A New Open-Source Farming Robot Takes Shape

The world of automated farming may be an unglamorous one to those not invested in its attractions, but like the robots themselves that quietly get on in the background with tending crops, those who follow that path spend many seasons refining their designs. The Acorn is a newly-open-sourced robot from Twisted Fields, a Californian research farm, and it provides a fascinating look at the progress of a farming robot design from germination onwards.

The Acorn is not a CNC gantry for small intensive gardens in the manner of designs such as the Farmbot, instead it’s an autonomous solar-powered rover intended for larger farms which will cruise the fields continuously tending to the plants in its patch. It’s a work in progress, so what we see is the completed rover with the tools and machine vision to follow. It pursues the course of a low-cost lightweight platform, an aluminium chassis surmounted by the solar panel, with mountain bike front fork derived wheels at each corner. It has four wheel drive and four wheel steering, meaning that it can traverse the roughest of farmland. We can see its progress since a 2019 prototype, and while it seems as slow as the seasons themselves to mature, we can see that the final version could be a significantly useful machine on a small farm.

It’s not the first autonomous farming robot we’ve seen over the years, as for example this slightly more robust Australian model. We’re guessing that this is the direction autonomous farming is likely to take, with the more traditional tractor-based machinery projected by some manufacturers taking on repetitive loading and hauling roles.

Continue reading “A New Open-Source Farming Robot Takes Shape”

Legged Robots Put On Wheels And Skate Away

We don’t know how much time passed between the invention of the wheel and someone putting wheels on their feet, but we expect that was a great moment of discovery: combining the ability to roll off at speed and our leg’s ability to quickly adapt to changing terrain. Now that we have a wide assortment of recreational wheeled footwear, what’s next? How about teaching robots to skate, too? An IEEE Spectrum interview with [Marko Bjelonic] of ETH Zürich describes progress by one of many research teams working on the problem.

For many of us, the first robot we saw rolling on powered wheels at the end of actively articulated legs was when footage of the Boston Dynamics ‘Handle’ project surfaced a few years ago. Rolling up and down a wide variety of terrain and performing an occasional jump, its athleticism caused quite a stir in robotics circles. But when Handle was introduced as a commercial product, its job was… stacking boxes in a warehouse? That was disappointing. Warehouse floors are quite flat, leaving Handle’s agility under-utilized.

Boston Dynamic has typically been pretty tight-lipped on details of their robotics development, so we may never know the full story behind Handle. But what they have definitely accomplished is getting a lot more people thinking about the control problems involved. Even for humans, we face a nontrivial learning curve paved with bruised and occasionally broken body parts, and that’s even before we start applying power to the wheels. So there are plenty of problems to solve, generating a steady stream of research papers describing how robots might master this mode of locomotion.

Adding to the excitement is the fact this is becoming an area where reality is catching up to fiction, as wheeled-legged robots have been imagined in forms like Tachikoma of Ghost in the Shell. While those fictional robots have inspired projects ranging from LEGO creations to 28-servo beasts, their wheel and leg motions have not been autonomously coordinated as they are in this generation of research robots.

As control algorithms mature in robot research labs around the world, we’re confident we’ll see wheeled-legged robots finding applications in other fields. This concept is far too cool to be left stacking boxes in a warehouse.

Continue reading “Legged Robots Put On Wheels And Skate Away”

A Walking Rover Destined Explore Your Fridge Door

It’s usually the simple ideas that sprout bigger ones, and this was the case when we saw [gzumwalt]’s single-motor walking robot crawling up a fridge door with magnets on its feet. (Video, embedded below.)

The walking mechanism consists of an inner foot and two outer feet, connected by three sets of rotating linkages, driven by a single geared motor. The feet move in a leapfrog motion, in small enough steps that the center of mass always stays inside the foot area, which keeps it from tipping over. Besides the previously mentioned ability to crawl around on a vertical magnetic surface, it’s also able to crawl over almost any obstacle shorter than its step length. A larger version should also be able to climb stairs.

As shown, this robot can only travel in a straight line, but this could be solved by adding a disc on the bottom of the inner foot to turn the robot when the outer feet are off the surface. Add some microswitch feelers and an Arduino, and it can autonomously explore your fridge without falling off. Maybe we’ll get around to building it ourselves, but be sure to drop us a tip if you beat us to it!

[gzumwalt] is a master of 3D printed devices like a rigid chain and a domino laying robot. The mechanism for this robot was inspired by one design from [thang010146]’s marvelous video library of mechanisms.

Continue reading “A Walking Rover Destined Explore Your Fridge Door”

Assemble Your (Virtual) Robotic Underground Exploration Team

It’s amazing how many things have managed to move online in recent weeks, many with a beneficial side effect of eliminating travel making them more accessible to everyone around the world. Though some events had a virtual track before it was cool, among them the DARPA Subterranean Challenge (SubT) robotics competition. Recent additions to their “Hello World” tutorials (with promise of more to come) have continued to lower the barrier of entry for aspiring roboticists.

We all love watching physical robots explore the real world, which is why SubT’s “Systems Track” gets most of the attention. But such participation is necessarily restricted to people who have the resources to build and transport bulky hardware to the competition site, which is just a tiny subset of all the brilliant minds who can contribute. Hence the “Virtual Track” which is accessible to anyone with a computer that meets requirements. (64-bit Ubuntu 18 with NVIDIA GPU) The tutorials help get us up and running on SubT’s virtual testbed which continues to evolve. With every round, the organizers work to bring the virtual and physical worlds closer together. During the recent Urban Circuit, they made high resolution scans of both the competition course as well as participating robots.

