and sponsored by MAKE Magazine, the Maker Faire is for creative, resourceful people who like to tinker and love to make things.
In addition, Bay Area LEGO enthusiasts will showcase their amazing LEGO train displays and models; children ages 2 and up can get “hands-on” making and creating with LEGO bricks; and, LEGO brand retail is sponsoring a pop-up store for attendees who are inspired to start making LEGO projects at home. The faire is open to the public Saturday, April 22 and Sunday, April 23 and attendees will find LEGO activities in the Cypress Hall at the San Mateo County Expo Center. For robotics enthusiasts who are unable to attend the event, blogger Jeff James will be onsite covering the faire in reports that will be posted at www.nxtbot.com
“The core DNA of the LEGO brand celebrates creativity, innovation and hands-on, minds-on fun,” said Michael McNally, spokesperson for LEGO Systems. “We are excited to be a sponsor of this inaugural Maker Faire. We believe it’s a perfect fit for us to be aligned with an event that celebrates the do-it-yourself mindset and a consumer’s right to tweak and hack technology at his or her will.”
Automatic Braking from Volvo
This is fairly interesting. Volvo has introduced a system that will take over and apply to brakes in order to prevent a collision (at least, one from running directly into an object). There are some legal ramifications, so don't expect to see this on your car just yet, but it remains a step in the right direction.
Volvo Car Corporation has focused its system development on detecting potential safety risks at an earlier stage. This means to help preventing accidents from occurring, or reducing their effects, simply by reducing speed and shortening the stopping distance. First out was the Collision Warning with Brake Support, recently launched in the new Volvo S80. It allows a 15° field of view, is equipped with a long range radar and registers moving and stopping vehicles.
- A radar sensor is designed to monitor the area in front of the car. If the driver does not react when the car approaches another vehicle from behind, a red light is reflected on the windscreen and a buzzer sounds, says Ingrid Skogsmo, Safety Director at Volvo Car Corporation.
To increase the margins even more, the brake pads are automatically placed against the discs. When the driver brakes, the system monitors the pedal pressure. If the pressure is assessed as being too light, the braking power is amplified by the system.
June 8, 2006
SLAMming with a SMART
This article was published a while back on a new take on SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping), basing the recognition on a model used by the hippocampus. The idea is that the exact features are not important, but rather the spatial sequence of them, and that this can be used to figure out where you are.
A computer navigation system based on a part of the brain called the hippocampus has been tested on an autonomous robotic car. By enabling the robot to take what its creators call "cognitive fingerprints" of its surroundings, the software allows the vehicle to explore and remember places in much the same way mammals do.
Tests on the robotic vehicle -- an adapted Daimler-Chrysler Smart Car equipped with a laser range finder and omnidirectional camera as sensors -- have shown that it can successfully explore and navigate more than one and a half kilometers of urban terrain without getting lost.
Similarly, the system has been tested on an indoor robot by "blindfolding" it, taking it to an unknown location, and getting it to find its way home, says Adriana Tapus, a roboticist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles who developed the system. This "kidnapping task" is much more difficult than it might seem, she says. Yet this problem, known as simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM), is becoming increasingly important for robots, autonomous vehicles, and military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).
The challenge is to create a map from which a robot can navigate while it is still exploring that same environment, says Chris Melhuish, director of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory at the University of the West of England and Bristol University in the U.K. This is difficult because it involves mapping an unfamiliar environment while at the same time updating one's position within this map. It's a chicken-and-egg problem, says Tapus: "To localize the robot, a map is necessary, and to update a map, the position of the mobile robot is needed."
In addition, there's the uncertainty inherent in all sensor measurements, which adds to the uncertainty in the map that the robot builds, says Andrew Davison, a computer scientist at Imperial College London, who was one of the first researchers to develop a real-time SLAM system for robots.
To solve this problem, Tapus decided to copy the way people navigate. Working with Roland Siegwart, head of the Autonomous Systems Laboratory at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, she developed a system that takes raw data detected by the robot's sensors, such as vertical edges, corners, and colors, and combines them into a single low-level description or "fingerprint" of that place.
This fingerprint consists of a circular, or looped, list of significant features around the robot. "It's not the features that are new, it is the combination of these features in a unique representation," says Tapus, who believes that human brains form the same kinds of combinations as they establish the relative positions of landmarks.
Update: a SMART car is being used as their platform, hence the title of this post.
Antarctic Icebox Roving Robot
Here is an article about some heavy duty off-road robots that are solar powered and made to traverse 500 Km of antarctic ice in two weeks. They are not particularly fast, but they are robust.
The next generation of Antarctic explorers could be robots capable of driving hundreds of kilometres and doing scientific experiments alone.
That was the vision unveiled by US scientists and engineers at a major science meeting in Vienna.
They have built a solar-powered prototype and tested it in Greenland, where it has "exceeded expectations".
Subject to funding, they envisage building and deploying a fleet of five robots by the end of next year.
These could perform scientific experiments where access is currently difficult or expensive.
"There are two basic types of mission scenarios," said James Lever, an engineer from the US Army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, New Hampshire.
"One would be to stop the robot en route and take the data you need - things like sampling for bacteria in the snow, measuring the atmosphere, or doing a glaciological survey with ground-penetrating radar," he told the BBC News website at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) annual meeting.
"Then the other side is array-based sensor networks where you would deploy the instruments and then pick them up some time later."
The prototype, built with grant money from the US National Science Foundation, is about one cubic metre in size.
It weighs about 60kg but can carry a payload of at least 70kg and tow a much heavier load behind on a sledge.
The aim was to build a vehicle capable of travelling 500km in two weeks during the Antarctic summer; but on the evidence of the Greenland tests, the researchers believe they have exceeded their goal.
The box is covered in solar panels. The floor houses the control and drive systems, and four ordinary all-terrain tyres make contact with the snow.
June 7, 2006
I'm not quite sure how to categorize this, but this man wants to shoot himself from a crossbow into a high parabolic flight--it almost reminds me of the book "Gravity's Rainbow." I would love to see this guy succeed, but he might be heading towards a Darwin award.
There is no subtle way to say this: Brian Walker plans to shoot himself nearly 20 miles into the air aboard a homemade rocket launched from what could be the world’s largest crossbow. (Seriously.)
This isn’t Walker’s first outlandish invention. He’s responsible for the “light chaser” whirly toy, a 300-gallon water-balloon launcher (for putting out forest fires – still in prototype), and Taser gloves (featured in “Garage Geniuses Go Prime Time,” issue 14.03). But Project RUSH – for “rapid up superhigh” – is hands down his most preposterously dangerous effort. “I missed out on the opportunity to be the first private citizen to fly to the edge of space in a private rocket, so I decided to do something even more fun,” Walker says.
Walker’s idea of fun? Stretch a carbon-fiber bowstring 24 feet along a rail, fire up a jet turbine with 1,350 pounds of thrust, hit a trigger, and pull 10 gs as his craft, modeled on spaceships from Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, shoots to the stratosphere. He’ll plummet back to Earth using hydrogen peroxide rockets (the propulsion system used in 1950s jet packs) to slow his descent. Don’t worry about Walker – he’ll be wearing a $15,000 surplus Russian space suit for protection. “I can see a scenario where giant crossbows would accelerate skydivers upward,” he says, “creating a new kind of skydiving.”
Robotic Instestinal Worm
Given that the field of robotics is taking a great deal of inspiration from the biological world, especially as we try to figure out why certain animals (typically insects) are so fast and so stable, this application was only a matter of time. Robotic intestinal worms that are used for inspection. Need implementation and application.
A robot designed to crawl through the human gut by mimicking the wriggling motion of an undersea worm has been developed by European scientists. It could one day help doctors diagnose disease by carrying tiny cameras through patients' bodies.
The team behind the robot includes scientists from Italy, Germany, Greece and the UK. They modelled it on polychaetes, or "paddle worms", which use tiny paddles on their body segments to push through sand, mud or water.
"We turned to biological inspiration because, in the peculiar environment of the gut, traditional forms of robotic locomotion don't work," says Arianna Menciassi, a roboticist from the Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy.
"Worms have locomotion systems suited to such unstructured, slippery environments."
Note that there are videos available.
Oh, I want one of these!
So, every now and again you come across something that is almost so over the top that is just makes you smile. These carbon fiber wings for giving Special Ops types extended range is a great example. I have seen cloth versions of the same in Banff Film Festival type movies, but nothing rigid like this. The idea is very simple, of course. Wings, even small ones, will greatly improve the Lift/Drag ratio of a falling body, so if you get dropped from a sufficiently high altitude, you can go quite a ways. And it would be a total thrill to jump with them!
Elite special forces troops being dropped behind enemy lines on covert missions are to ditch their traditional parachutes in favour of strap-on stealth wings.
The lightweight carbon fibre mono-wings will allow them to jump from high altitudes and then glide 120 miles or more before landing - making them almost impossible to spot, as their aircraft can avoid flying anywhere near the target.
The technology was demonstrated in spectacular fashion three years ago when Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner - a pioneer of freefall gliding - famously 'flew' across the English Channel, leaping out of an aircraft 30,000ft above Dover and landing safely near Calais 12 minutes later.
Wearing an aerodynamic suit, and with a 6ft wide wing strapped to his back, he soared across the sea at 220mph, moving six feet forward through the air for every one foot he fell vertically - and opened his parachute 1,000ft above the ground before landing safely.
June 6, 2006
New Scientist has a nice summary of humanoid robot developments. These are like the Asimo and the Qrio, both featured here before. They are very limited at this point in time, and in my opinion will be for quite a bit more. No need to start worrying about being overrun just yet.
The goal is to build robots that can be let loose in our world, where they will learn to interact with humans in a messy and unpredictable environment, not just in the lab. These robots need to be able to get around in the same places we do, manipulate objects in their surroundings and communicate with others around them. In short, they need to be more like us.
Lifelike humanoid robots have eluded designers because the mechanisms required to perform such tasks as emulating a hand, or walking and talking in anything approaching a natural manner, are hugely complex and need fine control. Honda's humanoid robot Asimo can walk up and down stairs, fetch coffee and greet visitors. But its gait is deliberate and plodding, and the useful work it can do is severely limited. What's more, all the tasks Asimo can carry out have to be pre-programmed; it cannot act autonomously. Such dumb, choreographed behaviour has tended to cast robotics in a rather pitiful light, and robot toys have never quite got off the ground. Sony even cancelled its robot entertainment programme last week.
But as helpmates, huge leaps in computer power and advances in control software, sensors and actuators are allowing machines to shed their clunky image and gain impressively human-like abilities. The new breed of bots may not look as slick as Toyota's trumpeter, but by digging deep into the fundamentals of locomotion, speech and dexterity, their creators have come up with designs that will put today's robots in the shade.
UPDATE: Unfortunately, the article is behind their subscription wall.
June 5, 2006
DARPA's replacement mule
DARPA has been planning on upgrading to a robotic mule to pack in supplies to difficult terrain. The mechanical engineering on this beast is quite incredible, and my hat is off to the team that came up with this. Like all such current devices, the difficulty will be in getting enough range and power on a mobile platform.
A nimble, four-legged robot is so surefooted it can recover its balance even after being given a hefty kick. The machine, which moves like a cross between a goat and a pantomime horse, is being developed as a robotic pack mule for the US military.
BigDog is described by its developers Boston Dynamics as “the most advanced quadruped robot on Earth”. The company have released a new video of the robot negotiating steep slopes, crossing rocky ground and dealing with the sharp kick. View the impressive clip here (28MB Windows media file).
“Internal force sensors detect the ground variations and compensate for them,” says company president and project manager Marc Raibert. “And BigDog's active balance allows it to maintain stability when we disturb it."
This active balance is maintained by four legs, each with three joints powered by actuators and a fourth "springy" joint. All the joints are controlled by an onboard PC processor.
June 4, 2006
Machine Learning Success at the Grand Challenge
This story goes into detail about different machine learning algorithms, and their applications that are finally making headway in the software world. Most famous of the tasks is the DARPA Grand Challenge II that was won by the Stanford Stanley vehicle.
Thrun used several new machine-learning techniques in software that literally drove an autonomous car 132 miles across the desert to win a $2 million prize for Stanford in a recent contest put on by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The car learned road-surface characteristics as it went. And machine-learning techniques gave his team a productivity boost as well, Thrun says. "I could develop code in a day that would have taken me half a month to develop by hand," he says.
Computer scientist Tom Mitchell, director of the Center for Automated Learning and Discovery at Carnegie Mellon University, says machine learning is useful for the kinds of tasks that humans do easily -- speech and image recognition, for example -- but that they have trouble explaining explicitly in software rules. In machine-learning applications, software is "trained" on test cases devised and labeled by humans, scored so it knows what it got right and wrong, and then sent out to solve real-world cases.
Mitchell is testing the concept of having two classes of learning algorithms in essence train each other, so that together they can do better than either would alone. For example, one search algorithm classifies a Web page by considering the words on it. A second one looks at the words on the hyperlinks that point to the page. The two share clues about a page and express their confidence in their assessments.
Mitchell's experiments have shown that such "co-training" can reduce errors by more than a factor of two. The breakthrough, he says, is software that learns from training cases labeled not by humans, but by other software.
Stuart Russell, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is experimenting with languages in which programmers write code for the functions they understand well but leave gaps for murky areas. Into the gaps go machine-learning tools, such as artificial neural networks.
Russell has implemented his "partial programming" concepts in a language called Alisp, an extension of Lisp. "For example, I want to tell you how to get to the airport, but I don't have a map," he says. "So I say, 'Drive along surface streets, stopping at stop signs, until you get to a freeway on-ramp. Drive on the freeway till you get to an airport exit sign. Come off the exit and drive along surface streets till you get to the airport.' There are lots of gaps left in that program, but it's still extremely useful." Researchers specify the learning algorithms at each gap, but techniques might be developed that let the system choose the best method, Russell says.
The Real Story behind MINDSTORMS
Wired has a nice article on the development of the new version of the LEGO MINDSTORMS. It shows the odd mix of fanatacism, personality, and pure talent that makes a good engineering story.
He guessed it had something to do with Mindstorms, Lego's programmable robotics kit. After all, he's a master at assembling the plastic bricks into complex robots, like his wheeled, self-balancing machine dubbed the LegWay, and he's something of a celebrity in the Mindstorms world. But there hadn't been a Mindstorms update in nearly four years, and rumor had it Lego might abandon the product altogether.
Intrigued, Hassenplug signed the NDA, received a username and password, and was ushered to a secure online forum. Even there, he found no official information - just an email thread between a few peers: John Barnes, David Schilling, and Ralph Hempel. Hassenplug knew them well from Brickfest, the annual conference where Lego zealots show off their most elegant creations, from massive starships and richly detailed cathedrals to giant bipedal robots. The four Mindstorms experts speculated as to why they'd been tapped and sworn to secrecy. Lego probably needed beta testers for a Mindstorms update.
After lurking for a few days, Søren Lund, the director of Mindstorms, dropped in on the conversation. He told the crew that a revamped kit was, in fact, in the works. But Lego didn't even have a working prototype. It was way too early for beta testers; Lego needed a Mindstorms User Panel, or MUP, to help with the design. "I was surprised they were so early in their development, and I think everyone else was, too," recalls Barnes, an electronics engineer from Holland Patent, New York. "We realized that our input was going to be a lot more important than we had imagined."
Over the next 11 months, right up to the January launch of Mindstorms NXT at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the four men were de facto Lego employees. They exchanged countless emails with Lund and his team, reeling off ideas for new sensors, redesigned input ports, and stabilized firmware. The MUPers also met with Lund at Brickfest in the US and at Lego's Denmark headquarters to hash out specs for the computer that serves as the brain of every Mindstorms creation.
The one key difference between the four panelists and actual Lego staffers: a paycheck. For their participation, Hassenplug and his cohorts received a few Lego crane sets and Mindstorms NXT prototypes. They even paid their own airfares to Denmark. That was fine by Hassenplug. "Pretty much the comment from all four of us was 'They're going to talk to us about Legos, and they're going to pay us with Legos?'" Hassenplug says. "'They actually want our opinion?' It doesn't get much better than that."
January 24, 2006
50 inventions from the past 50 years
Popular Mechanics has a nice article that goes through 50 groundbreaking inventions that changed our lives in the past 50 years. Some are obvious, such as the internet, and others are not, but the choices are interesting, and the article provides a nice look back at the technological progress that has been made in the last half-century.
In the past half-century, scientific and technological advances have transformed our world. PM convened a panel of 25 experts to identify innovations that have made the biggest impact, from the hospital to outer space to the kitchen. Here, then, are the breakthroughs of our time.
1955--TV REMOTE CONTROL
It marks the official end of humanity's struggle for survival and the beginning of its quest for a really relaxing afternoon. The first wireless remote, designed by Zenith's Eugene Polley, is essentially a flashlight. When Zenith discovers that direct sunlight also can change channels on the remote-receptive TVs, the company comes out with a model that uses ultrasound; it lasts into the 1980s, to the chagrin of many a family dog. The industry then switches to infrared.
In 1945 Raytheon's Percy Spencer stands in front of a magnetron (the power tube of radar) and feels a candy bar start to melt in his pocket: He is intrigued. When he places popcorn kernels in front of the magnetron, the kernels explode all over the lab. Ten years later Spencer patents a "radar range" that cooks with high-frequency radio waves; that same year, the Tappan Stove Co. introduces the first home microwave model.
Enovid, a drug the FDA approves for menstrual disorders, comes with a warning: The mixture of synthetic progesterone and estrogen also prevents ovulation. Two years later, more than half a million American women are taking Enovid--and not all of them have cramps. In 1960 the FDA approves Enovid for use as the first oral contraceptive.
The Boeing 707-120 debuts as the world's first successful commercial jet airliner, ushering in the era of accessible mass air travel. The four-engine plane carries 181 passengers and cruises at 600 mph for up to 5280 miles on a full tank. The first commercial jet flight takes off from New York and lands in Paris; domestic service soon connects New York and Los Angeles.
January 11, 2006
I came across this interesting article on the evolution of robots towards more human or human expressive forms. This is becoming a big deal for NASA, where they believe that the future of any planetary exploration will be with human-robot teams.
In 1989, using an insect-like robot named Genghis, Rodney Brooks pitched a bold vision for exploring space: Send up an army of small, cheap machines to rove around on a distant planet and beam back data.
The concept kicked off a new era in robotics, and eight years later, NASA sent the simple probe Sojourner rolling across the surface of Mars.
But now Genghis sits in a box, and the sophisticated machines that populate Brooks's lab at MIT are becoming increasingly human-like: One has a sense of touch, another can find a familiar face in a crowd. Eventually a robotic torso named Domo -- now learning to wield a screwdriver -- will be able to master new skills by imitating people instead of undergoing software updates.
The new designs are part of a broader shift toward a vision of robots that are partners, not simply remote-controlled probes.
The change has been fueled by more powerful computers and better robotics as well as by new space policy. The Bush administration's push for more human space flight -- signed off on a few weeks ago by Congress -- is increasing the demand for robot partners that can learn new tasks, use tools the same way people do, and act as a space support staff.
December 29, 2005
MIT's Stackable Cars
For whatever reason, I always find myself drawn to the small, the simple, the sublime. MIT has been embarking on a project of designing the future city, and how things will integrate in. In this article, they discuss a stackable car that will work in this new city environment.
The Smart Cities group focused on how cars could be better adapted to get round familiar problems of city life, namely congestion, pollution and parking. Motor companies are well aware of the issue. But the group felt the companies had missed the point, even with city cars such as the Smart, the iconic two-passenger cars introduced by Swatch and Mercedes in 1998.
"We have to think of city cars as not just small-footprint vehicles that can squeeze into tight spaces but ones that can work in unison and also be almost like a parasite that leeches on to mass-transit systems," says Mr Chin. While Smart changed the way people think about parking and size, the MIT engineers felt that, as it had not been widely adopted and congestion and pollution problems had got no better, its success had been limited.
So the MIT team started from scratch to come up with their own concept: a stackable, shareable, electric, two-passenger car. "Imagine a shopping cart - a vehicle that can stack - you can take the first vehicle out of a stack and off you go," says Mr Chin. "These stacks would be placed throughout the city. A good place would be outside a subway station or a bus line or an airport, places where there's a convergence of transportation lines and people."
