A problem-solving approach IT workers should learn from robotics engineers

Greg Nichols  for ZDNet:  Google-owned Boston Dynamics got some bad news in the final days of 2015.  After years of development and intensive field trials, the Massachusetts-based robotics company learned that the U.S. Marines had decided to reject its four-legged robotic mule, Big Dog. The reason? The thing is too damn noisy for combat, where close quarters and the occasional need for stealth make excess machine noise a liability.

The setback reminded me of a story another group of robotics engineers told me about the development of their breakthrough machine, a robotic exoskeleton that enables paraplegics to walk and soldiers to hump heavy packs without wearing down. It also reminded me of a powerful approach to solving problems and dealing with setbacks that I've encountered again and again reporting on robotics.

Ekso Bionics, which went public in 2015, invented the first viable untethered exoskeleton, one that doesn't need to be plugged into an external power source. Their achievement rests on one engineering breakthrough in particular, and to arrive at it Ekso's engineers had to do something that's surprisingly difficult but incredibly instructive for non-engineers--they had to change the way they thought about their problem.  Cont'd...


Factory Automation Will Speed Forward with A.I., Says Bernstein

By Tiernan Ray for Barron's:  Bernstein Research’s Alberto Moel, who follows tech-industrial companies such as Corning(GLW) and AU Optronics (AUO), this afternoon offered up a thinks piece on robotics andfactory automation, arguing that some of the costs of automation beyond the basic cost of the robot are about to get dramatically cheaper, thanks in large part to artificial intelligence akin to what Alphabet (GOOGL) and others are doing.

Moel notes that the basic components of factory robots are only falling by perhaps 6% per year, their cost reduction bounded by things such as casings and servomotors and reduction gears that don’t rapidly fall in cost.

But, writes Moel, the cost to install and adjust these machines on a factory floor is ten times their component cost and that stuff can be reduced more dramatically:

How much this integration costs varies widely. An often-cited rule of thumb is that a $50,000 robot will need $500,000 of integration costs before it is all said and done. Of course, these integration costs can be amortized over many robots, so perhaps a better estimate would be 3-5x the robot cost [...] But I do believe we are at an inflection pointthat will materially increase the capability of automation systems and substantially reduce programming, setup, and fixturing costs which are the largest cost element in most automation efforts. So instead of a measly 6% YoY cost reduction , we get 25-30% YoY declines, and automation Nirvana.  Cont'd...

Alphabet Shakes Up Its Robotics Division

From The New York Times:

Google’s robotics division has been plagued by low morale and a lack of leadership since the unit’s founder left abruptly in 2014. Now Alphabet is cleaning it up.

Over the last two months, Alphabet, the new holding company that separated Google from its collection of speculative projects, has reframed the robots effort, moving it from a stand-alone division inside Google to a piece of the X research division. The company has also hired Hans Peter Brondmo, a technology industry veteran who last worked at Nokia, to help with management...

... After starting the robotics division, Mr. Rubin quickly went on a buying spree, purchasing a number of promising companies, including Boston Dynamics, the of experimental military robots, and Schaft, an elite group of Japanese roboticists from the University of Tokyo...

... Google’s robotics effort stalled after his departure, going through a variety of leaders, including James Kuffner, a Carnegie Mellon roboticist who has since joined Toyota’s research and development laboratory in Palo Alto, and Jonathan Rosenberg, who is a troubleshooter for Larry Page, the Google co-founder who is Alphabet’s chief executive... (full article)

Robotics, reshoring, and American jobs

By Charles Orlowek for The Hill:  Good news?   Boston Consulting Group foresees more large manufacturers boosting production for the American market by adding capacity in the U.S. itself, compared with any other country.  It cites “decreasing costs and improved capabilities of advanced manufacturing technologies such as robotics."  Under this optimistic scenario, how much value would American workers add?  When robotics and other automation gets built for, and installed in American workplaces, where are jobs created?   

Increasingly, these jobs are being created and sustained outside the United States, even for domestic factories.   

The first industrial robots were developed and manufactured by Americans, and General Motors became the first user, in 1961.  Over recent decades, however, the domestic robot industry has declined.   A Commerce Department national security assessment from 1991 asserted that American robot manufacturers lost market share throughout the 1980s, with shipments of U.S.-manufactured robots falling by 33 percent between 1984 and 1989, despite robust domestic demand and a weak dollar.   Cont'd...

