robotics

This robot scientist has conducted 100,000 experiments in a year

Posted by | artificial intelligence, Gadgets, hardware, MIT, robotics, robots, science, TC | No Comments

Science is exciting in theory, but it can also be dreadfully dull. Some experiments require hundreds or thousands of repetitions or trials — an excellent opportunity to automate. That’s just what MIT scientists have done, creating a robot that performs a certain experiment, observes the results, and plans a follow-up… and has now done so 100,000 times in the year it’s been operating.

The field of fluid dynamics involves a lot of complex and unpredictable forces, and sometimes the best way to understand them is to repeat things over and over until patterns emerge. (Well, it’s a little more complex than that, but this is neither the time nor the place to delve into the general mysteries of fluid dynamics.)

One of the observations that needs to be performed is of “vortex-induced vibration,” a kind of disturbance that matters a lot to designing ships that travel through water efficiently. It involves close observation of an object moving through water… over, and over, and over.

Turns out it’s also a perfect duty for a robot to take over. But the Intelligent Tow Tank, as they call this robotic experimentation platform, is designed not just to do the mechanical work of dragging something through the water, but to intelligently observe the results, change the setup accordingly to pursue further information, and continue doing that until it has something worth reporting.

“The ITT has already conducted about 100,000 experiments, essentially completing the equivalent of all of a Ph.D. student’s experiments every 2 weeks,” say the researchers in their paper, published today in Science Robotics.

The hard part, of course, was not designing the robot (though that was undoubtedly difficult as well) but the logic that lets it understand, at a surface level so to speak, the currents and flows of the fluid system and conduct follow-up experiments that produce useful results.

Normally a human (probably a grad student) would have to observe every trial — the parameters of which may be essentially random — and decide how to move forward. But this is rote work — not the kind of thing an ambitious researcher would like to spend their time doing.

So it’s a blessing that this robot, and others like it, could soon take over the grunt work while humans focus on high-level concepts and ideas. The paper notes other robots at CMU and elsewhere that have demonstrated how automation of such work could proceed.

“This constitutes a potential paradigm shift in conducting experimental research, where robots, computers, and humans collaborate to accelerate discovery and to search expeditiously and effectively large parametric spaces that are impracticable with the traditional approach,” the team writes.

You can read the paper describing the Intelligent Tow Tank here.

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NASA’s space pallet concept could land rovers on the moon cheaply and simply

Posted by | Artemis, Gadgets, Government, hardware, lunar lander, Moon, NASA, robotics, science, Space, TC | No Comments

Establishing an enduring presence on the Moon will mean making a lot of landings — and NASA researchers want to make those landings as reliable and cheap as possible. This robotic “pallet lander” concept would be a dead simple (as lunar landers go) way to put up to 300 kilograms of rover and payload onto the Moon’s surface.

Detailed in a technical paper published today, the lander is a sort of space pallet: a strong, basic framework that could be a unit in many a future mission. It’s still a concept and doesn’t really have a name, so space pallet will do for now.

It’s an evolution of a design that emerged in studies surrounding the VIPER mission that was intended to “minimized cost and schedule” and just get the rover to the surface safely. In a rare admission of (at least theoretically) putting cost over performance, the paper’s introduction reads:

The design of the lander was based on a minimum set of level 1 requirements where traditional risk, mass, and performance trade parameters were weighed lower than cost. In other words, the team did not sacrifice ‘good enough’ for ‘better’ or ‘best.’

It should be noted, of course, that “good enough” hardly implies a slapdash job in the context of lunar landers. It just means that getting 5 percent more tensile strength from a material that costs 50 times more wasn’t considered a worthwhile trade-off. Same reason we don’t use ebony or elm for regular pallets. Instead they’re using the space travel equivalent of solid pine boards that have been tested into the ground. (The team does admit to extrapolating a little but emphasizes that this is first and foremost a realistic approach.)

“While most subsystems use off-the-shelf parts, one emerging technology needed for a lander like this would be Terrain Relative Navigation used for precision landing,” said Logan Kennedy, lead systems engineer for the concept. “Testing is under way!”

The space pallet would go up aboard a commercial launch vehicle, such as a Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket. The vehicle would get the pallet and its rover payload into a trans-lunar injection trajectory, and a few days later the space pallet would perform the necessary landing maneuvers: attitude control, landing site selection, braking, and a soft touchdown with the rover’s solar panels facing the sun.

Once on the surface, the rover would go on its merry way at some point in the next couple hours. The lander would take a few surface images and characterize its surroundings for the team on Earth, then shut down permanently after 8 hours or so.

Yes, unfortunately the space pallet is not intended to survive the lunar night, the researchers point out. Though any presence on the moon’s surface is a powerful resource, it’s expensive to provide the kind of power and heating infrastructure that would let the lander live through the freezing, airless cold of the Moon’s weeks-long night.

Still, it’s possible that the craft could be equipped with some low-key, self-sustaining science experiments or hardware that could be of use to others later — a passive beacon for navigation, perhaps, or an intermittent seismic sensor that detect nearby meteorite impacts.

“One concept involved unfolding solar panels to last for a whole lunar day (~14 Earth days) and technology exists to survive the lunar night and even longer,” said Kennedy in response to a question about putting science instruments on board. “NASA’s Science Mission Directorate aims to take advantage of all opportunities for science investigations and intends to provide scientific experiments/instruments for all landers traveling to the lunar surface as long as they align with our needs and goals.”

Even should the space pallet not be pursued further than concept stage, the team writes in the paper, “it is important to note that these and other derived technologies are extensible to other lander designs and missions.”