The precedent for this type of shared personal transport is demonstrated with bicycle-sharing schemes in European towns and the ZipCar and FlexCar projects on the east and west coasts of the US respectively.
The MIT concept car is a complete re-think of vehicle technology. For a start, there is no engine, at least in the traditional sense. The power comes from devices called wheel robots. "These are self-contained wheel units that have electric motors inside," says Mr Chin. "The interesting thing is that the wheel can turn a full 360 degrees so you can have omni-directional wheel movements. You can rotate the car while you're moving, any direction can be front or back and you can do things like crabbing or translate sideways. It's almost like you imagine yourself driving a computer chair."
The wheel robots, complete with their own suspension, remove the need for a drive shaft and even the engine block, freeing up designers to make new use of the space in the car.
"Essentially the car will comprise four wheel-robots plus a customisable chassis," says Chin. "The frame can be built specifically for each customer."
To say the least, this looks interesting.
December 28, 2005
Blue Origins is Getting Serious
Blue Origins, Jeff Bezos' rocket company, is getting serious. In this article, and this other one, it seems that he is busy buying up land for development and testing. I have spoken to him briefly about this venture while talking to him at a speach he gave a few years ago: he is serious, and has always been interested in space exploration.
The new space race has touched down in Kent, where Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos is building a rocket-ship complex set to open early next year.
Blue Origin, Bezos' aerospace company, will use the facility to design and build spacecraft and engines. The company's near-term goal is to develop a vehicle that can take passengers on a thrill ride to the edge of space.
But eventually, Bezos has said, he wants to build spaceships powerful enough to orbit the Earth. He even hopes to establish permanent colonies in space someday.
Bezos paid $13 million for just less than 25 acres of industrial land next to the railroad tracks in the Kent Valley. City records show he is spending up to $8 million to remodel an existing office building and warehouse and build an experimental stand where rocket engines will be tested in three-minute-long trial runs. Among the upgrades spelled out in the plans: installation of aircraft hangar doors.
Test launches will be conducted in West Texas, where Bezos recently bought a 165,000-acre ranch near the small town of Van Horn, about 110 miles southeast of El Paso. Long-term plans for that site include a spaceport where three-person space-tourism flights could blast off once a week.
December 27, 2005
Best Tech Moments of 2005
It is the end of the year, and all of the media are prone to "year in review" type articles. Wired is no exception, with a countdown of the best Tech moments of 2005. While I don't particularly agree with the list, it makes interesting reading.
In the tech world, 2005 was a period of bold ideas and exciting breakthroughs -- shadowed, at times, by devastating reversals.
New software apps changed the way we looked at the world, while hardware got smaller, faster and more fun. On the net, blogs provided many of the most dramatic moments, sometimes courting lawsuits, other times taking us places we could not otherwise go: New Orleans, Iraq, even inside the twisted mind of an accused killer.
As we begin what's certain to be an exciting new year of Yahoo acquisitions and rising Google stock, it's perhaps a good time to stop and reflect on the highs and lows of the year that was. Here are our picks for the 10 best tech moments of 2005.
Michael Robertson hires DVD Jon: What do you get when you cross a maverick tech entrepreneur with a young genius who specializes in cracking content-protection schemes? When Robertson imported 22-year-old Norwegian hacker Jon Lech Johansen in October, he was cagey about what the twice-acquitted author of DeCSS would be working on in sunny San Diego.
Now we know it's a new music-storage service called MP3tunes Locker, eerily reminiscent of Robertson's late, great my.mp3.com, which was lamentably sued out of existence by the recording industry five years ago. Admittedly, the Locker hasn't yet raised a big ruckus in the post-iPod world; but with this A-list cast, who cares about the plot?
The $100 laptop: From the moment MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte unveiled the (mostly) working prototype of his $100 laptop at a U.N. summit in Tunisia, he was trailed by a plume of reporters and admirers eager for a glimpse of the lime-green tote. The appeal is obvious: Negroponte's noble, world-shaping ambition to put millions of the tiny hand-cranked learning machines in the hands of impoverished children around the globe, and the fetishistic draw of the rugged computer's nostalgic, toylike design.
Still, skeptics abound. Slate added up the retail price of the components and predicted the laptop would actually cost more like $300, and Intel chair Craig Barrett argued that discriminating children in developing countries would reject the Linux machines as underpowered gadgets. Less sillily, questions remain about the environmental impact of dumping the computers in developing countries, and whether the money wouldn't be better spent on food and medicine. We'll know soon enough: In December, Taiwan's Quanta won a bidding war to manufacture between 5 million and 15 million of the laptops, expected to roll off the assembly line in the fourth quarter of 2006.
Katrina, blogged: Ten floors above some of the worst devastation ever visited on the United States, the New Orleans hosting company DirectNic managed not only to keep its servers purring, but to pump out crisis updates and images to the net. A company webcam trained on the street captured pictures of survivors scrounging for food and looters pillaging neighboring buildings.
Company "crisis manager" Michael Barnett shared his firsthand observations on his LiveJournal blog, which reached 3,000 hits an hour as word of its existence spread. "I mean, it's Lord of the Flies out there right now," Barnett blogged Aug. 31. "There's no order at all. No respect for private property, no respect for life." When the worst finally passed, the blog morphed into NOLA.us, a community site still serving the Big Easy as it struggles to rebuild.
50 Top Robots
Wired has a top 50 countdown of the best robots of all time (these include both real and fictional robots). It makes for an interesting reading list. I recommend the article if only for a place with images of all of them.
50. ROBONAUT Not all NASA robots drive around poking at rocks. This android will one day work alongside people on space stations. Robonaut is the same size and shape as a person in a space suit, so it can handle tasks typically performed by humans - its hands are even better articulated than an astronaut's gloved digits. The fact that it looks like Boba Fett? Lucky coincidence.
Awww, isn't it cuddly? Or maybe just creepy. MIT's Cynthia Breazeal is famous for building robots that humans have an emotional reaction to. Her newest creation, Leonardo, was bolted together in 2002 with the help of the movie monster gurus at Stan Winston Studio (their animatronics include the Terminator, the aliens in Aliens, and the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park). Leonardo can grab objects, make facial expressions and complex gestures, and even learn simple tasks (like turning lights on and off) through trial and error.
The smooth-talking, self-driving muscle car from the early '80s TV drama Knight Rider was so cool, it even upstaged David Hasselhoff. The success of this Trans-Am helped to usher in a new genre of show with supervehicles as heroes, from Airwolf to Stealth.
47. HAL 9000
Some tasks are too important to be left to humans. Just ask Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The 1968 film gave the world the ultimate all seeing, all knowing - and apparently all ego - AI villain. It set the standard for machines that can think (and kill) like us but are too powerful to control.
46. ROOMBA DISCOVERY
This wasn't the first robosucker, just the first that didn't blow. In 2005, iRobot's second-generation robotic vacuum showed that domestic bots can actually work. To clean the floors, simply turn the thing on - just try not to stand around watching slack-jawed.
Developed by Stanford Research Institute International, Shakey had jerky, often nonsensical movements. But that didn't stop the 1972 robot from entering the history books as the first machine to autonomously locate objects, steer around them - and then explain its logic for doing so.
04. ROBBY THE ROBOT
Few robots can trace their origins to Shakespeare. Robby, from the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, was inspired by Ariel in The Tempest. But that didn't keep Robby from leaving a legacy all his own. For decades, the very idea of a robot was synonymous with Robby's bulbous figure.
03. SPIRIT AND OPPORTUNITY
Some robots sit in labs for researchers to tinker with. These two bots are on frickin' Mars. Expected to last only three months when they touched down on the Red Planet in January 2004, the rovers are still going strong two years later - each sends back 100 megabits of data a day.
While American kids were daydreaming of Superman, Japanese tykes were worshipping at the altar of Tetsuwan Atom, aka Astroboy. First drawn in 1951, Astroboy has rocket boots, lasers that shoot from his fingertips, and, uh, an ass cannon. The lovable crime-fighting robot was an inspiration to a generation of kids -some of whom went on to become robotics researchers. He's a big reason why Japan is at the forefront of android development today. Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.
And the #1 Robot of All Time Is...
The Stanford Racing Team's autonomous vehicle is a modified Volkswagen Touareg that can scan any terrain and pick out a drivable course to a preset destination. Cup holders optional.
December 20, 2005
Robotic Boats to Battle Pirates
I found this article on the BBC News website, where they are talking about the need for patrols against pirates on the high seas.
Passengers aboard the Seabourn Spirit, a luxury liner sailing off the coast of Somalia, came face to face last month with the growing problem of piracy, especially planned assaults and ocean hijackings using fast boats and sophisticated weapons.
As the pirates go hi-tech, so ships must use more advanced technology in their defence, according to the latest report from the International Maritime Bureau.
Anti-piracy technologies endorsed by the bureau include an unmanned spy plane, the Inventus UAV, for aerial surveillance of risky waters.
Others include Secure-Ship, a 9,000 volt electric fence that when rigged around ship's deck stops the pirates from boarding, and ShipLoc, a hidden tagging device for ships that allows satellites to track ships on behalf of their owners even after a hijacking.
In their defence against pirates off the coast of Somalia, the Seabourn Spirit's crew used an acoustic weapon that focused a deafening alarm sound on the attackers, hastening their retreat.
In the future, robotics could play a role in anti-piracy defences, though the technology has yet endorsed by the International Maritime Bureau.
Pirates are coming up with more ways of seizing ships
Speaking to BBC World Service's Discovery for its programme on the future of shipping safety, Keith Henderson of Marine Robotics International explained how unmanned robotic vessels could help.
Marine Robotics have created vessels called Ghost Guard which can patrol the seas along pre-programmed routes, overseen by a single, human controller on shore.
The boats can also escort other ships through dangerous waters. Video and other equipment on board these robotic ships allow their on-shore controllers to see and interact with the crew of any vessels they encounter:
"They could go alongside, there's a loudspeaker and a microphone so they could have a conversation with the vessel," said Mr Henderson.
"And if they feel that there's something suspicious then they could call up a naval patrol vessel."
December 12, 2005
Here is a very interesting article on tiny little hopping robots. These are the brainchild of a cooperation between Dr. Penelope Boston and Dr. Steven Dubowsky, a cave biologist and a roboticist.
If you want to travel to distant stars, or find life on another world, it takes a bit of planning. That's why NASA has established NIAC, the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts. For the past several years, NASA has been encouraging scientists and engineers to think outside the box, to come up with ideas just this side of science fiction. Their hope is that some of these ideas will pan out, and provide the agency with technologies it can use 20, 30, or 40 years down the road.
NIAC provides funding on a competitive basis. Only a handful of the dozens of proposals submitted are funded. Phase I funding is minimal, just enough for researchers to flesh out their idea on paper. If the idea shows merit, it then may get Phase II funding, allowing the research to continue from the pure-concept to the crude-prototype stage.
One of the projects that received Phase II funding earlier this year was a collaboration between Dr. Penelope Boston and Dr. Steven Dubowsky to develop "hopping microbots" capable of exploring hazardous terrain, including underground caves. If the project pans out, hopping microbots may some day be sent to search for life below the surface of Mars.
Boston spends a lot of time in caves, studying the microorganisms that live there. She is the director of the Cave and Karst Studies Program and an associate professor at New Mexico Tech in Socorro, New Mexico. Dubowsky is the director of the MIT Field and Space Robotics Laboratory at MIT, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is known in part for his research into artificial muscles.
AM: How do all these little spheres co-ordinate with each other?
PB: They behave as a swarm. They relate to each other using very simple rules, but that produces a great deal of flexibility in their collective behavior that enables them to meet the demands of unpredictable and hazardous terrain. The ultimate product that we're envisioning is a fleet of these little guys being sent to some promising landing site, exiting from the lander and then making their way over to some subsurface or other hazardous terrain, where they deploy themselves as a network. They create a cellular communication network, on a node-to-node basis.
AM: Are they able to control the direction in which they hop?
PB: We have aspirations for them ultimately to be very capable. As we move into Phase II, we're working with Fritz Printz at Stanford on ultra-miniature fuel cells to power these little guys, which would enable them to be able to do a fairly complex array of things. One of those capabilities is to have some control over the direction in which they go. There are certain ways that they can be built that can allow them to preferentially go in one direction or another. It's not quite as precise as it would be if they were wheeled rovers just going on a straight path. But they can preferentially cant themselves more or less in the direction that they wish to go. So we're envisioning that they will have at least crude control over direction. But a lot of their value has to do with their swarm motion as an expanding cloud.
As wonderful as the MER rovers are, for the kind of science I do, I need something more akin to the insect robot idea pioneered by Rodney Brooks at MIT. Being able to tap into the model of insect intelligence and adaptation for exploration had long appealed to me. Adding that to the unique mobility provided by Dr. Dubowsky's hopping idea, I think, can enable a reasonable percentage of these little units to survive the hazards of subsurface terrain - that just seemed like a magical combination to me.
December 5, 2005
Robot Uprising Coming to a Theater Near You
A recent Carnegie Mellon graduate from the Robotics Institute has published a tongue-in-cheek look at robots that take over the earth. While I haven't read it, I understand that Paramout has bought the movie rights already.
Many a book idea has been hatched at the bar of the Squirrel Hill Cafe (aka the Squirrel Cage), but Wilson's is one of the few that actually survived the next day's hangover. He and some friends were griping about robot stereotypes in movies (the emotionless evil of Hal from "2001: A Space Odyssey"; the self-repairing modular robot in "Terminator 3"), and thought it would be funny to write a book taking the stereotypes seriously.
He pitched the idea to a book agent in April 2004 and started writing late that summer while working for Intel in Seattle. He finished it by January and then started focusing on his graduate thesis, which he defended in September before being awarded his robotics doctorate.
Wilson's agent sold the movie rights to Paramount before the book was even finished, and the screenplay is being written by two writer-actors from Comedy Central's "Reno 911!," Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon. Wilson said he's "really excited" about the movie, since it is supposed to be a spoof of robot movies, like his book.
Wilson, an Oklahoma native who moved to Pittsburgh to start his graduate work in 2000, is still primarily a scientist, not a book or movie writer. His specialty within robotics is designing smart houses to aid the elderly and infirm, which informed several parts of the "Uprising" book.
November 10, 2005
Better Muscles through Technology
MIT researchers have a theoretical approach to making artificial muscles that are 1000 times faster than human muscles. This could make for some very interesting robots.
Now MIT researchers, led by Professor Sidney Yip, have proposed a new theory that might eliminate one obstacle to those goals - the limited speed and control of the "artificial muscles" that perform such tasks. Currently, robotic muscles move 100 times slower than ours. But engineers using the Yip lab's new theory could boost those speeds - making robotic muscles 1,000 times faster than human muscles - with virtually no extra energy demands and the added bonus of a simpler design. This study appears in the Nov. 4 issue of the journal Physical Review Letters.
In this case, a robotic muscle refers to a device that can be activated to perform a task, like a sprinkler activated by pulling a fire alarm lever, explains Yip, a professor of nuclear engineering and materials science and engineering.
November 7, 2005
Positioning Improvement goings on at Stanford
Per Enge, professor in the Aero/Astro department at Stanford, is heading up a new interdisciplinary group to improve positioning technology down to centimeter level accuracies. They hope to have a follow-on to GPS in 15 years or so.
A group of Stanford University academics wants to make such navigation so accurate that it could tell whether you are in your car or standing next to it.
Since the government first launched a satellite navigation system known as the global positioning system (GPS) in 1978, the system's ability to pinpoint the location of an object has steadily improved.
GPS receivers used to be bigger than a brick a decade ago and were accurate to within about 100 meters. Today a handheld $100 GPS receiver can fix a point on the ground within five or 10 meters, while more expensive military systems can zero in on the receiver within five meters or fewer.
But the GPS system doesn't get much better than that, and it doesn't work indoors or in deep urban canyons where a target object isn't within the line of sight of two or more satellites. And it isn't that hard to jam GPS signals.
Such a system isn't good enough for James Spilker and Per Enge, who are among the founders of the Stanford Center for Position, Navigation and Time. Spilker, a founder of navigation-chip startup Rosum and one of the creators of GPS, believes satellite navigation is just in its infancy.
"Technologies are coming to the forefront that will impact billions of people and millions of businesses," Spilker said. "Our humble goal is to create the top-ranked university center in the world for this realm of technology."
The interdisciplinary research center wants to create a navigation system capable of locating objects within one centimeter, or less than half an inch. The center hopes to achieve that goal within the next 20 years.
As they say, read the whole thing.
October 14, 2005
The Smart People Behind the Grand Challenge
The Grand Challenge seems to have struck a nerve with the rest of the media, who are all writing articles about the people behind the vehicles. The New York Times has this nice peice on the Return of AI:
At its low point, some computer scientists and software engineers avoided the term artificial intelligence for fear of being viewed as wild-eyed dreamers.
But the work of a small team of researchers at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory is helping to restore credibility to the field. The team's winning robotic Volkswagen, named Stanley, covered the unpaved course in just 6 hours and 53 minutes without human intervention and guided only by global positioning satellite waypoints.
The feat, which won a $2 million prize from the Pentagon Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, was compared by exuberant Darpa officials to the Wright brothers' accomplishment at Kitty Hawk, because it was clear that it was not a fluke. Twenty-two of the 23 vehicles that started this year did as well or better than the seven miles completed by the best vehicle last year.
The ability of the vehicles to complete a complex everyday task - driving - underscores how artificial intelligence may at last be moving beyond the research laboratory.
While artificial intelligence technology is already in use in telephone answering systems with speech recognition and in popular household gadgets like the iRobot vacuum cleaner, none of the existing systems have been as ambitious as Darpa's Grand Challenge road race.
This leap was possible, in large part, because researchers are moving from an approach that relied principally on logic and rule-based systems to more probability or statistics-oriented software technologies.
"In the past A.I. has been dominated by symbolic systems and now the world is gray," said Terrence J. Sejnowski, head of the computational neurobiology laboratory at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif. "That's what it's like to deal with the real world."
As they say, read the whole thing.
October 12, 2005
Stanford Wins the Grand Challenge
CONGRATULATIONS!!! and $2 Million go Stanford for winning the DARPA GRAND CHALLENGE, with an overall speed on the course of 19 MPH.
Several articles are all over this race, and the speed of progress from last year to this year is amazing. Last year, the best showing was 7 miles. This year, 21 of 23 racers went farther than 10.
Not so long ago, the notion of cars driving themselves seemed no more than science fiction. This weekend, it took a giant stride towards becoming reality as a handful of robotically controlled vehicles completed a 132-mile obstacle course around the Mojave desert.
Lured by a $2m (£1.15m) prize offered by the Pentagon, teams from some of the United States' leading universities threw themselves into the challenge and watched their souped-up four-wheel drives and military vehicles negotiate tunnels, lake beds, a steep mountain pass and numerous rocks.
First across the finish line was a converted Volkswagen Touareg developed by engineers from Stanord University - the prime research institution in Silicon Valley which was previously the springboard for many of the innovations of the internet.
"The impossible has been achieved," Stanford's team leader, Sebastian Thrun, crowed as the vehicle, nicknamed Stanley, completed the course in a brisk seven and a half hours. "The dream of cars driving themselves is becoming a reality. Before, the question was whether it was possible. Now we know it is."
Posted by elkaim at 10:24 AM
October 8, 2005
And They're Off!
The second annual DARPA GRAND CHALLENGE has begun in Primm, Nevada. This years race of autonomous vehicles across the desert looks to be more competitive than last years. Smart money is on the Stanford/VW team with the modified Tuareg, which performed very well in the NQE. Don't discount Red Team from CMU, either, as they are the other front runner. Rummors have it that they both completed last years run during testing.
The race is organised by the Pentagon's defence agency to push research into autonomous vehicles for the US military. This year it has doubled the prize fund for the challenge.
The vehicles have been kitted out and modified with GPS (global positioning satellite), cameras, infrared sensors, computing equipment, and lasers to guide them across the tough terrain.
They are not allowed to be controlled, even remotely, by humans.
"We can now see a future where these vehicles will take the place of soldiers in harm's way," said Ron Kurjanowicz, manager of the Darpa Grand Challenge race.
