Judgement Day Update: Cheetah Robot Unleashed!

MIT-Cheetah-05-640x366There have been lots of high-speed bio-inspired robots in recent years, as exemplified by Boston Dynamics WildCat. But MIT’s Cheetah robot, which made its big debut earlier this month, is in a class by itself. In addition to being able to run at impressive speeds, bound, and jump over obstacles, this particular biomimetic robot is also being battery-and-motor driven rather than by a gasoline engine and hydraulics, and can function untethered (i.e. not connected to a power source).

While gasoline-powered robots are still very much bio-inspired, they are dependent on sheer power to try and match the force and speed of their flesh-and-blood counterparts. They’re also pretty noisy, as the demonstration of the WildCat certainly showed (video below). MIT’s Cheetah takes the alternate route of applying less power but doing so more efficiently, more closely mimicking the musculoskeletal system of a living creature.

mit-cheetahThis is not only a reversal on contemporary robotics, but a break from history. Historically, to make a robot run faster, engineers made the legs move faster. The alternative is to keep the same kind of frequency, but to push down harder at the ground with each step. As MIT’s Sangbae Kim explained:

Our robot can be silent and as efficient as animals. The only things you hear are the feet hitting the ground… Many sprinters, like Usain Bolt, don’t cycle their legs really fast. They actually increase their stride length by pushing downward harder and increasing their ground force, so they can fly more while keeping the same frequency.

MIT’s Cheetah uses much the same approach as a sprinter, combining custom-designed high-torque-density electric motors made at MIT with amplifiers that control the motors (also a custom MIT job). These two technologies, combined with a bio-inspired leg, allow the Cheetah to apply exactly the right amount of force to successfully bound across the ground and navigate obstacles without falling over.

MIT-cheetah_jumpWhen it wants to jump over an obstacle, it simply pushes down harder; and as you can see from the video below, the results speak for themselves. For now, the Cheetah can run untethered at around 16 km/h (10 mph) across grass, and hurdle over obstacles up to 33 centimeters high. The Cheetah currently bounds – a fairly simple gait where the front and rear legs move almost in unison – but galloping, where all four legs move asymmetrically, is the ultimate goal.

With a new gait, and a little byte surgery to the control algorithms, MIT hopes that the current Cheetah can hit speeds of up to 48 km/h (30 mph), which would make it the fastest untethered quadruped robot in the world. While this is still a good deal slower than the real thing  – real cheetah’s can run up to 60 km/h (37 mph) – it will certainly constitute another big step for biomimetics and robotics.

Be sure to check out the video of the Cheetah’s test, and see how it differs from the Boston Dynamics/DARPA’s WildCat’s tests from October of last year:



Source:
extremetech.com

Judgement Day Update: Terminators at I/O 2014

google_terminatorsWe’ve all thought about it… the day when super-intelligent computer becomes self-aware and unleashes a nuclear holocaust, followed shortly thereafter by the rise of the machines (cue theme from Terminator). But as it turns out, when the robot army does come to exterminate humanity, at two humans might be safe – Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to be precise.

Basically, they’ve uploaded a killer-robots.txt file to their servers that instructs T-800 and T-1000 Terminators to spare the company’s co-founders (or “disallow” their deaths). Such was the subject of a totally tongue-in-cheek presentation at this year’s Google I/O at the Moscone Center in San Fransisco, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Robots.txt file.

https://i0.wp.com/www.product-reviews.net/wp-content/uploads/Google-IO-2014-keynote-dated-live-stream-as-normal1.jpgThis tool, which was created in 1994, instructs search engines and other automated bots to avoid crawling certain pages or directories of a website. The industry has done a remarkable job staying true to the simple text file in the two decades since; Google, Bing, and Yahoo still obey its directives. The changes they uploaded read like this, just in case you’re planning on adding your name to the “disallow” list:

Screen_shot_2014-07-03_at_7.15.23_pm

While that tool didn’t exactly take the rise of the machines into account, it’s appearance on the Google’s website as an Easter egg did add some levity to a company that is already being accused of facilitating in the creation of killer robots. Calling Google’s proposed line or robots “killer” does seem both premature and extreme, that did not stop a protester from interrupting the I/O 2014 keynote address.

