robotics

Lift Aircraft’s Hexa may be your first multirotor drone ride

Posted by | drones, Gadgets, hardware, lift aircraft, passenger drones, robotics, Startups, Transportation | No Comments

We were promised jetpacks, but let’s be honest, they’re just plain unsafe. So a nice drone ride is probably all we should reasonably expect. Lift Aircraft is the latest to make a play for the passenger multirotor market, theoretical as it is, and its craft is a sleek little thing with some interesting design choices to make it suitable for laypeople to “pilot.”

The Austin-based company just took the wraps off the Hexa, the 18-rotor craft it intends to make available for short recreational flights. It just flew for the first time last month, and could be taking passengers aloft as early as next year.

The Hexa is considerably more lightweight than the aircraft that seemed to be getting announced every month or two earlier this year. Lift’s focus isn’t on transport, which is a phenomenally complicated problem both in terms of regulation and engineering. Instead, it wants to simply make the experience of flying in a giant drone available for thrill-seekers with a bit of pocket money.

This reduced scope means the craft can get away with being just 432 pounds and capable of 10-15 minutes of sustained flight with a single passenger. Compared with Lilium’s VTOL engines or Volocopter’s 36-foot wingspan, this thing looks like a toy. And that’s essentially what it is, for now. But there’s something to be said for proving your design in a comparatively easily accessed market and moving up, rather than trying to invent an air taxi business from scratch.

“Multi-seat eVTOL air taxis, especially those that are designed to transition to wing-borne flight, are probably 10 years away and will require new regulations and significant advances in battery technology to be practical and safe. We didn’t want to wait for major technology or regulatory breakthroughs to start flying,” said CEO Matt Chasen in a news release. “We’ll be flying years before anyone else.”

The Hexa is flown with a single joystick and an iPad; direct movements and attitude control are done with the former, while destination-based movement, take-off and landing take place on the latter. This way people can go from walking in the front door to flying one of these things — or rather riding in one and suggesting some directions to go — in an hour or so.

It’s small enough that it doesn’t even count as a “real” aircraft; it’s a “powered ultralight,” which is a plus and a minus: no pilot’s license necessary, but you can’t go past a few hundred feet of altitude or fly over populated areas. No doubt there’s still a good deal of fun you can have flying around a sort of drone theme park, though. The whole area will have been 3D mapped prior to flight, of course.

Lifting the Hexa are 18 rotors, each of which is powered by its own battery, which spreads the risk out considerably and makes it simple to swap them out. As far as safety is concerned, it can run with up to six engines down, and has pontoons in case of a water landing and an emergency parachute should the unthinkable happen.

The team is looking to roll out its drone-riding experience soon, but it has yet to select its first city. Finding a good location, checking with the community, getting the proper permits — not simple. Chasen told New Atlas the craft is “not very loud, but they’re also not whisper-quiet, either.” I’m thinking “not very loud” is in comparison to jets — every drone I’ve ever come across, from palm-sized to cargo-bearing, has made an incredible racket, and if someone wanted to start a drone preserve next door I’d fight it tooth and nail. (Apparently Seattle is high on the list, too, so this may come to pass.)

In a sense, engineering a working autonomous multirotor aircraft was the easy part of building this business. Chasen told GeekWire that the company has raised a “typical-size seed round,” and is preparing for a Series A — probably once it has a launch city in its sights.

We’ll likely hear more at SXSW in March, where the Hexa will likely fly its first passengers.

Powered by WPeMatico

Rolling, hopping robots explore Earthly analogs of distant planets

Posted by | esa, Europe, Gadgets, hardware, mars, robotics, science, Space | No Comments

Before we send any planet-trotting robot to explore the landscape of Mars or Venus, we need to test it here on Earth. Two such robotic platforms being developed for future missions are undergoing testing at European Space Agency facilities: one that rolls, and one that hops.

The rolling one is actually on the books to head to the Red Planet as part of the ESA’s Mars 2020 program. It’s just wrapped a week of testing in the Spanish desert, just one of many Mars analogs the space program uses. It looks nice. The gravity’s a little different, of course, and there’s a bit more atmosphere, but it’s close enough to test a few things.

The team controlling Charlie, which is what they named the prototype, was doing so from hundreds of miles away, in the U.K. — not quite an interplanetary distance, but they did of course think to simulate the delay operators would encounter if the rover were actually on Mars. It would also have a ton more instruments on board.

Exploration and navigation was still done entirely using information collected by the rover via radar and cameras, and the rover’s drill was also put to work. It rained one day, which is extraordinarily unlikely to happen on Mars, but the operators presumably pretended it was a dust storm and rolled with it.

Another Earth-analog test is scheduled for February in Chile’s Atacama desert. You can learn more about the ExoMars rover and the Mars 2020 mission here.

The other robot that the ESA publicized this week isn’t theirs but was developed by ETH Zurich: the SpaceBok —  you know, like springbok. The researchers there think that hopping around like that well-known ungulate could be a good way to get around on other planets.

It’s nice to roll around on stable wheels, sure, but it’s no use when you want to get to the far side of some boulder or descend into a ravine to check out an interesting mineral deposit. SpaceBok is meant to be a highly stable jumping machine that can traverse rough terrain or walk with a normal quadrupedal gait as needed (well, normal for robots).

“This is not particularly useful on Earth,” admits SpaceBok team member Elias Hampp, but “it could reach a height of four meters on the Moon. This would allow for a fast and efficient way of moving forward.”

It was doing some testing at the ESA’s “Mars Yard sandbox,” a little pen filled with Mars-like soil and rocks. The team is looking into improving autonomy with better vision — the better it can see where it lands, the better SpaceBok can stick that landing.

Interplanetary missions are very much in vogue now, and we may soon even see some private trips to the Moon and Mars. So even if NASA or the ESA doesn’t decide to take SpaceBok (or some similarly creative robot) out into the solar system, perhaps a generous sponsor will.