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The iRobot Roomba s9+ and Braava m6 are the robots you should trust to clean your house well

Posted by | Assistant, contents, Gadgets, Google, hardware, home, home appliances, Home Automation, iRobot, Reviews, robot, robotic vacuum cleaner, robotics, Roomba, samsung galaxy s9, smart devices, TC, Vacuum | No Comments

This holiday season, we’re going to be looking back at some of the best tech of the past year, and providing fresh reviews in a sort of ‘greatest hits’ across a range of categories. First up: iRobot’s top-end home cleaning robots, the Roomba s9+ robot vacuum, and the Braava m6 robot mop and floor sweeper. Both of these represent the current peak of iRobot’s technology, and while that shows up in the price tag, it also shows up in performance.

iRobot Roomba S9+

The iRobot Roomba S9+ is actually two things: The Roomba S9, which is available separately, and the Clean Base that enables the vacuum to empty itself after a run, giving you many cleanings before it needs you to actually open up a bin or replace a bag. Both the vacuum and its base are WiFi-connected, and controllable via iRobot’s app, as well as Google Assistant and Alexa. Combined, it’s the most advanced autonomous home vacuum you can get, and it manages to outperform a lot of older or less sophisticated robot vacuums even in situations that have historically been hard for this kind of tech to handle.

Like the Roomba S7 before it (which is still available and still also a great vacuum, for a bit less money), the S9 uses what’s called SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping), and a specific variant of that called vSLAM (the stands for ‘visual’). This technology means that as it works, it’s generating and adapting a map of your home to ensure that it can clean more effectively and efficiently.

After either a few dedicated training runs (which you can opt to send the vacuum on when it’s learning a new space) or a few more active vacuum runs, the Roomba S9 will remember your home’s layout, and provide a map that you can customize with room dividers and labels. This then turns on the vacuum’s real smart superpowers, which include being able to vacuum just specific rooms on command, as well as features like letting it easily pick up where it left off if it needs to return to its charging station mid-run. With the S9 and its large battery, the vacuum can do an entire run of my large two-bedroom condo on a single charge (the i7 I used previously needed two charges to finish up).

The S9’s vSLAM and navigation systems seem incredibly well-developed in my use: I’ve never once had the vacuum become stuck, or confused by changes in floor colouring, even going from a very light to a very dark floor (this is something that past vacuums have had difficulty with). It infallibly finds its way back to the Clean Base, and also never seems to be flummoxed by even drastic changes in lighting over the course of the day.

So it’s smart, but does it suck? Yes, it does – in the best possible way. Just like it doesn’t require stops to charge up, it also manages to clean my entire space with just one bin. There’s a lot more room in here thanks to the new design, and it handles even my dog’s hair with ease (my dog sheds a lot, and it’s very obvious light hair against dark wood floors). The new angled design on the front of the vacuum means it does a better job with getting in corners than previous fully round designs, and that shows, because corners are were clumps of hair go to gather in a dog-friendly household.

The ‘+’ in the S9+ is that Clean Base as I mentioned – think of it like the tower of lazy cleanliness. The base has a port that sucks dirt from the S9 when it’s done a run, shooting it into a bag in the top of the tower that can hold up to 30 full bins of dirt. That ends up being a lot in practice – it should last you months, depending on house size. Replacement bags cost $20 for three, which is probably what you’ll go through in a year, so it’s really a negligible cost for the convenience you’re getting.

Braava m6

The Roomba S9’s best friend, if you will, is the Braava m6. This is iRobot’s latest and greatest smart mop, which is exactly what it sounds like: Whereas Roomba vacuums, the Braava uses either single use disposable, or microfibre washable/reusable pads, as well as iRobot’s own cleaning fluid, to clean hardwood, tile, vinyl, cork and other hard surface floors once the vacuuming is done. It can also just run a dry sweep, which is useful for picking up dust and pet hair, as a finishing touch on the vacuum’s run.

iRobot has used its unique position in offering both of these types of smart devices to have them work together – if you have both the S9 and the Braava m6 added to your iRobot Home app, you’ll get an option to mop the floors right after the vacuum job is complete. It’s an amazing convenience feature, and one that works fairly well – but there are some differences in the smarts powering the Braava m6 and the Roomba s9 that lead to some occasional challenges.

The Braava m6 doesn’t seem to be quite as capable when it comes to mapping and navigating its surroundings. My condo layout is relatively simple, all one level with no drops or gaps. But the m6 has encountered some scenarios where it doesn’t seem to be able to cross a threshold or make sense of all floor types. Based on error messages, it seems like it’s identifying some surfaces as ‘cliffs’ or steep drops when transitioning back from lighter floors to darker ones.

What this means in practice is that a couple of times per run, I have to reposition the Braava manually. There are ways to solve for this, however, built into the software: Thanks to the smart mapping feature, I can just direct the Braava to focus only on the rooms with dark hardwood, or I can just adjust it when I get an alert that it’s having difficulty. It’s still massively more convenient than mopping by hand, and typically the m6 does about 90 percent of the apartment before it runs into difficult in one of these few small trouble areas.

If you’ve read online customer reviews fo the m6, you may also have seen complaints that it can leave tire marks on dark floors. I found that to be true – but with a few caveats. They definitely aren’t as pronounced as I expected based on some of the negative reviews out there, and I have very dark floors. They also only are really visible in direct sunlight, and then only faintly. They also fade pretty quickly, which means you won’t notice them most of the time if you’re mopping only once ever few vacuum runs. In the end, it’s something to be aware of, but for me it’s not a dealbreaker – far from it. The m6 still does a fantastic job overall of mopping and sweeping, and saves me a ton of labor on what is normally a pretty back-hostile manual task.