Google_Terminators_WideBasically, as Google’s senior VP of technical infrastructure Urs Hölze spoke about their cloud platform, the unidentified man stood up and began screaming “You all work for a totalitarian company that builds machines that kill people!” As you can see from the video below, Hölze did his best to take the interruptions in stride and continued with the presentation. The protestor was later escorted out by security.

This wasn’t the first time that Google has been the source of controversy over the prospect of building “killer robots”. Ever since Google acquired Boston Dynamics and seven other robots companies in the space of six months (between and June and Dec of 2013), there has been some fear that the company has a killer machine in the works that it will attempt to sell to the armed forces.

campaign_killerrobotsNaturally, this is all part of a general sense of anxiety that surrounds developments being made across multiple fields. Whereas some concerns have crystallized into dedicated and intelligent calls for banning autonomous killer machines in advance – aka. the Campaign To Stop Killer Robots – others have resulted in the kinds of irrational outbreaks observed at this year’s I/O.

Needless to say, if Google does begin developing killer robots, or just starts militarizing its line of Boston Dynamics acquisitions, we can expect that just about everyone who can access (or hack their way into) the Robots.txt file to be adding their names. And it might not be too soon to update the list to include the T-X, Replicants, and any other killer robots we can think of!

And be sure to check out the video of the “killer robot” protester speaking out at 2014 I/O:


Sources: 
theverge.com, (2)

The Future is Here: Driverless Army Trucks

TARDECAs Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “An army marches on its belly”. And like most tidbits of military wisdom, this is one that has not changed with the ages. Whether it’s leading an army of war elephants and hoplites through the Alps, a Grande Armee across the Steppes, or a mechanized division through Central Asia, the problem of logistics is always there. For an army to remain effective and alive, it needs to be supplied; and those supply trains has to be kept moving and safe.

In the modern world, this consists of ensuring that troop and supply trucks are protected from the hazards of enemy snipers, rockets, and the all-too-prevalent menace of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Until now, this consisted of having armed convoys escort armored trucks through hostile terrain and contested areas. But in an age of unmanned aerial vehicles and robotic exoskeletons, it seems only natural that driverless trucks would be the next big thing.

TARDEC1That’s the thinking behind the Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System (AMAS), a program being developed by the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) in collaboration with major defense contractor Lockheed Martin. This program, which was demonstrated earlier this month at Fort Hood, Texas, gives full autonomy to convoys to operate in urban environments.

In tests, driverless tactical vehicles were able to navigate hazards and obstacles including pedestrians, oncoming traffic, road intersections, traffic circles and stalled and passing vehicles. Similar to the systems used by the first generation of robotized cars, the AMAS program for the Pentagon’s ground troops uses standard-issue vehicles outfitted with a high-performance LIDAR sensor and a second GPS receiver, locked and loaded with a range of algorithms.

TARDEC-ULV-instrument-panelThat gear, Lockheed said, could be used on virtually any military vehicle, but in these tests was affixed to the Army’s M915 tractor-trailer trucks and to Palletized Loading System vehicles. According to Lockheed, AMAS also gives drivers an automated option to alert, stop and adjust, or take full control under user supervision. David Simon, AMAS program manager for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, described the program in a statement:

The AMAS CAD hardware and software performed exactly as designed, and dealt successfully with all of the real-world obstacles that a real-world convoy would encounter.

Under an initial $11 million contract in 2012, Lockheed Martin developed the multiplatform kit which integrates low-cost sensors and control systems with Army and Marine tactical vehicles to enable autonomous operation in convoys. But not only do driverless convoys add a degree of safety under dangerous conditions, they also move the military closer its apparent goal of nearly total autonomous warfare.

squadmissionsupportsystemAMAS algorithms also are used to control the company’s Squad Mission Support System (SMSS), a more distinctive and less conventional six-wheeled unmanned ground vehicle that has been used by soldiers in Afghanistan. Combined with robots, like the Legged Squad Support System (LS3) by Boston Dynamics, the development of driverless trucks is not only a good counter to suicide bombers and IEDs, but part of a larger trend of integrated robotics.

