Drones that drive

CSAIL team’s system of quadcopters that fly and drive suggest another approach to developing flying cars.

eing able to both walk and take flight is typical in nature — many birds, insects, and other animals can do both. If we could program robots with similar versatility, it would open up many possibilities: Imagine machines that could fly into construction areas or disaster zones that aren’t near roads and then squeeze through tight spaces on the ground to transport objects or rescue people.

The problem is that robots that are good at one mode of transportation are usually bad at another. Airborne drones are fast and agile, but generally have too limited of a battery life to travel for long distances. Ground vehicles, on the other hand, are more energy efficient, but slower and less mobile.

Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) are aiming to develop robots that can both maneuver around on land and take to the skies. In a new paper, the team presented a system of eight quadcopter drones that can fly and drive through a city-like setting with parking spots, no-fly zones, and landing pads.


“The ability to both fly and drive is useful in environments with a lot of barriers, since you can fly over ground obstacles and drive under overhead obstacles,” says PhD student Brandon Araki, lead author on the paper. “Normal drones can’t maneuver on the ground at all. A drone with wheels is much more mobile while having only a slight reduction in flying time.”

Araki and CSAIL Director Daniela Rus developed the system, along with MIT undergraduate students John Strang, Sarah Pohorecky, and Celine Qiu, and Tobias Naegeli of ETH Zurich’s Advanced Interactive Technologies Lab. The team presented their system at IEEE’s International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Singapore earlier this month.

How it works

The project builds on Araki’s previous work developing a “flying monkey” robot that crawls, grasps, and flies. While the monkey robot could hop over obstacles and crawl about, there was still no way for it to travel autonomously.

To address this, the team developed various “path-planning” algorithms aimed at ensuring that the drones don’t collide. To make them capable of driving, the team put two small motors with wheels on the bottom of each drone. In simulations, the robots could fly for 90 meters or drive for 252 meters, before their batteries ran out.

Adding the driving component to the drone slightly reduced its battery life, meaning that the maximum distance it could fly decreased 14 percent to about 300 feet. But since driving is still much more efficient than flying, the gain in efficiency from driving more than offsets the relatively small loss in efficiency in flying due to the extra weight.

“This work provides an algorithmic solution for large-scale, mixed-mode transportation and shows its applicability to real-world problems,” says Jingjin Yu, a computer science professor at Rutgers University who was not involved in the research.

The team also tested the system using everyday materials such as pieces of fabric for roads and cardboard boxes for buildings. They tested eight robots navigating from a starting point to an ending point on a collision-free path, and all were successful.

Rus says that systems like theirs suggest that another approach to creating safe and effective flying cars is not to simply “put wings on cars,” but to build on years of research in adding driving capabilities to drones.

“As we begin to develop planning and control algorithms for flying cars, we are encouraged by the possibility of creating robots with these capabilities at small scale,” Rus says. “While there are obviously still big challenges to scaling up to vehicles that could actually transport humans, we are inspired by the potential of a future in which flying cars could offer us fast, traffic-free transportation.”

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The world’s largest industrial robot manufacturer could build a facility in space.

In a wide-ranging interview with RoboticsAndAutomationNews.com, recorded at Hannover Messe, Neil Dueweke – who was competing to be heard over a loud musical band in the background – says the company has big ambitions.

“Anywhere there’s robotics involved, Fanuc will be there,” says Dueke. “Space robotics? Why not?”

As far-fetched as it might sound, there are many projects involving robots in space – that’s in addition to the robotic rovers which are already widely known.

In one project, the European Space Agency is building a robot holiday resort on the Moon.

And NASA has a large number of projects involving robots in space, and has even installed an outer space additive manufacturing facility which targets the alien market.

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Robot fruit pickers to put migrant agricultural laborers out of work

Some of the biggest fruit orchards in the U.S. may soon use robots in harvesting fruits, as two robotics firms are currently developing machines that could accelerate fruit picking. Mechanical harvesting has become a staple practice in many farms for crops such as wheat, corn, green beans, tomatoes and others. However, the harvesting of fragile, easily-perishable crops — such as apples, berries, table grapes and lettuce — are still done through manual labor. Fruit orchards in Washington state alone require thousands of farm workers to do the harvesting.