Bottom line

These iRobot home cleaning gadgets are definitely high-end, with the s9 starting at $1,099.99 ($1,399.99 with the cleaning base) and the m6 staring at $499.99. You can get a bundle with both staring at $1439.98, but even that is still a lot for cleaning appliances. This is definitely a case where the ‘you get what you pay for’ maxim proves true, however. Either rate s9+ alone, or the combo of the vacuum and mop represent a huge convenience, especially when used on a daily or similar regular schedule, vs. doing the same thing manually. The s9 also frankly does a better job than I ever could wth my own manual vacuum, since it’s much better at getting into corners, under couches, and cleaning along and under trip thanks to its spinning brush. And asking Alexa to have Roomba start a cleaning run feels like living in the future in the best possible way.

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Adidas backpedals on robotic shoe production with Speedfactory closures

Posted by | Adidas, Gadgets, hardware, robotics | No Comments

An expensive experiment in global distribution has been abandoned by Adidas, which has announced that will close its robotic “Speedfactories” in Atlanta and Ansbach, Germany, within 6 months. The company sugar-coated the news with a promise to repurpose the technology used at its existing human-powered factories in Asia.

The factories were established in 2016 (Ansbach) and 2017 (Atlanta) as part of a strategy to decentralize its manufacturing processes. The existing model, like so many other industries, is to produce the product in eastern Asia, where labor and overhead is less expensive, then ship it as needed. But this is a slow and clumsy model for an industry that moves as quickly as fashion and athletics.

“Right now, most of our products are made out of Asia and we put them on a boat or on a plane so they end up on Fifth Avenue,” said Adidas CMO Eric Liedtke in an interview last year at Disrupt SF about new manufacturing techniques. The Speedfactories were intended to change that: “Instead of having some sort of micro-distribution center in Jersey, we can have a micro-factory in Jersey.”

Ultimately this seems to have proven more difficult than expected. As other industries have found in the rush to automation, it’s easy to overshoot the mark and overcommit when the technology just isn’t ready.

Robotic factories are a powerful tool but difficult to quickly reconfigure or repurpose, since it takes specialty knowledge to set up racks of robotic arms, computer vision systems, and so on. Robotics manufacturers are making advances in this field, but for now it’s a whole lot harder than training a human workforce to use standard tools on a different pattern.

In a press release, Adidas global operations head Martin Shankland explained that “The Speedfactories have been instrumental in furthering our manufacturing innovation and capabilities,” and that for a short time they even brought products to market in a hurry. “That was our goal from the start,” he says, though presumably things played out a bit differently in the pitch decks from 2016.

“We very much regret that our collaboration in Ansbach and Atlanta has come to an end,” Shankland said. Oechsler, the high-tech manufacturing partner that Adidas worked with, feels the same. “Whilst we understand adidas’ reasons for discontinuing Speedfactory production at Oechsler, we regret this decision,” said the company’s CEO, Claudius Kozlik, in the press release. The factories will shut down by April, presumably eliminating or shifting the 160 or so jobs they provided, but the two companies will continue to work together.

The release says that Adidas will “use its Speedfactory technologies to produce athletic footwear at two of its suppliers in Asia” starting next year. It’s not really clear what that means, and I’ve asked the company for further information.

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This robotic arm slows down to avoid the uncanny valley

Posted by | artificial intelligence, disney research, Gadgets, hardware, robotics, science | No Comments

Robotic arms can move fast enough to snatch thrown objects right out of the air… but should they? Not unless you want them to unnerve the humans they’re interacting with, according to work out of Disney Research. Roboticists there found that slowing a robot’s reaction time made it feel more normal to people.

Disney has, of course, been interested in robotics for decades, and the automatons in its theme parks are among the most famous robots in the world. But there are few opportunities for those robots to interact directly with people. Hence a series of research projects at its research division aimed at safe and non-weird robot-human coexistence.

In this case the question was how to make handing over an item to a robot feel natural and non-threatening. Obviously if, when you reached out with a ticket or empty cup, the robot moved like lightning and snapped it out of your hands, that could be seen as potentially dangerous, or at the very least make people nervous.

So the robot arm in this case (attached to an anthropomorphic cat torso) moves at a normal human speed. But there’s also the question of when it should reach out. After all, it takes us humans a second to realize that someone is handing something to us, then to reach out and grab it. A computer vision system might be able to track an object and send the hand after it more quickly, but it might feel strange.

The researchers set up an experiment where the robot hand reached out to take a ring from a person under three conditions each of speed and delay.

When the hand itself moved quickly, people reported less “warmth” and more “discomfort.” The slow speed performed best on those scores. And when the hand moved with no delay, it left people similarly uneasy. But interestingly, too long a delay had a similar effect.

Turns out there’s a happy medium that matches what people seem to expect from a hand reaching out to take something from them. Slower movement is better, to a certain point one imagines, and a reasonable but not sluggish delay makes it feel more human.

The handover system detailed in a paper published today (and video below) is robust against the usual circumstances: moving targets, unexpected forces and so on. It’ll be a while before an Aristocats bot takes your mug from you at a Disney World cafe, but at least you can be sure it won’t snatch it faster than the eye can follow and scare everyone around you.

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Ghost wants to retrofit your car so it can drive itself on highways in 2020

Posted by | Android, Argo AI, Automation, automotive, autonomous car, AV, california, controller, Emerging-Technologies, founders fund, Ghost Locomotion, gps, IBM, Keith Rabois, Khosla Ventures, Lyft, machine learning, Mike Speiser, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Pure Storage, robotics, self-driving cars, sutter hill ventures, TC, technology, Tesla, transport, Transportation, Uber, unmanned ground vehicles, waymo, zoox | No Comments

A new autonomous vehicle company is on the streets — and unbeknownst to most, has been since 2017. Unlike the majority in this burgeoning industry, this new entrant isn’t trying to launch a robotaxi service or sell a self-driving system to suppliers and automakers. It’s not aiming for autonomous delivery, either.

