Extraterrestrial Autonomous Lander Systems to Touch Down on Mars

The future of humans is on Mars. Between SpaceX, Boeing, NASA, and every other national space program, we’re going to Mars. With this comes a problem: flying to Mars is relatively easy, but landing a large payload on the surface of another planet is orders of magnitude more difficult. Mars, in particular, is tricky: it has just enough atmosphere that you need to design around it, but not enough where we can use only parachutes to bring several tons down to the surface. On top of this, we’ll need to land our habitats and Tesla Roadsters inside a very small landing ellipse. Landing on Mars is hard and the brightest minds are working on it.

At this year’s Hackaday Superconference, we learned how hard landing on Mars is from Ara Kourchians (you may know him as [Arko]) and Steve Collins, engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in beautiful Pasadena. For the last few years, they’ve been working on COBALT, a technology demonstrator on how to use machine vision, fancy IMUs, and a host of sensors to land autonomously on alien worlds. You can check out the video of their Supercon talk below.

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Gorgeous Engineering Inside Wheels of a Robotic Trail Buddy

Robots are great in general, and [taylor] is currently working on something a bit unusual: a 3D printed explorer robot to autonomously follow outdoor trails, named Rover. Rover is still under development, and [taylor] recently completed the drive system and body designs, all shared via OnShape.

Rover has 3D printed 4.3:1 reduction planetary gearboxes embedded into each wheel, with off the shelf bearings and brushless motors. A Raspberry Pi sits in the driver’s seat, and the goal is to use a version of NVIDA’s TrailNet framework for GPS-free navigation of paths. As a result, [taylor] hopes to end up with a robotic “trail buddy” that can be made with off-the-shelf components and 3D printed parts.

Moving the motors and gearboxes into the wheels themselves makes for a very small main body to the robot, and it’s more than a bit strange to see the wheel spinning opposite to the wheel’s hub. Check out the video showcasing the latest development of the wheels, embedded below.

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Make Cars Safer By Making Them Softer

Would making autonomous vehicles softer make them safer?

Alphabet’s self-driving car offshoot, Waymo, feels that may be the case as they were recently granted a patent for vehicles that soften on impact. Sensors would identify an impending collision and adjust ‘tension members’ on the vehicle’s exterior to cushion the blow. These ‘members’ would be corrugated sections or moving panels that absorb the impact alongside the crumpling effect of the vehicle, making adjustments based on the type of obstacle the vehicle is about to strike.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: The Weedinator Project, Now with Flame

We like that the Weedinator Project is thinking big for this year’s Hackaday Prize! This ambitious project by [TegwynTwmffat] is building on a previous effort, which was a tractor mounted weeding machine (shown above). It mercilessly shredded any weeds; the way it did this was by tilling everything that existed between orderly rows of growing leeks. The system worked, but it really wasn’t accurate enough. We suspect it had a nasty habit of mercilessly shredding the occasional leek. The new version takes a different approach.

The new Weedinator will be an autonomous robotic rover using a combination of GPS and colored markers for navigation. With an interesting looking adjustable suspension system to help with fine positioning, the Weedinator will use various attachments to help with plant care. Individual weeds will be identified optically and sent to the big greenhouse in the sky via precise flame from a small butane torch. It’s an ambitious project, but [TegwynTwmffat] is building off experience gained from the previous incarnation and we’re excited to see where it goes.

Autonomous Boat Sails the High Seas

As the human population continues to rise and the amount of industry increases, almost no part of the globe feels the burdens of this activity more than the oceans. Whether it’s temperature change, oxygen or carbon dioxide content, or other characteristics, the study of the oceans will continue to be an ongoing scientific endeavor. The one main issue, though, is just how big the oceans really are. To study them in-depth will require robots, and for that reason [Mike] has created an autonomous boat.

This boat is designed to be 3D printed in sections, making it easily achievable for anyone with access to a normal-sized printer. The boat uses the uses the APM autopilot system and Rover firmware making it completely autonomous. Waypoints can be programmed in, and the boat will putter along to its next destination and perform whatever tasks it has been instructed. The computer is based on an ESP module, and the vessel has a generously sized payload bay.

While the size of the boat probably limits its ability to cross the Pacific anytime soon, it’s a good platform for other bodies of water and potentially a building block for larger ocean-worthy ships that might have an amateur community behind them in the future. In fact, non-powered vessels that sail the high seas are already a reality.

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Rovers to the Rescue: Robot Missions Tackles Trash

Everyone knows plastic trash is a problem with junk filling up landfills and scattering beaches. It’s worse because rather than dissolving completely, plastic breaks down into smaller chunks of plastic, small enough to be ingested by birds and fish, loading them up with indigestible gutfill. Natural disasters compound the trash problem; debris from Japan’s 2011 tsunami washed ashore on Vancouver Island in the months that followed.

Erin Kennedy was walking along Toronto Island beach and noticed the line of plastic trash that extended as far as the eye could see. As an open source robot builder, her first inclination was to use robots to clean up the mess. A large number of small robots following automated routines might be able to clear a beach faster and more efficiently than a person walking around with a stick and a trash bag.

Erin founded Robot Missions to explore this possibility, with the goal of uniting open-source “makers” — along with their knowledge of technology — with environmentalists who have a clearer understanding of what needs to be done to protect the Earth. It was a finalist in the Citizen Science category for the 2016 Hackaday Prize, and would fit very nicely in this year’s Wheels, Wings, and Walkers challenge which closes entries in a week.

Join me after the break for a look at where Robot Missions came from, and what Erin has in store for the future of the program.

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Automate the Freight: The Robotic Garbage Man

When I started the Automate the Freight series, my argument was that long before the vaunted day when we’ll be able to kick back and read the news or play a video game while our fully autonomous car whisks us to work, economic forces will dictate that automation will have already penetrated the supply chain. There’s much more money to be saved by carriers like FedEx and UPS cutting humans out of the loop while delivering parcels to homes and businesses than there is for car companies to make by peddling the comfort and convenience of driverless commuting.

But the other end of the supply chain is ripe for automation, too. For every smile-adorned Amazon package delivered, a whole bunch of waste needs to be toted away. Bag after bag of garbage needs to go somewhere else, and at least in the USA, municipalities are usually on the hook for the often nasty job, sometimes maintaining fleets of purpose-built trucks and employing squads of workers to make weekly pickups, or perhaps farming the work out to local contractors.

Either way you slice it, the costs for trash removal fall on the taxpayers, and as cities and towns look for ways to stretch those levies even further, there’s little doubt that automation of the waste stream will start to become more and more attractive. But what will it take to fully automate the waste removal process? And how long before the “garbage man” becomes the “garbage ‘bot”?

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