Israel-based FFRobotics noted that human pickers are getting scarce, with many young people shying away from farm work. The firm also stressed that elderly pickers are slowly retiring. In line with this, the company is currently working on a machine with three-fingered grips designed to grab fruit and twist or clip it from a branch. According to company co-founder Gad Kober, the machine will feature between four and 12 robotic arms, and can harvest as many as 10,000 apples an hour. The machine would also be able to harvest 85 to 90 percent of the crop off trees. The remaining crops could then be manually harvested by workers, Kober noted. On the other hand, California-based Abundant Robotics is developing a machine that makes use of suction technology to vacuum apples off trees. Plans for machine production were discussed in February at an international convention of fruit growers. The company aims to launch the robotic harvesters in the market before 2019.

The two robotics companies are likely to achieve their production targets, with both prototypes projected to be released this fall, according to Karen Lewis. Lewis is a Washington State University cooperative extension agent who assessed the use of robotics in fruit orchards. Lewis also noted that while the machines will serve as game changers in harvesting, fruit orchards across the country may be required to cultivate fruits in new trellis systems to allow the machines to see and harvest the crops.

Experts raise flags on potential losses in migrant laborers

Despite the agricultural advances, the announcement did not sit well with many agricultural experts. According to experts, robot pickers will negatively impact the livelihood of farm workers especially the migrant labor sector, many of whom have been illegally working in the U.S. An analysis by the Pew Research Center revealed that unauthorized immigrant workers accounted for 17 percent of the workforce in the U.S. agriculture industry in 2014.

Washington has long suffered from human power shortages, and has greatly depended on immigrant workers from Mexico to harvest many crops. According to Erik Nicholson, an official with the United Farm Workers union, the eventual loss of jobs among human pickers will have huge implications. Nicholson estimated that about half of Washington’s farm workers are illegal immigrants. However, he stressed that many of them have settled in the state and were productive members of the society. “They are scared of losing their jobs to mechanisation [sic]. A robot is not going to rent a house, buy clothing for their kids, buy food in a grocery and reinvest that money in the local economy,” Nicholson was quoted in DailyMail.co.uk.

President Donald trump’s hard-hitting policies against illegal migrant workers have had farms and orchards scrambling for alternative harvesting methods. Some farms have purchased new equipment in order to cut back on human resources. Other farms have even lobbied with federal officials for deals that would limit the negative effects of recent policies on their livelihoods. Jim McFerson, head of the Washington State Tree Fruit Research Centre, stressed that the recent immigration conundrum is now a matter of survival for many farmers.

Sources include: 


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Robots Podcast #230: bots_alive, with Bradley Knox

In this episode, Audrow Nash interviews Bradley Knox, founder of bots_alive. Knox speaks about an add-on to a Hexbug, a six-legged robotic toy, that makes the bot behave more like a character. They discuss the novel way Knox uses machine learning to create a sense character. They also discuss the limitation of technology to emulate living creatures, and how the bots_alive robot was built within these limitations.


Brad Knox

Dr. Bradley Knox is the founder of bots_alive. He researched human-robot interaction, interactive machine learning, and artificial intelligence at the MIT Media Lab and at UT Austin. At MIT, he designed and taught Interactive Machine Learning. He has won two best paper awards at major robotics and AI conferences, was awarded best dissertation from UT Austin’s Computer Science Department, and was named to IEEE’s AI’s 10 to Watch in 2013.

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Wind turbines with flexible blades found to be more efficient

A small team of researchers with Sorbonne Université and École Nationale Supérieure des Arts et Métiers-ParisTech has found that using flexible blades on a wind turbine can dramatically increase its efficiency. In their paper published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A, the team describes their approach and the results they obtained through physical testing of their idea.

After many years of research, modern wind turbines have become an effective source of alternative energy—but only under the right conditions. Big turbines used by utilities must reside in locations that offer a steady stream of the right wind speeds—too fast, and there could be damage or high maintenance costs; too slow, and the turbine blades will not turn. Now, it appears that there might be an alternative solution—using flexible blades that optimize the torque applied to the generator.
The idea for flexible blades came to the researchers after noting that most insects have flexible wings, which prior research has suggested provides creatures such as the dragonfly more power without expending more energy, by contrast with inflexible wings. That led them to create wind turbine blades that were flexible, contrary to the industry standard hard blades. After coming up with a suitable design, the researchers tested their ideas by applying them to actual wind turbines. In their tests, some of the turbines ran with the standard hard blades, some ran with very flexible blades, and some ran with blades that were approximately in the middle—not hard, but not as floppy as the other blades. They then tested each of the turbines for efficiency.
The researchers report that the hard-bladed turbines performed as expected, but the floppy blades did not work well at all—they were less efficient than the hard blades. But the middle option proved to be approximately 35 percent more efficient than the standard hard-blade turbine. They also found that the turbines worked over a wider range of wind conditions than standard turbines—they would turn under lower wind conditions and were not as susceptible to wear and tear under high wind conditions.
The researchers suggest the use of flexible blades on wind turbines offers the advantage of increased versatility and efficiency. More research is required to discover optimal flexibility and to determine if such blades are commercially viable.