The captain of the Stanford University team, Sebastian Thrun, was confident that this year's race would produce a winner.
He was also confident about the future for autonomous vehicles. "It's a no-brainer that 50 to 60 years from now, cars will drive themselves," he said.
The 23 finalists were chosen after eight days of qualifying events over much shorter courses.
They include a Hummer built by Carnegie Mellon University, called H1ghlander, a converted Humvee named Sandstorm, a modified Volkswagen Touareg by Stanford University, a six-wheel truck and a Jeep Grand Cherokee called Spirit.
The 40-pupil team from Palos Verdes High School in California are in the running with their Doom Buggy modified SUV.
They were one of 195 teams that originally applied to take part in the gruelling cross-country challenge.
The 23 will have 10 hours to complete the race, which will include a human-made obstacle course.
But the precise route is kept secret until two hours before the competition.
The teams have had varying levels of sponsorship to develop their desert robots.
Some have had millions pumped into the projects from corporate sponsorship, while others have scraped together much less funding.
If no-one wins this time round, Darpa said it would most likely run another race.
See also the DARPA GRAND CHALLENGE site for more info.
January 24, 2005
SWORDS ready for field deployment
It isn't exactly autonomous, rather it is a remote controlled ground vehicle. The army has put together the SWORDS program, which takes a Talon EOD remotely piloted vehicle, and places some weapons on board, and is deploying several of them into actual combat. Results from this will have implications for the future of the miliary.
It's easy to humanize the SWORDS (a tendency robotics researchers say is only human) as it moves out of the flashy lobby of an office building and into the cold with nary a shiver. Military officials like to compare the roughly three-foot-high robots favorably to human soldiers: They don't need to be trained, fed or clothed. They can be boxed up and warehoused between wars. They never complain. And there are no letters to write home if they meet their demise in battle.
But officials are quick to point out that these are not the autonomous killer robots of science fiction. A SWORDS robot shoots only when its human operator presses a button after identifying a target on video shot by the robot's cameras.
"The only difference is that his weapon is not at his shoulder, it's up to half a mile a way," said Bob Quinn, general manager of Talon robots for Foster-Miller Inc., the Waltham, Mass., company that makes the SWORDS. As one Marine fresh out of boot camp told Quinn upon seeing the robot: "This is my invisibility cloak."
January 14, 2005
Cassini-Hyugens probe lands on Titan
Congratulations all around to the teams that worked on both the Cassini Spacecraft and the Hyugens probe that successfully parachuted into the Titan atmosphere and is currently relaying information back through the Cassini probe and the Deep Space Network.
Note that these are the first images of the surface of Titan ever seen, as it is covered in clouds. Titan is a moon of Saturn that is approximately the same size as Earth and has an atmosphere of similar thickness.
ESA's Huygens spacecraft has successfully landed on the surface of Titan, project officials said Friday. The probe, which detached from the Cassini spacecraft December 25, entered Titan's upper atmosphere 5:13 am EST (1013 GMT), landing on the surface at about 7:34 am EST (1234 GMT), based on a planned timeline for the mission. Engineers believe the spacecraft successfully descended through the atmosphere and landed on a solid surface because the probe's carrier wave, the spacecraft's only direct transmission to Earth during the encounter, was detected by radio telescopes on Earth during the planned descent and well after landing. Scientific data collected by Huygens was transmitted to the Cassini orbiter as is flew by Titan; it will relay the data to Earth later today. Some initial results may be released later Friday, although a more comprehensive release of data is not expected until Saturday.
See the Hyugens homepage for more information.
Honeywell Micro Air Vehicle
Honeywell has announced the testing of its new micro air vehicle (MAV). This is a ducted fan design with vertical takeoff and landing capability. Usually there are issues in transitioning to horizontal flight and endurance with this type of design. This PDF file of its specifications claims an endurance of 40 minutes at 5000 ft. ASL.
"The flight tests are demonstrating that this aircraft performs as designed and will provide intelligence on enemy activity without risking the lives of human pilots or ground reconnaissance teams," said Vaughn Fulton, Honeywell Unmanned Aerial Systems Program Manager.
Honeywell is developing the aircraft, called the Micro Air Vehicle (MAV), for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as part of its Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) program.
Called a ducted fan air vehicle, the MAV flies like a helicopter, using a propeller that draws in air through a duct to provide lift. The MAV's propeller is enclosed in the duct and is driven by a gasoline engine.
A heavy fuel engine variant of the MAV will be available in 2006. The MAV is controlled using Honeywell's micro-electrical mechanical systems (MEMS) electronic sensor technology.
January 13, 2005
Stanford Professor Mark Cutkosky has been working on several areas of robotics over the past few years. He gives an interview to the Stanford Daily where he expounds the advantages of biomimetic robots that are modeled after insects.
There are some things that animals can do much better than humans, like climb walls and run very fast. The fastest cockroaches can run 55 body-lengths per second. Even the slower ones can do about 15 body lengths per second. If you could run at 55 body-lengths per second you’d be going about 55 mph.
Also, for the amount of intelligence that we’re actually able to put into small robots, insects are a much better target than mammals — let alone humans — in terms of behaviors and learning.
Already, some bio-inspired robots are starting to make it into the field. One of our collaborators, Martin Buehler — who was formerly at McGill University and is now heading up a robotics group at Boston Dynamics Inc. — has a version of another hexapod [six-legged robot] called RHex that is being evaluated by the military.
December 2, 2004
Reconfigurable Robotics in Wired
Faculty member Mark Yim of U-Penn makes Wired with an article on reconfigurable robots. Basically, these are robots that are made up of several identical sub-robots that can join in different ways to reshape themselves. In the past, they had power and mechanical problems with these which may or may not have been solved.
That's the ultimate vision of Mark Yim, a researcher working on the latest generation of shape-shifting robots at the University of Pennsylvania. Instead of single-purpose robots, Yim and several research teams around the world are working on creating mutating machines made out of smart building blocks that can morph into different forms and perform a variety of tasks.
The key word here is versatility. In designing for unpredictable circumstances and strange environments, researchers say it makes sense to have a single, shape-shifting robot that can crawl through small holes, climb stairs, cross gaps or go through rubble.
The robot's first mission is to save lives. Yim's robo-centipede will allow search-and-rescue personnel to look for survivors in a collapsed building by dropping the robot through a 4-inch hole drilled into the wall.
"When a building collapses from an earthquake or a bomb, etc., then digging for survivors is slow and dangerous for both the rescuers and victims," said Craig Eldershaw, a researcher at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC. "It's difficult to send in a standard robot, since no one knows what it's going to find there. The robot may have narrow pipes to crawl through, rubble to climb over, and some corridors clear of debris where it should try to make good time in moving. But a reconfigurable robot can change shape and adapt to the environment."
November 18, 2004
Google has just done all the academics out there a great service by launching Google Scholar. Essentially, Google is doing for the academic literature what it did for the rest of the web. This article by the NYTimes provides some background.
Google Scholar, which was scheduled to go online Wednesday evening at scholar.google.com, is a result of the company's collaboration with a number of scientific and academic publishers and is intended as a first stop for researchers looking for scholarly literature like peer-reviewed papers, books, abstracts and technical reports. Google executives declined to say how many additional documents and books had been indexed and made searchable through the service. While the great majority of recent scholarly papers and periodicals are indexed on the Web, many have not been easily accessible to the public.
The engineer who led the project, Anurag Acharya, said the company had received broad cooperation from academic, scientific and technical publishers like the Association of Computing Machinery, Nature, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Online Computer Library Center.
The new Google service, which includes a listing of scientific citations as well as ways to find materials at libraries that are not online, will not initially include the text advertisements that are shown on standard pages for Google search results.
November 3, 2004
Chaos in Robot Locomotion
Researchers in Japan have devised a new and unusal way to provide robot locomotion based on chaotic math functions driving the legs of a robot. So far, this has only been done for a simulated robot, but the results look interesting.
Roboticists Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Shinsuke Suzuki wondered whether chaotic systems might also generate efficient walking behaviour. Chaotic systems behave in a way that means that small effects are amplified so rapidly that the systems’ behaviour becomes impossible to predict more than a short time ahead. Such chaotic systems are behind a number of phenomena, including the weather and the performance of financial markets.
The Tokyo University pair reasoned that just as the chaotic maths that determines the weather can produce clear patterns such as hurricanes and weather fronts, similar systems might underlie the movement patterns involved in locomotion. “We, and animals, seem to be able to work out how to move in different situations without going through thousands of trial-and-error situations like today’s robot-control software does,” says Kuniyoshi.
To test their idea, Kuniyoshi and Suzuki devised a computer simulation of a 12-legged machine in which each leg was controlled by a chaotic mathematical function. The functions were initially fed 12 parameters chosen at random. From then on, sensory information from each limb was fed back into the chaotic function that controlled it.
October 25, 2004
Very cool stair climbing robot
This is something that has to be seen to be appreciated. The videos on the following page do a good job of showing just how agile this little robot is. NGR builds the robot, and Acroname is currently putting some smarts on board. All in all, a very cool effort.
NRG Engineers have developed a Lightweight Reconnaissance Vehicle (LRV) which is able to climb and descend stairs, rocks and rubble up to 9” in height. This small agile robot has the ability to operate as a stand-alone robot (man packable), or as a mission module (marsupial robot, one that is deployed from a larger robot).
This vehicle uses a polymorphic locomotion system having the ability to act as a wheeled vehicle to traverse moderate terrain quickly and a rough terrain mode for efficient maneuverability up stairways and over rubble. The platform has a pivoting body capable of moving 30 degrees relative to the other side, allowing great mobility in the wheeled mode. The vehicle is able to traverse a wide range of environmental conditions such as: steps, rocks, building obstacles, building debris, level ground, compound slopes (successfully tested at 60°), sand, rocks, and ice surfaces. In addition this vehicle has been fully tested at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) Robotics Test Bed.
Live Air Traffic Control on the Web
This is just one of those cool web things: you can get live streaming audio of air traffic control for a bunch of airports around the country. For anyone who wants to become a pilot. listening to this is incredibly useful.
The link is: http://www.liveatc.net/
UA Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) wins Competition
Aerospace Engineering students from the University of Arizona have won first place at a Micro Air Vehicle competition. These aircraft are little mavels, and represent a great deal of work in order to stabilize and operate. My hat is off to the students, and I do hope to be competing against them at some point in the not-to-distant future.
UA's Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) team took top honors earlier this month during the 4th International Micro Aerial Vehicle Meeting in Toulouse, France. The event included more than a dozen teams from France, Germany, Belgium, Norway, and the United States.
The UA plane, a flying wing with a 6-inch wingspan, was easily the smallest surveillance plane at the competition. The radio-controlled MAV flew a triangular course that was 100 meters on a side. It also used an onboard video camera to photograph and return an image of a target placed along the course. 100 meters is about the length of a football field, including the end zones.
"At 100 meters, the plane is just a dot," said Jeremy Tyler, an aerospace engineering senior. "So it had to fly itself. I can't see if the wings are level at that distance, and just giving it very gentle left and right steering commands is all I can do."
While the 6-inch plane almost flies itself, the UA team entered a plane in another part of the competition that actually does fly completely on its own. This MAV, which has a 12-inch wingspan, uses an autopilot and GPS navigation to fly hands-off. Once the team members turned it loose, the plane flew itself around a square course that was 300 meters on a side.
More Space Ship One Video
Here is the main page for the Scaled Composites video of the X-prize flight: http://www.scaled.com/projects/tierone/video.htm. The details are pretty incredible. There have been lots of follow-up articles, and I think that this event has injected a lot of excitement into space flight again.
Rat Neurons fly (simulated) F-22
Researched at the University of Florida have made the presses with an exciting experiment that uses a bunch of disembodied rat neurons on a petri dish hooked up to a flight simulator. After some learning, the "brain" can now stabilize the F-22 in varying weather conditions.
Somewhere in Florida, 25,000 disembodied rat neurons are thinking about flying an F-22.
These neurons are growing on top of a multi-electrode array and form a living "brain" that's hooked up to a flight simulator on a desktop computer. When information on the simulated aircraft's horizontal and vertical movements are fed into the brain by stimulating the electrodes, the neurons fire away in patterns that are then used to control its "body" -- the simulated aircraft.
"It's as if the neurons control the stick in the aircraft, they can move it back and forth and left and right," said Thomas DeMarse, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Florida who has been working on the project for more than a year. "The electrodes allow us to record the activity from the neurons and stimulate them so we can listen to the conversation among the neurons and also input information back into the neural network."
Currently the brain has learned enough to be able to control the pitch and roll of the simulated F-22 fighter jet in weather conditions ranging from blue skies to hurricane-force winds. Initially the aircraft drifted, because the brain hadn't figured out how to control its "body," but over time the neurons learned to stabilize the aircraft to a straight, level flight.
October 21, 2004
Micro UAV's on the Rise
GPS World's lead articles this month is about micro UAV efforts, an area of considerable research efforts. The minaturization of electronics has had a great effect on the overall scale, however this same effect makes them almost impossible for a human to fly. Advances in GPS-based autopilots allow a higher level of flight direction, allowing the control system to deal with stabilization and route planning.
Micro aerial vehicle (MAV) describes a category of aircraft with dimensions roughly comparable to small birds. As the smallest, powered aircraft, MAVs can carry various sensors as payload to support such civil and military missions as traffic monitoring, weather observation, and enemy surveillance during military conflicts. By next year, for instance, Germany's Federal Armed Forces could send the first operational MAVs to the field.
Much faster and cheaper than conventional reconnaissance aircraft, a MAV equipped with a miniaturized video camera could reconnoiter nearby enemy troop positions or, outfitted with highly sensitive sensors, could locate chemical weapons.
On the civil side, most requests for scientific MAV applications currently come from meteorologists seeking to measure temperature, humidity, and, most importantly, the speed and direction of wind. The weather researchers want a cost-effective, mobile, and reusable measurement platform that can replace non-returning radiosonde balloons whose onboard equipment is lost after a mission.
Other typical civil applications include traffic observation and control using mobile airborne camera platforms. Fixed traffic control systems installed along main highways, such as the German Autobahn, could be supplemented by MAVs to help facilitate optimal traffic flow not only on the main traffic routes, but also on side roads in case of closed highways.
Companies have already requested MAVs for observing their factory sites from the air. Search and rescue services are interested in MAVs to obtain a rapid overview of disaster areas — during forest fires (localization of the origin of fire), floods, and chemical or nuclear catastrophes — without endangering personnel in manned vehicles such as helicopters. Moreover, MAVs are ideal for providing information quickly in the wake of terrorist attacks.
Further applications include the reconnaissance of demonstrations, the creation of georeferenced maps, and determination of the maturity of farm crops in the field. Further in the future, MAV "swarms" will enable new applications such as providing mobile airborne communication networks or 3D scientific measurements and images. The number of new MAV applications is steadily increasing.
October 20, 2004
Now that the X-prize has fallen [see this entry], the World Technology Network has taken up the X-prize banner and is looking for other interesting challenges. Keep an eye on this as it might become more interesting in the next few years.
The concept of the WTN X PRIZES is to utilize the concepts, procedures, technologies and publicity developed X PRIZE Foundation's Ansari X PRIZE competition for space and the global science and technology innovators identification process and community developed by the World Technology Network (WTN) to launch a series of technology prizes seeking to meet the greatest challenges facing humanity in the 21st century.
The X PRIZE competition focused on jumpstarting a private space industry has re-proven the principle – strongly proven in the early years of the 20th century for the aviation industry – that innovation can indeed be catalyzed. That principle can and should be extended to other global challenges and opportunities and together we at the World Technology Network (WTN) and the X PRIZE Foundation are committed to doing just that.
Robotics Insiitute turns 25
The Robotics Institute at Carnagie Mellon is sopnsoring a conference to celebrate its 25th year. They have a bunch of cool multimedia stuff, and it is definitely worth checking out.
Twenty-five years ago Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute opened its doors with the dream of ushering in a new age of thinking robots. During the ensuing two and one-half decades, we have experienced many research successes in intelligent manufacturing, autonomous vehicles, space-related robots, medical robotics, nano-machines and anthropomorphic robots. There is much to celebrate!
But what is a celebration of robotics, if it does not include a look into the future? This celebration will lay out the "grand challenges" that remain before us and refocus our attention on the hurdles we must overcome to achieve our dreams. For example, the questions of how to build truly intelligent machines, how to provide untethered power, and how to conquer the limits imposed by scale (eg., nano-machines to mega-machines) remain before us.
This celebration is unique because it will demand that every participant also consider how the dawning age of robotics will impact humanity. This is the most critical grand challenge: to create a positive, fruitful coexistence of robots with humans.
In 1963, a book titled Computers and Thought asked some of these same questions about the advent and impact of computers upon humanity. Looking back, one can only marvel at how much computers have changed our lives in a very short time! Their impact is comparable to the invention of the wheel, the printing press, the discovery of electricity and nuclear power. We can only imagine how autonomous machines that sense, think and act will continue to change our world.
In 1979, Carnegie Mellon Professors Raj Reddy and Angel Jordan and Westinghouse Electric Corp. President Tom Murrin agreed to open the Robotics Institute with the goal of making it the best place on the planet to do robotics research. By 2004, their efforts, powered by Carnegie Mellon's faculty, staff, and students, have arguably reached this lofty goal.
In this spirit, the Robotics Institute's 25th anniversary celebration will be a party as well as a deep reflection on the shape of our shared future with robots. Come and join us in this celebration.
Birth of a Cyborg
For a signals processing guy, the signals on our neurons are just another electrical signal to decode, something of interest. Researchers have taken this a step farther in order to help a quardrapalegic man in the UK. I have seen some preliminary work in this area done at Stanford with rats, but this is much more advanced than anything that I had heard of.
Rival teams are building devices to read brain activity without touching neurons. Neural Signals, based in Atlanta, has patented a conductive skull screw that sits outside the brain, just under the skull. Other researchers are developing non-invasive technologies, for example using an electroencephalogram to read a patient's thoughts.
But BrainGate's creators argue that such techniques only give a general picture of brain activity, and that the more direct approach allows more numerous and more specific signals to be translated. "This array has 100 electrodes, so one can theoretically tap into 100 neurons," says Jon Mukand, an investigator on the team based at the Sargent Rehabilitation Center in Rhode Island.
This makes the technology faster and more flexible, he argues. "It's far more versatile when one can get a larger number of neurons."
But Stephen Roberts, an engineer at Oxford University, UK, who has worked on brain-computer interfaces, says the field is still waiting for a breakthrough. "We have to make something that works robustly and without a lot of patient training," he says. "Most of these devices work well on a small subset of patients, but there's a long way to go before getting them to work for the general population."
Micro Turbines to Power your PDA
Some very interesting work done by the MIT group on making MEMs turbines. They don't yet work, but all of the parts do. The article is full of interesting details, and is highly recommended.
Epstein started thinking about building a jet engine on a chip nearly a decade ago. At the time, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) were picking up speed. Techniques had emerged for carving new types of features into the surfaces of slabs of silicon, including sealed chambers and pipes and moving parts like spinning wheels—most of the parts needed for a gas turbine engine. Less clear at first was what one would do with a miniature fuel-burning engine. “We thought we’d be able to get the cost way down if we could figure out a reason for needing a lot of them,” says Epstein. “But the only thing we could see doing with tiny engines was flying tiny airplanes, and that seemed stupid. Of course, we hadn’t counted on the DoD.”
Sure enough, the U.S. military was suddenly gung ho over the idea of 15-centimeter-long planes that could carry small cameras for surveillance. The engineers at Epstein’s lab were somewhat less enthusiastic; they suspected that getting jet chips that were airworthy would take a couple of decades. Then Epstein latched onto a more immediate military need: freeing soldiers from the batteries that many of them have to lug around to power radios, GPS receivers, night-vision goggles, and other gadgets. And unlike a miniature aircraft engine, a battery-replacing jet chip would have enormous commercial potential.