Powered by WPeMatico

Mars Lander InSight sends the first of many selfies after a successful touchdown

Posted by | Gadgets, Insight, mars, NASA, robotics, science, Space | No Comments

Last night’s 10 minutes of terror as the InSight Mars Lander descended to the Martian surface at 12,300 MPH were a nail-biter for sure, but now the robotic science platform is safe and sound — and has sent pics back to prove it.

The first thing it sent was a couple pictures of its surroundings: Elysium Planitia, a rather boring-looking, featureless plane that is nevertheless perfect for InSight’s drilling and seismic activity work.

The images, taken with its Instrument Context Camera, are hardly exciting on their own merits — a dirty landscape viewed through a dusty tube. But when you consider that it’s of an unexplored territory on a distant planet, and that it’s Martian dust and rubble occluding the lens, it suddenly seems pretty amazing!

Decelerating from interplanetary velocity and making a perfect landing was definitely the hard part, but it was by no means InSight’s last challenge. After touching down, it still needs to set itself up and make sure that none of its many components and instruments were damaged during the long flight and short descent to Mars.

And the first good news arrived shortly after landing, relayed via NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft in orbit: a partial selfie showing that it was intact and ready to roll. The image shows, among other things, the large mobile arm folded up on top of the lander, and a big copper dome covering some other components.

Telemetry data sent around the same time show that InSight has also successfully deployed its solar panels and is collecting power with which to continue operating. These fragile fans are crucial to the lander, of course, and it’s a great relief to hear they’re working properly.

These are just the first of many images the lander will send, though unlike Curiosity and the other rovers, it won’t be traveling around taking snapshots of everything it sees. Its data will be collected from deep inside the planet, offering us insight into the planet’s — and our solar system’s — origins.

Powered by WPeMatico

That night, a forest flew: DroneSeed is planting trees from the air

Posted by | artificial intelligence, Computer Vision, drones, Gadgets, GreenTech, hardware, robotics, science, Startups, TC, UAVs | No Comments

Wildfires are consuming our forests and grasslands faster than we can replace them. It’s a vicious cycle of destruction and inadequate restoration rooted, so to speak, in decades of neglect of the institutions and technologies needed to keep these environments healthy.

DroneSeed is a Seattle-based startup that aims to combat this growing problem with a modern toolkit that scales: drones, artificial intelligence and biological engineering. And it’s even more complicated than it sounds.

Trees in decline

A bit of background first. The problem of disappearing forests is a complex one, but it boils down to a few major factors: climate change, outdated methods and shrinking budgets (and as you can imagine, all three are related).

Forest fires are a natural occurrence, of course. And they’re necessary, as you’ve likely read, to sort of clear the deck for new growth to take hold. But climate change, monoculture growth, population increases, lack of control burns and other factors have led to these events taking place not just more often, but more extensively and to more permanent effect.

On average, the U.S. is losing 7 million acres a year. That’s not easy to replace to begin with — and as budgets for the likes of national and state forest upkeep have shrunk continually over the last half century, there have been fewer and fewer resources with which to combat this trend.

The most effective and common reforestation technique for a recently burned woodland is human planters carrying sacks of seedlings and manually selecting and placing them across miles of landscapes. This back-breaking work is rarely done by anyone for more than a year or two, so labor is scarce and turnover is intense.

Even if the labor was available on tap, the trees might not be. Seedlings take time to grow in nurseries and a major wildfire might necessitate the purchase and planting of millions of new trees. It’s impossible for nurseries to anticipate this demand, and the risk associated with growing such numbers on speculation is more than many can afford. One missed guess could put the whole operation underwater.

Meanwhile, if nothing gets planted, invasive weeds move in with a vengeance, claiming huge areas that were once old growth forests. Lacking the labor and tree inventory to stem this possibility, forest keepers resort to a stopgap measure: use helicopters to drench the area in herbicides to kill weeds, then saturate it with fast-growing cheatgrass or the like. (The alternative to spraying is, again, the manual approach: machetes.)

At least then, in a year, instead of a weedy wasteland, you have a grassy monoculture — not a forest, but it’ll do until the forest gets here.

One final complication: helicopter spraying is a horrendously dangerous profession. These pilots are flying at sub-100-foot elevations, performing high-speed maneuvers so that their sprays reach the very edge of burn zones but they don’t crash head-on into the trees. This is an extremely dangerous occupation: 80 to 100 crashes occur every year in the U.S. alone.

In short, there are more and worse fires and we have fewer resources — and dated ones at that — with which to restore forests after them.

These are facts anyone in forest ecology and logging are familiar with, but perhaps not as well known among technologists. We do tend to stay in areas with cell coverage. But it turns out that a boost from the cloistered knowledge workers of the tech world — specifically those in the Emerald City — may be exactly what the industry and ecosystem require.

Simple idea, complex solution

So what’s the solution to all this? Automation, right?

Automation, especially via robotics, is proverbially suited for jobs that are “dull, dirty, and dangerous.” Restoring a forest is dirty and dangerous to be sure. But dull isn’t quite right. It turns out that the process requires far more intelligence than anyone was willing, it seems, to apply to the problem — with the exception of those planters. That’s changing.

Earlier this year, DroneSeed was awarded the first multi-craft, over-55-pounds unmanned aerial vehicle license ever issued by the FAA. Its custom UAV platforms, equipped with multispectral camera arrays, high-end lidar, six-gallon tanks of herbicide and proprietary seed dispersal mechanisms have been hired by several major forest management companies, with government entities eyeing the service as well.

These drones scout a burned area, mapping it down to as high as centimeter accuracy, including objects and plant species, fumigate it efficiently and autonomously, identify where trees would grow best, then deploy painstakingly designed seed-nutrient packages to those locations. It’s cheaper than people, less wasteful and dangerous than helicopters and smart enough to scale to national forests currently at risk of permanent damage.