There’s a lot of other traffic on various SubT code repositories. Motivated by Bitbucket sunsetting their Mercurial support, SubT is moving from Bitbucket to GitHub and picking up some housecleaning along the way. Together with the newly added tutorials, this is a great time to dive in and see if you want to assemble a team (both of human collaborators and virtual robots) to join in the next round of virtual SubT. But if you prefer to stay an observer of the physical world, enjoy this writeup with many fun details on systems track robots.

DARPA Challenge Autonomous Robot Teams To Navigate Unfinished Nuclear Power Plant

Robots might be finding their footing above ground, but today’s autonomous robots have a difficult time operating underground. DARPA wanted to give the state of the art a push forward, so they are running a Subterranean (SubT) Challenge which just wrapped up its latest round. A great review of this Urban Circuit competition (and some of the teams participating in it) has been published by IEEE Spectrum. This is the second of three underground problem subdomains presented to the participants, six months apart, preparing them for the final event which will combine all three types.

If you missed the livestream or prefer edited highlight videos, they’re all part of DARPAtv’s Subterranean Challenge playlist. Today it starts with a compilation of Urban Circuit highlights and continues to other videos. Including team profiles, video walkthrough of competition courses, actual competition footage, edited recap videos, and the awards ceremony. Half of the playlist are video from the Tunnels Circuit six months ago, so we can compare to see how teams performed and what they’ve learned along the way. Many more lessons were learned in the just-completed Urban Circuit and teams will spend the next six months improving their robots. By then we’ll have the Caves Circuit competition with teams ready to learn new lessons about operating robots underground.

Continue reading “DARPA Challenge Autonomous Robot Teams To Navigate Unfinished Nuclear Power Plant”

DARPA Subterranean Challenge Urban Circuit Now Livestreaming

Currently underway is the DARPA Subterranean Challenge (SubT) systems competition for urban circuits streamed live on YouTube now through Wednesday, February 26th.

The DARPA Grand Challenge of 2004 kicked research and development of autonomous vehicles into high gear. Many components on today’s self-driving vehicles can be traced back to systems developed for that competition. Hoping to spur further development, DARPA has since held several more challenges focused moving the state of the art in autonomous robotics ahead.

To succeed in this challenge, robots must handle terrain that would confuse today’s self-driving cars. Cluttered environments, uneven surfaces of different materials, even the occasional flooded section are fair game. These robots also lose access to some of the tools previously available, such as GPS. The “systems track” denotes teams building physical robot systems versus a separate “virtual track” for simulation robots. “Urban circuit” is the second of four phases in this competition, environments of this phase are focused on man-made underground structures. (Think subway station.) For more details on this competition as well as description of various phases, see our introductory post or the competition site.

Those who rather not watch robots tentatively exploring unknown territory (and occasionally failing) may choose to wait for summaries published after competition rounds are complete. The first phase (tunnel circuit) from August-October 2019 was summarized by IEEE Spectrum here. Or you can go straight to DARPA for details on the systems track and virtual track with overall results posted on the competition site.

Continue reading “DARPA Subterranean Challenge Urban Circuit Now Livestreaming”

Designing An Advanced Autonomous Robot: Goose

Robotics is hard, maybe not quite as difficult as astrophysics or understanding human relationships, but designing a competition winning bot from scratch was never going to be easy. Ok, so [Paul Bupe, Jr’s] robot, named ‘Goose’, did not quite win the competition, but we’re very interested to learn what golden eggs it might lay in the aftermath.

The mechanics of the bot is based on a fairly standard dual tracked drive system that makes controlling a turn much easier than if it used wheels. Why make life more difficult than it is already? But what we’re really interested in is the design of the control system and the rationale behind those design choices.

The diagram on the left might look complicated, but essentially the system is based on two ‘brains’, the Teensy microcontroller (MCU) and a Raspberry Pi, though most of the grind is performed by the MCU. Running at 96 MHz, the MCU is fast enough to process data from the encoders and IMU in real time, thus enabling the bot to respond quickly and smoothly to sensors. More complicated and ‘heavier’ tasks such as LIDAR and computer vision (CV) are performed on the Pi, which runs ‘Robot operating system’ (ROS), communicating with the MCU by means of a couple of ‘nodes’.

The competition itself dictated that the bot should travel in large circles within the walls of a large box, whilst avoiding particular objects. Obviously, GPS or any other form of dead reckoning was not going to keep the machine on track so it relied heavily on ‘LiDAR point cloud data’ to effectively pinpoint the location of the robot at all times. Now we really get to the crux of the design, where all the available sensors are combined and fed into a ‘particle filter algorithm’:

What we particularly love about this project is how clearly everything is explained, without too many fancy terms or acronyms. [Paul Bupe, Jr] has obviously taken the time to reduce the overall complexity to more manageable concepts that encourage us to explore further. Maybe [Paul] himself might have the time to produce individual tutorials for each system of the robot?

We could well be reading far too much into the name of the robot, ‘Goose’ being Captain Marvel’s bazaar ‘trans-species’ cat that ends up laying a whole load of eggs. But could this robot help reach a de-facto standard for small robots?

We’ve seen other competition robots on Hackaday, and hope to see a whole lot more!

Video after the break: Continue reading “Designing An Advanced Autonomous Robot: Goose”