Tag Archives: Evan Ackerman

Hoppy Robot!

This is a great age of robot locomotion, and human engineers are recapitulating natural evolution, trying out every biological system– butterflies, bats, snakes–and many things not seen in nature (at least above the micro scale) (quadcopters, bucky bots.

Evan Ackerman reports on the amazing Salto jumping robot from U. C. Berkeley. Salto has one (count ‘em, one) leg, and springs around spending 90% of its travel in the air. It’s absolutely astonishing.

The article indicates that the control algorithm is pretty much the same as one developed in 1984, though we can pack a lot faster computation in a smaller critter now. The mechanical design is bio-inspired, learning from the small marsupial galago, which is a crazy jumper.

However, the actual magic is done with steerable “thrusters” (propellers), and the control depends on an external motion capture system that feeds instructions via wireless (an invisible tether).  This is not the way little bushbabies do it!

The new improved version will be officially presented September at IROS 2017, probably with some even more awesome demo.

I’m not really sure if this design is especially good for anything, but it’s fun to watch and would make a great game. Imagine the fitness benefits of playing “chase the boingy bot”! Or “try to escape the boingy bot”!  (These apps would mash up some kind of planning algorithm to evade or catch the puny human.)

So Cool!

  1. Evan Ackerman, Salto-1P Is the Most Amazing Jumping Robot We’ve Ever Seen, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2017. http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/robotics-hardware/salto1p-is-the-most-amazing-jumping-robot-weve-ever-seen


Robot Wednesday

Telepresence Robot – At the zoo

These days we see a lot of exciting stories about telepresence—specifically, live, remote operation of robots. From the deadly factual reports from the battlefields of South Asia through science fiction novels to endless videos from drone racing gamers, we see people conquering the world from their living room.

One of the emerging technologies is telepresence via a remote robot that resembles ‘an ipad on a segway’. These are intended for remote meetings and things like that. There is two way video, but the screen is mobile and under the command of the person on the other end. So you can move around, talk to people, look at things.

On the face of it, this technology is both amazing (how does it balance like that?) and ridiculous (who would want to interact with an ipad on wheels?) And, of course, many of the more expansive claims are dubious. It isn’t, and is never going to be, “just like being there”.

But we are learning that these systems can be fun and useful. The may be a reasonable augmentation for remote workers, not as good as being there, but better than just telcons. And, as Emily Dreyfus comments, a non representational body is sometimes an advantage.

Last year Sensei Evan Ackerman reported on an extensive field test of one of these telepresence sticks, called the Double 2. This test drive was an interesting test because he deliberately took it out of the intended environment, which stressed the technology in many ways. The experience is a reminder of the limitations of telepresence, but also gives insights into when it might work well.

First of all, he played with it across the continental US (from Maryland to Oregon) thousands of KM apart. Second, he took it outdoors, which it isn’t designed for at all. And he necessarily relied on whatever networks were available, which varied, and often had weak signals.

As part of the test, he went to the zoo and to the beach!

Walking the dog was impossible.

Overall, the system worked amazingly well, considering that it wasn’t designed for outdoor terrain and needs networking. He found it pretty good for standing still and chatting with people, but moving was difficult and stressful at times. Network latency and dropouts meant a loss of control, with possibly harmful results.

Initially skeptical, Sensei Evan recognized that the remote control has advantages.

I’m starting to see how a remote controlled robot can be totally different [than a laptop running Skype] . . . You don’t have to rely on others, or be the focus of attention. It’s not like a phone call or a meeting: you can just exist, remotely, and interact with people when you or they choose.

Whether or not it is “just like being there”, when it works well, there is a sense of agency and ease of use, at least compared to conventional vidoe conferencing.

This is an interesting observation. Not only does everybody need to get past the novelty, but it works best when you are cohabitating for considerable periods of time. Walking the dog, visiting the zoo—not so good. Hanging out with distant family—not so bad.

I note that the most advertised use case—a remote meeting—may be the weakest experience. A meeting has constrained movement, a relatively short time period, and often is tightly orchestrated.  This takes little advantage of the mobility and remote control capabilities. You may as well as well just do a video conference.

The better use is for extended collaboration and conversation. E.g., Dreyfus and others have used it for whole working days, with multiple meetings, conversations in the hall, and so on.  Once people get used to it, this might be the right use case.