Looking for a few good robots

By Adam Zewe for Harvard News:  If you have a soft spot for robotics, this competition is right up your alley.

The 2016 Soft Robotics Competitions offer anyone with an interest in robotics the chance to design and build their own soft robot using the resources available in the open-source Soft Robotics Toolkit.

Now in its second year, the competition was developed by Conor Walsh, assistant professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Dónal Holland, visiting lecturer in engineering sciences, as a way to encourage individuals to take advantage of the resources provided in the Soft Robotics Toolkit.

The toolkit, which incorporates contributions from researchers from Harvard and other institutions, provides a set of intellectual tools that one can use to design and construct a robot using soft, flexible materials. It includes resources such as step-by-step instructions on building actuators and sensors, lists of suggested materials, and how-to fabrication videos.

The ultimate goal of the competition is to encourage others to find innovative applications for soft robotics technology and continue expanding interest in this relatively new field.  Cont'd...

The Segway Robot

Segway announcement from CES:

A Segway that sees the world and a robot that gives you a ride. Segway Robot can navigate and follow, and he is extendable with many exciting possibilities. The future is interesting...

... We target to start shipping Segway Robot Developer Edition in early Q3 2016. It will come with a full SDK. Whether you are creating for yourself or are interested in developing new skills and content, the SDK is for you. With the purchase of the Segway Robot Developer Edition, you will be enrolled in the Segway Robot Developer Program and have direct access to support and advice from our team... (more details)

Lego's classroom robotics kit goes wireless

Ross Miller for The Verge:   Lego's entry-level robotics set is getting an overhaul. The brickmaker today is announcing WeDo 2.0 for elementary classrooms, which will both teach science-related concepts and, more importantly, let children build and program Lego robots.

Designed to teach engineering and science, Lego Education's WeDo 2.0 kits contain about 280 Lego pieces, which also includes motion / tilt sensors and a motor. The new version eschews USB tethering for Bluetooth LE-powered "smarthub" brick that connects the sensors to a tablet or PC / Mac app. (The new version also has a more cohesive, more appealing color palette for all the bricks.) Each app includes a set of lessons, which tie in science concepts with a classic Lego construction manual. WeDo has a very simple drag-and-drop coding interface that lets students (or, to be honest, very enthusiastic adults) program basic functions. You can also, of course, just ignore the instructions entirely and build / program your own pastel robot.  Cont'd...

Space Bots & Android Waste Collectors: What's Ahead for Robotics

By Elizabeth Palermo for LiveScience:  It was a good year to be a robot.

In 2015, researchers in Korea unveiled a robotic exoskeleton that users can control with their minds, a four-legged bot in China set a new world record by walking 83.28 miles (134.03 km) without stopping and 3D-printing robots in Amsterdam started work on a new steel footbridge.

But these smart machines are capable of so much more. Researchers around the world are now designing and building bots that will complete more noteworthy tasks in 2016 and beyond. From exploring other planets to fighting fires at sea, here are a few skills that bots could pick up in the new year.  Full Article:  

The artist who turned his dead cat into a drone is now building a helicopter out of a cow

From Business Insider:

It all started in 2012, when his cat Orville got hit by a car. Jansen decided it would be a shame to simply bury his late feline friend, so he drew inspiration from his pet's namesake — Orville Wright, one of the Wright Brothers, the inventors of heavier-than-air flight. Jansen gutted Orville, preserved him, and turned him into a custom quadcopter...

... When a friend offered him a dead badger, he immediately accepted and soon settled on a use for it: a submarine. The project is called "Das Boot," a play on the famous German U-boat film "Das Boot," as well as the Dutch word for "badger" — "das." (full story)

What Robots and AI Learned in 2015

By Will Knight for MIT Technology Review:  The  robots didn’t really take over in 2015, but at times it felt as if that might be where we’re headed.

There were signs that machines will soon take over manual work that currently requires human skill. Early in the year details emerged of a contest organized by Amazon to help robots do more work inside its vast product fulfillment centers.

The Amazon Picking challenge, as the event was called, was held at a prominent robotics conference later in the year. Teams competed for a $25,000 prize by designing a robot to identify and grasp items from one of Amazon’s storage shelves as quickly as possible (the winner picked and packed 10 items in 20 minutes). This might seem a trivial task for human workers, but figuring out how to grasp different objects arranged haphazardly on shelves in a real warehouse is still a formidable challenge for robot-kind.  Cont'd...