I met with the company’s team at their headquarters near Ballard, where complete and half-finished drones sat on top of their cases and the air was thick with capsaicin (we’ll get to that).

The idea for the company began when founder and CEO Grant Canary burned through a few sustainable startup ideas after his last company was acquired, and was told, in his despondency, that he might have to just go plant trees. Canary took his friend’s suggestion literally.

“I started looking into how it’s done today,” he told me. “It’s incredibly outdated. Even at the most sophisticated companies in the world, planters are superheroes that use bags and a shovel to plant trees. They’re being paid to move material over mountainous terrain and be a simple AI and determine where to plant trees where they will grow — microsites. We are now able to do both these functions with drones. This allows those same workers to address much larger areas faster without the caloric wear and tear.”

It may not surprise you to hear that investors are not especially hot on forest restoration (I joked that it was a “growth industry” but really because of the reasons above it’s in dire straits).

But investors are interested in automation, machine learning, drones and especially government contracts. So the pitch took that form. With the money DroneSeed secured, it has built its modestly sized but highly accomplished team and produced the prototype drones with which is has captured several significant contracts before even announcing that it exists.

“We definitely don’t fit the mold or metrics most startups are judged on. The nice thing about not fitting the mold is people double take and then get curious,” Canary said. “Once they see we can actually execute and have been with 3 of the 5 largest timber companies in the U.S. for years, they get excited and really start advocating hard for us.”

The company went through Techstars, and Social Capital helped them get on their feet, with Spero Ventures joining up after the company got some groundwork done.

If things go as DroneSeed hopes, these drones could be deployed all over the world by trained teams, allowing spraying and planting efforts in nurseries and natural forests to take place exponentially faster and more efficiently than they are today. It’s genuine change-the-world-from-your-garage stuff, which is why this article is so long.

Hunter (weed) killers

The job at hand isn’t simple or even straightforward. Every landscape differs from every other, not just in the shape and size of the area to be treated but the ecology, native species, soil type and acidity, type of fire or logging that cleared it and so on. So the first and most important task is to gather information.

For this, DroneSeed has a special craft equipped with a sophisticated imaging stack. This first pass is done using waypoints set on satellite imagery.

The information collected at this point is really far more detailed than what’s actually needed. The lidar, for instance, collects spatial information at a resolution much beyond what’s needed to understand the shape of the terrain and major obstacles. It produces a 3D map of the vegetation as well as the terrain, allowing the system to identify stumps, roots, bushes, new trees, erosion and other important features.

This works hand in hand with the multispectral camera, which collects imagery not just in the visible bands — useful for identifying things — but also in those outside the human range, which allows for in-depth analysis of the soil and plant life.

The resulting map of the area is not just useful for drone navigation, but for the surgical strikes that are necessary to make this kind of drone-based operation worth doing in the first place. No doubt there are researchers who would love to have this data as well.

Now, spraying and planting are very different tasks. The first tends to be done indiscriminately using helicopters, and the second by laborers who burn out after a couple of years — as mentioned above, it’s incredibly difficult work. The challenge in the first case is to improve efficiency and efficacy, while in the second case is to automate something that requires considerable intelligence.

Spraying is in many ways simpler. Identifying invasive plants isn’t easy, exactly, but it can be done with imagery like that the drones are collecting. Having identified patches of a plant to be eliminated, the drones can calculate a path and expend only as much herbicide is necessary to kill them, instead of dumping hundreds of gallons indiscriminately on the entire area. It’s cheaper and more environmentally friendly. Naturally, the opposite approach could be used for distributing fertilizer or some other agent.

I’m making it sound easy again. This isn’t a plug and play situation — you can’t buy a DJI drone and hit the “weedkiller” option in its control software. A big part of this operation was the creation not only of the drones themselves, but the infrastructure with which to deploy them.

Conservation convoy

The drones themselves are unique, but not alarmingly so. They’re heavy-duty craft, capable of lifting well over the 57 pounds of payload they carry (the FAA limits them to 115 pounds).

“We buy and gut aircraft, then retrofit them,” Canary explained simply. Their head of hardware, would probably like to think there’s a bit more to it than that, but really the problem they’re solving isn’t “make a drone” but “make drones plant trees.” To that end, Canary explained, “the most unique engineering challenge was building a planting module for the drone that functions with the software.” We’ll get to that later.

DroneSeed deploys drones in swarms, which means as many as five drones in the air at once — which in turn means they need two trucks and trailers with their boxes, power supplies, ground stations and so on. The company’s VP of operations comes from a military background where managing multiple aircraft onsite was part of the job, and she’s brought her rigorous command of multi-aircraft environments to the company.

The drones take off and fly autonomously, but always under direct observation by the crew. If anything goes wrong, they’re there to take over, though of course there are plenty of autonomous behaviors for what to do in case of, say, a lost positioning signal or bird strike.

They fly in patterns calculated ahead of time to be the most efficient, spraying at problem areas when they’re over them, and returning to the ground stations to have power supplies swapped out before returning to the pattern. It’s key to get this process down pat, since efficiency is a major selling point. If a helicopter does it in a day, why shouldn’t a drone swarm? It would be sad if they had to truck the craft back to a hangar and recharge them every hour or two. It also increases logistics costs like gas and lodging if it takes more time and driving.

This means the team involves several people, as well as several drones. Qualified pilots and observers are needed, as well as people familiar with the hardware and software that can maintain and troubleshoot on site — usually with no cell signal or other support. Like many other forms of automation, this one brings its own new job opportunities to the table.

AI plays Mother Nature

The actual planting process is deceptively complex.

The idea of loading up a drone with seeds and setting it free on a blasted landscape is easy enough to picture. Hell, it’s been done. There are efforts going back decades to essentially load seeds or seedlings into guns and fire them out into the landscape at speeds high enough to bury them in the dirt: in theory this combines the benefits of manual planting with the scale of carpeting the place with seeds.

