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Hackaday Links: May 22, 2022

It looks like it’s soon to be lights out for the Mars InSight lander. In the two years that the lander has been studying the geophysics of Mars from its lonely post on Elysium Planitia, InSight’s twin solar arrays have been collecting dust, and now are so dirty that they’re only making about 500 watt-hours per sol, barely enough to run the science packages on the lander. And that’s likely to worsen as the Martian winter begins, which will put more dust in the sky and lower the angle of the Sun, reducing the sunlight that’s incident to the panels. Barring a “cleaning event” courtesy of a well-placed whirlwind, NASA plans to shut almost everything down on the lander other than the seismometer, which has already captured thousands of marsquakes, and the internal heaters needed to survive the cold Martian nights. They’re putting a brave face on it, emphasizing the continuing science and the mission’s accomplishments. But barely two years of science and a failed high-profile experiment aren’t quite what we’ve come to expect from NASA missions, especially one with an $800 million price tag.

Closer to home, it turns out there’s a reason sailing ships have always had human crews: to fix things that go wrong. That’s the lesson learned by the Mayflower Autonomous Ship as it attempted the Atlantic crossing from England to the States, when it had to divert for repairs recently. It’s not clear what the issue was, but it seems to have been a mechanical issue, as opposed to a problem with the AI piloting system. The project dashboard says that the issue has been repaired, and the AI vessel has shoved off from the Azores and is once more beating west. There’s a long stretch of ocean ahead of it now, and few options for putting in should something else go wrong. Still, it’s a cool project, and we wish them a fair journey.

Have you ever walked past a display of wall clocks at the store and wondered why someone went to the trouble of setting the time on all of them to 10:10? We’ve certainly noticed this, and always figured it had something to do with some obscure horological tradition, like using “IIII” to mark the four o’clock hour on clocks with Roman numerals rather than the more correct “IV”. But no, it turns out that 10:10 is more visually pleasing, and least on analog timepieces, because it evokes a smile on a human face. The study cited in the article had volunteers rate how pleasurable watches are when set to different times, and 10:10 won handily based on the perception that it was smiling at them. So it’s nice to know how easily manipulated we humans can be.

If there’s anything more pathetic than geriatric pop stars trying to relive their glory days to raise a little cash off a wave of nostalgia, we’re not sure what it could be. Still, plenty of acts try to do it, and many succeed, although seeing what time and the excesses of stardom have wrought can be a bit sobering. But Swedish megastars ABBA appear to have found a way to cash in on their fame gracefully, by sending digital avatars out to do their touring for them. The “ABBA-tars,” created by a 1,000-person team at Industrial Light and Magic, will appear alongside a live backing band for a residency at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The avatars represent Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha, and Anni-Frid as they appeared in the 1970s, and were animated thanks to motion capture suits donned while performing 40 songs. It remains to be seen how fans will buy into the concept, but we’ll say this — the Swedish septuagenarians look pretty darn good in skin-tight Spandex.

And finally, not that it has any hacking value at all, but there’s something shamefully hilarious about watching this poor little delivery bot getting absolutely wrecked by a train. It’s one of those food delivery bots that swarm over college campuses these days; how it wandered onto the railroad tracks is anyone’s guess. The bot bounced around a bit before slipping under the train’s wheels, with predictable results once the battery pack is smooshed.

Summer’s Coming – Let Mowerino Cut Your Grass

In the Northern hemisphere, summer is about to hit us full bore. While we love the season, we do dislike lawn maintenance. Apparently, so does [salmec] who developed the Mowerino around an Arduino Mega 2560 board.

As you might expect, the robot uses sharp blades so, you probably want to be careful. There are sensors that allow the machine to self-navigate or you can control it via Bluetooth. This is one of those things that seems easy until you try to actually do it. Nylon trimmer string is probably safer, but it breaks and it is hard to keep it cutting. Blades are more robust but also riskier to things like rocks, fingers, and pets.

Moving around in the yard is also an issue. The Mowerino has some ordinary-looking caster wheels in the front. That might be a place for improvement since most yards are not friendly to that kind of wheel. The other thing we worried about is what happens to the grass clippings. Around here, a week of rain means your mower will choke on grass clippings. On the other hand, the Mowerino has a smaller blade so maybe that helps mitigate clipping clogging.

Overall, though, it looks like it might be a good place to start if you dream of robot groundskeepers patrolling your estate. Most of the mowers we see like this have big wheels. But, of course, not all of them.

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Automate The Freight: Autonomous Buses To Start Operation In UK

The UK will get its first full-size autonomous bus service this summer, if final road testing that begins in the next two weeks goes according to plan.

Known as Project CAVForth for the UK government’s Center for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) and the Forth bridge, over which the buses will travel, it is said to be the most complex test of autonomous on-road mass transit yet undertaken in Europe. The full-size single-deck motorcoaches, five in total, will ply a 22-km (14-mile) route into Edinburgh from Fife, crossing the famous Firth of Forth on the Forth Road suspension bridge. The buses will carry about 36 passengers each and run at SAE Level 4 autonomy, meaning that a safety driver is optional under good driving conditions. Continue reading “Automate The Freight: Autonomous Buses To Start Operation In UK”

Autonomous Mower Hits Snag

Interfacing technology and electronics with the real world is often fairly tricky. Complexity and edge cases work their way in to every corner of a project like this; just ask anyone who has ever tried to operate a rover on Mars, make a hydroponics garden, or build almost any robotics project. Even those of us who simply own a consumer-grade printer are flummoxed by the ways in which they can fail when manipulating single sheets of paper. This robotic lawnmower is no exception, driving its creator [TK] to extremes to get it to mow his lawn.