Other materials scientists and engineers were already beginning to work on ways to shrink power-producing machines to supplement or replace batteries, creating a new field called “power MEMS.” The most popular approach involved shrinking fuel cells, which typically pass hydrogen through a membrane that pulls electrons out to create an electric current. But Epstein was convinced gas turbines were a better way to go, because of their unmatched ability to wring power out of hydrocarbon fuels. The technology becomes even more appealing where minimizing weight and volume is critical, as with portable devices. A jet chip would be at most half the size of a micro fuel cell of equal energy capacity. A gas turbine should also be relatively easy to fabricate, figured Epstein, because it could be built entirely out of silicon, using standard fabrication techniques.
This is an interesting concept. It reminds me of a sci-fi book that I read which used orbiting lasers to propel solar-sailed spacecraft away. As I recall in that book, the issue was that since the earth didn't have a station, the aliens were going to super-nova the sun to get enough kick to get out of the solar system. Interesting how the concept is essentially the same.
Under the concept, a space-based outpost station would generate a high-energy plasma beam aimed at a spaceship equipped with a sail, resulting in it being thrust out into space. In the startup phase, the plasma station would direct bursts of plasma beams at the spaceship over a period of several days, refueling in the interim, to bring the spacecraft to the right speed required for its flight between the planets.
"Think of a system where large power units are placed permanently in orbit around critical regions of a planet," said Winglee. "With a beamed plasma system, spacecrafts can be pushed or pulled to perform orbital transfers around the planet or accelerated to other planets at essentially no cost."
Once shot off into space, onboard propulsion units would provide a spacecraft some power for minor flight corrections, but not enough to decelerate, which would be handled by a plasma station orbiting the destination.
The stations themselves would be fueled by nuclear power systems or solar-electric power systems augmented with fuel cells. By shifting the power source off the spacecraft and onto the station, Winglee hopes to gain an awesome level of speed.
Currently, rockets carry their propulsion systems on board, which means that the system not only has to move the spacecraft built around it, but it has to move itself, too. To ship a payload of 100 kilograms to Mars, scientists have to build a spacecraft many times that weight in order to support all the systems necessary to successfully deliver it. Since the propulsion system is using some of its energy to move itself, spaceships travel more slowly and can't carry as much as they could otherwise.
The Gladiator enters the Fray
The marine corps are experimenting with an robust UGV for exploration, scouting, and other tasks that fall under the rubrik of Dull, Dirty, and Dangerous. Called the Gladiator, it looks like a fairly conventional tracked vehicle. Not a lot of technical details in the article, but interesting none-the-less.
The Gladiator will be expeditionary in nature, inherently simple, durable, multi-functional, and easily transported and operated in the littoral battlespace. In the conduct of Operational Maneuver From The Sea (OMFTS), STOM, Sustained Operations Ashore (SOA), and Operations Other Than War (OOTW), the Gladiator will enhance the ability of Marines to accomplish assigned mission tasks. Operating just forward of the GCE units, the Gladiator will perform basic scouting/surveillance, obstacle breaching, and NBC reconnaissance tasks while permitting the operator to remain covered or concealed. The basic Marine Corps Gladiator will consist of a Mobile Base Unit (MBU), an OCU, and specific Mission Payload Modules (MPMs). Initial MPMs will include JCAD, APOBS, LVOSS, and direct fire (lethal and non-lethal). With development of future MPMs, the Gladiator operational capabilities may include Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Target Acquisition/designation (RSTA-D), engineer reconnaissance, communications relay, tactical deception, and counter sniper employment. Gladiator employment concepts include Offensive Operations, Defensive Operations, and OOTW.
The Gladiator TUGV is planned as a robust, compact, unmanned, tele-operated/semi-autonomous, multi-purpose ground RSTA vehicle system possessing a scouting and direct engagement capability. It will provide the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Ground Combat Element (GCE) with remote reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition (RSTA), nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) reconnaissance, obstacle breaching, and direct fire capability to neutralize threats and reduce risk to the warfighter. The TUGV system will be fielded to infantry battalions and combat engineer companies and must be strategically, operationally, and tactically deployable worldwide in ground, aircraft and sea transport conveyances available to the MAGTF.
The configuration of the Gladiator system will consist of a highly mobile and survivable ground-based Mobile Base Unit (MBU), interchangeable Mission Payload Module (MPM) packages capable of supporting different mission requirements, and a man portable, hand held Operator Control Unit (OCU). The OCU will provide the Gladiator and its MPM's with tele-operational capability as well as data display, storage and dissemination. It is expected that the OCU will exchange video and data signals with the Gladiator via a non-tethered military link.
October 4, 2004
The X-Prize Falls
Congratulations to Burt Rutan, Paul Allen, and the Pilots: The Ansari X-prize has been won by the Space Ship One.
X Prize officials said it set an altitude record exceeding the military X-15's top altitude of 354,200 feet (67 miles) set on August 22, 1963.
With a wish of "Good luck and Godspeed," mission control sent the privately funded craft toward space for the second time in a week, the requirements for winning the X Prize.
"Today we have made history. Today we go to the stars," said Peter Diamandis, co-founder of the X Prize Foundation.
The $10 million award is intended to spur civilian spaceflight.
"You have raised a tide that will bring billions of dollars into the industry and fund other teams to compete," Diamandis said. "We will begin a new era of spaceflight."
The craft left a near perfect dovetail of exhaust contrails with the White Knight turbo jet, which carried it aloft, as its rocket ignited for 84 seconds. The rocket burn sent SpaceShipOne on a trajectory that sent it climbing for almost a minute after the engine shut down.
"It looks great," said Brian Binnie, SpaceShipOne's pilot, on his way up to space at Mach 3.
Binnie, now only the second person in history to earn his commercial astronaut wings, reported a shaky flight with "a little roll" but did not experience the 29 rolls Mike Melvill experienced last week.
"The experience is quite literally a rush," he said. "You light off the vehicle and the world wakes up around you."
August 29, 2004
Underwater Autonomous Tracker
Students at the University of Arizona have developed a small autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to track octupuses (octopi) underwater. Since the target is very shy, the students developed a robot to continously monitor and track these creatures.
UA engineering undergrads, in collaboration with students from two other universities, are building a mini-sub to answer this need. In July, they took a prototype to Alaska for testing.
Appropriately named Shadow III — and painted a bright yellow that belies its sleuthy assignment — the mini-sub includes a video camera and hydrophones (sonar mikes) to track its prey.
Marine biologists, directed by Professor David Scheel at Alaska Pacific University, will use the sub to track octopuses. Meanwhile, undergrads at Colorado School of Mines are developing the hydrophones under the direction of Tyrone Vincent, an associate professor of electrical engineering. The hydrophones are set up to create bi-aural hearing that will allow researchers to determine the direction from which a sound originates.
During the July test, Shadow III completed ten dives in Prince William Sound, with a communications cable linking it to a mother boat on the surface. Divers checked it for leaks, while UA Professor Emeritus Tom Vincent and UA Mechanical Engineering senior Patrick Haley tested its robotic vision, motors and internal computer. Along the way, it encountered and filmed a Giant Pacific Octopus.
World's Smallest Atomic Clock
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), has developed the world's smallest atomic clock based on MEMs technology. Though still in a prototype stage, this indicates the possibility of cheap, ubiquitous atomic clocks in battery powered devices. This has implications for all kinds of navigation and precision sensing applications.
The heart of a minuscule atomic clock—believed to be 100 times smaller than any other atomic clock—has been demonstrated by scientists at the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), opening the door to atomically precise timekeeping in portable, battery-powered devices for secure wireless communications, more precise navigation and other applications.
Described in the Aug. 30, 2004, issue of Applied Physics Letters, the clock’s inner workings are about the size of a grain of rice (1.5 millimeters on a side and 4 millimeters high), consume less than 75 thousandths of a watt (enabling the clock to be operated on batteries) and are stable to one part in 10 billion, equivalent to gaining or losing just one second every 300 years.
In addition, this “physics package” could be fabricated and assembled on semiconductor wafers using existing techniques for making micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS), offering the potential for low-cost mass production of an atomic clock about the size of a computer chip and permitting easy integration with other electronics. Eventually, the physics package will be integrated with an external oscillator and control circuitry into a finished clock about 1 cubic centimeter in size.
“The real power of our technique is that we’re able to run the clock on so little electrical power that it could be battery operated and that it’s small enough to be easily incorporated into a cell phone or some other kind of handheld device,” says physicist John Kitching, principal investigator for the project. “And nothing else like it even comes close as far as being mass producible.”
The mini-clock is comparable in size and long-term stability to temperature-compensated quartz crystal oscillators, currently used in portable devices. NIST scientists expect to improve the clock’s long-term stability and reduce its power consumption to the point where the device could substantially improve the performance of many commercial and military systems that require precision time keeping.
The chip-scale clock is the latest advance in time keeping at NIST, which for decades has been a world leader in the development of new technologies for measuring time and frequency. Atomic clocks long have provided the most accurate realizations of both of these quantities but also have traditionally been large—up to two meters in height—as well as power-hungry and expensive to build.
The new clock is based on the same general idea as other atomic clocks such as the NIST-F1 fountain clock—measuring time by the natural vibrations of cesium atoms, at 9.2 billion “ticks” per second—but uses a different design. In the chip-scale clock, cesium vapor is confined in a sealed cell and probed with light from an equally small infrared laser, which generates two electromagnetic fields. The difference in frequency of these two fields is tuned until it equals the difference between two energy levels of the atoms. The atoms then enter a “dark state” in which they stop absorbing and emitting light; this point defines the natural resonance frequency of cesium. An external oscillator, such as quartz crystal like those found in wristwatches, then can be stabilized against this standard.
The chip-scale clock is less accurate than larger atomic clocks such as fountain clocks. However, the clock’s small size, low power dissipation and potentially low cost make it ideal for a variety of commercial and military applications. Compared to quartz crystal oscillators, the most precise time and frequency references of equivalent size and power, chip-scale atomic clocks potentially offer a 1,000-fold improvement in long-term timing precision.
August 27, 2004
Climb into the Sky
This is impressive. A group called Elevator2010 has a site up promoting a space elevator idea and contest. I've spoken with one of their lead technical guys, and we are definitely getting close on the material science side of this. Their approach is to also promote the idea through a contest, demonstrating the technology through a small scale performance championed by students and industry.
The dream of a Space Elevator is a monumental one. A vision that will not only further space exploration and knowledge, but has the potential to shape the existential future of the human race for centuries to come. For the first time since it was initially conceived, this dream is now within our reach.
Elevator 2010 has joined the massive construction effort, adding energy, resources and new initiatives to the ever-growing number of organizations, companies, websites and enthusiasts focused on the technical, political and economic development of the Space Elevator.
We firmly believe that the set of technologies that underlie the infinite promise of the Space Elevator can be demonstrated, or proven infeasible, within a 5 year time-frame.
And hence our name. Elevator:2010. we promise to get an answer for you by then.
August 23, 2004
Rapid Prototyping comes to the Web
This is very exciting. A company called eMachineShop.com has free software that allows you to draw and specify mechanical parts using traditional CAD tools and will then quote you a finished part cost which will come shipped to your door in a few weeks.
Programs for computer-aided design, or CAD, have been around for decades, but eMachineShop.com appears to be the first service that checks whether a design can be made, tells the customer how much it will cost and, if the customer wants the item, forwards the design to a "real world" machine shop for manufacturing.
The key to this enterprise is free design software provided by eMachineShop that aims to be simple enough for hobbyists and other non-engineers.
Prices won't be competitive with Wal-Mart, but Wal-Mart won't make ten copper door knobs, then sandblast them for you. EmachineShop charges $143 for that.
The company was created by Jim Lewis, a programmer and self-professed "tinkerer." One previous credit: "the world's hardest sliding block puzzle."
Very, very good idea.
August 10, 2004
Testing MEME Propagation in the Blogosphere
Next experiment, will the fork in a light socket trick give me hair like Don King?
Testing Meme Propagation In Blogspace: Add Your Blog
This posting is a community experiment that tests how a meme, represented by this blog posting, spreads across blogspace, physical space and time. It will help to show how ideas travel across blogs in space and time and how blogs are connected. It may also help to show which blogs (and aggregation sites) are most influential in the propagation of memes. The dataset from this experiment will be public, and can be located via Google (or Technorati) by doing a search for the GUID for this meme (below).
Please join the test by adding your blog (see instructions, below) and inviting your friends to participate—the more the better. The data from this test will be public and open; others may use it to visualize and study the connectedness of blogspace and the propagation of memes across blogs.
The GUID for this experiment is:
The above GUID enables anyone to easily search Google or other search engines for all blogs that participate in this experiment, once they have indexed the sites that participate, which may take several days or weeks. To locate the full data set, just search for any sites that contain this GUID.
Anyone is free to analyze the data of this experiment. Please publicize your analysis of the data, and/or any comments by adding comments onto the original post (see URL above). (Note: it would be interesting to see a geographic map or a temporal animation, as well as a social network map of the propagation of this meme.)
To add your blog to this experiment, copy this entire posting to your blog, and then answer the questions below, substituting your own information, below, where appropriate. Other than answering the questions below, please do not alter the information, layout or format of this post in order to preserve the integrity of the data in this experiment (this will make it easier for searchers and automated bots to find and analyze the results later).
REQUIRED FIELDS (Note: Replace the answers below with your own answers)
(1) I found this experiment at URL:
(2) I found it via “Newsreader Software” or “Browsing the Web” or “Searching the Web” or “An E-Mail Message”: Browsing the Web
(3) I posted this experiment at URL: http://www.robotica-exotica.com
(4) I posted this on date (day/month/year): 10/08/04
(5) I posted this at time (24 hour time): 21:39
(6) My posting location is (city, state, country): Santa Cruz, CA, USA
OPTIONAL SURVEY FIELDS:
(7) My blog is hosted by: ucsc.edu
(8) My age is: 37
(9) My gender is: Male
(10) My occupation is: Computer Engineering Professor
(11) I use the following RSS/Atom reader software: none
(12) I use the following software to post to my blog: MovableType
(13) I have been blogging since (day, month, year): 12/11/2003
(14) My web browser is: MS IE
(15) My operating systems are: Windows XP
July 29, 2004
Looking Back at Futuristic Transportation
Berkeley has a virtual gallery of futuristic tranportation schemes that were proposed in the past. This is a really wild exhibit, as there are so many ideas that seemed so full of promise at the time. It really is worth the time to take a look.
When we see a drawing of a transportation futuristic, we instinctively know that’s what it is. But what do jetpacks, rolling boats and these other endeavors have in common? With few exceptions, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s visions of helicopters and airplanes, the futuristics are the product of the Industrial and post-Industrial Age, a time when the pace of technological change rapidly accelerated and people began dreaming about the future in new ways.
The futuristics also all involve fairly radical ideas, from new propulsion systems to novel use of materials to extreme hybrids of existing forms. The designs seen in this exhibit have not been commercial successes. Some fail on the technical side (some spectacularly so), while others never achieve economic viability.
This exhibit examines some of the efforts to address transportation needs in ways that didn’t quite get off the ground literally or figuratively. Are the designers simply ahead of their time? Are the failures attributable to an infrastructure that never anticipated such a development? Was there ultimately no way to make the new idea work financially?
July 20, 2004
Boeing Unveils new UCAV
Boeing has rolled out its newest version of the UCAV, that is an unmanned combat air vehicle. There are a few things that are immediately obvious from the picture: (1) It is built for stealth or low observable (LO) technology, witness the similar lines on all the angles, as well as the lack of vertical surfaces (which is going to make the yaw control interesting). (2) The buried inlet shows that they have made this thing to have a low Infra-Red (IR) signature as well (this trick is the same as on both the F117 and the B2), and (3) It is made for subsonic flight, with no obvious means of mid-air refueling. This means that it will strictly be used "in-theatre."
Still, an impressive looking aircraft, and better than anything else anywhere on the planet.
A glimpse into the future was unveiled today when the Boeing [NYSE: BA] Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) X-45C full-scale model made its debut at the Farnborough International Air Show.
The model represents what the X-45C will look like when completed at the company’s St. Louis manufacturing facility in 2006. Assembly of this revolutionary aircraft began in June and it is scheduled to make its first flight in 2007. Boeing previously built two X-45A vehicles, now being flight-tested at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
The X-45C is 39 feet long with a 49-foot wingspan and cruises at 0.80 Mach. It will carry eight Small Diameter Bombs (SDBs), Boeing’s newest near-precision, 250-pound weapon, or the full range of Boeing’s Joint Direct Attack Munitions(JDAMs).
The J-UCAS X-45 program is a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency/U.S. Air Force/U.S. Navy/Boeing effort to demonstrate the technical feasibility, military utility and operational value of an unmanned air combat system for both the Air Force and the Navy. Operational missions for the services may include suppression of enemy air defenses; strike; electronic attack; and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
June 22, 2004
Private Astronaut arcs in the Edge of Space
Unless you were under a rock somewhere, you know that Burt Rutan's White Knight and SpaceShipOne combination made history yesterday by privately sending a test pilot to 100 Kilometers above the surface of the planet. At this altitude, you can see the stars and the terminator of the Earth.
I was there with friends, and while I missed the all night party, it was certainly exciting. I took a few pictures and some video, and will write up a longer description of the flight later.
From the New York Times article:
A veteran civilian test pilot on Monday became the first human to reach space in a privately developed program, guiding a tiny rocket ship more than 60 miles above California in a flight with several white-knuckle moments.
In front of thousands of spectators and a teeming press corps, the squid-shaped craft, SpaceShipOne, was lifted into the atmosphere shortly after 6:30 a.m., attached to the belly of a sleek plane called the White Knight.
When the plane reached an altitude of 50,000 feet, it dropped the smaller craft, and its pilot, Michael W. Melvill, started the rocket that took him up nearly 300,000 feet more, to the beginnings of space. He then brought SpaceShipOne back to earth as a glider, touching down at 8:15.
June 7, 2004
Educational Robot comes packed with Features
OK, I'll be crass: I want one. This is a very cool robot that seems to have a lot of the right set of sensors on board. It would save someone in a typical lab quite a bit of time integrating a conventional robot. Also, the software seems quite interesting as a simulation environment.
Wany Robotics’ Pekee™ robot is an open robotic development toolkit for researchers, educators, and students in technology. Pekee helps you understand robotics and robotic software, from basic concepts to high-level development in the Wany Robotic Software Lab™. These tools give fast hands-on experience with all the latest in robotics, from algorithms for autonomous movement and obstacle avoidance, to embedded video, network, signal analysis, and artificial intelligence. Pekee is the ideal platform for complete experimentation in electronics, computer science, and robotics.
The Pekee robot is designed around a completely open architecture that provides total flexibility for your robotic application testing and development. Its built-in infrared, temperature, and light sensors, odometers, shock detector, and gyrometers ensure that you can monitor critical elements in the robot’s environment at all times. The Pekee platform lets you pursue your own projects at all levels, from trajectory planning to real-time programming in consumer prodcuts such as robotic vacuum cleaners and interactive toys.
Looks like about $10K per robot.
Cool Underwater ROV
Though we often think of autonomous vehicles as ground or sometimes flight vehicles, there are a whole bunch of them that operate in other environments. This one is a particularly nice underwater vehicle that is used for remote inspections in cold murky water. It follows from the rule of three D's: Dangerous, Dirty, or Dull is where machines are used in place of people. This one in particular is a spin-off from Homeland Security applications.
Sputtering along the Elizabeth River, the small yellow-and-black vehicle wove half-circles near the pleasure boats moored at Waterside, looking like a child's toy alongside the larger watercraft.
But no toy could go where this 8-pound gizmo was heading. With a flick of a switch, police harbor patrol Officer Norman Harris turned on its submerged head lamps, and twin cones of light appeared in the water in front of the tiny craft.
"Going down," Harris said.
The tiny, remote-operated submersible vehicle slipped under the surface and glided into the tea-colored water, trailing a yellow umbilical cable. The vehicle, called the VideoRay, sends underwater images back to a video monitor.
It's one of two new high-tech gadgets giving city police eyes under the waves. A side-scan sonar device towed behind a police boat located a car that was submerged last year.
Both devices were purchased with about $39,000 in federal funds dedicated to homeland security, Harris said. Police have long relied on divers to seek victims of drowning or suicide and evidence of crimes.