Watch these robotic 'reindeer' from Boston Dynamics pull Santa's sleigh

By Lulu Chang for Digital Trends:  We’re going to rewrite Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, because now, it’s robotic dogs that are pulling Santa’s sleigh. In a rather frightening video, Google-owned robotics design firm Boston Dynamics has shown us the future of Christmas, and it’s plenty progressive, complete with machines and female Santas. I can get behind that sort of holiday, I think.

Of course, the Internet wasn’t so sure. And to be fair, the dog-like robots are a bit frightening. Large and, well, headless, these machines seem to hearken more to the Thestrals (the skeletal winged horses visible only to those who’ve witnessed death) of Harry Potter’s universe than the adorable reindeer that are supposed to transport jolly Saint Nick to and from the North Pole.

CES 2016 - Autonomous Cars Set To Dominate

BY DAVID GILBERT For International Business Times:  As cars become less about horsepower and torque and more about the technology inside, CES has become one of the most important showcases of the year for auto manufacturers. It's a sea change in how cars are built and marketed, with technology now the core, rather than an added feature. Connected, autonomous and electric vehicles will all be on display at CES 2016, with some of the world’s most talk-about companies in the field looking to make a major impact.

First up will be Faraday Future, the secretive startup based in Los Angeles and backed by a Chinese billionaire. It is set to unveil its first ever concept design on Jan. 4, and while all the company has said so far is that it will be an electric vehicle, it is widely believed to feature autonomous capabilities.

While Faraday Future is a relative unknown, one of the world’s biggest automotive companies, Ford, will also be at CES announcing news about the autonomous car it has been testing internally for several years. Among the announcements expected is apartnership with Google to build some of Google’s fleet of self-driving cars.  Cont'd...

Google Attracts Top U.S. Automakers With Self-Driving Technology

Jack Clark for Bloomberg Business:  Google’s self-driving car technology is attracting top U.S. automakers, as Ford, Fiat Chrysler and General Motors talk with the company while laying the groundwork for a future with autonomous cars.

Ford Motor Co. and Google are discussing working together, including in a joint venture to build cars using Google’s technology, said a person familiar with the talks who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private.

That follows comments in October from Mark Reuss, product development chief for General Motors Co., that the automaker was “very interested” in exploring ways its manufacturing skills could complement Google’s system. Sergio Marchionne, chief executive officer of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, has said repeatedly the past few months that his company wants to work on autonomous driving with technology companies such as Apple Inc. and Google.

“We are entering the era of the technology and software-defined vehicle,” said Thilo Koslowski, a vice president in the automotive practice at Gartner Inc. “You’re just seeing the auto industry recognize the importance of that.”  Cont'd...

Google to incubate its robotics and drone divisions under Google X

By Mike Wheatley for SiliconAngle:  Google is planning an organizational reshuffle that will see its secretive robotics department and drone business folded into its Google X labs.

Google’s robotics division, and the drone group it created when it acquired Titan Aerospace in 2014, will both fall under the Google X umbrella when the reshuffle takes place some time next year, Re/Code reported.

Google X is the secretive part of Google that develops some of its most futuristic, bleeding edge technologies. These include its famous self-driving cars, Project Loon (Wi-Fi hot air balloons), and its airborne wind turbines. Google X operates as a standalone company under Google’s parent Alphabet Inc., which was created following Google’s corporate restructuring earlier this year.

Google X’s projects are largely experimental and extremely uncertain in terms of a business model. Nevertheless, Google obviously deems it the best place to be for its robotics division, which has been left leaderless ever since Andy Rubin quit the Web giant last year. Previously, there was speculation that the robotics division may become a standalone company under Alphabet, but today’s news would indicate that’s not going to happen any time soon.  Cont'd...

Drone Light Painting - The Christmas Edit

From Ascending Technologies' blog:

The moves of the LED drone were shot while taking a long exposure photograph of every scene. Up to 10 minutes exposure time were needed. Additionally the flights have been filmed with an A7S Mark ii. In post processing the stills from the original drone flights were visualized via VFX and combined with further video footage.
The Drone Light Painting flights have been performed at airspeeds of 2 m/s with the patented V-Form Octocopter AscTec Falcon 8. Santa Claus throwing the presents into the chimneys and the snowflakes in the starting sequence of course are animated GIFs, yet based on flown paintings. Probably it was possible to do any drone light painting you like... (more)

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