Ghost Locomotion, which emerged Thursday from stealth with $63.7 million in investment from Keith Rabois at Founders Fund, Vinod Khosla at Khosla Ventures and Mike Speiser at Sutter Hill Ventures, is targeting your vehicle.

Ghost is developing a kit that will allow privately owned passenger vehicles to drive autonomously on highways. And the company says it will deliver in 2020. A price has not been set, but the company says it will be less than what Tesla charges for its Autopilot package that includes “full self-driving” or FSD. FSD currently costs $7,000.

This kit isn’t going to give a vehicle a superior advanced driving assistance system. The kit will let human drivers hand control of their vehicle over to a computer, allowing them to do other activities such as look at their phone or even doze off.

The idea might sound similar to what Comma.ai is working on, Tesla hopes to achieve or even the early business model of Cruise. Ghost CEO and co-founder John Hayes says what they’re doing is different.

A different approach

The biggest players in the industry — companies like Waymo, Cruise, Zoox and Argo AI — are trying to solve a really hard problem, which is driving in urban areas, Hayes told TechCrunch in a recent interview.

“It didn’t seem like anyone was actually trying to solve driving on the highways,” said Hayes, who previously founded Pure Storage in 2009. “At the time, we were told that this is so easy that surely the automakers will solve this any day now. And that really hasn’t happened.”

Hayes noted that automakers have continued to make progress in advanced driver assistance systems. The more advanced versions of these systems provide what the SAE describes as Level 2 automation, which means two primary control functions are automated. Tesla’s Autopilot system is a good example of this; when engaged, it automatically steers and has traffic-aware cruise control, which maintains the car’s speed in relation to surrounding traffic. But like all Level 2 systems, the driver is still in the loop.

Ghost wants to take the human out of the loop when they’re driving on highways.

“We’re taking, in some ways, a classic startup attitude to this, which is ‘what is the simplest product that we can perfect, that will put self driving in the hands of ordinary consumers?’ ” Hayes said. “And so we take people’s existing cars and we make them self-driving cars.”

The kit

Ghost is tackling that challenge with software and hardware.

The kit involves hardware like sensors and a computer that is installed in the trunk and connected to the controller area network (CAN) of the vehicle. The CAN bus is essentially the nervous system of the car and allows various parts to communicate with each other.

Vehicles must have a CAN bus and electronic steering to be able to use the kit.

The camera sensors are distributed throughout the vehicle. Cameras are integrated into what looks like a license plate holder at the back of the vehicle, as well as another set that are embedded behind the rearview mirror.

A third device with cameras is attached to the frame around the window of the door (see below).

Initially, this kit will be an aftermarket product; the company is starting with the 20 most popular car brands and will expand from there.

Ghost intends to set up retail spaces where a car owner can see the product and have it installed. But eventually, Hayes said, he believes the kit will become part of the vehicle itself, much like GPS or satellite radio has evolved.

While hardware is the most visible piece of Ghost, the company’s 75 employees have dedicated much of their time on the driving algorithm. It’s here, Hayes says, where Ghost stands apart.

How Ghost is building a driver

Ghost is not testing its self-driving system on public roads, an approach nearly every other AV company has taken. There are 63 companies in California that have received permits from the Department of Motor Vehicles to test autonomous vehicle technology (always with a human safety driver behind the wheel) on public roads.

Ghost’s entire approach is based on an axiom that the human driver is fundamentally correct. It begins by collecting mass amounts of video data from kits that are installed on the cars of high-mileage drivers. Ghost then uses models to figure out what’s going on in the scene and combines that with other data, including how the person is driving by measuring the actions they take.

It doesn’t take long or much data to model ordinary driving, actions like staying in a lane, braking and changing lanes on a highway. But that doesn’t “solve” self-driving on highways because the hard part is how to build a driver that can handle the odd occurrences, such as swerving, or correct for those bad behaviors.

Ghost’s system uses machine learning to find more interesting scenarios in the reams of data it collects and builds training models based on them.

The company’s kits are already installed on the cars of high-mileage drivers like Uber and Lyft drivers and commuters. Ghost has recruited dozens of drivers and plans to have its kits in hundreds of cars by the end of the year. By next year, Hayes says the kits will be in thousands of cars, all for the purpose of collecting data.

The background of the executive team, including co-founder and CTO Volkmar Uhlig, as well as the rest of their employees, provides some hints as to how they’re approaching the software and its integration with hardware.

Employees are data scientists and engineers, not roboticists. A dive into their resumes on LinkedIn and not one comes from another autonomous vehicle company, which is unusual in this era of talent poaching.

For instance, Uhlig, who started his career at IBM Watson Research, co-founded Adello and was the architect behind the company’s programmatic media trading platform. Before that, he built Teza Technologies, a high-frequency trading platform. While earning his PhD in computer science he was part of a team that architected the L4 Pistachio microkernel, which is commercially deployed in more than 3 billion mobile Apple and Android devices.

If Ghost is able to validate its system — which Hayes says is baked into its entire approach — privately owned self-driving cars could be on the highways by next year. While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could potentially step in, Ghost’s approach, like Tesla, hits a sweet spot of non-regulation. It’s a space, that Hayes notes, where the government has not yet chosen to regulate.

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This robot relies on human reflexes to keep its balance

Posted by | bipedal robots, Gadgets, hardware, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, robotics, robots, science | No Comments

As much as we’d like to think that we’re entering an era of autonomous robots, they’re actually still pretty helpless. To keep them from falling down all the time, a human’s fast reflexes could be the solution. But the human has to feel what the robot is feeling — and that’s just what these researchers are testing.

