Need A Snack From Across Town? Send Spot!

[Dave Niewinski] clearly knows a thing or two about robots, judging from his YouTube channel. Usually the projects involve robot arms mounted on some sort of wheeled platform, but this time it’s the tune of some pretty famous yellow robot legs, in the shape of spot from Boston Dynamics. The premise is simple — tell the robot what snacks you want, entirely by voice command, and off he goes to fetch. But, we’re not talking about navigating to the fridge in the same room. We’re talking about trotting out the front door, down the street and crossing roads to visit favorite restaurant. Spot will order the snacks and bring them back, fully autonomously.

Spot’s depth cameras provide localized navigation and object avoidance information
Local AI vision system handles avoiding those pesky moving objects

There are multiple things going here, all of which are pretty big computational tasks. Firstly, there is no cloud-based voice control, ala Google voice or Alexa. The robot works on the premise of full autonomy, which means no internet connectivity for any aspect. All voice recognition, voice-to-text, and speech synthesis are performed locally using the NVIDIA Riva GPU-based AI speech SDK, running on the local NVIDIA Jetson AGX Orin carried on Spot’s back. A front-facing webcam supplies the audio feed for this. The voice recognition application listens for the wake phrase, then turns the snack order into text, for later replay when it gets to the destination. Navigation is taken care of with a Microstrain RTK GNSS module, which has all the needed robustness, such as dual antennas, and inertial fallback for those regions with a spotty signal. Navigation is no use out in the real world on its own, which is where Spot’s depth sensor cameras come in. These enable local obstacle avoidance, as per the usual spot behavior we’ve all seen before. But what about crossing the road without getting tens of thousands of dollars of someone else’s hardware crushed by a passing truck? Spot’s onboard streaming cameras are fed into the NVIDIA dash cam net AI platform which enables real-time recognition of moving obstacles such as cars, humans and anything else that might be wandering around and get in the way. All in all a cool project showing the future potential of AI in robotics for important tasks, like fetching me a beer when I most need it, even if it comes from the local corner shop.

We love robots around here. Robots can mow your lawn, navigate inside your house with a little help from invisible QR Codes, even help out with growing your food. The robot-assisted future long promised, may now be looking more like the present.

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Robot Dogs Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, September 29 at noon Pacific for the Robot Dogs Hack Chat with Afreez Gan!

Thanks to the efforts of a couple of large companies, many devoted hobbyists, and some dystopian science fiction, robot dogs have firmly entered the zeitgeist of our “living in the future” world. The quadrupedal platform, with its agility and low center of gravity, is perfect for navigating in the real world, where the terrain is rarely even and unexpected obstacles are to be expected.

The robot dog has been successful enough that there are commercially available — if prohibitively priced — dogs on the market, doing everything from inspecting factory processes and off-shore oil platforms to dancing for their dinner. All the publicity around robot dogs has fueled a crush of DIY and open-source versions, so that hobbyists can take advantage of what the platform has to offer. And as a result, the design of these dogs has converged somewhat, with elements that provide a common design language for these electromechanical pets.

Afreez Gan has been exploring the robot dog space for a while now, and his MiniPupper is generating some interest. He’ll stop by the Hack Chat to talk about MiniPupper specifically and the quadruped platform in general. We’ll talk about what it takes to build your own robot dog, what you can do with one once you’ve built it, and how these bots can play a part in STEM education. Along the way, we’ll touch on ROS, lidar, machine vision with OpenCV, and pretty much anything involved in the care and feeding of your newest electronic pal.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, September 29 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.

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.

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Hackaday Links: May 9, 2021

Well, that de-escalated quickly. It seems like no sooner than a paper was announced that purported to find photographic evidence of fungi growing on Mars, that the planetary science and exobiology community came down on it like a ton of bricks. As well they should — extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and while the photos that were taken by Curiosity and Opportunity sure seem to show something that looks a lot like a terrestrial puffball fungus, there are a lot of other, more mundane ways to explain these formations. Add to the fact that the lead author of the Martian mushroom paper is a known crackpot who once sued NASA for running over fungi instead of investigating them; the putative shrooms later turned out to be rocks, of course. Luckily, we have a geobiology lab wandering around on Mars right now, so if there is or was life on Mars, we’ll probably find out about it. You know, with evidence.