June 4, 2004
Private Astronauts and the Public is Invited
Burt Rutan and Paul Allen's venture for the X-prise, the White Knight and Space Ship One combination, are going to perform the first manned sub-orbital hop that is not backed by a government. Not only that, but the public is invited to see this even down in Mohave, CA.
Composites' SpaceShipOne will attempt to become the world's first commercial, manned space vehicle during a June 21 launch on at Mojave Airport in California. From its carrier aircraft White Knight, the privately developed spacecraft will launch at about 50,000 feet MSL above the Mojave Civilian Aerospace Test Center and aim for suborbital space-defined as 100 kilometers (62 miles)-and thus go where no non-governmental manned aircraft has gone before. Conceived by EAA homebuilding pioneer Burt Rutan, built by his company Scaled Composites, and backed by investor and philanthropist Paul G. Allen, White Knight/SpaceShipOne will then try for the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE later in the year. That will require three people to be taken to 100 km and back twice within two weeks.
On May 13, Mike Melvill was at the controls of SpaceShipOne when it reached 211,400 feet (approximately 40 miles), the highest altitude ever reached by a non-government aerospace program. The pilot for the June 21 flight, who has not yet been announced, will become the first person to earn astronaut wings in a non-government sponsored vehicle, and the first private civilian to fly a spaceship out of the atmosphere.
June 21, 2004. Save the date.
June 3, 2004
Robot Swarms in the News
Fortune magazine does a profile of the SwarmBots over at iRobot. Since I am doing some research in this area, I thought that I would link to the article. Basically, a number of cheap robots with fairly unsophisticated rules about how to behave can demonstrate some impressive behavior at the swarm level.
Insects make great conceptual models for cheap robots because they have simple local interactions with one another that nonetheless add up to very complicated group behaviors, such as building a hive or foraging for nectar. The whole, in other words, is greater than the sum of its parts. iRobot's SwarmBots are cubes measuring five inches on each side. They have rechargeable nicad batteries and a pair of electric motors inside, along with a microprocessor and some associated circuitry. A "bump skirt" helps the robots sense and avoid crashing into obstacles. Each has a small color camera for simple object recognition, as well as sensors that detect light. Communications between robots are handled by an array of infrared transmitters and receivers similar to the ones used in TV remote controls.
The iRobot researchers conduct a charming SwarmBot demo in foam-board corrals arranged on a carpeted office floor. It simulates exploring an unfamiliar interior environment, much as commandos would when storming a building. These little devils are efficient, in the computational sense; the software that's needed to run the robots through the exploration routine occupies just 60 kilobytes of memory, the equivalent of a medium-sized Microsoft Word file. Musical tones and flashing red, blue, and green LEDs that look like plump, luminous gumdrops atop the robots keep the humans clued in to what the members of the swarm are doing. A red light means a robot is seeking to maintain uniform spacing from its neighbors. Blue signals that a robot is moving into unexplored territory. Green indicates that a robot is heading back to the charging dock to top off its batteries. Robots showing all three colors at once have detected an object and are "guarding" it. Watching all that helps the observers identify bugs (pardon the expression) in the evolving software and devise fixes. The computer code is designed to work with as few as ten robots and as many as 10,000.
Very cool stuff.
May 26, 2004
Pistonless Pump offers Performance
Flowmetrics has a design for a pistonless pump that they claim is as good as a gas-genertating turbopump for a first stage liquid fueled rocket. Included is this handy animation that shows how this whole thing works. It appears to be very robust, and very high performance.
We are have designed, built and tested a simple, lightweight pump(dual pistonless pump) for use in liquid propelled rockets where a reliable pump with minimal moving parts is needed. This pump has the potential to reduce the cost and increase the reliability of rocket fuel pumps by a factor of 20 to 100. The pump has been tested with a rocket engine and the pump worked perfectly.
How it works:
Rocket engines require a tremendous amount of fuel at high pressure. Often the pump costs more than the thrust chamber. One way to supply fuel is to use the expensive turbopump mentioned above, another way is to pressurize the entire fuel tank. Pressurizing a large tank requires a heavy, expensive tank. However, suppose instead of pressurizing the entire tank, the main tank is drained into a small pump chamber, which is then pressurized. To achieve steady flow, the pump system consists of two pump chambers such that each one supplies fuel for ½ of each cycle. The pump is powered by pressurized gas which acts directly on the fluid. For each half of the pump system, a chamber is first filled from the main tank under low pressure and at a high flow rate, then the chamber is pressurized, and then the fluid is delivered to the engine at a moderate flow rate under high pressure. The chamber is then vented and the cycle repeats. The system is designed so that the inlet flow rate is higher than the outlet flow rate. This allows time for one chamber to be vented, refilled and pressurized while the other is being emptied. (See Figure 1 below) A bread board pump has been tested and it works great. A high pressure version has been designed and built and is pumping at 20+ gpm and 550+ psi.
This is a well written site describing the function of a convergent/divergent rocket nozzle, along with some design code. It is well done, and I thing does a great job of explaining some of the phenomenon associated with nozzle design. While you can understand this without a whole lot of thermodynamics, it would certainly help.
The purpose of this applet is to simulate the operation of a converging-diverging nozzle, perhaps the most important and basic piece of engineering hardware associated with propulsion and the high speed flow of gases. This device was invented by Carl de Laval toward the end of the l9th century and is thus often referred to as the 'de Laval' nozzle. This applet is intended to help students of compressible aerodynamics visualize the flow through this type of nozzle at a range of conditions.
May 17, 2004
GPS in Unusual Places
This is just plain wild. Coke has a promotion for their summer marketing blitz that includes a number of GPS-enabled coke cans hidden in the normal distribution. When you find one, you press a button to activate the can, this turns on a GPS reciever and a cellphone transponder that will direct the coke people to you to deliver your prize.
As part of the soft drink firm's Unexpected Summer ad campaign, specially designed Coke cans feature a Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite transponder and cell phone.
Winners who find one of these cans press a button to activate it, volunteer to participate and then have the grand prize delivered to them wherever they are.
The high-tech cans feature specially designed graphics and a recessed panel with buttons that, when pressed, activate the GPS technology and cellular phone. The inside of each winning can is configured with a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card that enables the can to serve as a cell phone that works in conjunction with the GPS transponder.
Not the usual place to find GPS, but very cool none-the-less.
May 12, 2004
The Armadillo Aerospace crew has been busy at work on their X-prize prototype, and are having some good success to date. They are now working on getting the single engine rocket to hover in place using control vanes in the exhaust flow. This is really neat, and coming up along the way the DC-X did its flight control, this seems a whole lot simpler.
To make up for the relatively low 10hz update rate of the GPS (I wish I had gone ahead and ordered the 20hz option) and to provide some more graceful failure modes, I combined the inertial position and velocity sensing with the GPS updates, so it gets reset every time a valid GPS packet comes in, but will coast with pure inertial data if the GPS is failing, and provide useful data between GPS updates. This isn’t as good as a truly integrated GPS / IMU system that can use the IMU data to smooth the selection and balancing of different satellite signals before generating a GPS output, but it does several positive things for us. The upwards position / velocity is easy to use the IMU for, because it can auto-orient from the gravity vector while on the ground, but to get north / east data, we now have to orient the vehicle correctly before launching. I have a magnetometer that we could use for an automatic roll orientation, but I haven’t plugged it in for a couple years.
I also updated the GPS baud rate, which doesn’t give me any more samples per second, but decreases the latency in getting the updates it does produce.
The auto-hover was somewhat smoother than before, but nor dramatically so. The overshoots are proportional to the control authority times the sum of the sensing latency and the actuating latency with the current control algorithm, so I may just intentionally slow down the valve movement. I may convert it over to a gain based control system like the attitude control, but it is trickier because the vehicle is constantly changing weight and tank pressure as propellant is depleted, so there isn’t a reasonably point on the throttle that a default actuation position could be based on. I don’t want to waste much time on it, because hovering isn’t actually an important part of what the vehicle is supposed to do.
The three videos up are pretty neat to watch.
The Doctor is in the Robot
This article is more about telepresence than about robotics, but it is interesting none-the-less. Patients surveyed found that they preferred to see their own doctors on-screen on-robot, rather than someone they were unfamiliar with. It is an unusual study, but I think we are going to see more of this in the future.
The 200-pound (90-kilogram) robots stand about 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall. They have flat video screens for heads, and video cameras serve as their eyes and ears.
Using a joystick, a doctor can operate the rounding robot to check on patients from another building or another country, via the Internet and wireless links.
The doctor's face appears on the robot's screen, and he or she interacts with the patient through the real-time video hookup.
The aim of the technology isn't to replace human doctors, but to make it more convenient for doctors to check in with their patients, and for patients to get quick access to personal physicians who aren't at the hospital.
May 7, 2004
Microprocessors in Unusual Places
The New York Times has an article on the development of a microprocessor controlled shoe, which senses at around 20 KHz., and responds by adjusting the physical shoe parameters at around 10 KHz. How often you will have to change the battery in your shoe is not detailed. I keep telling people that embedded control systems are winding up in places that no one has anticipated. Very interesting development, and not too expensive either.
"What we have, basically, is the first footwear product that can change its characteristics in real time," said Mr. DiBenedetto, who led the group that created the shoe, of its ability to adapt its cushioning as the wearer runs.
The shoes will have push-button controls, light-emitting diodes to display settings and an instruction manual on a CD-ROM that will advise wearers on, among other things, how to change the battery after every 100 hours of use.
Of all items of clothing, said Rob Enderle, a principal analyst for the Enderle Group in San Jose, Calif., the shoe is a logical one to be a focus of wearable technology. Unlike articles of clothing that must be washed or cleaned, shoes present a more stable place to add useful electronics, he said.
High-performance shoes, particularly those intended for athletic use, he said, have been augmented with an array of biomechanical enhancements, most of them involving compressed gases, shock absorbers and springs. But until now, he said, "I don't recall electronics being applied in shoes other than for lights."
May 3, 2004
Armadillo Aerospace Close to Hovering
John Cormak and the team over at Armadillo Aerospace have been experimenting with control systems to get their x-prize rocket to hover. I think that this is a very interesting development, and I love the fact that they publish everything they do, good and bad. This movie is pretty neat.
The second hop lifted off and hung at an angle, picking up horizontal velocity, so I cut it off quickly. I probably could have steered it back, but it was easier to just kill it. On reviewing the video and telemetry, we found that for the time that it was in the air, it was flying perfectly steady.
This is the behavior we would expect from either an offset center of gravity or vanes that weren’t calibrated straight up. We knew the mounting of the electronics had biased the weight forward, so we clamped ten pounds of weight on the back side for the next test flight. This time it flew basically straight up, still with the extreme smoothness, but we lost GPS lock almost immediately after liftoff.
We went through several tests trying to figure out what was going on. I could fly it on manual throttle just fine, but the Ashtech G12-HDMA was losing lock within a quarter second or so of liftoff. Communication with the GPS continued without a hitch, but the values would come in all the same for a ten second or so stretch. We tried mounting the amplified GPS antenna on some soft foam and even completely enclosing it in foam for acoustic protection, with no change. Russ had an idea that sounded really logical – that it wasn’t liftoff that caused the problem, but instead it was the condition of high chamber pressure on throttle up that caused the spark plug to misfire, generating RF noise. I changed the code so I only had the spark going during warmup and not during liftoff, but it didn’t change anything. I have a new GPS antenna arriving soon that we will test with on Tuesday.
We decided to go ahead and do a long run with me manually controlling the throttle and steering. I had it throttled up for 19 seconds, but I wasn’t perfectly centered under the lift when I started descending, so the last couple seconds pulled taut on the tether. Still, it was at least a 16 second perfectly controlled flight. If it hadn’t been on a tether, this test would have required a federal launch license complete with environmental assessment, which rather clearly shows how silly the burn time limit is. It looks like AST is going to grant us a burn time waiver, but only for tests at SWRS (southwest regional spaceport), which is a two-day trip away.Posted by elkaim at 2:50 PM
April 30, 2004
UAV on bombing runs
The Department of Defense has a long term vision that within 25 years, they would like something in the neighborhood of 25-40% of the vehicles that they use to be robotic. This increases something that they refer to as the tooth-to-tail ratio. Anyway, though it is a very long way off from being combat ready, it does represent a very interesting development. Here, the Boeing UAV drops a small bomb on a practice target.
Under human supervision but without human piloting, a prototype of the Boeing Co.'s X-45 took off from the desert base, opened its bomb bay doors, dropped a 250-pound Small Smart Bomb and then landed.
The inert bomb struck within inches of the truck it was supposed to hit, Boeing said, adding that had the bomb contained explosives, the target would have been destroyed.
This is just amazingly beautiful. The Hubble telescope has picked up an image of a butterfly-like nebula that is just tremendous.
Its latest reveals unprecedented detail in the Bug Nebula, a huge mass of gas and dust which hides a hot, dying star.
The Bug Nebula, or NGC 6302, is about 4,000 light-years from Earth in the southern constellation of Scorpius.
Stars like our Sun shed their outer layers when they get old and in this case, the ejected material appears to have gone in two distinct directions.
April 21, 2004
Small Robots for Rescue Operations
Wired has an interesting article on some robotic applications for rescue in difficult environments (read: collapsed structures). The interesting point that the article makes is that control and location of the robots becomes very difficult as soon as the number exceeds approximately 3 per operator. Thus cooperation becomes an increasingly important area of research.
Robots designed for emergency rescue work can survive a six-story drop onto collapsed, jagged concrete. They can be thrown 100 feet into a disaster site. They can even cope with poisonous chemicals, fires, freezing temperatures and floods. But, like most rugged individualists, they don't play well with others.
When robots are set loose at a rescue site, the situation can become chaotic quickly, which lessens the advantage of having a swarm of robots to help human rescuers. There's no way for the robots to coordinate their activities autonomously. A human operator must control them individually, making robotic searches less efficient. Right now, even with state-of-the-art technology, rescue robots essentially lose interest in their tasks when left on their own. They simply wander off or shut down.
To translate the human concept of teamwork into electronics, three teams of university researchers are working together to develop technology that would turn a pack of robots into a single machine.
April 20, 2004
Robotic Agents for Extraterrestrial Exploration
NASA has been quietly working on some of the more unusual things to do with robotic agents in terms of reducing the amount of chatter between off-planet exploring astronauts and the teams back here on Earth. The interesting thing is that they are taking a very good incremental development and shakedown approach to all of this.
The goal of the mobile agent software is to blend the extravehicular research conducted by human astronauts with the data management abilities inherent in a computer system.
The first role of an astronaut's personal mobile agent is to simply cut down on the amount of time astronauts take relaying information back to Earth, such as computer readouts or the temperatures of space suits and batteries. Using the agents to control a robot assistant, a landing party could identify interesting locations from the comfort of a habitat module and proceed directly into a scientific investigation.
"People's time is very important on the surface and you don't want to waste it doing reconnaissance," Alena told SPACE.com. "You want astronauts to do targeted surveys, to follow the water and maybe even signs of life."
April 15, 2004
Gravity Probe B to Fly
Gravity Probe B, the physics experiment at Stanford that was indirectly the proximate cause for my Ph.D., is finally set to launch on Monday. Note that this experiment was conceived 40 years ago, and it simply took this long to have the technology to catch up to the idea. According to this article, over 100 Ph.D.'s have been spun out of this effort (of which I am one), though I think the actual number is much higher.
By all accounts the experiment now at Vandenberg is a technical tour de force. At its heart, isolated as much as possible from the universe, are the gyroscopes: four quartz spheres slightly larger than golf balls. They are said to be the most perfectly spherical objects ever made by humans — out of round by only 40 layers of atoms. If the Earth were this perfect, the tallest mountain would rise just six and a half feet.
In space, they will be suspended by electrical fields and spin at 10,000 revolutions per minute inside a quartz telescope trained assiduously at the star IM Pegasi.
To make sure that no outside influence imparts a stray wobble to the spinning balls, the telescope floats freely inside an external spacecraft equipped with jets to sense and counter any drag from stray wisps of atmosphere. It is also surrounded by a superconducting lead bag that shields it from magnetic fields. And the whole assembly is cooled by liquid helium to less than 2 degrees above absolute zero, or about minus 456 degrees Fahrenheit.
But that's only the beginning. After having isolated the gyroscopes from the rest of the universe and aligned them with IM Pegasi, the scientists have to monitor which way they are spinning.
To this end, the quartz balls are coated with niobium, which loses all resistance to electrical current at these temperatures. As a result, when the balls rotate, some of the electrons in the niobium slip behind their atoms. Their relative motion creates a small current that generates a tiny magnetic field, located by detectors known as squids — superconducting quantum interference devices — built into the gyroscope.
April 12, 2004
Cash Going Into Robotics
This is good news as far as my research is concerned. I really think that there is a great synergy coming in terms of automation into areas that we don't really consider as ripe or fruitful to do so.
Researchers in robotics have traditionally faced two debilitating obstacles: terribly expensive parts and difficulty attracting funding from anyone outside of a small corps of true believers. But robotics experts see a "perfect storm" heading their way, thanks in no small part to the human ravages of war.
Just as the constant march of technology is driving down the cost of key components, top universities in robotics are reporting major increases in federal funding, with the Defense Department the biggest spender.
The military desperately wants to reduce the number of soldiers killed by roadside bombs or surface-to-air missiles — cheap implements of war that have felled scores in Iraq (news - web sites). Many in the Pentagon (news - web sites) believe the answer lies in autonomous air, sea and land vehicles.
The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University has seen federal funding jump 48 percent since 2000, and by 117 percent since 1994. Much of the $24.8 million in federal funding for 2003 came from the Pentagon, said institute director Chuck Thorpe.
The university's corporate funding for robotics is also up 40 percent since 2000, with $7.8 million arriving last year.
Of course, I haven't gotten any funding on this yet, but I am more confident about where I am looking.
April 9, 2004
Human Health Condition Monitoring
This is a pretty neat device. Developed by Greg Kovacs of Stanford University, it combines several different sensors, along with a good amount of memory and wireless access into a single wearable device. This is going to change the information that we have as to what kinds of physical stress we see everyday during our own routines. I know that I'd like to have one.
It's a compact, portable, wearable device -- a single piece of equipment that gathers a wide variety of vital signs. About the size of a computer mouse, a CPOD is worn around the waist. It's comfortable enough to be worn while sleeping. It's non-invasive. It takes only minutes to don. Importantly, it can track a person's physiologic functioning as they go about their normal routine -- they don't have to be tethered to some stationary device. It can store data for eight-hour periods for later downloading; alternatively, it can send it wirelessly, in real time, to some other device.
"This is a new tool," says Kovacs. "It allows monitoring of the body without invasion of the body --- without tethering the person down, letting them go about their normal business."
March 19, 2004
This is interesting. Especially since I was just talking to some people about building one to help with environmental monitoring. A company called MRVI is marketing an autonomous speedboat for patrol operations. Pretty cool looking, too.
MRV International, an innovative marine technology company, is providing state-of-the-art software and hardware for robotic USVs (unmanned surface vessels) to man the US's harbours and waterways.
Operating as autonomous marine robotic platforms, the USVs use MRV's new-generation software for remote command and control, navigation, route planning, event and crisis management, onboard diagnostics and other functions. Linked with broadband wireless telemetry, the USVs can be operated from virtually anywhere in the world via the Internet.
To identify terrorism threats, the USVs can be equipped with radar, sonar, and video surveillance capabilities, as well as on-site, automated chemical, biological and radiological analysis. The all-weather, day-and-night robot boats also have application in piracy, narcotics interdiction, illegal immigration, chemical and radiological spill detection and many other areas.
San Francisco will be hosting the first ever ROBOlympics competition. This should be pretty neat, though most of the entries appear to be remote controlled rather than trully autonomous robots. Still, there should be a lot of good stuff to look at.
Fearsome BattleBots, fearless fire-fighting robots, finely-tuned soccer-playing robot teams, sumo bots and robots built by students will be on display at the SF Commonwealth Club in a rock-em, sock-em preview of the first ever international Robot Olympics—ROBOlympics—to be held in San Francisco next month.
Robot-builders young and old, American, English, and Japanese, will be in attendance to provide live demonstrations and explanations of their ROBOlympians. This will be an exclusive chance to get close to the builders—amateur engineers from many walks of life with dramatic stories—before they enter into the heat of competition. Interviews may be conducted in a friendly atmosphere with complimentary cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.