Bipedal robots are excellent in theory for navigating human environments, but naturally are more prone to falling than quadrupedal or wheeled robots. Although they often have sophisticated algorithms that help keep them upright, in some situations those just might not be enough.

As a way to bridge that gap, researchers at MIT and the University of Illinois-Champaign put together a sort of hybrid human-robot system reminiscent of either Pacific Rim or Evangelion, depending on your nerd alignment (or Robot Jox, if you want to go that way).

Although the references may be sci-fi, the need for this kind of thing is real, explained U of I’s João Ramos, co-creator of the system with MIT’s Sangbae Kim.

“We were motivated by watching the 2011 Tohoku, Japan, earthquake, tsunami and subsequent Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant disaster unfold. We thought that if a robot could have entered the power plant after the disaster, things could have ended differently,” Ramos said in a U of I news release.

The robot they created is a small bipedal one they call Little Hermes, and it is hooked up directly to a human operator, who stands on a pressure-sensing plate and wears a force-feedback vest.

hermes

The robot generally follows the operator’s movements, not in a 1:1 sense (especially as the robot is much smaller than a person), but after interpreting those movements in terms of center of gravity and force vectors, makes a corresponding one almost simultaneously. (The MIT writeup goes into a bit more detail, as does the video below.)

Meanwhile, if the robot were to, say, encounter an unexpected slope or obstacle, those forces are conveyed to the operator via the vest. Feeling pressure indicating a leftward lean, the operator will reflexively take a step in that direction using those excellent instincts we animals have developed. Naturally the robot does the same thing and, hopefully, catches itself.

This feedback loop could make on-site rescue robots and others on uncertain footing more reliable. The technology is not limited to legs, though, or even to Little Hermes. The team wants to set up similar feedback systems for feet and hands, so mobility and grip can be further improved.

The team published their work today in the journal Science Robotics.

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NASA’s VIPER lunar rover will hunt water on the Moon in 2022

Posted by | Artemis, Gadgets, hardware, NASA, robotics, science, Space, TC | No Comments

NASA is looking for liquid gold on the Moon — not oil, but plain-old water. If we’re going to have a permanent presence there, we’ll need it, so learning as much as we can about it is crucial. That’s why the agency is sending a rover called VIPER to the Moon’s south pole — its first long-term surface mission since 1972.

VIPER, or the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, will touch down in December 2022 if all goes according to plan. Its mission: directly observe and quantify the presence of water in the permanently shadowed polar regions.

These perennially dark areas of the Moon have been collecting water ice for millions of years, since there’s no sunlight to melt or vaporize it. NASA already confirmed the presence of water ice by crashing a probe into the general area, but that’s a bit crude, isn’t it? Better to send a robot in to take some precise measurements.

VIPER will be about the size of a golf cart, and will be equipped with what amounts to prospecting gear. Its Neutron Spectrometer System (mentioned yesterday by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine ahead of this announcement) will let the rover detect water beneath the surface.

When it’s over a water deposit, VIPER will deploy… The Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain, or TRIDENT. Definitely the best acronym I’ve encountered this week. TRIDENT is a meter-long drill that will bring up samples for analysis by the rover’s two other instruments, a pair of spectrometers that will evaluate the contents of the soil.

By doing this systematically over a large area, the team hopes to create a map of water deposits below the surface that can be analyzed for larger patterns — perhaps leading to a more systematic understanding of our favorite substance’s presence on the Moon.

waterhunt

A visualization of Moon-based water ice under the surface being mapped by the VIPER rover

The rover is currently in development, as you can see from the pictures at the top — the right image is its “mobility testbed,” which as you might guess lets the team test out how it will get around.

VIPER is a limited-time mission; operating at the poles means there’s no sunlight to harvest with solar panels, so the rover will carry all the power it needs to last about a hundred days there. That’s longer than the U.S. has spent on the Moon’s surface in a long time — although China has for the last few years been actively deploying rovers all over the place.

Interestingly, the rover is planned for deployment via a Commercial Lunar Payload Services contract, meaning one of these companies may be building the lander that takes it from orbit to the surface. Expect to hear more as we get closer to launch.

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In the Accelerator over the Sea

Posted by | artificial intelligence, biotech, conservation, funding, Gadgets, GreenTech, hardware, ocean solutions accelerator, robotics, science, Startups, sustainable ocean alliance, TC | No Comments

In our oceans the scale of disasters is measured in millions, billions, and trillions, while solutions amount to single digits: individuals or institutions working to impact a chosen issue with approaches often both brilliant and quixotic. Putting such individuals in close contact with both whales and billionaires is the strange alchemy being attempted by the Sustainable Ocean Alliance’s Accelerator at Sea.

I and a few other reporters were invited to observe said program, a five-day excursion in Alaska that put recent college graduates, aspiring entrepreneurs, legends of the sea, and soft-spoken financial titans on the same footing: spotting whales from Zodiacs in the morning, learning from one another in the afternoon, and drinking whiskey good and bad under the Northern lights in the pre-dawn dark.

The boat — no, not that big one, or that other big one… yes, that one.

In that time I got to know the dozen or so companies in the accelerator, the second batch from the SOA but the first to experience this oddly effective enterprise. And I also gathered from conversations among the group the many challenges facing conservation-focused startups.

(By way of disclosure, I should say that I was among four press offered a spot on the chartered boat; Those invited, from penniless students to deep-pocketed investors, could join provided they got themselves to Juneau for embarkation.)

The picture painted by just about everyone was one of impending doom from a multiplicity of interlinked trends, and as many different approaches to averting or mitigating that doom as people discussing it.

What’s the problem?

In Silicon Valley one grows so used to seeing enormous sums of money expended on things barely categorizable as irritations, let alone serious problems, that it is a bit bewildering to be presented with the opposite: existential problems being addressed on shoestring budgets by founders actually passionate about their domain.