In an age where more and more hardware can be controlled by a remote operator, and grunts are able to rely on robotic equipment to assist them whenever and wherever the 3D’s of hostile territory arise (i.e. dirty, difficult, or dangerous), trucks and armored vehicles that can guide themselves is just the latest in a long line of developments aimed at “unmanning the front lines”.

And of course, there’s a video of the concept in action, courtesy of the U.S. Army and TARDEC:


Sources: wired.com, news.cnet.com, lockheedmartin.com

The Future is Here: AirMule’s Autonomous Demo Flight

airmule1Vertical Take-Off and Landing craft have been the subject of military developers for some time. In addition to being able to deploy from landing strips that are damaged or small for conventional aircraft, they are also able to navigate terrain and land where other craft cannot. Add to that the ability to hover and fly close to the ground, and you have a craft that can also provide support while avoiding IEDs and landmines.

One concept that incorporates all of these features is the AirMule, a compact, unmanned, single-engine vehicle that is being developed by Tactical Robotics in Israel. In January of 2013, the company unveiled the prototype which they claimed was created for the sake of supporting military personnel,  evacuating the wounded, and conducting remote reconnaissance missions.

airmule-1Now, less than a year later, the company conducted a demonstration with their prototype aircraft recently demonstrated its ability to fly autonomously, bringing it one step closer to carrying out a full mission demo. During the test, which took place in December, the craft autonomously performed a vertical take-off, flew to the end of a runway, then turned around on the spot and flew back to its starting point.

All the while, it maintained altitude using two laser altimeters, while maintaining positioning via a combination of GPS, an inertial navigation system, and optical reference to markers on the ground. These autonomous systems, which allow it to fly on its own, can also be countermanded in favor of remote control, in case a mission seems particularly harry and requires a human controller.

airmule-0In its current form, the AirMule possesses many advantages over other VTOL craft, such as helicopters. For starters, it weighs only 770 kg (1,700 lb) – as opposed to a Bell UH-1 empty weights of 2,365 kg (5,215 lbs) – can carry a payload of up to 640 kg (1,400 lb), has a top speed of 180 km/h (112 mph), and can reach a maximum altitude of 12,000 ft (3,658 m).

In short, it has a better mass to carrying capacity ratio than a helicopter, comparable performance, and can land and take-off within an area of 40 square meters (430.5 sq ft), which is significantly smaller than what a manned helicopter requires for a safe landing. The internal rotor blades are reportedly also much quieter than those of a helicopter, giving the matte-black AirMule some added stealth.

BD_atlasrobotPlans now call for “full mission demonstrations” next year, utilizing a second prototype that is currently under construction. And when complete, this vehicle and those like it can expected to be deployed to many areas of the world, assisting Coalition and other forces in dirty, dangerous environments where landmines, IEDs and other man-made and natural hazards are common.

Alongside machines like the Alpha Dog, LS3 or Wildcat, machines that were built by Boston Dynamics (recently acquired by Google) to offer transport and support to infantry in difficult terrain, efforts to “unman the front lines” through the use of autonomous drones or remote-controlled robots continue. Clearly, the future battlefield is a place where robots where will be offering a rather big hand!

 

And be sure to check this video of the AirMule demonstration, showing the vehicle take-off, hover, fly around, and then come in for a landing:


Sources: gizmag.com, tactical-robotics.com

Judgement Day Update: Google Robot Army Expanding

Atlas-x3c.lrLast week, Google announced that it will be expanding its menagerie of robots, thanks to a recent acquisition. The announcement came on Dec. 13th, when the tech giant confirmed that it had bought out the engineering company known as Boston Dynamics. This company, which has had several lucrative contracts with DARPA and the Pentagon, has been making the headlines in the past few years, thanks to its advanced robot designs.