I might note that this is also an interesting observation to apply to the growing interest in Virtual Reality, including shared and remote VR environments.  If a key benefit of the telepresence robot is moving naturally through the environment, then what is the VR experience going to be like?  It might be “natural” interactions, but it will be within a virtual environment.  And if everyone is coming in virtually, then there is no “natural” intereaction at all (or rather, the digital is overlaid on the (to be ignored) physical environments. There will be lots of control, but will there be “ease”?  We’ll have to see.

  1. Evan Ackerman, Double 2 Review: Trying Stuff You Maybe Shouldn’t With a Telepresence Robot, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2016. http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/home-robots/double-2-review-telepresence-robot


Robot Wednesday

The Omnicopter is Cool!

Yet another wonder robot from ETH in Zürich (e.g., see this and this):

The Omnicopter.


Not a quadcopter, it’s an octocopter!

The advantage of this design is that it is way, way more maneuverable than quadcopters, helicopters, or blimps. It has full 6DOF movement.

The principle was described in a paper last year [2] and a neat little video:

This year they produced a cool demonstration, playing fetch with the omnicopter.

This is pretty amazing!

The description of the demo indicates that it works by evaluating large numbers of possible trajectories to select optimal one from a given initial state to a final state. They say that the system can generate 500,000 trajectories per second, resulting is a smooth, magical effect.

(This is very much a “brute force” search through all possible trajectories—computers don’t have to be “smart” if they are fast!)

As Evan Ackerman comments, this design has a lot of potential to be better than the conventional approach of trying to put a robot arm on a quadcopter. “[Y]ou could just stick a gripper onto an arbitrary face of it, and then have the entire robot serve as an actuator.”

Nice work, all!

  1. Evan Ackerman, ETH Zurich’s Omnicopter Plays Fetch, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2017. http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/drones/eth-zurich-omnicopter-plays-fetch
  2. Dario Brescianini and Raffaello D’ Andrea. Design, modeling and control of an omni-directional aerial vehicle. In 2016 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), 2016, 3261-3266. http://flyingmachinearena.org/wp-content/publications/2016/breIEEE16.pdf


Robot Wednesday

NASA Does Origami, Too

This has become “Origami days” at this blog. As I said earlier, these days all engineering students should do a unit in Origami.

NASA’s neverending quest to create small and adaptable spacecraft and rovers has led to wild innovation, including tensegrity and this spring, PUFFER, a “pop-up” robot [1, 2].

This little guy isn’t exactly Origami, but it is a flat-pack design that was bio-inspired and origami inspired.. The general thinking is to create small, compact mini rovers that could ride along on a NASA rover, extending its coverage and capabilities. PUFFER is being prototyped, including filed tests in desert and snow.

One challenge that foldable robots face is that the flexible structure is rugged, but the hinge points tend to wear out and break. This is one area where relatively exotic materials may make a crucial different. Where a folded paper crane will last an hour, a folded Kelvar crane might last a year. 🙂

Small flat pack robots might be deployed in swarms (possibly even from a “Curiosity class” rover). NASA is thinking about mission scenarios / use cases where swarms might be valuable.

One scenario is exploring a cave or crevasse with no line of sight and poor communication. A chain of PUFFERs could form an and hoc network of relays, reaching far into the otherwise inaccessible area. This enables the main rover to deploy sensors as far as a chain can be built.

A second and very vivid scenario would be descending a cliff to steep to climb and too high to jump down. The PUFFERs could cooperate like mountain climbers, roping together to support each other. Several PUFFERs would hang on, while one moves. That’s such a cool image to imagine!

One example would be a situation where you want to get into really adverse terrain, such as a steep cliff face, that is beyond the capabilities of a PUFFERs driving independently. Here, PUFFERs could instead link up in a manner similar to rock climbers working in tandem, and cooperatively climb the slope.” ([1] quoting designer Jaakko Karras:)

Cool stuff.

  1. Evan Ackerman, PUFFER: JPL’s Pop-Up Exploring Robot, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2017. http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/space-robots/puffer-jpl-popup-exploring-robot
  2. Andrew Good,  Origami-inspired Robot Can Hitch a Ride with a Rover.March 20 2017, https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/origami-inspired-robot-can-hitch-a-ride-with-a-rover


Robot Wednesday

Natural Selection of Glider Drone Concepts

Evan Ackerman reports about yet another “disposable drone” project, similar to the ‘cardboard drone’ concept from OterhLabs. Great minds move in similar ways, and the U.S. Marines are testing the same concept only larger: plywood gliders. I’m sure there are other variations on this theme in the works, it is an idea whose time has come.