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Automate Your Garden with FarmBot

FarmBot is bringing technology to the rescue with a scalable, hackable, robotic farming solution you can install yourself and expand as you need.

FarmBot Genesis, the first FarmBot from the San Luis Obispo based developer, is available to purchase as a kit and the next batch is expected to ship in February of 2017. If you’re feeling adventurous and want to do a lot of shopping and cutting pieces on your own, the materials list and CAD models are available to download free from the FarmBot website.  The software is open source. The cost to purchase a FarmBot Genesis kit is $3,200.

3D-printable attachments, which are also included in the purchased kit, do the work and keep your hands from getting dirty. These include a Seed Injector, Water Nozzle, Soil Sensor and Weed Suppressor. If you can dream up another attachment to make your gardening easier, simply 3D print your design to fit FarmBot’s Universal Tool Adapter.

Programming Data Collection

Planning your farm and programming the sequences of actions that will keep your veggies healthy is easy with a graphical drag and drop interface for your phone, tablet or computer. A camera attachment helps you monitor the growth of your plants and detects weeds. The soil sensor measures moisture to maintain ideal growing conditions and the system responds to each individual plant’s needs.

FarmBot Size and Specifications

The basic Farmbot Genesis design enables you to set up a garden plot of anywhere from one to four and a half square meters with a maximum plant height of one meter. However, by adding longer rails and making the necessary modifications, the designers believe that the Genesis design can scale to around fifty square meters and a one and a half meter plant height. Moving beyond the backyard garden, multiple Genesis units built out to their maximum size could help power a commercial growing operation.

The materials used to build the FarmBot Genesis are easily acquired. According to the FarmBot website:

Genesis is a small scale FarmBot primarily constructed from V-Slot aluminum extrusions and aluminum plates and brackets. Genesis is driven by NEMA 17 stepper motors, an Arduino MEGA with a RAMPS shield, and a Raspberry Pi 3 computer. These electronics were chosen for their great availability, support, and usage in the DIY 3D printer world.


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World’s First Robot Farm

Japanese sustainable vegetable producer, Spread, is creating the world’s first farm manned entirely by robots at its new facility in Kyoto, set to open in 2017.  Instead of relying on a crew of human farmers, the indoor Vegetable Factory will employ robots that can harvest 30,000 heads of lettuce every day. The move comes in response to rising concerns in Japan that an aging population will result in a labor shortage. To circumvent this disaster, government and tech industries are furthering the development of robotics to replace human farm laborers.

According to J.J. Price, a spokesperson for Spread, “Our mission is to help create a sustainable society where future generations will not have to worry about food security and food safety.” He says, “This means that we will have to make it affordable for everyone and begin to grow staple crops and plant protein to make a real difference.”

Price speaks for many experts. There’s a global concern that the current global food production paradigm is unsustainable. The U.N. estimates that by 2050 we’ll need to sustainably produce 70 percent more food by calories than we do now in order to keep up with population growth. The problem is that there will be less land for farming as the planet’s population grows. Another factor is that farmers are aging globally as younger generations migrate to cities, largely because a productivity boom over the last century has kept food prices low, making farming unattractive economically.

The Vegetable Factory is part of the growing agricultural trend of vertical farming, where farmers grow crops indoors without natural sunlight. Instead, they rely on LED light and grow crops on racks that stack on top of each other. This arrangement can reduce labor costs by 50%, cut energy use by 30%, and recycle 98% of water needed to grow the crops.

The majority of the farm bots will be articulated arms that work around a conveyer belt running throughout the 4,400 square meter farm, with floor-to-ceiling shelves growing pesticide-free lettuce. The robotic arms will transfer and replant seedlings and perform all harvesting. The smart farm will automatically optimize temperature, humidity, and CO2 levels. The new farm will be an upgrade to Spread’s existing plant in Kameoke, Japan. That farm produces 21,000 head of lettuce per day with a small staff of human employees.