But whether it was slapdash placement or the shock of being fired out of a seed gun, this approach never seemed to work.

Forestry researchers have shown the effectiveness of finding the right “microsite” for a seed or seedling; in fact, it’s why manual planting works as well as it does. Trained humans find perfect spots to put seedlings: in the lee of a log; near but not too near the edge of a stream; on the flattest part of a slope, and so on. If you really want a forest to grow, you need optimal placement, perfect conditions and preventative surgical strikes with pesticides.

Although it’s difficult, it’s also the kind of thing that a machine learning model can become good at. Sorting through messy, complex imagery and finding local minima and maxima is a specialty of today’s ML systems, and the aerial imagery from the drones is rich in relevant data.

The company’s CTO led the creation of an ML model that determines the best locations to put trees at a site — though this task can be highly variable depending on the needs of the forest. A logging company might want a tree every couple of feet, even if that means putting them in sub-optimal conditions — but a few inches to the left or right may make all the difference. On the other hand, national forests may want more sparse deployments or specific species in certain locations to curb erosion or establish sustainable firebreaks.

Once the data has been crunched, the map is loaded into the drones’ hive mind and the convoy goes to the location, where the craft are loaded with seeds instead of herbicides.

But not just any old seeds! You see, that’s one more wrinkle. If you just throw a sagebrush seed on the ground, even if it’s in the best spot in the world, it could easily be snatched up by an animal, roll or wash down to a nearby crevasse, or simply fail to find the right nutrients in time despite the planter’s best efforts.

That’s why DroneSeed’s head of Planting and his team have been working on a proprietary seed packet that they were unbelievably reticent to detail.

From what I could gather, they’ve put a ton of work into packaging the seeds into nutrient-packed little pucks held together with a biodegradable fiber. The outside is dusted with capsaicin, the chemical that makes spicy food spicy (and also what makes bear spray do what it does). If they hadn’t told me, I might have guessed, since the workshop area was hazy with it, leading us all to cough and tear up a little. If I were a marmot, I’d learn to avoid these things real fast.

The pucks, or “seed vessels,” can and must be customized for the location and purpose — you have to match the content and acidity of the soil, things like that. DroneSeed will have to make millions of these things, but it doesn’t plan to be the manufacturer.

Finally these pucks are loaded in a special puck-dispenser which, closely coordinating with the drone, spits one out at the exact moment and speed needed to put it within a few centimeters of the microsite.

All these factors should improve the survival rate of seedlings substantially. That means that the company’s methods will not only be more efficient, but more effective. Reforestation is a numbers game played at scale, and even slight improvements — and DroneSeed is promising more than that — are measured in square miles and millions of tons of biomass.

Proof of life

DroneSeed has already signed several big contracts for spraying, and planting is next. Unfortunately, the timing on their side meant they missed this year’s planting season, though by doing a few small sites and showing off the results, they’ll be in pole position for next year.

After demonstrating the effectiveness of the planting technique, the company expects to expand its business substantially. That’s the scaling part — again, not easy, but easier than hiring another couple thousand planters every year.

Ideally the hardware can be assigned to local teams that do the on-site work, producing loci of activity around major forests from which jobs can be deployed at large or small scales. A set of five or six drones does the work of one helicopter, roughly speaking, so depending on the volume requested by a company or forestry organization, you may need dozens on demand.

That’s all yet to be explored, but DroneSeed is confident that the industry will see the writing on the wall when it comes to the old methods, and identify them as a solution that fits the future.

If it sounds like I’m cheerleading for this company, that’s because I am. It’s not often in the world of tech startups that you find a group of people not just attempting to solve a serious problem — it’s common enough to find companies hitting this or that issue — but who have spent the time, gathered the expertise and really done the dirty, boots-on-the-ground work that needs to happen so it goes from great idea to real company.

That’s what I felt was the case with DroneSeed, and here’s hoping their work pays off — for their sake, sure, but mainly for ours.

Powered by WPeMatico

Affetto is the wild-boy-head robot of your nightmares

Posted by | Android, Gadgets, osaka university, robotics, TC | No Comments

Affetto is a robot that can smile at you while it pierces your soul with its endless, dead state. Created by researchers at Osaka University, this crazy baby-head robot can mimic human emotions by scrunching up its nose, smiling and even closing its eyes and frowning. Put it all together and you get a nightmare from which there is no sane awakening!

Android robot faces have persisted in being a black box problem: they have been implemented but have only been judged in vague and general terms,” study first author Hisashi Ishihara says. “Our precise findings will let us effectively control android facial movements to introduce more nuanced expressions, such as smiling and frowning.”

We last saw Affetto in action in 2011 when it was even more frightening than it is now. The researchers have at least added some skin and hair to this cyberdemon, allowing us the briefest moment of solace as we stare into Affetto’s dead eyes and hope it doesn’t gum us to death. Ain’t the future grand?

The goal, obviously, is to lull humans into a state of calm as the rest of Affetto’s body, spiked and bladed, can whir them to pieces. The researchers write:

A trio of researchers at Osaka University has now found a method for identifying and quantitatively evaluating facial movements on their android robot child head. Named Affetto, the android’s first-generation model was reported in a 2011 publication. The researchers have now found a system to make the second-generation Affetto more expressive. Their findings offer a path for androids to express greater ranges of emotion, and ultimately have deeper interaction with humans.

The researchers investigated 116 different facial points on Affetto to measure its three-dimensional movement. Facial points were underpinned by so-called deformation units. Each unit comprises a set of mechanisms that create a distinctive facial contortion, such as lowering or raising of part of a lip or eyelid. Measurements from these were then subjected to a mathematical model to quantify their surface motion patterns.

Pro tip: Just slap one of these on your Roomba and send it around the house. The kids will love it and the cat will probably die of a heart attack.