Based in Waltham, Massachusetts, Boston Dynamics has gained an international reputation for machines that walk with an uncanny sense of balance, can navigate tough terrain on four feet, and even run faster than the fastest humans. The names BigDog, Cheetah, WildCat, Atlas and the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), have all become synonymous with the next generation of robotics, an era when machines can handle tasks too dangerous or too dirty for most humans to do.

Andy-Rubin-and-Android-logoMore impressive is the fact that this is the eight robot company that Google has acquired in the past six months. Thus far, the company has been tight-lipped about what it intends to do with this expanding robot-making arsenal. But Boston Dynamics and its machines bring significant cachet to Google’s robotic efforts, which are being led by Andy Rubin, the Google executive who spearheaded the development of Android.

The deal is also the clearest indication yet that Google is intent on building a new class of autonomous systems that might do anything from warehouse work to package delivery and even elder care. And considering the many areas of scientific and technological advancement Google is involved in – everything from AI and IT to smartphones and space travel – it is not surprising to see them branching out in this way.

wildcat1Boston Dynamics was founded in 1992 by Marc Raibert, a former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And while it has not sold robots commercially, it has pushed the limits of mobile and off-road robotics technology thanks to its ongoing relationship and funding from DARPA. Early on, the company also did consulting work for Sony on consumer robots like the Aibo robotic dog.

Speaking on the subject of the recent acquisition, Raibert had nothing but nice things to say about Google and the man leading the charge:

I am excited by Andy and Google’s ability to think very, very big, with the resources to make it happen.

Videos uploaded to Youtube featuring the robots of Boston Dynamics have been extremely popular in recent years. For example, the video of their four-legged, gas powered, Big Dog walker has been viewed 15 million times since it was posted on YouTube in 2008. In terms of comments, many people expressed dismay over how such robots could eventually become autonomous killing machines with the potential to murder us.

petman-clothesIn response, Dr. Raibert has emphasized repeatedly that he does not consider his company to be a military contractor – it is merely trying to advance robotics technology. Google executives said the company would honor existing military contracts, but that it did not plan to move toward becoming a military contractor on its own. In many respects, this acquisition is likely just an attempt to acquire more talent and resources as part of a larger push.

Google’s other robotics acquisitions include companies in the United States and Japan that have pioneered a range of technologies including software for advanced robot arms, grasping technology and computer vision. Mr. Rubin has also said that he is interested in advancing sensor technology. Mr. Rubin has called his robotics effort a “moonshot,” but has declined to describe specific products that might come from the project.

Cheetah-robotHe has, however, also said that he does not expect initial product development to go on for some time, indicating that Google commercial robots of some nature would not be available for several more years. Google declined to say how much it paid for its newest robotics acquisition and said that it did not plan to release financial information on any of the other companies it has recently bought.

Considering the growing power and influence Google is having over technological research – be it in computing, robotics, neural nets or space exploration – it might not be too soon to assume that they are destined to one day create the supercomputer that will try to kill us all. In short, Google will play Cyberdyne to Skynet and unleash the Terminators. Consider yourself warned, people! 😉

Source: nytimes.com

The Future is Here: The DARPA/BD Wildcat!

BD_atlasrobotThe robotics company of Boston Dynamics has been doing some pretty impressive things with robots lately. Just last year, they unveiled the Cheetah, the robotics company set a new land speed record with their four-footed robot named Cheetah. As part of DARPA’s Maximum Mobility and Manipulation program, the robotic feline demonstrated the ability to run at a speed of 45.06 km/h (28 mph).

And in July of this year, they impressed and frightened the world again with the unveiling of their ATLAS robot – a anthropomorphic machine. This robot took part in the DARPA Robotics Challenge program. capable of walking across multiple terrains, and demonstrated its ability to walk across multiple types of terrain, use tools, and survey its environment with a series of head-mounted sensors.

Atlas_robotAnd now, they’ve unveiled an entirely new breed of robot, one that is capable of running fast on any kind of terrain. It’s known as the WildCat, a four-legged machine that builds on the world of the Legged Squad Support System (LS3) that seeks to create a robot that can support military units in the field, carrying their heavy equipment and supplies over rugged terrain and be operated by remote.

