Hold the Salt and Butter, This Popcorn Is For a Robot

Popcorn! Light and fluffy, it is a fantastically flexible snack. We can have them plain, create a savory snack with some salt and butter, or cover with caramel if you have a sweet tooth. Now Cornell University showed us one more way to enjoy popcorn: use their popping action as the mechanical force in a robot actuator.

It may be unorthodox at first glance, but it makes a lot of sense. We pop corn by heating its water until it turns into steam triggering a rapid expansion of volume. It is not terribly different from our engines burning an air-fuel mixture to create a rapid expansion of volume. Or using heat energy to boil water and trigger its expansion to steam. So a kernel of popcorn can be used as a small, simple, self-contained engine for turning heat energy into mechanical power.

Obviously it would be a single-use mechanism, but that’s perfectly palatable for the right niche. Single-use is a lot easier to swallow when popcorn is so cheap, and also biodegradable resulting in minimal residue. The research paper demonstrated three recipes to harness popping corn’s mechanical energy, but that is hardly an exhaustive list. There’s an open invitation to brainstorm other creations to add to the menu.

Of course, if you prefer candy over popcorn, you could build a robot actuator out of licorice instead.

Either way, the robot uprising will be delicious.

[via IEEE Spectrum]

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Teardown Of USB Fan Reveals Journalists’ Lack Of Opsec

Last month, Singapore hosted a summit between the leaders of North Korea and the United States. Accredited journalists invited to the event were given a press kit containing a bottle of water, various paper goods, and a fan that plugs into a USB port.

Understandably, the computer security crowd on Twitter had a great laugh. You shouldn’t plug random USB devices into a computer, especially if you’re a journalist, especially if you’re in a foreign country, and especially if you’re reporting on the highest profile international summit in recent memory. Doing so is just foolhardy.

This is not a story about a USB fan, the teardown thereof, or of spy agencies around the world hacking journalists’ computers. This a story of the need for higher awareness on what we plug into our computers. In this case nothing came of it — the majority of USB devices are merely that and nothing more. One of the fans was recently torn down (PDF) and the data lines are not even connected. (I’ll dive into that later on in this article). But the anecdote provides an opportunity to talk about USB security and how the compulsion to plug every USB device into a computer should be interrupted by a few seconds of thoughtfulness first.

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Ham-designed Gear Used in Thailand Cave Rescue

Unless you live in a cave, you’ve probably heard a little about the thirteen people — mostly children — trapped in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand. What you may have missed, though, is the hacker/ham radio connection. The British Cave Rescue Council (BCRC) was asked for their expert help. [Rick Stanton], [John Volanthen] and [Rob Harper] answered the call. They were equipped with HeyPhones. The HeyPhone is a 17-year-old design from [John Hey, G3TDZ]. Sadly, [G3TDZ] is now a silent key (ham radio parlance for deceased) so he didn’t get to see his design play a role in this high-profile rescue, although it has apparently been a part of many others in the past.

The HeyPhone is actually considered obsolete but is still in service with some teams. The radio uses USB (upper sideband, not universal serial bus) at 87 kHz. The low frequency can penetrate deep into the ground using either induction loop antennas like the older Molephone, or — more commonly — with electrodes injecting RF energy directly into the ground.

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Cheetah 3 Is Learning To Move Blindly Before Learning To See

Stand up right now and walk around for a minute. We’re pretty sure you didn’t see everywhere you stepped nor did you plan each step meticulously according to visual input. So why should robots do the same? Wouldn’t your robot be more versatile if it could use its vision to plan a path, but leave most of the walking to the legs with the help of various sensors and knowledge of joint positions?

That’s the approach [Sangbae Kim] and a team of researchers at MIT are taking with their Cheetah 3. They’ve given it cameras but aren’t using them yet. Instead, they’re making sure it can move around blind first. So far they have it walking, running, jumping and even going up stairs cluttered with loose blocks and rolls of tape.

Cheetah 3 jumping 30 inches onto a desk
Jumping 30 inches onto a desk

Two algorithms are at the heart of its being able to move around blind.

The first is a contact detection algorithm which decides if the legs should transition between a swing or a step based on knowledge of the joint positions and data from gyroscopes and accelerometers. If it tilted unexpectedly due to stepping on a loose block then this is the algorithm which decides what the legs should do.

The second is a model-predictive algorithm. This predicts what force a leg should apply once the decision has been made to take a step. It does this by calculating the multiplicative positions of the robot’s body and legs a half second into the future. These calculations are done 20 times a second. They’re what help it handle situations such as when someone shoves it or tugs it on a leash. The calculations enabled it to regain its balance or continue in the direction it was headed.

There are a number of other awesome features of this quadruped robot which we haven’t seen in others such as Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini like invertible knee joints and walking on three legs. Check out those features and more in the video below.

Of course, SpotMini has a whole set of neat features of its own. Let’s just say that while they look very similar, they’re on two different evolutionary paths. And the Cheetah certainly has evolved since we last looked at it a few years ago.

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