The Marine version (TACAD (TACtical Air Delivery)) is plywood and bolts, plus GPS and guidance. The glider is intended to be launched from an aircraft to glide many kilometers to the recipient. Crash landing within fifty meters or so, the airframe will be discarded.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

One reason that the time has come for this idea is that civilian, hobbyist-grade GPS and small aircraft controllers are widely available and cheap. In a sort of technological “circle of life”, these military technologies moved out to wide use, and developed to the point where they can work as well as special orders, and are, of course, vastly cheaper. They are now being picked up by the military, replacing custom built systems.

Using inexpensive materials is particularly important for unpowered gliders because they cannot fly home. For that matter, they have limited maneuverability, and relatively high probability of mishap. Pushing the cost down makes it a “throw away” craft, worth risking in more situations.

Between the TACAD and Otherlab, we can see that there is a certain evolutionary selection process going on there. The same underlying technology (GPS, digital guidance, stand off air launch) can be realized at a variety of scales. The USMC is planning one with a payload about the size of a microwave, OterhLab’s is smaller. We could imagine both larger and smaller versions, using appropriate materials.

There is a tradeoff here; the smaller the drone, they more of them that can be deployed. Otherlab’s cardboard packages could be dropped by the hundreds, The same aircraft could drop far fewer TACAD sized craft. Depending on the type of delivery, either mode might be better.

There are other tradeoffs related to the size. The OthereLabs is designed to be delivered as a compact flatpack, and also to biodegrade after landing. I imagine that TACAD might be flatpacked, but the initial design has foldable wings for up for compact transport. Flatpack design also enables a sort of just in time, on site construction that may be advantageous for some uses. For example, the plans could be delivered electronically, and constructed from local materials.

This evolutionary radiation of disposable drone gliders is an interesting reprise of military glider technology. At its peak, gliders were widely used for paratroops (for example, the movie “A Bridge Too Far” has some excellent recreations of allied glider operations). Dangerous, defenseless, and limited, gliders were surpassed by other aircraft, especially helicopters. Decades later, the concept of a cargo glider has returned, made possibly by model air crate technology.

  1. Evan Ackerman, U.S. Marines Testing Disposable Delivery Drones, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2017. http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/drones/marines-testing-disposable-gliding-delivery-drones


Robot Wednesday Friday

Otherlabs adaptive fabric

We’ve all imagined garments that automatically adjust to the climate, puffing up when we need to be warmer. Over the years there have been many tries, but, as we all know, we don’t have it yet. This is the flying car of textiles.

Some of the ideas have involved control systems, including sensors, effectors, and wearable computers. Others have involved exotic materials, such as plastic mesh.

The cheerful wizards over at OtherLabs have developed a prototype that poof up like we want, but is made from a clever use of “common fibers already in use in the apparel industry-nylon, polyester, and polyolefin”.

The demo is impressive, though I have to wonder how it really works.

First of all, its not really clear how it senses the heat. For example, wouldn’t my body heat cause it to flatten, even if the air temperature is cold? I could also imagine the magic poofiness would be affected by wearing an outer shell or thermal underwear.  There are obvious work arounds, but I’m wondering.  ( Also, the fabric might also be used as building insulation or other non-wearable uses.)

Anything to do with apparel has to deal with tough real life issues. Just do you make seams, openings, and pockets with this material? How do you tailor it so it fits equally well at any thickness? What happens when it gets wet? What are the washing and drying regimes? How well does it wear, and how is it affected by exposure to open heat, sun, grease, solvents, blood, sand–every darn thing?

The OtherLabs folks are really clever, so I’m sure they are aware of these and other challenges, as are their ARPA sponsors. As they carry forward this research toward real products, they have an interesting year ahead.

We shall see what they come up with.

  1. Evan Ackerman, This Self-Poofing Fabric Transforms From T-Shirt to Parka, IEEE Spectrum, March 10, 2017. http://spectrum.ieee.org/video/semiconductors/materials/this-self-poofing-fabric-transforms-from-t-shirt-to-parka
  2. OtherLabs. Othermaterials -Otherlab has developed textiles that do something delightfully different. 2017, http://materialcomforts.com/.