Automated farms are the future of farming. Tech giants including Panasonic, Toshiba, and Sharp are currently experimenting with their own robotic farming solutions.

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Robotic Arm Turns Your Digital Doodles into Good Old-Fashioned Sketches

A small robotic arm can bring your digital sketches to life, by re-creating your on-screen drawings with a pen and paper.

The robotic drawing arm was designed by a team of researchers, who combined their knowledge of kinetic art, drawing machines and internet-connected microprocessor chips to develop the idea. The arm, dubbed Line-us, mimics the user’s drawing motions to re-create a digital sketch with pen and paper, by connecting to an app via Wi-Fi.


At its heart, the machine was developed to be a device for people to play with, said Robert Poll, a technologist and one of Line-us’ co-founders.

“We wanted to create a product that was engaging and fun, rather than something that solved a particular problem or fulfilled a need,” Poll told Live Science. “Our hope is that Line-us encourages people to doodle and draw, but also to find new and creative ways to use it to do things we haven’t thought of.”

Line-us is seeking funding through a Kickstarter campaign, but the project has already surpassed its funding goal of $48,469 by raising almost $89,500 as of Feb. 27, and is now gearing up for production. Poll said there’s a lot of work involved with moving from working prototypes to a product that can be manufactured, but the researchers are getting ready for the October release of the first 1,000 units for its funders.
Beyond the art-mimicking robot, the Line-us app adds another layer of innovation to the project. The researchers designed the app to be “open platform” to allow users to build on the foundations of the Line-us project.

“You can write your own software, or even hardware, to work with Line-us,” Poll said. “We’re hoping to build a community that will come up with interesting and new ways to use Line-us. We’ve had quite a lot of questions from people who want to ‘hack’ Line-us already, so we’re really excited to see what they do.”

Line-us is designed to work on iPads, iPhones, Android tablets and Android smartphones, as well as on Mac and PC computers. You can use either a stylus or your fingers to make the drawings that the robotic arm will mimic, the researchers said. When made available commercially, the robot will cost about $124 (99 pounds), the researchers said.

A larger version of the drawing robot, or perhaps a completely new robot, may be in Line-us’ future, Poll said. The researchers have also brainstormed ideas for “accessories” for the current version of the drawing robot.

“Maybe we’ll produce some ourselves, or perhaps publish plans so people can make their own,” Poll said. “We won’t really know what direction we will want to take until we see what people do with the first batch of machines. We’re looking forward to finding out, though.”

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Drones to Land themselves on moving targets

The buzzword in drone research is autonomous — having the unmanned aerial vehicle do most or all of its own flying.

It’s the only realistic way that drones will have commercially viable uses such as delivering that roll of toilet paper to customers, said Manish Kumar, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Engineering and Applied Science.

Kumar and his co-authors, Nicklas Stockton, a UC researcher, and Kelly Cohen, aerospace engineering professor, considered the difficulty drones have in navigating their ever-changing airspace in a study presented at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SciTech 2017 Conference in January.

This problem is compounded when the drone tries to land on a moving platform such as a delivery van or even a U.S. Navy warship pitching in high seas.

To address this challenge, UC researchers applied a concept called fuzzy logic, the kind of reasoning people employ subconsciously every day.

While scientists are concerned with precision and accuracy in all they do, most people get through their day by making inferences and generalities, or by using fuzzy logic. Instead of seeing the world in black and white, fuzzy logic allows for nuance or degrees of truth.

Fuzzy logic helps the drone make good navigational decisions amid a sea of statistical noise, he said. It’s called “genetic-fuzzy” because the system evolves over time and continuously discards the lesser solutions.

Stockton, Kumar, and Cohen successfully employed fuzzy logic in a simulation to show it is an ideal system for navigating under dynamic conditions. Stockton, an engineering master’s student who was the lead author on the paper, is putting fuzzy logic to the test in experiments to land quadcopters on robots mounted with landing pads at UC’s UAV Multi-Agent System Research (MASTER) Lab.

Stockton is just the latest UC student mentored by Cohen who was offered a job, at least in part, for his experience in fuzzy logic. The U.S. Air Force offered Stockton a federal position to continue his engineering research at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base when he graduates this summer.

UC doctoral graduate Nick Ernest, another student of Cohen’s, started an artificial intelligence company called Psibernetix, Inc., that demonstrated the power of fuzzy logic last year when a fuzzy-logic-based artificial intelligence, dubbed ALPHA, bested a human fighter pilot in simulated dogfights.


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