[TK] actually had a platform for his autonomous mower ready to go thanks to a previous build using this solar-powered robot to explore the Australian outback. Adding another motor to handle the grass trimming seemed simple at first and he set about wiring it all up and interfacing it to the robot. After the first iteration he found the robot was moving too fast to effectively cut the grass, so he added a more powerful cutting motor and a gearbox to help the mower crawl more slowly over the lawn. Disaster struck when his 3D printed mount for the steel cutting blades shattered, but with [TK] uninjured he pushed on with more improvements.

As it stands right now, the mower can effectively cut the grass moving forward even with the plastic-only cutting blades that [TK] is using now for safety reasons. The mower stripped its reverse gear so there still are some improvements to make before this robot is autonomously cutting the lawn without supervision. Normally we see lawnmowers retrofitted with robotics rather than robotics retrofitted with a lawnmower, but we’re excited to see any approach that lets us worry about one less household chore.

Thanks to [Rob] for the tip!

Continue reading “Autonomous Mower Hits Snag”

Waterjet-Powered Speedboat For Fun And Research

There are a lot of cliches about the perils of boat ownership. “The best two days of a boat owner’s life are the day they buy their boat, and the day they sell it” immediately springs to mind, for example, but there is a loophole to an otherwise bottomless pit of boat ownership: building a small robotic speedboat instead of owning the full-size version. Not only will you save loads of money and frustration, but you can also use your 3D-printed boat as a base for educational and research projects.

The autonomous speedboats have a modular hull design to make them easy to 3D print, and they use a waterjet for propulsion which improves their reliability in shallow waters and reduces the likelihood that they will get tangled on anything or injure an animal or human. The platform is specifically designed to be able to house any of a wide array of sensors to enable people to easily perform automated tasks in bodies of water such as monitoring for pollution, search-and-rescue, and various inspections. A monohull version with a single jet was prototyped first, but eventually a twin-hulled catamaran with two jets was produced which improved the stability and reliability of the platform.

All of the files needed to get started with your own autonomous (or remote-controlled) speedboat are available on the project’s page. The creators are hopeful that this platform suits a wide variety of needs and that a community is created of technology enthusiasts, engineers, and researchers working on autonomous marine robotic platforms. If you’d prefer to ditch the motor, though, we have seen a few autonomous sailboats used for research purposes as well.

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RC car without a top, showing electronics inside.

Fast Indoor Robot Watches Ceiling Lights, Instead Of The Road

[Andy]’s robot is an autonomous RC car, and he shares the localization algorithm he developed to help the car keep track of itself while it zips crazily around an indoor racetrack. Since a robot like this is perfectly capable of driving faster than it can sense, his localization method is the secret to pouring on additional speed without worrying about the car losing itself.

The regular pattern of ceiling lights makes a good foundation for the system to localize itself.

To pull this off, [Andy] uses a camera with a fisheye lens aimed up towards the ceiling, and the video is processed on a Raspberry Pi 3. His implementation is slick enough that it only takes about 1 millisecond to do a localization update, netting a precision on the order of a few centimeters. It’s sort of like a fast indoor GPS, using math to infer position based on the movement of ceiling lights.

To be useful for racing, this localization method needs to be combined with a map of the racetrack itself, which [Andy] cleverly builds by manually driving the car around the track while building the localization data. Once that is in place, the car has all it needs to autonomously zip around.

Interested in the nitty-gritty details? You’re in luck, because all of the math behind [Andy]’s algorithm is explained on the project page linked above, and the GitHub repository for [Andy]’s autonomous car has all the implementation details.

The system is location-dependent, but it works so well that [Andy] considers track localization a solved problem. Watch the system in action in the two videos embedded below.

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Automate The Freight: Autonomous Ships Look For Their Niche

It is by no means an overstatement to say that life as we know it would grind to a halt without cargo ships. If any doubt remained about that fact, the last year and a half of supply chain woes put that to bed; we all now know just how much of the stuff we need — and sadly, a lot of the stuff we don’t need but still think we do — comes to us by way of one or more ocean crossings, on vessels specialized to carry everything from shipping containers to bulk liquid and solid cargo.

While the large and complex vessels that form the backbone of these globe-spanning supply chains are marvelous engineering achievements, they’re still utterly dependent on their crews to make them run efficiently. So it’s not at all surprising to learn that some shipping lines are working on ways to completely automate their cargo ships, to reduce their exposure to the need for human labor. On paper, it seems like a great idea — unless you’re a seafarer, of course. But is it a realistic scenario? Will shipping companies realize the savings that they apparently hope for by having fleets of unmanned cargo vessels plying the world’s oceans? Is this the right way to automate the freight?

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