Throughout the trip, the discussions had at almost every occasion, be it looking for bear prints in a tidal flat or visiting a local salmon hatchery, were about the imminent collapse of natural ecosystems and the far-reaching consequences thereof.

Overfishing, rising water temperatures, deforestation, pollution, strip mining, microplastics — everywhere we looked is a man-made threat that has been allowed to go too far. Not a single industry or species is unaffected.

It’s enough to make you want to throw your hands up and go home, which is in fact what some have advised. But the people on this boat are not them. They were selected for their dedication to conservation and ingenuity in pursuing solutions.

Of course, there’s no “solution” to the million of tons of plastic and oil in the oceans poisoning fish and creating enormous dead zones. There’s no “solution” to climate change. No one expects or promises a miracle cure for nature’s centuries of abuse at human hands.

But there are mitigations, choices we can make and technologies we can opt for where a small change can propagate meaningfully and, if not undo the damage we’ve done, reduce it going forward and make people aware of the difference they can make.

Small fish in a big, scary pond

The trip came right at the beginning of the accelerator, a choice that meant they were only getting started in the program and in fact had never met one another. It also meant in many cases their pitches and business models were less than polished. This is for the most part an early-stage program, and early in the program at that.

That said, the companies may be young but the ideas and technologies are sound. I expect to follow up with many as they perfect their hardware, raise money, and complete pilot projects, but I think it’s important to highlight each one of them, if only briefly. The accelerator’s demo day is actually today, and I wish I could attend to see how the companies and founders have evolved.

Some accelerators are so big and so general-purpose that it was refreshing to have a manageable number of companies all clustered around interlinked issues and united by a common concern. If young entrepreneurs trying to change the world isn’t TechCrunch business, I don’t know what is.

The problems may be multifarious, but I managed to group the startups under two general umbrellas: waste reduction and aquatic intelligence.

But before that I want to mention one that doesn’t fit into either category and for other reasons deserves a shout out.

coral vita

Coral Vita grows corals at many times their normal rate and implants them in dying reefs.

Coral Vita is working on a special method of fast-tracking coral growth and simultaneously selecting for organisms resistant to bleaching and other threats. The founder, Gator Halpern, impressed the importance of the coral systems on us over the trip, as did filmmaker Jeff Orlowski, who directed the harrowing documentaries Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral. (He gave a workshop on storytelling — important when you’re pitching a film or a startup.)

Gator is using a special method to grow corals at 50 times normal rates and hopefully resuscitate reefs around the world, which is awesome, but I wanted to put Coral Vita first because of a horribly apropos coincidence: Hurricane Dorian, the latest in a historically long unbroken line of storms, struck his home and lab in the Bahamas while we were at sea.

It was literally battering the islands while he was supposed to pitch investors, and he used his time instead to ask us to help the victims of the storm. That’s heart. And it serves as a reminder that these are not armchair solutions to invented problems.

If you can spare a buck, you can support Coral Vita and victims of Dorian in the Bahamas here.

Waste reduction

The other companies were addressing problems equally as destructive, if not quite so immediately so.

Humans produce a lot of waste, and a lot of that waste ends up in the ocean, either as whole plastic bags scooping up fish, microplastics poisoning them, or heavier trash cluttering the sea floor. These startups focused on reducing humanity’s deleterious effects on ocean ecosystems.

Cruz Foam is looking to replace one of my least favorite substances, Styrofoam, which I see broken up and mixed in with beach soil and sand all the time. The company has created a process that uses an incredibly abundant and strong material called chitin to create a lightweight, biodegradable packing foam. Chitin is what a lot of invertebrates use to form their shells and exoskeletons, and there’s tons of it out there — but the company has been careful to find ethical sourcing for the volume it need.

Cruz Foam’s chitin-based product, left, and Biocellection’s plastic reduction process.

Biocellection is coming from the other direction, having created a process to break down polyethylenes (i.e. plastics) into smaller molecules that are useful in existing chemical processes. It’s actually upcycling waste plastic rather than repurposing it as a lower grade product.

Loliware was in SOA’s first batch, and creates single-use straws out of kelp material — a timely endeavor, as evidenced by the $6M round A they just pulled in, and backlog of millions of units ordered. Their challenge now is not finding a market but supplying it.

Dispatch Goods and Muuse are taking complementary approaches to reducing single-use items for take-out. Dispatch follows a model in use elsewhere in the world where durable containers are used rather than disposable ones for delivery items, then picked up, washed, and reused. Kind of obvious when you think about it, which is it’s common in other places.

Muuse (formerly Revolv) takes a more tech-centric approach, partnering with coffee shops to issue reusable cups rather than disposable ones. You can keep the cup if you want, or drop it off at a smart collection point and get a refund; RFID tags keep track of the items. Founder Forrest Carroll talked about early successes with this model on semi-closed environments like airports and college campuses.

repurpose screen

Repurpose is aiming to create a way to go “plastic neutral” the way people try to go “carbon neutral.” Companies and individuals can sponsor individual landfills where their plastics go, subsidizing the direct removal and handling costs of a given quantity of trash.

Finless Foods hopes to indirectly reduce the huge amount of cost and waste created by fishing (“sustainable” really isn’t) by creating lab-grown tuna tissue that’s indistinguishable from the real thing. It’s a work in progress, but they’ve got a ton of money so you can probably count on it.

Intelligence and automation

The technology used in the maritime and fishing industries tends toward the “sturdy legacy” type rather than “cutting edge.” That’s changing as costs drop and the benefits of things like autonomous vehicles and IoT become evident.