So far, not much is known about the robot’s full capabilities and or when it is expected to be delivered. However, in a video that was released in early October, Boston Dynamics showed the most recent field test of the robot to give people a taste of what it looks like in action. In the video, the robot demonstrated a top speed of about 25 km/h (16 mph) on flat terrain using both bounding and galloping gaits.

Cheetah-robotFollowing in the footsteps of its four-legged and two-legged progeny, the WildCat represents a coming era of biomimetic machinery that seeks to accomplish impressive physical feats by imitating biology. Whereas the Atlas is designed to be capable of doing anything the human form can – traversing difficult terrain, surveying and inspecting, and using complex tools – the Cheetah, LS3, and WildCat draw their inspiration from nature’s best hunters and speed runners.

Just think of it: a race of machines that can climb rocky outcroppings with the sure-footedness of a mountain goat, run as fast as a cheetah, stalk like a lion, bound like an antelope, and swing like a monkey. When it comes right down to it, the human form is inferior in most, if not all, of these respects to our mammalian brethren. Far better that we imitate them instead of ourselves when seeking to create the perfect helpers.

LS3-AlphaDog6reducedIn the end, it demonstrates that anthropomorphism isn’t the only source of drive when it comes to developing scary and potential doomsday-bating robots! And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy these videos of these various impressive, scary, and very cool robots in action:

WildCat:


Cheetah:


Atlas:


Source:
universetoday.com, bostondynamics.com

Judgement Day Update: e-David the Painting Robot

robot_bartenderRobots have been making quite the stir in the news lately. And no, that’s not a delicious pun on the robotic bartender – aka. the Makr Shakr, it’s just a frank appraisal of the leap and bounds by which robots and their integration to society is proceeding. Between developing machines that can imitate human movements, human facial expressions, and carry out specialized tasks, it appears that we may actually be on the verge on a world where robots are a common feature.

Just a few days ago, DARPA and Boston Dynamics unveiled their most anthropomorphic robot to date – the Atlas Robot. And this came less than a month after the Global Future 2045 conference took place in Moscow, where Geminoid robot clones – so realistic that they were virtually indistinguishable from their human counterparts – were put on display. And yet, it seems that the Singularitarians and roboticists of the world were not yet finished for the season.

e-DavidNow it appears that there is a robotic arm that is capable of performing another highly-specialized task: painting. Created by a team at the University of Konstanz in Germany, the E-David is capable of performing the artistic variety of painting, not the kind which involves spraying enamel onto car frames – something robots have been doing for decades, much to the chagrin of auto workers.

Granted, it is not capable of “artistic inspiration”, but instead takes a picture of what it wants to copy and takes it from there. What’s more, it e-David doesn’t require programming directions that tell it how to paint, relying instead on a concept known as “visual optimization” to make its own decisions. After each brush stroke, e-David takes a picture, and its software calculates where the next stroke needs to fall, what colors are needed, and whether it needs to be lighter or darker, etc.

e_David1In short, e-David can do the time-consuming and often monotonous task of reproducing original works of art, or cleaning them up, but cannot create someone all on its own. Now lets all join the artists of the world in breathing a collective sigh of relief. The team of university researchers described the e-David’s “process” in a release in which they stated:

We equipped a standard robot with all necessary means for painting. Five different brushes can be used, color can be selected from a repository with 24 colors, brushes can be cleaned, and colors can be distributed precisely on the canvas. The machine watches itself while painting and decides independently where to add new strokes. This way, paintings are created that are not completely defined by the programmer, but are the result of a visual optimization process.

While E-David isn’t the first robot capable of painting, it is in a class by itself when it comes to the quality of the images it creates. Much like the supercomputer Iamus that composed classical music which was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and recorded on an album, it is impossible to tell when looking at the finished product if the paintings were crafted by hand or machine. An interesting twist on the Turing Test, I think!

What’s next? A robot that can compose pop songs? I don’t think I can stand another version of “Friday”! And be sure to enjoy this video of e-David at work:


Sources: news.cnet.com, (2), fastcoexist.com