While many different robot events exist around the world, ROBOlympics will be the first ever to bring them all together in a single place and time. San Francisco is the birthplace to such world famous robot competitions as the internationally televised BattleBots and Robot Wars, and ROBOlympics represents a triumphant return of this booming mechanical pastime to its rightful home—while including robots competitions from around the world, both long-standing and nascent.
March 15, 2004
DARPA Grand Challenge Ends with a Whimper
Well, as I had predicted earlier, no vehicle finished the Grand Challenge. In fact, the one that went the farthest, went less than 8 miles. Which, by the way, is still a tremendously impressive feat. This just goes to illustrate the difficulty of doing autonomous navigation.
The Grand Challenge event was supposed to be a 10-hour sprint across the desert, with a $1 million prize to the designers of the first driverless vehicle to transit 142 miles of sand and rock from Barstow (San Bernardino County) to Primm, Nev., just across the state line.
But shortly after 11 a.m., Anthony Tether, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon office that put up the prize, took the stage at a casino near the supposed finish line to announce: "The Grand Challenge ended about 10 minutes ago when the last 'bot went out.''
Despite the race's somewhat comic end -- the robotic dirt bike entered by an Albany man toppled two feet from the starting gate -- Tether said the competition had advanced DARPA's aim of spurring the development of driverless combat vehicles capable of fighting desert wars without putting soldiers in harm's way.
"It exceeded our expectation by the amount of people who showed up, and by the types of people who showed up,'' said Tether, saying the agency would probably stage a new challenge in a year or so after the volunteers have time "to get their batteries recharged.''
DARPA sponsored the Grand Challenge because a decade of government-funded contracts with defense firms has failed to produce breakthroughs. The agency hoped the prize and prestige of the challenge would entice academic and garage inventors to come up with new ideas. Tether said DARPA spent about $13 million to sponsor the event, and got more than its money's worth in promising new approaches.
March 12, 2004
Flexibot Robotic Arm for Helping the Disabled
The Flexibot is a pretty neat concept in robotic assistance for the disabled. The original idea was a robotic arm that was attached to a wheel-chair, but they have gone one step farther and allowed the arm to now detach from the wheelchair and move end over end through fixed attachment points. It is a pretty neat idea, but without any sensors other than internal angles, I'm not sure how accurate it can be.
Unlike most other mobile robots, Flexibot gets about by flipping end over end from one docking station to the next. The docking points serve the dual purpose of both supporting and powering the droid.
Each arm weighs about 11 kilograms and its five motors making it capable of carrying up to four kilograms. The docking station uses a simple bayonet fitting, much like a light bulb, says Gunnar Bolmsjý, a mechanical engineer at Lund University, in Sweden, who designed it.
This mechanism also allows the robot to attach household devices, such as electric toothbrushes, to either of its ends. In April, the team will add fold-out robotic grippers, which will mean the arm can grasp any object, not just those specially adapted for use.
At the moment the robot has no sensors and navigates simply by logging how far it has already moved. This approach allows an accuracy of one tenth of a millimetre, say the team. Users control the arm either by blowing down a straw or pressing a single button.
March 11, 2004
The Robots are Coming
The robots are coming! And when they get here, they'll take out the trash. I just love that. CNET has an overview of the different types of robots out there, and what they can do and where they want to go. Overall, it is a good primer on the state of the art.
The idea of automatons that can perform various tasks has been around since ancient Egypt. The word "robot," however, is of relatively recent vintage, coined by Czech playwright Karel Capek in the 1921 play "R.U.R."
The first commercial robots appeared in the early 1960s as the world was consumed with the Atomic Age science of the Cold War. Unimation, founded by Engelberger, created robotic manufacturing arms, while Barrett Electronics came out with a driverless electric cart for grocery warehouses that was navigated by signal-emitting wires in the floor.
It wasn't an easy sell. "I had to go to 46 different companies, including GM and IBM, before I got some money from a railroad company," Engelberger recalled. Although GM passed the first time, it eventually became the first company to install a Unimation machine.
March 8, 2004
Asimo's Creator Speaks
The creator of Honda's Asimo robot, Edgar Korner, speaks about the future of humanoid robots in this interview in e4engineering.com. This is an interesting peek into the mind of a futurist, and I think that he comes off well.
But even if the robot is safe, fun and useful, is there anything to suggest that people will want it? Korner thinks so, and claimed that the market for domestic androids will be 'really huge.' He pointed to the trend in Japan for robot pets, which are no longer marketed simply as expensive toys but are also sold to pensioners as both companions and protectors. Able to respond to basic stimuli, these machines will even alert the emergency services if their ageing owners go quiet on them.
And then there is the inevitable question for every engineer working in the robotics field: what about the 'Terminator scenario' - the Hollywood-fuelled fear that robots will eventually become so intelligent that they enslave the human race?
Korner's response is as unequivocal as you would expect from someone devoted to this area of technology. 'Any tool made by humans to make life easier can potentially be turned into a weapon. Should we stop making knives? There are easier ways to kill people than to develop autonomous robots, and I don't think it's a reasonable fear that humanoid robots will dominate and control the world.
'I expect robot development to set humans free to indulge our creative arts and our capabilities to deal with creative processes. By overcoming the limitations set by the limited capacity of our brain for storing information, we will be able to develop new areas of our creative designs and develop systems that were previously impossible.'
Grand Challenge Gearing Up
The NY Times is publishing some more information on the DARPA Grand Challenge, highlighting the difficulties as well as the impressive work that has been generates. I am delighted to see the buzz being generated by this, as I think it is a good contest, with minimal ways in which to cheat.
The Pentagon, under a mandate from Congress to save lives by turning to unmanned combat vehicles to meet a third of its needs by 2015, has become impatient with its usual crowd of big-name military contractors, like the Lockheed Martin Corporation and the General Dynamics Corporation, to come up with a solution. It turned instead to the spur of free market capitalism, inspiring a motley band of computer scientists, artificial intelligence experts and robot lovers to take on the challenge.
It is not clear whether any of the couple of dozen vehicles expected to line up at the start will be able to complete the task. After first passing a preliminary test scheduled to begin today, the winning machine will then have to navigate unaided at an average speed of about 20 miles an hour through a desert strewn with boulders, trees, brush, potholes and possibly the odd porcupine or donkey.
NYTimes on Robotic Vacume Cleaners
The NY Times has an article in their circuits section on the various robotic vacume cleaners. I have to admit that I own a Roomba, and I like it. I have also dismantled the Trilobyte, which is an interesting robot in its own right. You do get used to having clean floors without much fuss after owning one.
While the idea of a vacuum that cleans while its owner does almost anything else may sound appealing, the robotic models are in many ways like early dishwashers and washing machines, said Carolyn Forte, the director of home care at the Good Housekeeping Institute in New York. That is, initially, they don't measure up to what they replaced.
"People who washed dishes and clothes by hand probably didn't think dishwashers and washing machines worked very well when they were introduced," she said. "But now we can't live without them."
For now, Ms. Forte said, the robotic vacuums are best at picking up surface dirt and dust, and - because of their slick disk shape - at reaching places that some vacuums can't get to, like under the sofa. But the robotic sweepers don't do stairs or cushions, they are not as powerful as conventional vacuums, and they sometimes miss spots. So for deep cleaning, Ms. Forte said, "you unfortunately still have to drag out the old vacuum cleaner."
March 5, 2004
Berkeley develops an Exoskeleton
This is pretty neat. Berkeley has developed a robotic exoskeleton that straps onto the legs of a human pilot, and adds power and lifts loads. This has been a staple of SciFi stories for a while, but it is interesting to see it experimentally demonstrated.
The researchers point out that the human pilot does not need a joystick, button or special keyboard to "drive" the device. Rather, the machine is designed so that the pilot becomes an integral part of the exoskeleton, thus requiring no special training to use it. In the UC Berkeley experiments, the human pilot moved about a room wearing the 100-pound exoskeleton and a 70-pound backpack while feeling as if he were lugging a mere 5 pounds.
The project, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, began in earnest in 2000. Next week, from March 9 through 11, Kazerooni and his research team will showcase their project at the DARPA Technical Symposium in Anaheim, Calif.
For the current model, the user steps into a pair of modified Army boots that are then attached to the exoskeleton. A pair of metal legs frames the outside of a person’s legs to facilitate ease of movement. The wearer then dons the exoskeleton’s vest that is attached to the backpack frame and engine. If the machine runs out of fuel, the exoskeleton legs can be easily removed so that the device converts to a large backpack.
More than 40 sensors and hydraulic actuators form a local area network (LAN) for the exoskeleton and function much like a human nervous system. The sensors, including some that are embedded within the shoe pads, are constantly providing the central computer brain information so that it can adjust the load based upon what the human is doing. When it is turned on, the exoskeleton is constantly calculating what it needs to do to distribute the weight so little to no load is imposed on the wearer.
March 3, 2004
Japanese Two-legged Home Robot
Slashdot has a link to an article on a Japanese athletics company that is going to be selling a two-legged robot for home use. Someone has translated the article from Japanese:
A two legged robot that you can play with in your home will be available as early as the end of this year for 500000 yen. Venture company ZMP and sports equipment company Mizuno, together announced on the 2nd.
As for 2 legged robots, Sony's QRIO and Honda's ASIMO are famous, but they are mainly for publicity purposes and are rarely purchased for general use.
nuvo is 39 centimeters, and 2.5 kilograms. It can walk forward, backward, left, or right, and if it falls, can get up automatically from any position. It can be taught about 1000 words, follow directions, (something [jishiki?]) or dance.
In the head is a camera. Using NTT DoCoMo 3rd generation phones, you can see from the robot's perspective, and use it as a remote controlled "security robot".
Minimizing the use of joints allowed the cost to remain low. Over 3000 orders are expected by the new year.
Very, very neat. I don't think it will go much beyond the toy-like aibo, but still pretty cool.
Researchers at MIT have created a robot that imitates the locomotion of a snail. At first blush, this might be considered to be against the direction that we generally want robots to go, but snails have a very robust motion system, able to climb over obstacles that would render a wheeled vehicle useless.
Real snails travel on their single foot along a trail of mucus, a slimy fluid secreted by a special gland in the foot. Snails move by pushing the mucus between their foot and the ground or other surface. Snail mucus is an example of a non-Newtonian fluid, a type of fluid of particular interest at MIT’s Hatsopoulos Microfluidics Laboratory, where Hosoi and Chan work. Unlike Newtonian fluids such as oil or water, non-Newtonian fluids change their properties and thicken when they're subjected to stress, such as downward pressure from a snail's foot. Since snails use different mechanisms to move, Hosoi and Chan designed two RoboSnails, each mimicking a different method of snail locomotion.
The team's first RoboSnail imitates a snail mechanism that Hosoi compares to the up-and-down motion of ocean waves. "There's a wave that propagates along the bottom of the snail’s foot," explains Hosoi. "And the wave can either propagate in the direction that the snail is moving, or it can propagate backwards." The first RoboSnail's version of mucus is silicon oil combined with clay particles. Its body is a series of plastic plates strung along a wire helix that is connected to a small motor Chan borrowed from a toy car. When the motor is running, the plates create a wave in a rubber foot.
March 2, 2004
Primer on Controller Area Network
I just stumbled across this good summary of the Controller Area Network (CAN) bus over at Texas Instruments. If you are interested in using this bus on one of your systems, this is a very good overview.
A controller area network (CAN) is ideally suited to the many high-level industrial protocols embracing CAN and ISO 11898 as their physical layer. Its cost, performance, and upgradeability provide for tremendous flexibility in system design. This paper presents a brief introduction to the CAN operating principles, the implementation of a basic CAN bus using Texas Instrument’s CAN transceivers and DSPs, and a discussion of the robust error detection and fault confinement mechanisms. Some of the properties of CAN, especially relating to the electrical layer and features of transceiver products, are then discussed at a tutorial level.
February 29, 2004
Human Heart Cell moved MicroRobot
A team at UCLA has developed a microrobot powered by a human heart cell. Though this is a long way off from commercialization, it still represents an interesting application. The truth is that muscle cells are very robust compared to the usual things that we use in building small robots.
Whatever the ultimate applications of the technology, no one was more surprised to see the tiny musclebots finally move than Carlos Montemagno, the microengineer whose team is developing them at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has spent three disappointing years trying, and failing, to harness living muscle tissue to propel a micromachine. But when he and his team looked into their microscopes, they were amazed to see the latest version of their musclebot crawling around.
The device is an arch of silicon 50 micrometres wide. Attached to the underside of the arch, the team has grown a cord of heart muscle fibres (see graphic). It is the contraction and relaxation of this cardiac tissue that makes the arch bend and stretch to produce the bot's crawling motion. And the muscle is fuelled by a simple glucose nutrient in a Petri dish.
Closing in on Saturn
The Cassini-Huygens probe is getting close to Saturn, and starting to return some simply stunning imagery. This one is particularly impressive.
The narrow angle camera onboard the Cassini spacecraft took a series of exposures of Saturn and its rings and moons on February 9, 2004, which were composited to create this stunning, color image. At the time, Cassini was 69.4 million kilometers (43.1 million miles) from Saturn, less than half the distance from Earth to the Sun. The image contrast and colors have been slightly enhanced to aid visibility. The smallest features visible in this image are approximately 540 kilometers across (336 miles). Fine details in the rings and atmosphere are beginning to emerge, and will grow in sharpness and clarity over the coming months. The optical thickness of Saturn's B (middle) ring and the comparative translucence of the A (outer) ring, when seen against the planet, are now apparent. Subtle color differences in the finely banded Saturnian atmosphere, as well as structure within the diaphanous, inner C ring can be easily seen. Noticeably absent are the ghostly spoke-like dark markings in Saturn's B ring, first discovered by NASA’s Voyager spacecraft on approach to the planet 23 years ago.
February 23, 2004
Odds on CMU for Grand Challange
Here is a nice article about the DARPA Grand Challange (Autonomous Vehicle race through the desert from Barstow to Las Vegas) that puts CMU in the lead as the team to beat. Since the race course is only released two hours before the start, the vehicle teams must either rely on their vehicle to do the navigation based on on-boards sensors, or pre-plan their route in under two hours. CMU has taken the latter approach.
In the space of an hour, this group will attempt to plan every twist and turn Sandstorm might take in a 210-mile scramble across the back roads and open spaces of the Mojave Desert -- which side of the road to favor in a turn, which obstacles to go around and which to barge over.
Today's exercise, like yesterday's and those of last weekend, is a dry run for the March 13 race. And if the concentration displayed by the students and other volunteers seems particularly intense, it's because what they are doing is crucial for Sandstorm's success.
"If you had the perfect map and the perfect [route] plan, you'd win this race," said William "Red" Whittaker, the renowned roboticist who organized the team last spring and has since pushed its members to the edge of their endurance. "There's no sense that any of these things are perfect."
The term for this in engineering is: brute force approach.
February 19, 2004
In a nice article in Forbes Magazine, they talk about five robots that will change your life. These range from the cutting edge (see the entry about the monkey controlled arm below), all the way to the truly bizarre. Very interesting stuff, and note that two of them are medicine related and one rescue related.
For decades, science fiction has been promising a future filled with robots that will make the various annoyances and dangers of life easier or more bearable. You might be forgiven for thinking it was all the product of overactive imaginations, but then you're simply not looking in the right places.
Sure, robotics changed manufacturing in the '70s and '80s. But now a new generation of robots--either available now or in development--will take on a whole new range of tasks, and could conceivably change your life.
This is a very neat story. Researchers at Duke University have a robotic arm that is controlled not by software, but rather by directly decoding the brain signals from a monkey. This has implications for the paralyzed, as well as telepresence research.
For decades scientists have pondered, speculated on, and pooh-poohed the possibility of a direct interface between a brain and a machine -- only in the late 1990s did scientists start learning enough about the brain and signal-processing to offer glimmers of hope that this science-fiction vision could become reality. Since then, insights into the workings of the brain -- how it encodes commands for the body, and how it learns to improve those commands over time -- have piled up at an astonishing pace, and the researchers at Duke studying the macaque and the robotic arm are at the leading edge of the technology. "This goes way beyond what's been done before," says neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, co-director of the Center for Neuroengineering. Indeed, the performance of the center's monkeys suggests that a mind-machine merger could become a reality in humans very soon.
Nicolelis and his team are confident that in five years they will be able to build a robot arm that can be controlled by a person with electrodes implanted in his or her brain. Their chief focus is medical -- they aim to give people with paralyzed limbs a new tool to make everyday life easier. But the success they and other groups of scientists are achieving has triggered broader excitement in both the public and private sectors.
The notion of decoding the brain's commands can seem, on the face of it, to be pure hubris. How could any computer eavesdrop on all the goings-on that take place in there every moment of ordinary life? Yet after a century of neurological breakthroughs, scientists aren't so intimidated by the brain; they treat it as just another information processor, albeit the most complex one in the world. "We don't see the brain as being a mysterious organ," says Craig Henriquez, Nicolelis's fellow co-director of the Center for Neuroengineering. "We see 1s and 0s popping out of the brain, and we're decoding it."
February 16, 2004
Here is a nice article on some of the competitors of the DARPA Grand Challenge. I think that it is a great project by DARPA, but I'm not sure that any of the competitors will win this year.
In an empty parking lot a few miles from Gregory's garage, that goal seems far away. Bob Addison and Wayne Gothmiller, two Sciautonics team members, are slowly guiding an old golf cart around the pavement. A LIDAR sensor—a sort of laser-mapping device—is mounted on the front of the cart, hooked up to a laptop computer in the passenger seat, connected in turn to a small generator. They drive a few feet forward, crawling along, then stop and check the computer screen to figure out what the sensor saw. On race day the technology on this puttering, halting golf cart will need to guide the Prowler as it bounces through riverbeds at 60 mph. Nobody said building a robot car would be easy.
Or cheap. Sciautonics expects that it will cost about $250,000 for the team to put together its vehicle. And unlike the teams from Caltech, Virginia Tech, and Carnegie Mellon, members can't rely on large amounts of university funding.
February 13, 2004
Review of Bluetooth GPS recievers
This is a nice review of Bluetooth GPS recievers. In case anyone is looking for one.
The offer in terms of Bluetooth GPS receivers is beginning to grow steadily after long being limited to the Emtac/Socket Bluetooth GPS released at the end of 2002.
The GpsPasSion team will share its opinion on the subject here, based both on subjective and objective observations of the 16 models currently available. With more models being added as they become available.
February 2, 2004
The Military and the Terminator
So, here is an interesting article on the use of autonomous robots in order to remove soldiers from the battlefield. All in all, a good use, but it only works if just one side of the conflict has this capability. If both sides have it, then it becomes an increasingly abstract game of tit-for-tat while each side destroys the others' machines.
The eight-wheeled Stryker has already seen service in Iraq as an armored troop carrier with human drivers. The idea is to teach Stryker to accomplish a mission on its own, as a robot. By 2010, robotic Strykers and similar cont ivances are slated to be in use as all-purpose battlefield vehicles, surveying battlegrounds, sniffing for land mines, or transporting supplies and troops to the front line.
An unmanned Stryker is part of the military's effort to move more machines into battle to save both money and lives. "Well before the end of the century, there will be no people on the battlefield," said Robert Finkelstein, a professor at the University of Maryland's School of Management and Technology.
January 28, 2004
Robotic Spray Painter
This is just too cool. Someone has built a robotic grafitti artist that uses a spray can mounted on two cables. This is very, very cool.
Of course we did not call it Hektor from the beginning, it did not even have a shape, it was just an idea. There were dozens of decisions to take and problems to solve, but the basic idea was clear: Four step motors, mounted onto the wall in the four edges of a rectangle would move the can, which would be connected to the motors by something like robes, the motors functioning like winches. The can in the middle and the four robes connected to the motors would form an X, and when the can is moved by pulling or releasing each of the winches, this X is distorted.
There would be so many advantages: The machine would be scalable, it would not spray within a predefined size only. One could mount the motors wherever possible and required, the only limitations would be the length of the robes, the accessibility of the locations for the motors and some other mechanical constraints. All the parts would fit into something portable, for
example a suitcase.