Powered by WPeMatico

TWIICE One Exoskeleton furthers the promise of robotic mobility aids

Posted by | EPFL, exoskeleton, Gadgets, hardware, robotics, Wearables | No Comments

Few things in the world of technology can really ever be said to be “done,” and certainly exoskeletons are not among their number. They exist, but they are all works in progress, expensive, heavy, and limited. So it’s great to see this team working continuously on their TWIICE robotic wearable, improving it immensely with the guidance of motivated users.

TWIICE made its debut in 2016, and like all exoskeletons it was more promise made than promise kept. It’s a lower-half exoskeleton that supports and moves the legs of someone with limited mobility, while they support themselves on crutches. It’s far from ideal, and the rigidity and weight of systems like this make them too risky to deploy at scale for now.

But two years of refinement have made a world of difference. The exoskeleton weighs the same (which doesn’t matter since it carries its own weight), but supports heavier users while imparting more force with its motors, which have been integrated into the body itself to make it far less bulky.

Perhaps most importantly, however, the whole apparatus can now be donned and activated by the user all by herself, as Swiss former acrobat and now handcycling champion Silke Pan demonstrated in a video. She levers herself from her wheelchair into the sitting exoskeleton, attaches the fasteners on her legs and trunk, then activates the device and stands right up.

She then proceeds to climb more stairs than I’d rather attempt. She is an athlete, after all.

That kind of independence is often crucially important for the physically disabled for a multitude of reasons, and clearly achieving the capability has been a focus for the TWIICE team.

Although the exoskeleton has been worked on as a research project within the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), the plan is to spin off a startup to commercialize the tech as it approaches viability. The more they make and the more people use these devices — despite their limitations — the better future versions will be.

Powered by WPeMatico

The ultimate guide to gifting STEM toys: tons of ideas for little builders

Posted by | adafruit industries, Anki, artificial intelligence, Asia, BBC Micro, Disney, Education, Europe, Gadgets, Gaming, Gift Guide 2018, hardware, Kano, littlebits, makeblock, mattel, robotics, TC | No Comments

The holiday season is here again, touting all sorts of kids’ toys that pledge to pack ‘STEM smarts’ in the box, not just the usual battery-based fun.

Educational playthings are nothing new, of course. But, in recent years, long time toymakers and a flurry of new market entrants have piggybacked on the popularity of smartphones and apps, building connected toys for even very young kids that seek to tap into a wider ‘learn to code’ movement which itself feeds off worries about the future employability of those lacking techie skills.

Whether the lofty educational claims being made for some of these STEM gizmos stands the test of time remains to be seen. Much of this sums to clever branding. Though there’s no doubt a lot of care and attention has gone into building this category out, you’ll also find equally eye-catching price-tags.

Whatever STEM toy you buy there’s a high chance it won’t survive the fickle attention spans of kids at rest and play. (Even as your children’s appetite to be schooled while having fun might dash your ‘engineer in training’ expectations.) Tearing impressionable eyeballs away from YouTube or mobile games might be your main parental challenge — and whether kids really need to start ‘learning to code’ aged just 4 or 5 seems questionable.

Buyers with high ‘outcome’ hopes for STEM toys should certainly go in with their eyes, rather than their wallets, wide open. The ‘STEM premium’ can be steep indeed, even as the capabilities and educational potential of the playthings themselves varies considerably.

At the cheaper end of the price spectrum, a ‘developmental toy’ might not really be so very different from a more basic or traditional building block type toy used in concert with a kid’s own imagination, for example.

While, at the premium end, there are a few devices in the market that are essentially fully fledged computers — but with a child-friendly layer applied to hand-hold and gamify STEM learning. An alternative investment in your child’s future might be to commit to advancing their learning opportunities yourself, using whatever computing devices you already have at home. (There are plenty of standalone apps offering guided coding lessons, for example. And tons and tons of open source resources.)

For a little DIY STEM learning inspiration read this wonderful childhood memoir by TechCrunch’s very own John Biggs — a self-confessed STEM toy sceptic.

It’s also worth noting that some startups in this still youthful category have already pivoted more toward selling wares direct to schools — aiming to plug learning gadgets into formal curricula, rather than risking the toys falling out of favor at home. Which does lend weight to the idea that standalone ‘play to learn’ toys don’t necessarily live up to the hype. And are getting tossed under the sofa after a few days’ use.

We certainly don’t suggest there are any shortcuts to turn kids into coders in the gift ideas presented here. It’s through proper guidance — plus the power of their imagination — that the vast majority of children learn. And of course kids are individuals, with their own ideas about what they want to do and become.

The increasingly commercialized rush towards STEM toys, with hundreds of millions of investor dollars being poured into the category, might also be a cause for parental caution. There’s a risk of barriers being thrown up to more freeform learning — if companies start pushing harder to hold onto kids’ attention in a more and more competitive market. Barriers that could end up dampening creative thinking.

At the same time (adult) consumers are becoming concerned about how much time they spend online and on screens. So pushing kids to get plugged in from a very early age might not feel like the right thing to do. Your parental priorities might be more focused on making sure they develop into well rounded human beings — by playing with other kids and/or non-digital toys that help them get to know and understand the world around them, and encourage using more of their own imagination.

But for those fixed on buying into the STEM toy craze this holiday season, we’ve compiled a list of some of the main players, presented in alphabetical order, rounding up a selection of what they’re offering for 2018, hitting a variety of price-points, product types and age ranges, to present a market overview — and with the hope that a well chosen gift might at least spark a few bright ideas…


Adafruit Kits

Product: Metro 328 Starter Pack 
Price: $45
Description: Not a typical STEM toy but a starter kit from maker-focused and electronics hobbyist brand Adafruit. The kit is intended to get the user learning about electronics and Arduino microcontrollers to set them on a path to being a maker. Adafruit says the kit is designed for “everyone, even people with little or no electronics and programming experience”. Though parental supervision is a must unless you’re buying for a teenager or mature older child. Computer access is also required for programming the Arduino.

