Intel RealSense D435 Depth Camera

RealSense No Longer Makes Sense For Intel

We love depth-sensing cameras and every neat hack they enabled, but this technological novelty has yet to break through to high volume commercial success. So it was sad but not surprising when CRN reported that Intel has decided to wind down their RealSense product line.

As of this writing, one of the better confirmations for this report can be found on the RealSense SDK GitHub repository README. The good news is that core depth-sensing RealSense products will continue business as usual for the foreseeable future, balanced by the bad news that some interesting offshoots (facial authentication, motion tracking) will be declared “End of Life” immediately and phased out over the next six months.

This information tells us while those living out on the bleeding edge will have to scramble, there is no immediate crisis for everyone else, whether they be researchers, hobbyists, or product planners. But this also means there will be no future RealSense cameras, kicking off many “What’s Next?” discussions in various communities. Like this thread on ROS (Robot Operating System) Discourse.

Three popular alternatives offer distinctly different tradeoffs. The “Been Around The Block” name is Occipital, with their more expensive Structure Pro sensor. The “Old Name, New Face” option is Microsoft Azure Kinect, the latest non-gaming-focused successor to the gaming peripheral that started it all. And let’s not forget OAK-D as the “New Kid On The Block” that started with a crowdfunding campaign and building an user community by doing things like holding contests. Each of these will appeal to a different niche, and we’ll keep our eye open in the future. Let’s see if any of them find the success that eluded the original Kinect, Google’s Tango, and now Intel’s RealSense.

[via Engadget]

Atlas robot jumps over a gap

Boston Dynamics Atlas Dynamic Duo Tackles Obstacle Course

Historically, the capabilities of real world humanoid robots have trailed far behind their TV and movie counterparts. But roboticists kept pushing state of the art forward, and Boston Dynamics just shared a progress report: their research platform Atlas can now complete a two-robot parkour routine.

Watching the minute-long routine on YouTube (embedded after the break) shows movements more demanding than their dance to the song “Do You Love Me?  And according to Boston Dynamics, this new capability is actually even more impressive than it looks. Unlike earlier demonstrations, this routine used fewer preprogrammed motions that made up earlier dance performances. Atlas now makes more use of its onboard sensors to perceive its environment, and more of its onboard computing power to decide how to best move through the world on a case-by-case basis. It also needed to string individual actions together in a continuous sequence, something it had trouble doing earlier.

Such advances are hard to tell from a robot demonstration video, which are frequently edited and curated to show highlighted success and skip all the (many, many) fails along the way. Certainly Boston Dynamics did so themselves before, but this time it is accompanied by almost six minutes worth of behind-the-scenes footage. (Also after the break.) We see the robot stumbling as it learned, and the humans working to put them back on their feet.

Humanoid robot evolution has not always gone smoothly (sometimes entertainingly so) but Atlas is leaps and bounds over its predecessors like Honda Asimo. Such research finds its way to less humanoid looking robots like the Stretch. And who knows, maybe one day real robots will be like their TV and movie counterparts that have, for so long, been played by humans inside costumes.

Continue reading “Boston Dynamics Atlas Dynamic Duo Tackles Obstacle Course”

Baby C-17 Sends Imaginations Soaring

The C-17 Globemaster III is a military cargo jet that can carry what their commercial counterparts can’t, to places those other planes can’t go. The people who keep these planes flying are proud of their capable airlifter, but it’s hard to show them off. Solution: build a scaled-down version more suitable for driving off base for a parade down Main Street and other community events.

While the real thing was built under an expensive and contentious military procurement process, the miniature was built with volunteer labor using castoff materials. The volunteer force included maintenance crew whose job is to know the C-17 inside and out. Combined with fabrication skills that comes with the job, the impressive baby plane faithfully copied many curvatures and details from full-sized originals. (Albeit with some alteration for its cartoony proportions.) Underneath are mechanicals from a retired John Deere Gator utility vehicle. They usually resemble a large golf cart except with a cargo bed and more rugged suspension. Basically they are to golf carts as a C-17 is to a 767. Amusingly, the little plane has its own rear loading ramp, superficially preserving the cargo-carrying capacity of the original Gator chassis.