Be sure to check out the movie on their page.
Robotic Surgeon for Children
This is a neat article on the effects of using a robotic surgeon, in which the doctor is directing the surgury through an interface to the robot and the robot is doing the actual surgery usually through orthoscopic type devices. The advantage here is that the wound is much smaller, and typically damage to the body is less.
Their finding suggests that the minimally invasive surgical techniques made possible by the surgeon-controlled, camera-guided robot system can give the same surgical result as open-chest techniques, with less impact on the young patient’s body.
And although the study group was small, the finding demonstrates that robot-assisted surgery may be a good option for certain defects.
January 20, 2004
Great Interview with the Head Scientist for the RVT
This is a great interview with Dr. Inatani of the Japanese RVT project. Those of you who don't remember, this the Japanese version of the DC-X, and is currently the only vehicle on the planet exploring design issues for a vertical takeoff and landing rocket. It really is a neat project, and the way they are pushing incremental development is just fantastic.
Suborbital vehicle projects, such as those competing for the X PRIZE, have been criticized by many in the aerospace community as contributing very little to the development of orbital RLVs. They say the factor of 25 or so greater energy needed to reach orbit (and to dispose of on reentry) is too great and there is little overlap in hardware between the two regimes. In what ways do you think that suborbital RLV development can contribute to the development of robust, lower cost orbital RLVs?
Inatani: I do not care about X-prize flying machines. Some of them do not have space flight potential and [are] just an extension of aircraft. As stated, our study is not for building specific vehicle, but to study how to design and build the future vehicle. General or universal things such as aircraft type operation of space vehicle is the most important thing to my understanding. Again, even a ballistic vehicle can convince the people [to] recognize the benefit of reusable vehicles. I admit the direct technical succession from ballistic to orbital, but what is important is to receive the understanding of public for the future goals such as tourism and SSPS. How long do you think it takes? Technically viable things must be realized when people need it.
January 19, 2004
Self Parking Toyota
This is a very nice application for a control system: Parallel Parking. Basically, Toyota has an autopilot option that you can have installed (only in Japan), that will parallel park your car into a vacant spot.
Parking Assist relies on a built-in computer, steering sensor and a tiny camera in the car's rear and works like this:
A dashboard display shows the image taken by the camera. When you near a parking space and shift into reverse, computerized lines pop up on the display, along with arrows pointing up, down, left and right.
Using the arrows, you move the lines around until they define exactly where you want the car to be parked. Then you push the "set" button on the display.
Keep your foot lightly on the brake pedal, and the car will start backing up, the steering wheel responding to an invisible hand. Voila, the car will park itself in the spot you've chosen with the arrows.
Have no illusions, however.
Hands-free driving doesn't mean you can read a book or doze off. The system has no artificial intelligence that actually recognizes objects — so it won't stop for a person or a cat or anything else you shouldn't be running over.
You still have to hit the brakes yourself. And the system is designed so that it will shut itself off if you lift your foot from the brake pedal, making the car go too fast.
What would be more interesting would be if it could identify the spot for your car already, jusdging the size of your vehicle versus the image that it took of the spot. Still, its a pretty neat innovation.
January 15, 2004
Elvis has left the Building
The Mars rover "Spirit" has rolled off of its lander platform onto the Martian surface. Or, as the JPL guys are ecstatically proclaiming, "We have six wheels in the dirt."
NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit successfully drove off its lander platform and onto the soil of Mars early today.
The robot's first picture looking back at the now-empty lander and showing wheel tracks in the soil set off cheers from the robot's flight team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
"Spirit is now ready to start its mission of exploration and discovery. We have six wheels in the dirt," said JPL Director Dr. Charles Elachi
January 14, 2004
A hydrogen powered plane
This is pretty neat. They have built a hydrogen-powered fuel-cell electric airplane. This should be an interesting project. They have not yet flown, as can be seen from the quote below.
The E-Plane team hopes to start taxi testing in January. As it stands the Prop Adapter and Wiring are the only things left to complete. Our team is on holiday though we were at the Centennial of Flight Celebration at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina the week of the 17th of December. We are hoping to demonstrate the E-Plane at Sun 'n Fun (Lakeland, Florida) along with a replica Wright B Flyer in 2004!
I think that this is a really cool project, but I have to ask the same question as I ask every environmentalist who waxes poetic about a hydrogen-based economy: Where does the hydrogen come from? Either you are cracking hydrocarbons (read: Oil) or you are electrolizing it using electricity that comes from ... where? Most likely nuclear power. That usually isn't the answer they have, but without a cheap way to separate hydrogen from water, it is unlikely to ever get out of the lab.
A Vision of Future Robots
Here is an interesting article from a researcher in Thailand talking about the next revolution in Robotics. I have to say that I am not quite as optimistic as they are, though this is my chosen field and I do love it. It is just that replicating human senses and actuation is very very hard to do. Basically, the most advanced robots today have a hard time doing what a 2-3 year old does quite naturally.
The mainstay job that robots have been doing over the past decade or two hasn’t really changed that much, basically helping out us humans by doing the repetitive jobs, mostly in big industry. But this is set to change over the next 20 to 30 years.
“Robots in the future will no longer be just a basic machine but a living agent that can interact naturally with people. They will transfer knowledge and wisdom from generation to generation, making invaluable knowledge immortal,” said Djitt Laowattana, the director of the Institute of Field Robotics (Fibo) at King Mongkut’s University of Technology, Thonburi.
January 11, 2004
Playing Robot Soccer
Over at Carnegie-Mellon, they have a project with humans on segways and segbot playing soccer in mixed human-robot teams. In order to home in on the right kind of interactions that are required for humans and robots to interact, these kinds of experiments are invaluable.
The researchers have made a human-size version of their soccer-playing robots by basing the robots on Segway scooters, and they are working on a set of rules for Segway soccer, a game designed to be played by mixed teams of the robots and humans riding Segways.
The project is designed to allow researchers to look at human-robot interactions in which humans and robots are on nearly equal footing, said Manuela Veloso, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. The two types of players will have nearly the same acceleration, the same top speed, the same turning abilities, and will use the same ball manipulation device, she said.
The setup makes it possible to explore questions like how and when humans and robot should communicate, and how they should divide a common task, said Veloso. "There are many really interesting challenges here that we now have the opportunity of investigating," she said.
January 8, 2004
Army funding robotics dogs/pack mules
The army is funding several projects to create a robotic mule that can follow the soldiers while carrying food, ammunition, equipment, etc. Obviously, looking for instance at the week that the Mars Rover Spirit is taking just to roll off of its platform, this is going to be a while before it is ready for realistic conditions, but it is good innovative work anyway.
"We're coming full circle," said Paul Meunch, a TACOM research scientist. "In the days of George Washington, the Army used mules and horses. Then it moved on to trucks. And then armored vehicles and tanks. Now we could be swinging back to four legs."
But reaching that galloping dream won't be easy. Building mechanical legs that work right has been a brutal task. Spinning a wheel is simple. Swinging a set of legs that can bend, step high and keep a robot balanced is hard.
"We're at the bottom of the pyramid right now," said Ben Krupp, president of Yobotics, which won a $750,000, two-year TACOM grant to build a Great Dane-sized drone. "It's tough just to get a four-legged robot to run across the parking lot without falling down."
After decades of research, tiny, commercial robo-dogs can now scamper across a flat surface. Child-sized humanoid bots can waddle -- carefully. A canine drone in the armed forces would have to do much better, though, keeping up with soldiers marching over uneven terrain.
Probably wind up looking more like a giant insect than a dog, as they are much more stable and a lot faster over unever terrain.
January 7, 2004
Toyota goes after Humanoid Robot Market
Toyota announced that it was going after the humanoid robot market, and that it would try to have one for sale by 2005. Very ambitious, indeed.
Unlike Honda's ASIMO, the world's first two-legged walking robot unveiled in 2000, and Sony's QRIO, the world's first jogging robot revealed this month, Toyota's robot will be used for "practical" purposes, the daily said.
While Honda and Sony have said they are not considering selling their models in the foreseeable future, the daily said Tokyo plans to market its workman robot.
Toyota aims to develop motion and sound sensor technology for the robot and then apply it to automobiles as a device to avoid collisions, the report said.
Toyota hopes the new robot can help factory workers conduct physically demanding work and provide assistance in nursing care and rescue operations, the daily said but gave no financial figures involved in the project.
We wish them luck in this endeavour.
Some Robotics Resources
A graduate student doing some exploratory work for me has done some interesting digging on robotic mobile platforms for us to work with. With special thanks to Shamin Ding, here are some useful links:
Robot Kits and Parts
January 5, 2004
NPR Story on SpaceShipOne Flight
This is a cool story on NPR about the SpaceShipOne supersonic flight on the anniversary of the Wright Brothers Flight.
This week, while President Bush and John Travolta were honoring the Wright Brothers under the rainy skies of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, George Whitesides was in Mojave, California, watching a new chapter in history open. Whitesides is the director a space education project called "Permission to Dream." I was there on a rumor – the rumor that aviation pioneer Burt Rutan might test his brand new rocket vehicle, SpaceShipOne, on the 100th anniversary of powered flight. Rutan is best known for designing the Voyager, the first plane to fly around the world without refueling. But now he has set his sights higher, on the X PRIZE, a $10 million dollar contest for the first private craft to take humans into space. SpaceShipOne is his entry. So at 6:30 am, I found myself on the flightline of the Mojave airport, the home base of Rutan’s company, shivering with a small band of fellow space buffs. Within an hour, our shivering was rewarded, and SpaceShipOne rolled regally out onto the tarmac. It is hard to describe the feeling of seeing this amazing craft. It’s actually two crafts, mated together: the carrier vehicle, dubbed the White Knight, looks like a Star Wars fighter, while SpaceShipOne – a pointed pod with stars painted on its nose -- hangs underneath, to be carried aloft to its designated release altitude. This beautiful, elegant system, its twin engines whistling with caged power, wheeled right past our observation station, and the small crowd let out a whoop. I think I even saw someone in the cockpit wave a thumbs up sign out the window. We heard the magic words, “White Knight, you are cleared for takeoff”, and the whine of the engines grew to a roar. And there, before my very eyes, a private spaceship took off into the morning sky. It felt like the moment that all the kids since Apollo had been waiting for – a personal spaceship made for you and me.
Very, very cool.
GPS on Race Horses
So, they have gone and started measuring the performance of race horses using GPS. This is an interesting article on the process, though it leaves a lot of details out. Now that you can buy a GPS reciever for $40 that is less than an inch on a side, it seems silly not to use it to measure all kinds of things.
Massey University scientists are using global positioning system (GPS) satellite signals to measure how far and fast horses gallop each day and how quickly they accelerate.
They are combining this information with heart rate monitors to judge the fitness of each horse.
Senior lecturer Janene Kingston said the GPS system, originally designed to guide United States missiles on to enemy targets, was now so accurate that it could follow horses round a racetrack.
Just so everybody knows, a velocity measurement from GPS should be good to cm/sec levels.
Tale of Two Mars Spacecraft
Prof. Hall over at the SpaceCraft blog has a nice article on the two Mars spacecraft that reached Mars during the past week: The Beagle II and the Spirit Rover. The Spirit appears to be functioning well, however the Beagle appears to be lost.
Beagle 2 is a 75-kg British-built lander, named after the famous ship, the H.M.S. Beagle, whose naturalist, Charles Darwin, was even more famous. The modern Beagle is the brainchild of Open University's Professor Colin Pillinger, and hitched a ride to Mars onboard the European Space Agency's Mars Express. A few days before arriving at Mars, the Beagle separated from Mars Express, using a spring-loaded separation mechanism that simultaneously gave the spacecraft a spin-stabilized angular velocity of about 14 RPM. The Beagle then followed its own path to a Mars landing, while Mars Express prepared to place itself into orbit about the Red Planet.
Beagle was supposed to have descended and landed about 6 days after the release, using a combination of heat shield, parachute, tether and inflatable gas-bags. Sometime around midnight Christmas Eve, Beagle should have landed in the Isidis Planitia Basin, a site that "showed evidence of fluvial processing by large volumes of water." A couple of hours after landing, NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter was to fly over the Beagle landing site and act as a communications relay between the lander and NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. That was more than a week ago, and Beagle has not been detected (though you may find this satirical story to the contrary amusing). The ESA has begun to lower the Mars Express spacecraft's orbit to make it easier for it to communicate with the Beagle. I should note that by all accounts the Mars Express mission has performed flawlessly.
Meanwhile, NASA's two Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were also on their way to Mars. These two lander/rovers were natural follow-on missions to 1997's Mars Pathfinder and its Sojourner rover, a highly successful mission by any measure. The new rovers have been journeying to Mars for several months, and two virtual astrobots who journeyed with them were also blogging about their epic voyage.
On the first Saturday of the New Year, Spirit landed in the Gusev Crater and began transmitting images back to Earth. The rover has not yet begun to rove, but is expected to move out in a few days, traveling at a speed of several meters per day. Opportunity will make its landing on Meridiani Planum on January 25, 2004, hopefully as successfully as its earlier sibling.
Interesting stuff. Mars is still very hard to get to.
December 24, 2003
Neat Helicopter UAV
Here is an interesting little UAV based on a model helicopter. It appears that they have a very nice sensor suite on it, and are using that for some vision processing.
Autonomous helicopter flight is characterised by helicopters that can fly without a human pilot or guidance from a remote-controlled device. Although many teams worldwide have been working on so-called vertical take-off, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the CSIRO helicopter is the first to fly completely independent of expensive global positioning systems (GPS) guidance. Instead it uses its brain to control its balance and orientation.
"While GPS may seem like an ideal technique to use, it has many drawbacks in practice, particularly in built environments near large structures which can obscure or reflect signals from the GPS satellites," team leader, Dr Peter Corke told ABC Science Online.
I take exception to the statement that GPS is expensive. You can now get a full up GPS sensor for $80. It does go higher for differential, but these guys are spending a boat-load on their other sensors and vision processing. Still, a neat project.
December 22, 2003
Great Insight into Incremental Testing
The Rocket Man has a nice article up on the incremental testing of some of the new X-plane rockets, as well as the Japanese RVT, and a few others. The insights are well worth reading, and it serves as a good explanation as to the high costs of going to orbit.
Incremental flight testing is either the process of gradually testing a complete vehicle in every region of the flight envelope prior to performing its eventual mission, which is the method Scaled Composites is using, and/or the process of building and testing successfully more complex vehicles to determine optimum vehicle design, which is the process the Japanese are using in their RVT project.
The first method is the one currently used in the development of airplanes. A basic design is decided upon and a number of essentially identical test aircraft are built. These aircraft are then subjected to a series of tests, starting out with simple taxi tests and gradually working towards full flight testing at maximum speed/altitude/g’s. The goal of every test is to collect data about how the vehicle is performing and then to analyze that data to see if any part of the vehicle needs to be modified. Any alterations to the vehicle are followed by additional flight tests to verify the modification work as planned.
Read the whole thing.
Nice article on a Lunar Base
I found this article proposing why we should go back to the moon. It is well reasoned, and has a nice ring to it. Will we go? I have no idea.
The moon is a natural laboratory, where we can prepare for space journeys farther afield. It is a goal reachable with modest resources, yet challenging enough for the next generation of planetary explorers. It is a goal worthy of the spirit embodied in Columbia's brave crew, who gave their lives in the relentless human desire to understand the unknown. It is the right goal in space and the right space goal for America.
December 19, 2003
Beauty in the Stars
NASA released images from the Spitzer Space Telescope, and they are simply amazing. Everytime they do this, it just reminds me of the beauty in the stars.
A new window to the universe has opened with today's release of the first dazzling images from NASA's newly named Spitzer Space Telescope, formerly known as the Space Infrared Telescope Facility.
The first observations, of a glowing stellar nursery; a swirling, dusty galaxy; a disc of planet-forming debris; and organic material in the distant universe, demonstrate the power of the telescope's infrared detectors to capture cosmic features never before seen.
The Spitzer Space Telescope was also officially named today after the late Dr. Lyman Spitzer, Jr. He was one of the 20th century's most influential scientists, and in the mid-1940s, he first proposed placing telescopes in space.
"NASA's newest Great Observatory is open for business, and it is beginning to take its place at the forefront of science," said NASA's Associate Administrator for Space Science, Dr. Ed Weiler. "Like Hubble, Compton and Chandra, the new Spitzer Space Telescope will soon be making major discoveries, and, as these first images show, should excite the public with views of the cosmos like we've never had before."
Definitely check out the gallery of images here.
Navy deploys Autonomous Spartan Scout Vehicle
The US Navy has deployed an unmanned autonomous marine vehicle, the Spartan Scout in the Persian Gulf. I haven't followed this program very closely, but I see it as the way forward. Remember that traditionally, machines are sent in wherever the work is "Dull, Dirty, or Dangerous." Shore patrol may very well represent all three. To be fair, this is a remotely piloted vehicle, with autonomous backup in the case of communication loss, but still, it is neat.
December 16, 2003: The U.S. Navy's experimental Spartan Scout class USV (unmanned sea going vehicle) has been sent to the Persian Gulf aboard the cruiser USS Gettysburg. The 23 foot long Spartan has received nothing but praise so far. The USV was meant for use in restricted waters, like the Persian Gulf. The Spartan controllers on the Gettysburg send the USV off to patrol close to the coast. The Spartan is equipped with "electro-optical/infrared surveillance turret, surface search radar, digital imagery transmission suite, and an unmanned command and control suite."
In plain English, that means the USV has a day/night camera, a radar, radio gear that allows it to broadcast video and radar images back to the Gettysburg, and software that allows the USV to think for itself and stay out of trouble if the controllers on the Gettysburg lose contact with it. The USV can be equipped with Hellfire or Javelin missiles, and these would be used to attack hostile patrol boats (or boats packed with explosives for a suicide run at American ships) before they got too close to American ships.
It's not known if the USV will be equipped with missiles for tests while it is in the Persian Gulf. The navy is eager to work out any bugs in the Spartan and get it into general service as soon as possible. Al Qaeda is known to be interested in making more suicide boat attacks on American warships and the Spartan Scout USV is an excellent way to stop that sort of thing.
Hmmmm, seems like an ONR grant in there somewhere.
Sony's Dancing Machine
Sony has been doing some amazing things with their Qrio humanoid robot, including dancing and pitching a baseball. I have no idea about how many man-hours they are putting into this, but this is very very impressive.
In the latest demonstration, the bubble-headed, glowing-eyed robot jiggled and made mechanical jangling sounds as it moved forward on a table, bounced jerkily sideways and pivoted in a turn. It started with a slow walk, moved into an easy jog, stopped, then turned and begin jogging again.
While running robots are not altogether new, Sony engineers said their robot was a technical achievement because it smoothly simulated running. The breakthrough required sophisticated features in the robot's joints and a beefy central processing unit to keep Qrio's balance and manage delicate maneuvers.
Here is the amazing video of the performance.
Update: here is another video of the dancing via Cyrus Bazeghi of the UCSC Computer Engineering Department.
December 18, 2003
SpaceShip One Goes Supersonic
Burt Rutan's White Knight / Space Ship One did some history making of their own, yesterday, as Space Ship One lit its hybrid rocket motor for the first time in flight, and broke the sound barrier.
The fully reusable system uses two vehicles. The first, a turbojet-powered carrier plane called White Knight, carries the second, SS1, up to about 15,000 metres (48,000 feet). SS1 is then released by White Knight and ignites its innovative hybrid rocket motor.
Test pilot Brian Binnie, at the controls of SS1, began the flight at 0815 PST, after being released from the carrier plane by its pilot, Peter Siebold. The two were moving at Mach 0.55 at the time of release.
Binnie then pulled SS1's nose up to 60° and lit the rocket for 15 seconds. This blasted SS1 to 930 mph, or Mach 1.2, and an altitude of 68,000 feet (20,700 m).
20000 Feet in 15 seconds, now that's acceleration.
December 17, 2003
100 Years of Flight
100 years ago today, two bicycle mechanics, through a rather long and methodical investigation of the properties of flying machines, managed to fly.