If you’re a fan of dystopic visions of a future where bloodthirsty robots relentlessly hunt down the last few surviving humans, the news that the New York Police Department decided to stop using their “DigiDog” robot will be a bit of a downer. The move stems from outrage generated by politicians and citizens alike, who dreamt up all sorts of reasons why the NYPD shouldn’t be using this tool. And use it they apparently did —  the original Boston Dynamics yellow showing through the many scuffs and dings in the NYPD blue paint job means this little critter has seen some stuff since it hit the streets in late 2020. And to think — that robot dog was only a few weeks away from filing its retirement papers.

Attention, Commodore fans based in Europe: the Commodore Users Europe event is coming soon. June 12, to be precise. As has become traditional, the event is virtual, but it’s free and they’re looking for presenters.

In a bid to continue the grand Big Tech tradition of knowing what’s best for everyone, Microsoft just announced that Calibri would no longer be the default font in Office products. And here’s the fun part: we all get to decide what the new default font will be, at least ostensibly. The font wonks at Microsoft have created five new fonts, and you can vote for your favorite on social media. The font designers all wax eloquent on their candidates, and there are somewhat stylized examples of each new font, but what’s lacking is a simple way to judge what each font would actually look like on a page of English text. Whatever happened to “The quick brown fox” or even a little bit of “Lorem ipsum”?

And finally, why are German ambulances — and apparently, German medics — covered in QR codes? Apparently, it’s a way to fight back against digital rubberneckers. The video below is in German, but the gist is clear: people love to stop and take pictures of accident scenes, and smartphones have made this worse, to the point that emergency personnel have trouble getting through to give aid. And that’s not to mention the invasion of privacy; very few accident victims are really at their best at that moment, and taking pictures of them is beyond rude. Oh, and it’s illegal, punishable by up to two years in jail. The idea with the QR codes is to pop up a website with a warning to the rubbernecker. Our German is a bit rusty, but we’re pretty sure that translates to, “Hey idiot, get back in your frigging car!” Feel free to correct us on that.

[Editor’s note: “Stop. Rubbernecking kills”.]

Boston Dynamics Stretch Robot Trades Lab Coat For Work Uniform

Boston Dynamics has always built robots with agility few others could match. While great for attention-getting demos, from outside the company it hasn’t been clear how they’ll translate acrobatic skills into revenue. Now we’re getting a peek at a plan in an interview with IEEE Spectrum about their new robot Stretch.

Most Boston Dynamics robots have been research projects, too expensive and not designed for mass production. The closest we got to date was Spot, which was offered for sale and picked up a few high profile jobs like inspecting SpaceX test sites. But Spot was still pretty experimental without an explicit application. In contrast, Stretch has a laser-sharp focus made clear by its official product page: this robot will be looking for warehouse jobs. Specifically, Stretch is designed to handle boxes up to 50 lbs (23 kg). Loading and unloading them, to and from pallets, conveyer belts, trucks, or shipping containers. These jobs are repetitive and tedious back-breaking work with a high injury rate, a perfect opportunity for robots.

But warehouse logistics aren’t as tightly structured as factory automation, demanding more adaptability than typical industrial robots can offer. A niche Boston Dynamics learned it can fill after releasing an earlier demo video showing their research robot Atlas moving some boxes around: they started receiving inquiries into how much that would cost. Atlas is not a product, but wheels were set in motion leading to their Handle robot. Learning from what Handle did well (and not well) in a warehouse environment, the designed evolved to today’s Stretch. The ostrich-like Handle prototype is now relegated to further research into wheeled-legged robots and the occasional fun dance video.

The Stretch preproduction prototypes visible in these videos lacks acrobatic flair of its predecessors, but they still have the perception and planning smarts that made those robots possible. Those skills are just being applied to a narrower problem scope. Once production models are on the job, we look forward to reading some work performance reviews.