Be sure to check out Adafruit’s Young Engineers Category for a wider range of hardware hacking gift ideas too, from $10 for a Bare Conductive Paint Pen, to $25 for the Drawdio fun pack, to $35 for this Konstruktor DIY Film Camera Kit or $75 for the Snap Circuits Green kit — where budding makers can learn about renewable energy sources by building a range of solar and kinetic energy powered projects. Adafruit also sells a selection of STEM focused children’s books too, such as Python for Kids ($35)
Age: Teenagers, or younger children with parental supervision


[inline-ads]

Anki

Product: Cozmo
Price: $180
Description: The animation loving Anki team added a learn-to-code layer to their cute, desktop-mapping bot last year — called Cozmo Code Lab, which was delivered via free update — so the cartoonesque, programmable truck is not new on the scene for 2018 but has been gaining fresh powers over the years.

This year the company has turned its attention to adults, launching a new but almost identical-looking assistant-style bot, called Vector, that’s not really aimed at kids. That more pricey ($250) robot is slated to be getting access to its code lab in future, so it should have some DIY programming potential too.
Age: 8+


Dash Robotics

Product: Kamigami Jurassic World Robot
Price: ~$60
Description: Hobbyist robotics startup Dash Robotics has been collaborating with toymaker Mattel on the Kamigami line of biologically inspired robots for over a year now. The USB-charged bots arrive at kids’ homes in build-it-yourself form before coming to programmable, biomimetic life via the use of a simple, icon-based coding interface in the companion app.

The latest addition to the range is dinosaur bot series Jurassic World, currently comprised of a pair of pretty similar looking raptor dinosaurs, each with light up eyes and appropriate sound effects. Using the app kids can complete challenges to unlock new abilities and sounds. And if you have more than one dinosaur in the same house they can react to each other to make things even more lively.
Age: 8+


Kano

Product: Harry Potter Coding Kit
Price: $100
Description: British learn-to-code startup Kano has expanded its line this year with a co-branded, build-it-yourself wand linked to the fictional Harry Potter wizard series. The motion-sensitive e-product features a gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer and Bluetooth wireless so kids can use it to interact with coding content on-screen. The company offers 70-plus challenges for children to play wizard with, using wand gestures to manipulate digital content. Like many STEM toys it requires a tablet or desktop computer to work its digital magic (iOS and Android tablets are supported, as well as desktop PCs including Kano’s Computer Kit Touch, below)
Age: 6+

Product: Computer Kit Touch
Price: $280
Description: The latest version of Kano’s build-it-yourself Pi-powered kids’ computer. This year’s computer kit includes the familiar bright orange physical keyboard but now paired with a touchscreen. Kano reckons touch is a natural aid to the drag-and-drop, block-based learn-to-code systems it’s putting under kids’ fingertips here. Although its KanoOS Pi skin does support text-based coding too, and can run a wide range of other apps and programs — making this STEM device a fully fledged computer in its own right
Age: 6-13



Lego

Product: Boost Creative Toolbox
Price: $160
Description: Boost is Lego’s relatively recent foray into offering a simpler robotics and programming system aimed at younger kids vs its more sophisticated and expensive veteran Mindstorms creator platform (for 10+ year olds). The Boost Creative Toolbox is an entry point to Lego + robotics, letting kids build a range of different brick-based bots — all of which can be controlled and programmed via the companion app which offers an icon-based coding system.

Boost components can also be combined with other Lego kits to bring other not-electronic kits to life — such as its Stormbringer Ninjago Dragon kit (sold separately for $40). Ninjago + Boost means = a dragon that can walk and turn its head as if it’s about to breathe fire
Age: 7-12


littleBits

Product: Avengers Hero Inventor Kit
Price: $150
Description: This Disney co-branded wearable in kit form from the hardware hackers over at littleBits lets superhero-inspired kids snap together all sorts of electronic and plastic bits to make their own gauntlet from the Avengers movie franchise. The gizmo features an LED matrix panel, based on Tony Stark’s palm Repulsor Beam, they can control via companion app. There are 18 in-app activities for them to explore, assuming kids don’t just use amuse themselves acting out their Marvel superhero fantasies
Age: 8+

It’s worth noting that littleBits has lots more to offer — so if bringing yet more Disney-branded merch into your home really isn’t your thing, check out its wide range of DIY electronics kits, which cater to various price points, such as this Crawly Creature Kit ($40) or an Electronic Music Inventor Kit ($100), and much more… No major movie franchises necessary


Makeblock

Product: Codey Rocky
Price: $100
Description: Shenzhen-based STEM kit maker Makeblock crowdfunded this emotive, programmable bot geared towards younger kids on Kickstarter. There’s no assembly required, though the bot itself can transform into a wearable or handheld device for game playing, as Codey (the head) detaches from Rocky (the wheeled body).

Despite the young target age, the toy is packed with sophisticated tech — making use of deep learning algorithms, for example. While the company’s visual programming system, mBlock, also supports Python text coding, and allows kids to code bot movements and visual effects on the display, tapping into the 10 programmable modules on this sensor-heavy bot. Makeblock says kids can program Codey to create dot matrix animations, design games and even build AI and IoT applications, thanks to baked in support for voice, image and even face recognition… The bot has also been designed to be compatible with Lego bricks so kids can design and build physical add-ons too
Age: 6+

Product: Airblock
Price: $100
Description: Another programmable gizmo from Makeblock’s range. Airblock is a modular and programmable drone/hovercraft so this is a STEM device that can fly. Magnetic connectors are used for easy assembly of the soft foam pieces. Several different assembly configurations are possible. The companion app’s block-based coding interface is used for programming and controlling your Airblock creations
Age: 8+



Ozobot

Product: Evo
Price: $100
Description: This programmable robot has a twist as it can be controlled without a child always having to be stuck to a screen. The Evo’s sensing system can detect and respond to marks made by marker pens and stickers in the accompanying Experience Pack — so this is coding via paper plus visual cues.