Ellipsis represents perhaps the most advanced, yet direct, application of the latest tech. The company uses camera-equipped drones using computer vision to inspect rivers and bodies of water for plastics, helping cleanup and response crews characterize and prioritize them. This kind of low-level data is largely missing from cleanup efforts, which gave rise to the name, which refers to both the peripatetic founder Ellie and the symbol indicating missing or omitted information

ellipsis gif

Ellipsis uses computer vision to find plastic waste in water systems.

For larger-scale inspection, autonomous boats like Saildrone are an increasingly valuable tool — but they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and have their own limitations.

EcoDrone is a lower-cost, smaller, customizable autonomous sailboat that costs more like $2,500. Plenty of missions would prefer to deploy a fleet of smaller, cheaper boats than put all their hopes into one vessel.

seaproven

Sea Proven is going the other direction, with a much larger autonomous ship: 20 meters long with a full ton of payload space. That opens up entirely new mission profiles that use sophisticated, large-scale equipment and require long-term presence at sea. The company has two ships now embarking on a mission to track whales in the Mediterranean.

Nets and traps are notoriously dumb, producing a huge amount of “bycatch,” animals caught up in them that aren’t what the fishing vessel was aiming (or licensed) to collect. Smart Catch equips these huge nets with a camera that tracks and characterizes the fish that enter, allowing the owner to watch and monitor them remotely and respond if necessary.

smartcatch

Meanwhile “dumb” traps can still be smarter in other ways. Stationary traps in stormy seas are often lost, dragged along the sea bed to an unknown location, there to sit attracting hapless crab and fish until they fall apart centuries from now. Blue Ocean Gear makes GPS-equipped buoys that can be tracked easily, reducing the risk of losing expensive fishing kit and line, and preventing “ghost fishing.”

Connectivity at sea can be problematic, with satellite often the only real option. Sure, Starlink and others are on their way, but why wait? A system of interconnected floating hubs from ONet could serve as hotspots for ships carrying valuable and voluminous data that would otherwise need to be processed at sea or uploaded at great cost.

screen dashboard cable 1

And integrating all that data with other datasets like those provided by universities, ports, municipalities, NGOs… good luck getting it all in one place. But that’s the goal of SINAY, which is assembling a huge ocean-centric meta-database where users can cross-reference without having to sort or process it locally. Clouds come from oceans, right? So why shouldn’t the ocean be in the cloud?

Accelerator at Sea

The idea of commencing this accelerator program with a trip to southeast Alaska is a fanciful one, no doubt. But an influx of support for the accelerator’s parent organization, the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, made it possible. The SOA raised millions from the mysterious Pine and not-so-mysterious Benioffs, but it also made a deep impression on the founder of Lindblad Expeditions, Sven Lindblad, who offered not just to host the event but to attend and speak at it.

He joined several other experts and interesting people in doing so: Former head of Google X Tom Chi, Value Act’s Jeff Ubben, Gigi Brisson and her Ocean Elders, including Captain (ret.) Don Walsh, the first man to reach the bottom of the Challenger Depths in the Marianas Trench. He’s hilarious, by the way.

I met SOA founder Daniela Fernandez at a TechCrunch event a few years ago when all this was just one of many twinkles in her twinkly eyes, and it’s been rewarding to watch her grow a community around these issues, which have passionate supporters around the globe if you’re willing to look for them and validate their purpose. It’s not a surprise to me at all that she has collected such an impressive group.

The boat, departing from Juneau, made a number of stops at local places of interest, where we would meet locals in the fishing industry, whale researchers, and others, or hear about the local economy ecology from one of the boat’s designated naturalists. In between these expeditions we did team-building exercises, honed pitches, and heard talks from the people mentioned above on hiring practices, investment trends, history.

These people weren’t just plucked from from the void — they are all part of the extended community that the SOA and Fernandez have built over the last few years. The organization was built with the idea of putting young, motivated people together with older, more experienced ones, and that’s just what was happening.

gator jeff workshop

In a way it was what you might expect out of an accelerator program: Connecting startups with industry veterans and investors (of which there were several present) and getting them the advice and exposure they need. There was a pitch competition — the “Otter Sanctuary” (you had to be there).

But there was something very different about doing it this way — on a boat, I mean. In Alaska. With bears, whales, and the northern lights present at every turn.

“For the first time ever, we brought together a community of ocean entrepreneurs from all around the world and allowed them to become fully immersed in the environment that they have been working so hard to protect,” said Craig Dudenhoffer, who runs the accelerator program. “It was amazing to see the entrepreneurs establishing lifelong relationships with each other and with members of the SOA community. It might seem counter-intuitive for a technology entrepreneur, but sometimes you have to disconnect from technology in order to reconnect with your mission.”

In a normal startup accelerator, and in fact for the remainder of this one, aspiring entrepreneurs are living on their own somewhere, coming into a shared office space, attending office hours, meeting VCs in their offices or at demo days. That’s just fine, and indeed what many a startup needs — a peer group, a focal point in space and time, goals and advice.

On the boat, however, these things were present, but secondary to the experience of, say, standing next to someone under the aurora. I’m aware of how that sounds — “it was an experience, man!” — but there’s something fundamentally different about it.

In an office in the Bay Area, there is an established power structure and hierarchy. Schedules are adjusted around meetings, priorities are split, time and attention are devoted in formal 15-minute increments. On the boat there was no hierarchy, or rather the artificial one to which we would cleave in the city was flattened by the scale of what we were learning and experiencing.

You’d be in a zodiac or pressed against the railing with your binoculars, talking about whales and the threat of microplastics with whoever’s next to you in a normal fashion, only to find out they’re a billionaire who you’d never be able to meet directly with at all, let alone on equal terms.

Sitting at breakfast one day the guy next to me started talking about hydrogen-powered trucking — I figured I’d indulge this harmless idealist. In fact it was Jeff Ubben and Value Act was investing millions in an ecosystem they fully expect to take over the west coast. This sort of encounter was happening constantly as people engaged naturally, acting outside the established hierarchies and power structures.