Interior features continue, though the official picture gallery doesn’t show them. There is a flight deck with control panels and various sights and sounds to keep visitors entertained. Enough details were poured into the exhibit that some people had to ask if the little plane can fly, and the answer is a very definite no. The wings, and the engine pods mounted to them, are only for show carrying The Spirit of Hope, Liberty & Freedom. It is quite a long official name for such a short stubby thing.

We always love to admire impressively put-together miniatures, and not all projects require skill of aircraft mechanics. Like this very approachable miniature forklift project. But there are plenty of other projects whose skills put us in awe, like this remote-control car powered by a miniature V-10 engine.

[via The Museum of Flight]

Give 3D Printed Plastic A Well-Worn Metal Look

Affordable 3D printers let us turn ideas into physical reality without a big expensive workshop, but with their power came some disadvantages. The nature of FDM printers impart layer lines and nozzle ridges in the parts they produce. They can be minimized with optimized print settings, but never eliminated. [Emily Velasco] loves the power of 3D printing but not how the parts look. So she put in the effort to make 3D-printed plastic look like distressed metal and showed us how she did it. (Video also embedded after the break.)

This video is a follow-up to her Pet Eye project in response to feedback on Twitter. She had mentioned that the  salvaged metal box for Pet Eye wasn’t quite big enough to hold everything, so she had to extend its internal volume with a 3D print box on the back. It fit in so well that the offhand comment surprised many people who wanted to know more about how it was done. So she designed a demonstration cube covered with mechanical characteristics, and gave us this walkthrough of its transformation.

Continue reading “Give 3D Printed Plastic A Well-Worn Metal Look”

Not All SpaceX Software Goes To Space

SpaceX has always been willing to break from aerospace tradition if they feel there’s a more pragmatic solution. Today this is most visible in their use of standard construction equipment like cranes in their Starship development facility. But the same focus on problem solving can also be found in their software parts we don’t see. Recently we got two different views behind the scenes. First, a four-part series about “software in space” published by StackOverflow blog, followed quickly by an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on SpaceX Reddit.

Some of the StackOverflow series cover ground that has been previously discussed. Mostly in the first part dealing with their workhorse Falcon and Dragon vehicles, and some in the second part discussing Starlink whose beta program is reaching more and more people. Both confirmed that spaceflight software has to meet very stringent requirements and are mostly close to the metal bespoke C++ code. But we receive fascinating new information in part three, which focuses on code verification and testing. Here they leverage a lot of open source infrastructure more common to software startups than aerospace companies. The fourth and final component of this series covers software to support SpaceX hardware manufacturing, which had been rarely discussed before this point. (Unfortunately, there was nothing about how often SpaceX software developers copy and paste code from StackOverflow.)

The recent Reddit AMA likewise had some overlap with the SpaceX software AMA a year ago, but there were new information about SpaceX work within the past year. There was Crew Dragon’s transition from a test to an operational vehicle, and the aforementioned Starship development program. Our comments section had a lot of discussion about the practicality of touchscreen interfaces in real spacecraft, and here we learn SpaceX put a lot of study into building something functional and effective.

It also showed us that essentially every Sci-Fi Movie Interface was unrealistic and would be unreadable under extreme conditions.

In the course of this research, they learned a lot of pitfalls about fictional touch interfaces. Though to be fair, movie and television spacecraft UI are more concerned about looking cool than being useful.

If the standard AMA format is not to your liking, one of the contributors compiled all SpaceX answers alongside their related questions in a much more readable form here. And even though there’s an obvious recruiting side to these events, we’re happy to learn more about how SpaceX have continued to focus on getting the job done instead of rigidly conforming to aerospace tradition. An attitude that goes all the way back to the beginning of this company.