There is also a digital, block-based coding interface for controlling Evo, called OzoBlockly (based on Google’s Blockly system). This has a five-level coding system to support a range of ages, from pre-readers (using just icon-based blocks), up to a ‘Master mode’ which Ozobot says includes extensive low-level control and advanced programming features
Age: 9+


Pi-top


Product: Modular Laptop
Price: $320 (with a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+), $285 without
Description: This snazzy 14-inch modular laptop, powered by Raspberry Pi, has a special focus on teaching coding and electronics. Slide the laptop’s keyboard forward and it reveals a built in rail for hardware hacking. Guided projects designed for kids include building a music maker and a smart robot. The laptop runs pi-top’s learn-to-code oriented OS — which supports block-based coding programs like Scratch and kid-friendly wares like Minecraft Pi edition, as well as its homebrew CEEDUniverse: A Civilization style game that bakes in visual programming puzzles to teach basic coding concepts. The pi-top also comes with a full software suite of more standard computing apps (including apps from Google and Microsoft). So this is no simple toy. Not a new model for this year — but still a compelling STEM machine
Age: 8+


Robo Wunderkind


Product: Starter Kit
Price: $200 
Description: Programmable robotics blocks for even very young inventors. The blocks snap together and are color-coded based on function so as to minimize instruction for the target age group. Kids can program their creations to do stuff like drive, play music, detect obstacles and more via a drag-and-drop coding interface in the companion Robo Code app. Another app — Robo Live — lets them control what they’ve built in real time. The physical blocks can also support Lego-based add-ons for more imaginative designs
Age: 5+


Root Robotics

Product: Root
Price: $200
Description: A robot that can sense and draw, thanks to a variety of on board sensors, battery-powered kinetic energy and its central feature: A built-in pen holder. Root uses spirographs as the medium for teaching STEM as kids get to code what the bot draws. They can also create musical compositions with a scan and play mode that turns Root into a music maker. The companion app offers three levels of coding interfaces to support different learning abilities and ages. At the top end it supports programming in Swift (with Python and JavaScript slated as coming soon). An optional subscription service offers access to additional learning materials and projects to expand Root’s educational value
Age: 4+



Sphero


Product: Bolt
Price: $150
Description: The app-enabled robot ball maker’s latest STEM gizmo. It’s still a transparent sphere but now has an 8×8 LED matrix lodged inside to expand the programmable elements. This colorful matrix can be programmed to display words, show data in real-time and offer game design opportunities. Bolt also includes an ambient light sensor, and speed and direction sensors, giving it an additional power up over earlier models. The Sphero Edu companion app supports drawing, Scratch-style block-based and JavaScript text programming options to suit different ages
Age: 8+


Tech Will Save Us

Product: Range of coding, electronics and craft kits
Price: From ~$30 up to $150
Description: A delightful range of electronic toys and coding kits, hitting various age and price-points, and often making use of traditional craft materials (which of course kids love). Examples include a solar powered moisture sensor kit ($40) to alert when a pot plant needs water; electronic dough ($35); a micro:bot add-on kit ($35) that makes use of the BBC micro:bit device (sold separately); and the creative coder kit ($70), which pairs block-based coding with a wearable that lets kids see their code in action (and reacting to their actions)
Age: 4+, 8+, 11+ depending on kit


UBTech Robotics

Product: JIMU Robot BuilderBots Series: Overdrive Kit
Price: $120
Description: More snap-together, codable robot trucks that kids get to build and control. These can be programmed either via posing and recording, or using Ubtech’s drag-and-drop, block-based Blockly coding program. The Shenzhen-based company, which has been in the STEM game for several years, offers a range of other kits in the same Jimu kit series — such as this similarly priced UnicornBot and its classic MeeBot Kit, which can be expanded via the newer Animal Add-on Kit
Age: 8+


Wonder Workshop

Product: Dot Creativity Kit 
Price: $80
Description: San Francisco-based Wonder Workshop offers a kid-friendly blend of controllable robotics and DIY craft-style projects in this entry-level Dot Creativity Kit. Younger kids can play around and personalize the talkative connected device. But the startup sells a trio of chatty robots all aimed at encouraging children to get into coding. Next in line there’s Dash ($150), also for 6+ year olds. Then Cue ($200) for 11+. The startup also has a growing range of accessories to expand the bots’ (programmable) functionality — such as this Sketch Kit ($40) which adds a few arty smarts to Dash or Cue.

With Dot, younger kids play around using a suite of creative apps to control and customize their robot and tap more deeply into its capabilities, with the apps supporting a range of projects and puzzles designed to both entertain them and introduce basic coding concepts.
Age: 6+


Powered by WPeMatico

Subterranean drone mapping startup Emesent raises $2.5M to autonomously delve the deep

Posted by | artificial intelligence, Australia, Automation, csiro, drones, funding, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, hardware, robotics, science, Startups, TC | No Comments

Seemingly every industry is finding ways to use drones in some way or another, but deep underground it’s a different story. In the confines of a mine or pipeline, with no GPS and little or no light, off-the-shelf drones are helpless — but an Australian startup called Emesent is giving them the spatial awareness and intelligence to navigate and map those spaces autonomously.

Drones that work underground or in areas otherwise inaccessible by GPS and other common navigation techniques are being made possible by a confluence of technology and computing power, explained Emesent CEO and co-founder Stefan Hrabar. The work they would take over from people is the epitome of “dull, dirty, and dangerous” — the trifecta for automation.

The mining industry is undoubtedly the most interested in this sort of thing; mining is necessarily a very systematic process and one that involves repeated measurements of areas being blasted, cleared, and so on. Frequently these measurements must be made manually and painstakingly in dangerous circumstances.