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Hackaday Links: January 24, 2021

Code can be beautiful, and good code can be a work of art. As it so happens, artful code can also result in art, if you know what you’re doing. That’s the idea behind Programming Posters, a project that Michael Fields undertook to meld computer graphics with the code behind the images. It starts with a simple C program to generate an image. The program needs to be short enough to fit legibly into the sidebar of an A2 sheet, and as if that weren’t enough of a challenge, Michael constrained himself to the standard C libraries to generate his graphics. A second program formats the code and the image together and prints out a copy suitable for display. We found the combination of code and art beautiful, and the challenge intriguing.

It always warms our hearts when we get positive feedback from the hacker community when something we’ve written has helped advance a project or inspire a build. It’s not often, however, that we learn that Hackaday is required reading. Educators at the Magellan International School in Austin, Texas, recently reached out to Managing Editor Elliot Williams to let him know that all their middle school students are required to read Hackaday as part of their STEM training. Looks like the kids are paying attention to what they read, too, judging by KittyWumpus, their ongoing mechatronics/coding project that’s unbearably adorable. We’re honored to be included in their education, and everyone in the Hackaday community should humbled to realize that we’ve got an amazing platform for inspiring the next generation of hardware hackers.

Hackers seem to fall into two broad categories: those who have built a CNC router, and those who want to build one. For those in the latter camp, the roadblock to starting a CNC build is often “analysis paralysis” — with so many choices to make, it’s hard to know where to start. To ease that pain and get you closer to starting your build, Matt Ferraro has penned a great guide to planning a CNC router build. The encyclopedic guide covers everything from frame material choice to spindle selection and software options. If Matt has a bias toward any particular options it’s hard to find; he lists the pros and cons of everything so you can make up your own mind. Read it at your own risk, though; while it lowers one hurdle to starting a CNC build, it does nothing to address the next one: financing.

Like pretty much every conference last year and probably every one this year, the Open Hardware Summit is going to be virtual. But they’re still looking for speakers for the April conference, and just issued a Call for Proposals. We love it when we see people from the Hackaday community pop up as speakers at conferences like these, so if you’ve got something to say to the open hardware world, get a talk together. Proposals are due by February 11, so get moving.

And finally, everyone will no doubt recall the Boston Dynamics robots that made a splash a few weeks back with their dance floor moves. We loved the video, mainly for the incredible display of robotic agility and control but also for the choice of music. We suppose it was inevitable, though, that someone would object to the Boomer music and replace it with something else, like in the video below, which seems to sum up the feelings of those who dread our future dancing overlords. We regret the need to proffer a Tumblr link, but the Internet is a dark and wild place sometimes, and only the brave survive.

Start Your New Career In Robot Dance Choreography

Boston Dynamics loves showing off their robots with dance videos. Every time they put one out, it ignites a discussion among robot enthusiasts debating what’s real versus merely implied by the exhibition. We really want to see tooling behind the scenes and fortunately we get a peek with a Spot dance choreography session posted by [Adam Savage]’s Tested team. (YouTube video, also embedded below.)

For about a year, the Tested team has been among those exploring a Spot’s potential. Most of what we’ve seen has been controlled from a custom tablet that looked like a handheld video game console. In contrast, this video shows a computer application for sequencing Spot actions on a music-focused timeline. The timer period is specified in beats per minute, grouped up eight to a bar. The high level task is no different from choreographing human dancers: design something that can be performed to music, delights your audience, all while staying within the boundaries of what your dancers can physically do with their bodies. Then, trust your dancers to perform!

That computer application is Boston Dynamics Choreographer, part of the Spot Choreography SDK. A reference available to anyone who is willing to Read The Fine Manual even if we don’t have a Spot of our own. As of this writing, Choreography SDK covers everything we saw Spot do in an earlier UpTown Funk dance video, but looks like it has yet to receive some of the more advanced Spot dances in the recent Do You Love me? video. There is a reference chart of moves illustrated with animated GIF, documented with customizable parameters along with other important notes.

Lowers the robutt down and back up once. Lasts for one beat (4 slices). Author’s note: I’m sorry.

We’ve seen a lot of hackers take on the challenge of building their own quadruped robots on these pages. Each full of clever mechanical design solutions that can match Spot’s kinematics. And while not all of them can match Spot’s control systems, we’re sure it’s only a matter of time before counterparts to Choreographer application show up on GitHub. (If they already exist, please link in comments.) Will we love robots once they can all dance? The jury is still out.

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