Samsung Releases Minimum Viable Galaxy Upcycling

It’s a tragedy every time a modern smartphone is tossed into e-waste. We prefer to find another life for these bundles of useful hardware. But given all the on-board barriers erected by manufacturers, it’s impractical to repurpose smartphones without their support. A bit of good news on this front is Samsung testing the waters with a public beta of their “Galaxy Upcycling at Home” program, turning a few select devices into SmartThings sensor nodes.

More devices and functionality are promised, but this initial release is barely a shadow of what Samsung promised in 2017. Missed the announcement back then? Head over to a “How it started/How it’s going” comparison from iFixit, who minced no words starting with their title Galaxy Upcycling: How Samsung Ruined Their Best Idea in Years. They saw a bunch of Samsung engineers at Bay Area Maker Faire 2017, showing off a bunch of fun projects reusing old phones as open hardware. The placeholder GitHub repository left from that announcement still has a vision of a community of makers dreaming up novel uses. This is our jam! But sadly it has remained a placeholder for four years and, given what we see today, it is more likely to be taken down than to become reality.

The stark difference between original promise and actual results feel like an amateur Kickstarter, not something from a giant international conglomerate. Possibly for the same reason: lack of resources and expertise for execution. It’s hard to find support in a large corporate bureaucracy when there is no obvious contribution to the bottom line. Even today’s limited form has only a tenuous link of possibly helping to sell other SmartThings-enabled smart home devices.

Ars Technica was similarly unimpressed with launch functionality, but was more diplomatic describing the beta as “a very modest starting point”. XDA-Developers likewise pinned their hopes on the “more devices will be supported in the future” part of Samsung’s announcement. Until Samsung delivers on more of the original promise, we’ll continue to be hampered by all the existing reasons hacking our old cell phones are harder than they should be. Sometimes an idea can be fulfilled by helpful apps but other times will require hacking into our devices the old-fashioned way.

A Big Ship Chop Shop On The Georgia Coast

Last week we saw a hapless container ship vaulted to fame, where people converged on its combination of mind-boggling size suffering an easily relatable problem of getting stuck. Now that it is moving again, armchair engineers who crave more big ship problem-solving should check out [David Tracy]’s writeup on the salvage operation of an overturned car carrier ship, the MV Golden Ray published by Jalopnik. If the ship’s name doesn’t ring a bell, the writeup opens with a quick recap.

Written for an audience of gearheads, [Tracy]’s writeup walks through some technical aspects of the salvage plan and initial results of execution. Citing from the official entity in charge, the St. Simons Sound Incident Response Unified Command, and augmented with information from elsewhere. Even though the MV Golden Ray is “only’ half the length and a third of the gross tonnage of our meme darling MV Ever Given, it is still a huge ship. Every salvage operation this big is unique, requiring knowledge far beyond our everyday intuition. At this scale, most Internet “Why don’t they just…” comments range from impractical to absurd.

Fortunately, people who actually know how to perform salvage work designed plans, submitted by multiple bidders, each making a different tradeoff in cost and speed among other factors. The chosen plan was to cut the ship into sections small enough to be carried by barge for further processing elsewhere. This required a huge floating crane, a chain pressed into cutter duty, custom fabricated lugs for lifting, and similarly custom fabricated cradles for the barges.

But we all know that no plan survives contact with reality. While this plan was seemingly chosen for speed, it hasn’t gone nearly as fast as advertised. Certainly the pandemic was a huge hinderance, but cutting has also been slowed by pieces built far stronger than spec. Delays also meant more sediment buildup inside the wreck, compounding headaches. Other bidders have started saying that if their plan had been chosen the job would be done by now, but who’s to say their plan wouldn’t have encountered their own problems?

In time St. Simons Sound will be cleared as the Suez Canal has been. Results of their respective investigations should help make shipping safer, but salvage skills will still be needed in the future. At least this operation isn’t as controversial as trying to retrieve the radio room of RMS Titanic.