Part of that was the gravity of the issues the startups were facing, and which we were reminded of repeatedly by the impending hurricane, the hatchery warning of salmon apocalypse, the visibly collapsing ecosystems, and perhaps most poignantly by the changes seen personally by Don and Sven, who were been on the seas professionally long before I was even born.

“It’s like salmon eggs”

On the last night of the trip, I shared a glass of wine with Sven to talk about why he was supporting this endeavor, which was undoubtedly expensive and certainly unusual.

“From a business perspective, I depend on the ocean — but there’s a personal connection as well. I’m constantly looking for ways to protect what we depend on,” he began. “We have a fund that generates a couple million dollars a year, and we find different people that we believe in — that have an idea, a passion, intelligence. You meet someone like Daniela, you want to go to bat for them.”

Kristin Hettermann ALASKA SOA 39

“When you’re 21 or whatever, you have all these idealistic thoughts about making a difference in the world. They need support in a variety of ways — advice, finance, mentorship, all these things are part of the puzzle,” he said. “What SOA has done is recognize people that have a good idea. Left to their own devices most of them would probably fail. But we can provide some support, and it’s like with salmon eggs – maybe instead of one in a million surviving, maybe two, or five survive, you know?”

“Tech is a valuable tool, but it has to serve to support an idea. It isn’t the idea. Eliminating plastics and bycatch, making data more useful, putting sonar sensors on robotic boats, all very interesting. We need solutions, actions, ideas, as fast as we can, to accelerate the change in behavior as fast as we can.”

His earnest replies soon became emotional, however, as his core concern for the ocean and planet in general took over.

“We’re fucked,” he said simply. “We are literally destroying the next generation’s future. I’ve been with colleagues and we’ve wept over glasses of wine over what we’re doing.”

“I have two personalities,” he explained. “And most of my friends, associates, scientists have these dual personalities, too. One is when they look in the mirror and talk to themselves — that tends to be more pessimistic. But the other is the external personality, where being pessimistic is not helpful.”

“Something like this really activates that optimism,” he said. “At the end of the day young people have to grab their future, because we sure haven’t done a great job of it. They have to get out there, they have to vote, they have to take control. Because if the system really starts to collapse… I don’t think anyone even begins to understand the magnitude of it. It’s unfathomable.”

The Accelerator at Sea program was a fascinating experience and I’m glad to have taken part. I feel sure it was valuable for the startups as well, and not just because of the $25,000 they were each spontaneously awarded from the investors on board, who in closing remarks emphasized how important it is that startups like these and the people behind them are supported by gatekeepers like venture firms and press.

The combination of good times in nature, stimulating experts and talks, and a group of highly motivated young entrepreneurs was a powerful mixture, and unfortunately one that is difficult to describe even in 3,000 words. But I’m glad it exists and I look forward to following the progress of these companies and the people behind them. You can keep up with the SOA at its website.

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Boston Dynamics puts its robotic quadruped Spot up for sale

Posted by | artificial intelligence, boston dynamics, Gadgets, hardware, robotics, spotmini, TC | No Comments

Since the days of BigDog, the quadrupedal robots of Boston Dynamics have impressed and repelled us. But while the early, bulky robots never felt like something we’d see in real life, the company’s latest and greatest creation, Spot, is not only quite real, but now for sale — in fact, some people have had them for months already.

Boston Dynamics announced on our stage at TC Sessions: Robotics last year that Spot, previously known as SpotMini, would be its first commercial product — and we got the first peek at the production version at this year’s conference in May. It’s an incredibly impressive and flexible robotics platform capable of navigating a variety of environments and interacting with many everyday objects and obstacles. And while today is the first day of official sales, there are already robots out there in use.

“We’re putting Spots out into the wild as we speak,” Boston Dynamics VP of business development Michael Perry told TechCrunch. “Last month we started delivering robots to customers, as part of an early adopter program. The question we’re posing to these early customers is ‘what do you think spot can do for you that’s valuable?’ We had some initial ideas, but it’s all our thinking and the hope is that this program will enable a whole new set of use cases.”

The early adopter program is lease-based rather than a straight purchase, but there’s no shortage of customers who want to own their Spot outright. The cost of one of the robots varies, but think tens of thousands of dollars — this isn’t a hobby bot.

“The general guidance is that the entire early adopter program is going to be about the price of a car, but how nice of a car depends on a lot,” said Perry.

Some people might want a bare-bones platform onto which they can integrate their own sensing and interaction tech. Others might want a fully functional robot they can plug into their existing automation workflow.

But either way, it will take some work on the part of the customer. Spot isn’t going to inspect that oil pipeline or patrol a facility with the push of a button. It’s a powerful, flexible legged robot platform, but Boston Dynamics isn’t running a turn-key service.

“We’re now at a phase where we don’t have to send out 12 engineers with the robot,” said Perry. “Say a customer wants to operate it close to people — it needs to detect people and change its behavior. That’s totally possible. We can actually leave it with them, give them access to our GitHub repo, and say ‘have at it.’ But if someone says they just want it built into the robot… We want people to have realistic expectations about what it can do.”

That said, you don’t need to present a whole whitepaper on your intentions. A lot of companies just want to buy a couple of these guys to play around with and test. If you’re one of those, or perhaps a smaller operation with more specific goals in mind, get in touch with Boston Dynamics and its sales team via the link here.

“We have a deluge of people emailing us,” he lamented. “Some are legitimate applications, but some just want Spot as a pet, or to get them a beer from the fridge. It would be thrilling to accommodate them, but we’re not quite there yet.”

No word on when you’ll be able to buy an Atlas.

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