DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials Day 1

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Today was the first of two days of trials at the DARPA Robotics challenge at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida. Created after the Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, The robotics challenge is designed to advance the state of the art of robotics. The trials range from driving a car to clearing a debris field, to cutting through a wall. Robots score points based on their performance in the trials. Much of the day was spent waiting for teams to prepare their robots. There were some exciting moments however, with one challenger falling through a stacked cinder block wall.

Pictured above is Valkyrie from NASA JPL JSC. We reported on Valkyrie earlier this month. Arguably one of the better looking robots of the bunch, Valkyrie proved to be all show and no go today, failing to score any points in its day 1 trials. The day one lead went to Team Schaft, a new robot from Tokyo based startup company Schaft inc. Schaft scored 18 points in its first day. In second place is the MIT team  with 12 points. Third place is currently held by Team TRACLabs with 9 points. All this can change tomorrow as the second day of trials take place. The live stream will be available from 8am to 7pm EST on DARPA’s robotics challenge page.

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Sustainability Hacks: Poop power

Yes. That’s a motorized tricycle with a toilet. Let that sink in for a minute. Oh, that isn’t a concept sketch of something that will never be built. The Toilet Bike Neo is most assuredly a real thing.

Biogas, or methane produced from decaying plant or animal wastes, is a legitimate form of energy. Waste gasses from landfills make up about half a percent of U.S. natural gas consumption. The state of Vermont even has a Cow Power program of renewable energy. That being said, this is a toilet on a trike.

The bike was built for Japanese bathroom fixture manufacturer TOTO’s green initiative. Biogas is produced onboard the trike, so instead of going to the local gas station to fill up, you could just get a newspaper, coffee and bran muffin. There are tanks on the back of the trike containing “fuel”. This arrangement probably makes a rear end collision in the Toilet Bike Neo more terrifying than getting rear-ended in a Ford Pinto.

The Toilet Bike Neo is setting off on a trip across Japan on October 6th (today) to promote biogas. You can follow the updates on the Toilet Bike Neo’s Twitter.

A tip ‘o the hat to [jon] for sending this one in. You may now commence the jokes.

Geiger counter A/D conversion for radiation level crowdsourcing

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[Akiba] and the crew at Tokyo Hakerspace are still hard at work trying to help out their fellow countrymen after the recent earthquake, tsunami, and ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan. You may remember the group as they are behind the Kimono Lantern project we featured last week. This time around, their efforts are focused on getting usable information out to those who need it.

With all of the talk about nuclear fallout, they wanted to see what sort of measurements they could get in Tokyo, however they could not locate a Geiger counter anywhere nearby. Luckily, they were eventually able to source two old counters from the Reuseum in Idaho. One is being lent out to individuals in order to check if their home’s radiation levels are safe, but it was decided that the other would reside outdoors in order to collect radiation readings from the air.

[Akiba] wanted to put the results from the external Geiger counter up on Pachube, however these old units are all analog. He figured that a quick and dirty way to do analog to digital conversion would be to monitor the chirps coming off the counter’s speaker. This was done by wiring up an Arduino to the speaker leads, and keeping track of each time the speaker was activated. This resulted in an accurate digital radiation reading, matching that of the counter’s analog display. The Arduinio wirelessly sends the information to another Arduino stationed inside his apartment, which then uploads the data to Pachube.

A walkthrough of his conversion as well as the source code for both the Arduino counter and the Pachube uploader are available on his site, in case anyone else in the Tokyo area has a Geiger counter handy and wishes to do the same.

Tokyo Hackerspace helping disaster victims

We, like the rest of the world, have watched in horror as footage of the recent earthquake-caused disaster has been reported from northern Japan. It’s easy to watch video and see nothing but distruction, however, life goes on and [Akiba] is looking for a way to help the recovery efforts. He mentions that one of the big needs in the disaster area right now is for light, as the power infrastructure has been heavily damaged. The mason jar seen above is a Kimono Lantern that was meant to accent a garden at night. It has a solar cell – one NiMH rechargeable battery – and one bright LED along with a charging circuit. It was designed in the Tokyo Hackerspace and they released the build files in hopes that a large number can be donated to those in need. With a reasonable amount of daylight, the single cell battery can be charged enough to provide 10 hours of light from the little device.

How can our hacks help others? That question has been on our minds for the last few days. Light is a great first step. But we’ve also wondered about information networks to help coordinate rescue and cleanup workers. There are hacks that bring WiFi using wind power or solar power. What other hacks do you think would be useful to aid in the recovery process?

Tokyo Hackerspace – Akihabara Station Video Tour

This is the kind of footage that makes our mouths water here at Hackaday. [Akiba] of Freaklabs has been kind enough to take us all on a video tour of Akihabara Station, a treasure trove for electronics hackers located in the Chiyoda ward of Tokyo. The highlight includes surplus stores, specialty electronics shops, and enough silicon to bring an engineer to tears. Rather than waste time reading about it, follow the link and check out the videos in stunning 720p.

Hackers in other parts of the world, what kind of stores and marketplaces do you have like this? Send us your pictures and videos of local marketplaces that cater to your hacking needs so we can show them off.

Power suit for Japanese farmers

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Researchers at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology have been demoing a new power suit. It’s intended to be used by people hand harvesting in the farm industry. The 55 pound device supports the worker’s joints as they squat and reach. Within three years, they hope to have the cost within $10K. We’ve seen quite a few power suit devices this year, but research has been going on for many years, as you can see in our power suit roundup.

[Thanks Lane]

Age verification cameras easily fooled


Nice try, Fujitaka. They manufacture cigarette vending machines in Japan, and were all set to roll out a new system of age verification cameras on their machines, which would scan the face of the buyer to look for sagging skin, wrinkles, age spots, and other signs of legal smoking age. The system is easily circumvented, however: people with a photo of an older person clipped from a magazine can fool the machine by simply showing the photo instead of their own faces.

Another aspect to Japan’s cigarette control is the Taspo card, which is an age verified ID issued to smokers of legal age or older (20 years old is the legal age in Japan). Taspo cards are required for over the counter purchases, and the majority of vending machines require them as well. Relatively few machines are outfitted with face recognition systems, but many more are set to ship in the coming months. Fujitaka claims they are working on a solution by improving the face recognition software, but we think it would be a lot easier to simply check the background of the image. Since the camera is static and always pointed in one direction, the portraits it captures should always have the same background. Someone please tell Fujitaka we just saved them a boatload of R&D money… until Guy Fawkes masks become more popular.