From the diary of Orville Wright, Dec. 17, 2003:
"When we got up a wind of between 20 and 25 miles was blowing from the north. We got the machine out early and put out the signal for the men at the station. Before we were quite ready, John T. Daniels, W. S. Dough, A. D. Etheridge, W C. Brinkley of Manteo, and Johnny Moore of Nags Head arrived. After running the engine and propellers a few minutes to get them in working order, I got on the machine at 10:35 for the first trial. . . "
Here is a great article on the Wrights.
December 15, 2003
Widget rides again!!
John Cormak over at Armadillo Aerospace has used his copious graphics talent to make a spoofish movie about the 100 year anniversary of flight. It is worth looking at for entertainment value.
December 11, 2003
Heads up Helmet for Motorcycles
A company is offering a helmet mounted heads-up-display (HUD) for motorcycles and eventually bicycles. Back when I was looking into this in graduate school (for automobile applications), we were told by Ford Aerospace that if we bought the HUD, they'd give us the car for free.
Motion Research, a Seattle company founded in 1993 by a former racecar driver, Dominic Dobson, said that next spring it would begin selling an inexpensive information display system to be attached to a motorcycle helmet.
The Sportvue head-mounted display will allow riders to see speed, r.p.m. and gear position without taking their eyes off the road. The system gathers speed information from a global positioning satellite receiver attached to the rear of the helmet.
The design, based on a patent co-developed by Tom Furness, one of the pioneers of head-mounted display technology, uses a lens and mirror and backlit liquid crystal display to give the viewer the illusion that the information displayed in the periphery of one eye is projected in the distance.
Very stylish, and I want one.
December 10, 2003
Other Wordly Flyers
Here is a very nice article on some of the plans for exploring other planets with blimps, planes, helicopters, and other types of vehicles. It goes into some detail about the difficulties involved, mostly due to power and atmospheric denisty.
Solar powered aircraft are a good example of utilizing environment and a renewable power source to provide a vehicle capable of long duration flight, Colozza noted. "Solar power obviously won't work everywhere. Beyond Mars the solar intensity is too low to power an aircraft. So solar flight on the outer planets and moons will not be feasible. That leaves Venus and Mars," he said.
Colozza said Venus provides a unique possibility. Due to the planet's proximity to the Sun there is abundant solar energy. Venus, however, is veiled in thick clouds. Add to that high wind speeds. This environmental twosome makes solar powered flight tough to do on that planet.
Very cool stuff.
December 8, 2003
Carnegie Mellon DARPA Grand Challenge
This is an article on Carnegie Mellon's entrant into the DARPA Grand challenge, a 250 mile overland autonomous race with a one million dollar grand prize (and nothing for the runners-up).
Whittaker's students on the Red Team have joined volunteers and experts from more than a dozen sponsors. The students bring expertise in engineering, computing, art and robotics. Sponsors, including Applanix Corp., The Boeing Co., Carnegie Mellon, Caterpillar, Inc., CM Labs, HD Systems, Inc., Intel Corp., The Lord Corp., Mechron Power Systems, Omnistar, Robotics Foundry, Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), Seagate Technologies, Inc. and TerraSim, Inc. are contributing technologies, components, software and assistance. Chip Ganassi Racing, Rod Millen Motorsports and Team Rod Hall Hummer are counseling on the art and science of off-road racing.
All are working to pull together the mechanics, electronics and software that will give their diesel-powered Hummer, named "Sandstorm," the guts and smarts to win the race.
Nice to have those kind of resources.
Nice RLV Article
Here is a very nice article by the RocketMan about why we don't see any RLV's (Reusable Launch Vehicles) today. It goes into the history, and is quite good and readable.
Why have expendable launch vehicles essentially reigned supreme for the entire history of human spaceflight? It is a question that seemingly does not have an easy answer, because building a complex, expensive vehicle that is discarded after each launch seems like it would be more expensive than operating a vehicle that could be reused for every flight. To understand some of the reasons why reusable vehicles have not yet replaced expendable vehicles we first need to examine a little history.
There will be more on this later.
December 5, 2003
Great Article on the Japanese RVT
This is a great article on the Japanese RVT (which is their version of the DC-X). There is so much great stuff in the article that I strongly recommend you read it all.
The experiments were very preliminary efforts to build the kind of system that is required for reusable rocket vehicles. They were conducted as part of our basic research to facilitate frequent travel between the Earth and space. The purpose of the experiments was to accumulate design and operational lessons related to such things as takeoff and landing, and for safe and easy repeated flights.
Read the whole thing.
Art and Robotics
Here is a nice intro article on Robots in art installations. Reminds me a of a startup venture I wanted to do in the boom years before the dot.bomb occured.
Robotic additions and creations can be simple control mechanisms or elaborate constructions. Parts and supplies can be obtained from objects which are no longer useful. Remote controls, old computer parts, erector sets, toys, etc., which you might have lying around in closets, garages, and basements, can become perfectly usable parts for a robotic work of art. A little ingenuity can go a long way...
There are some good links with the article.
December 3, 2003
Another X-prize Vehicle
I am a big fan of the X-prize, which requires a reusable launch vehicle that can go suborbital to be launched twice within a certain time frame. So far, no winners but plenty of interesting developments. Winner gets $10 million, which I don't think is enough, but it has attracted a lot of players anyway. Here is the latest entry into the X-prize, Space Transport Corporation. They have recently flown a three-stage solid rocket booster to 75 Km.
SM Rocketry successfully launched a 3-stage rocket to 72-km altitude on 11/6/03. This rocket was designed to prove out the launch rail system, stage separation, and flight stability. The GPS based Flight Safety System kept the rocket on a direct path out to sea, where the upper stage landed 75-km off the Washington State coastline.
Future launches to 100-km altitude are imminent and include digital high resolution photography from the rocket, and other telemetry devices such as thermocouple vacuum pressure transmitter readings at altitude.
The attached picture shows the first stage smoke trail on the right, the 2nd stage trail has been swirled around by winds and is seen in the middle of the picture, and the 3rd stage trail is on the lower left seen as a streak heading in a westerly direction out to the Pacific.
I like the GPS guided feature. I'd like to know more about exactly what they did there.
December 2, 2003
Analysis of the DC-X
Here is an interesting article on the policy choices that lead to the DC-X, my personal favorite rocket of all time. While it doesn't get too technical, it does make for a nice read.
In those days, SDIO was still full of imaginative thinkers who were ready to pursue radical new ideas and were also merciless about dropping projects that failed to meet their initial promise. After a nasty political and bureaucratic struggle in which the Vice President played a critical part, money for a precursor SSTO project was included in the defense budget. When McDonnell Douglas won the contract, the vehicle became known as the DC-X. While it would never reach orbit, it would demonstrate a “build a little, test a little” approach to launch vehicle development. It would also show what could be done if all the usual expensive rules for large aerospace programs are thrown out the window. The management of the program was assumed by Pete Conrad, the former astronaut, Air Force Col. (now General) Pete Worden and Maj. Jess Sponable.
The DC-X rolled out of the hangar where it had been built, in Huntington Beach, California, in April 1993. To the small segment of the American public that followed such things, it was a momentous event. In spite of all the many bureaucratic efforts to kill it, and the utter indifference of the new Clinton administration, a new space age was conceived.
On August 18, 1993, the vehicle flew for the first time, at White Sands, New Mexico. This was the first time in history that a rocket had landed vertically with the engine still running, just like in the old science fiction movies. Proving vertical landing was an important part of that program. More important was proving that a launch system could be run by a couple of technicians out of a trailer. As long as each launch is regarded as a “campaign” needing thousands of highly-paid experts to check and recheck every element of the vehicle, any serious reduction in the cost of getting into space is impossible. The DC-X and its successors have proven that, given current materials and propulsion, the SSTO dream is impossible, but a two stage to orbit (TSTO) system is within the state of the art.
Still I wish they had not abandoned the DC-X for the VentureStar. We'd be closer to single-stage-to-orbit today.
AI vs. Humans in 2D crawlers
Computer Science students at the university fed a basic wheel design into an AI program to breed the best racer over a hilly course while a team in Austria gave AI a free hand in developing a flat-ground racer, which resulted in weird computer-generated stick-insect type creatures.
But it was a machine developed using trial and error in Canada that struck the decisive blow for humans. Round one of the competition was watched by 150,000 online spectators. Round two will be launched in December.
This is a fairly interesting site to play with.
December 1, 2003
Cheap CNC Router
I'm starting to look for either inexpensive laser cutters or CNC routers. These guys over at Cheap CNC seem to have a fairly decent kit for under $2500. There are a bunch of people building their own. This site has a long discussion of the ins and outs of building your very own CNC router.
A nice stepper motor tutorial
I just stumbled upon a very nice website that has a great tutorial on driving stepper motors. As this is something you might actually be doing if you do any sort of robot, I thought a link was in order.
Stepping motors can be viewed as electric motors without commutators. Typically, all windings in the motor are part of the stator, and the rotor is either a permanent magnet or, in the case of variable reluctance motors, a toothed block of some magnetically soft material. All of the commutation must be handled externally by the motor controller, and typically, the motors and controllers are designed so that the motor may be held in any fixed position as well as being rotated one way or the other. Most steppers, as they are also known, can be stepped at audio frequencies, allowing them to spin quite quickly, and with an appropriate controller, they may be started and stopped "on a dime" at controlled orientations.
Pretty neat animated GIF, too.
Graphical view of the Internet
Someone is out there tracing the routing of the Internet, and turning it into art.
"It started as a bet, but after I warmed up to the idea I found a lot of value in the project itself," Lyon writes on the project's homepage. He says his maps could provide a useful overview of the internet's structure and even reveal the effects of disruptions caused by real-world disasters. But more importantly, he says: "The project is art."
[...]The project uses a networking program called "traceroute". This records the network addresses that a data packet hops between as it travels towards a particular network host.
Some of the images are truly stunning and beautiful.
So far, it appears to be a design sketch as opposed to a working prototype, but this motorized unicycle from Bombardier is just too cool for words:
Vaguely resembling a sporty motorcycle, the uni-wheeled Embrio uses electronic and hydrogen-fuel-cell technology to help its driver zip around obstacles. A system of gyroscopes keeps it upright. In standby mode, a pair of extra wheels deploy jet-plane-like landing gear to increase longitudinal stability.
And, I might add, a control system engineer's dream!
November 30, 2003
Space Ship One glide test
Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne performed another drop-test/glide-test on 19-Nov-2003. Scaled Composites are gunning for the X-prize, and currently seem to be in the lead.
The progression of SpaceShipOne test flights are meant to ultimately snag the X Prize -- a $10 million purse for the first private vehicle to propel passengers to the edge of space and meet a set of guidelines established by the X Prize Foundation of St. Louis, Missouri. Teams around the world are vying for the X Prize money, with numbers of suborbital concepts being pursued.
All in all, a very neat project.
An Article on the SegBot
Here is an interesting article on some of the research being done with the SegBots. These are segway machines that have been converted to automatic control.
University of Southern California researchers are working on ways to get the Segway to act as a "mule" that follows humans around, carrying their gear. The robotic Segway hauls as much as 45 kilograms.
Another USC project involves controlling the way the Segway pitches and bounces over rough terrain so it can carry sensitive cargo, perhaps an injured human, according to lead researcher Gaurav Sukhatme.
A University of Pennsylvania lab is getting a robot-controlled Segway to communicate with an autonomous robotic blimp and small, truck-like vehicles so they can work as a team to find a designated object in a certain geographic area. The robots would navigate and communicate with each other autonomously, but a human would oversee the whole network.
I still hope to get one of these for my lab.
November 29, 2003
A new robotic vacuum
Samsung has a new robotic vacuum cleaner, that looks similiar in size and shape to the roomba, though it has some different specs.
The Samsung cleaner draws a 3-D map of the environment to identify its relative location, enabling faster and more efficient cleaning of a defined area. A less advanced automated vacuum cleaner navigates randomly until it faces an obstacle, blindingly crawling the area. The smarter Samsung cleaner knows which area needs to be cleaned, with a much more accurate result. A user can also program in the working time and cleaning options in advance, so that the robot cleans the area automatically when the user is away.
No details on the sensor suite or processor they are using.
November 26, 2003
CalState Long Beach Aerspike
The team at Cal State Long Beach who flew an aerospike engine last November have diagnosed the failure, and are going to fly again in early December.
The CALVEIN team has completed inspection of the Prospector 2 aerospike engine and has identified the root cause for its suboptimal performance relative to that obtained on the preceding static fire test. Specifically, it appears that the clearance gap between the graphite exit ring and the chamber aft flange was too large, resulting in the ring "settling" slightly upon the application of heat and pressure at start-up. This then opened up an alternative flow path for some of the combustion gases around the outer surface of the ring. That in turn lead to the erosion of part of the aft flange, as evidenced by the asymmetric thrust in flight and the ring itself.
We wish them much luck and success.
Another one of the X-prize contenders, the HARC Liberator, was unveiled on Monday, 24-Nov-2003 in Alabama. They are using a LOX Kerosene propulsion system, and other than that, it looks like a fairly conventional rocket.
The HARC team also used the event to provide more technical details about the Liberator and its planned flight profile than what was first announced last month. As currently planned, Liberator will lift off from either a platform in the Gulf of Mexico or a peninsula in the US Virgin Islands. The spacecraft, carrying a pilot and two passengers stacked vertically, will be propelled by a booster using two 53,400-newton engines burning liquid oxygen and kerosene. HARC acquired the engine design from a defunct launch vehicle startup, Space America. With a total mass at liftoff of about 4,500 kilograms, the Liberator’s occupants will experience an acceleration of 2.5g. That acceleration will grow to 5g before engine burnout, although Pickens said his team is looking at ways to reduce the g-loads during flight.
Not quite a gentle ride, but certainly survivable.
November 25, 2003
UAV Navigates Airspace
An article on UAV's obviating the need for pilots. While I love UAV's, I don't think that we will be removing the pilots from the cockpits of commercial aircraft anytime soon. What I would love to see is a normalization of the FAA's directives such that the language was changed from "See and avoid" to "Detect and avoid." That way both UAV's and regular aircraft can operate in the same airspace.
Most fears center on their safety for civilian use, such as monitoring traffic over urban areas.
"They don't have a pilot to get them out of trouble," notes Steve Zaloga, an analyst with Teal Group, an aerospace and defense research firm. "The local TV station isn't going to be happy to have a million-dollar plane crash into traffic or someone's house. It's going to be a hazard and it's going to be a cost issue."
The truth is that many UAV's have crashed, but most of them due to weather or landing issues. It's still unlikely that they will just fall out of the sky.
Methanol Powered Laptops
The promise of fuel cells always seems just around the corner. Another article on Methanol fuel cells to replace batteries on portable electronics. I seem to see these every year or so.
But now, small fuel cells could become available to the masses. A German company, SFC Smart Fuel Cell of Munich, already sells a briefcase-size $6,000 portable fuel cell system to affluent campers who use it to recharge their battery-powered devices.
In my opinion, the smart thing to do is to go after small portable devices first, then when the economies of scale kick in, see if you can develop a large high-power fuel cell.
The newest addition to King's College in London is the Inkha, a robotic receptionist to greet and direct you.
The gregarious robot was built by master's students in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. She is only a head and shoulders on a pyramidal plinth, but her eyes, mouth, head and neck move in response to interactions. Hidden cameras and infrared sensors detect movement and colour around her.
I'm not sure if this is the wave of the future, but it certainly boasts an impressive amount of hardware.
November 24, 2003
Wax Rocket Fuel
Just to give a plug to my old stomping grounds, Arif Karabeyoglu and Brian Cantwell over at Stanford have developed a Paraffin based hybrid rocket motor that functions quite well. Arif has been working on this for several years, and they have finally made the leap to a commercial venture.
The Stanford team first tested paraffin in a laboratory-scale rocket motor in November 1998 and found that like solid pentane, it burned three to four times faster than conventional solid fuels. To date, they have conducted more than 250 laboratory and field tests in collaboration with engineers at NASA Ames Research Center. They have tested rocket motors with 2,500 pounds of thrust, the amount that might be needed for a third stage rocket in a launch system. "Further scale-up tests are needed before paraffin-fueled rockets can be utilized in lower stage rockets requiring thrust levels of 200,000 pounds or more," Cantwell said.
Best of luck to them.
The Japanese DC-X
The Japanese have been quietly working on their version of the DC-X, a VTOL rocket called the RTV-9. This video shows it doing its thing. Very, very cool. I would love to see more of this type of thing. It is a very neat little rocket, though most of the press on it is in Japanese.
Explaination of RLV vs. ELV costs
Over at the RocketMan blog, there is a nice article on the different costs of Reusable Launch Vehicles (RLV) vs. Expendible Launch Vehicles (ELV). For those of you interested in why these things cost so much (and it isn't obvious), take a look:
It seems like such a waste to build an entire launch vehicle that will be used only once before it is dumped in the ocean. However, every successful launch vehicle in the history of spaceflight with the exception of the Shuttle has been expendable (and calling the Shuttle successful is a stretch). In recent years there have been many attempts at building a fully reusable vehicles (RLVs) but, for a wide variety of reasons, all of them have failed.
Very nice insight. Check out the rest of his site for some nice information on the X-prize and others.
Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan has just demonstrated a prototype bipedal robot that carries a person on top. They call it a walking chair:
WL-16 uses 12 actuators to move forwards, backwards and sideways while carrying an adult weighing up to 60 kilograms (130 pounds). The robot can adjust its posture and walk smoothly even if the person it is carrying shifts in the chair. At present it can only step up or down a few millimeters, but the team plans to make it capable of dealing with a normal flight of stairs.
Very complex, I'd like to see the sensor suite on board.
November 23, 2003
And just when you thought all this genetic engineering was the stuff of serious research, here comes the new, spiffy, made-just-for-your-tank, glo-fish.
The GloFish, as it is called, is a zebra fish containing a gene from a sea coral that makes the fish bright red under normal light and fluorescent under ultraviolet light. Zebra fish, about an inch and a half long, are normally silver and black.
Working Whilst I Sleep [Old]
Here is something that I stumbled upon by Ray Kurzweil in the NY Times,
"When I go to sleep I assign myself a problem, without trying to solve the problem," he said. Then during his waking moments, between consciousness and slumber, he revisits the problem. "It is a great time for creative thinking," he said. "You can think of new connections, new approaches that you wouldn't otherwise think of."
Gives a whole new dimension to the process of dreaming.
[Note: this is an old entry from my typepad site, which will be going down soon]
October 25, 2003
About Me and this Blog
Robotica-Exotica was started somewhat as a tongue-in-cheek look at the world of technology and robotics. It has since evolved into a link bucket where I drop the links of interest for my work.
I am junior faculty at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the Computer Engineering department. My background is in Aerospace Engineering (Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford, where I got my Ph.D.), and my field is applied control theory to autonomous vehicles.
My research can be summed up rather simply: lower the cost (and hence increase the ubiquity) of autonomous systems by substituting the inexpensive (processing power) for the expensive (sensors and actuators). I tend to occupy a fine line between hardware and software, and still do a whole bunch of GNC (Guidance, Navigation, and Control) work to keep everything running.
You can find my official website here which has more background on my professional activities. As for my personal background, I was born in Sousse, Tunisia. I spent a fair bit of my childhood moving around from place to place, as my father was civil engineer working on infrastructure projects of various sorts around the world. I spent six years in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where I went to high school. I got my undergraduate degree from Princeton University, in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Following Princeton, I went to work for an international oilfield services company: Schlumberger. I spent a year in Algeria, and another in Nigeria before leaving Schlumberger. From there I went to Israel, where I spent a year studying Aeronautics at the Technion in Haifa.
I returned from Israel and started at Stanford University, in the Aeronautics and Astronautics department. I received my Masters and Ph.D. from Stanford, where I built an autonomous catamaran for my thesis. The catamaran was based on a modified Prindle-19, with the mast removed and replaced by a freely rotating wingsail. After graduation, I spent a year in Los Angeles consulting on an autonomous ground vehicle project.
I joined the Computer Engineering Faculty at UC Santa Cruz in 2003, and am now enjoying living near the cliffs on the west side of Santa Cruz.
I hope you enjoy this blog, and if you find anything of interest, please consider emailing it to me at: elkaim AT soe.ucsc.edu