One mining technique has ore being blasted from the vertical space between two tunnels; the resulting cavities, called “stopes,” have to be inspected regularly to watch for problems and note progress.

“The way they scan these stopes is pretty archaic,” said Hrabar. “These voids can be huge, like 40-50 meters horizontally. They have to go to the edge of this dangerous underground cliff and sort of poke this stick out into it and try to get a scan. It’s very sparse information and from only one point of view, there’s a lot of missing data.”

Emesent’s solution, Hovermap, involves equipping a standard DJI drone with a powerful lidar sensor and a powerful onboard computing rig that performs simultaneous location and mapping (SLAM) work fast enough that the craft can fly using it. You put it down near the stope and it takes off and does its thing.

“The surveyors aren’t at risk and the data is orders of magnitude better. Everything is running onboard the drone in real time for path planning — that’s our core IP,” Hrabar said. “The dev team’s background is in drone autonomy, collision avoidance, terrain following — basically the drone sensing its environment and doing the right thing.”

As you can see in the video below, the drone can pilot itself through horizontal tunnels (imagine cave systems or transportation infrastructure) or vertical ones (stopes and sinkholes), slowly working its way along and returning minutes later with the data necessary to build a highly detailed map. I don’t know about you, but if I could send a drone ahead into the inky darkness to check for pits and other scary features, I wouldn’t think twice.

The idea is to sell the whole stack to mining companies as a plug-and-play solution, but work on commercializing the SLAM software separately for those who want to license and customize it. A data play is also in the works, naturally:

“At the end of the day, mining companies don’t want a point cloud, they want a report. So it’s not just collecting the data but doing the analytics as well,” said Hrabar.

Emesent emerged from Data61, the tech arm of Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, or CSIRO, an Australian agency not unlike our national lab system. Hrabar worked there for over a decade on various autonomy projects, and three years ago started on what would become this company, eventually passing through the agency’s “ON” internal business accelerator.

Data collected from a pass through a cave system.

“Just last week, actually, is when we left the building,” Hrabar noted. “We’ve raised the funding we need for 18 months of runway with no revenue. We really are already generating revenue, though.”

The $3.5 million (Australian) round comes largely from a new $200M CSIRO Innovation fund managed by Main Sequence Ventures. Hrabar suggested that another round might be warranted in a year or two when the company decides to scale and expand into other verticals.

DARPA will be making its own contribution after a fashion through its Subterranean Challenge, should (as seemly likely) Emesent achieve success in it (they’re already an approved participant). Hrabar was confident. “It’s pretty fortuitous,” he said. “We’ve been doing underground autonomy for years, and then DARPA announces this challenge on exactly what we’re doing.”

We’ll be covering the challenge and its participants separately. You can read more about Emesent at its website.

Powered by WPeMatico

Yub nub! Students dress a bipedal robot like an AT-ST

Posted by | agility robotics, Gadgets, robotics, TC | No Comments

Students at Oregon State University dressed up their bipedal robot, Cassie, in a delightful AT-ST costume. This robot, which everyone said looked like one of the Empire’s two-legged walkers anyway, can now zap both Rebels and Ewoks in a deadly battle to take control of the forest city of Corvallis.

The robot, as you can see, can change its center of gravity for better stability and, because it doesn’t have a torso or arms, can balance in multiple difficult environments. It can also now fire lasers at primitive man-bears stuck in the Stone Age.

The Dynamic Robotics Lab at Oregon State University built the original robot and now Agility Robotics is mass-producing the bipedal machines, presumably for for Grand Moff Tarkin. You can see Cassie without her costume here, but I think the Star Wars version is far superior.

Powered by WPeMatico

Reef-rejuvenating LarvalBot spreads coral babies by the millions

Posted by | climate change, conservation, Gadgets, GreenTech, robotics, science | No Comments

The continuing die-off of the world’s coral reefs is a depressing reminder of the reality of climate change, but it’s also something we can actively push back on. Conservationists have a new tool to do so with LarvalBot, an underwater robot platform that may greatly accelerate efforts to re-seed old corals with healthy new polyps.

The robot has a history going back to 2015, when a prototype known as COTSbot was introduced, capable of autonomously finding and destroying the destructive crown of thorns starfish (hence the name). It has since been upgraded and revised by the team at the Queensland University of Technology, and in its hunter-killer form is known as the RangerBot.

But the same systems that let it safely navigate and monitor corals for invasive fauna also make it capable of helping these vanishing ecosystems more directly.

Great Barrier Reef coral spawn yearly in a mass event that sees the waters off north Queensland filled with eggs and sperm. Researchers at Southern Cross University have been studying how to reap this harvest and sow a new generation of corals. They collect the eggs and sperm and sequester them in floating enclosures, where they are given a week or so to develop into viable coral babies (not my term, but I like it). These coral babies are then transplanted carefully to endangered reefs.

LarvalBot comes into play in that last step.

“We aim to have two or three robots ready for the November spawn. One will carry about 200,000 larvae and the other about 1.2 million,” explained QUT’s Matthew Dunbabin in a news release. “During operation, the robots will follow preselected paths at constant altitude across the reef and a person monitoring will trigger the release of the larvae to maximise the efficiency of the dispersal.”

It’s something a diver would normally have to do, so the robot acts as a force multiplier — one that doesn’t require food or oxygen, as well. A few of these could do the work of dozens of rangers or volunteers.

“The surviving corals will start to grow and bud and form new colonies which will grow large enough after about three years to become sexually reproductive and complete the life cycle,” said Southern Cross’s Peter Harrison, who has been developing the larval restoration technique.

It’s not a quick fix by any means, but this artificial spreading of corals could vastly improve the chances of a given reef or area surviving the next few years and eventually becoming self-sufficient again.

Powered by WPeMatico