Hackaday Links: May 17, 2020

Consider it the “Scarlet Letter” of our time. An MIT lab is developing a face mask that lights up to alert others when the wearer has COVID-19. The detection technology is based on sensors that were developed for the Ebola virus scare and uses fluorescently tagged DNA fragments freeze-dried onto absorbent strips built into the mask. The chemistry is activated by the moisture in the sputum expelled when the wearer coughs or sneezes while wearing the mask; any SARS-CoV-2 virus particles in the sputum bind to the strips, when then light up under UV. The list of problems a scheme like this entails is long and varied, not least of which is what would possess someone to willingly don one of these things. Still, it’s an interesting technology.

Speaking of intrusive expansions of the surveillance state, Singapore is apparently now using a Boston Dynamics Spot robot to enforce social-distancing rules in its public parks and gardens. The familiar four-legged, bright yellow dog-bot is carrying cameras that are relaying images of park attendees to some sort of image analysis program and are totally not capturing facial or personal data, pinky swear. If people are found to be violating the two-meter rule, Spot will bark out a prerecorded reminder to spread out a bit. How the system differentiates between people who live together who are out getting some fresh air and strangers who should be staying apart, and whether the operators of this have ever seen how this story turns out are open questions.

Those who lived through 9/11 in the United States no doubt remember the deafening silence that descended over the country for three days while every plane in the civil aviation fleet was grounded. One had no idea how much planes contributed to the noise floor of life until they were silenced. So too with the lockdown implemented worldwide to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, except with the sometimes dramatic reduction in pollution levels. We’ve all seen pictures where people suddenly realize that Los Angeles isn’t necessarily covered by an orange cloud of smog, and that certain mountain ranges are actually visible if you care to look. But getting some hard data is always useful, and these charts show just how much the pollution situation improved in a number of countries throughout the world after their respective lockdowns. For some cities, the official lockdown was a clear demarcation between the old pollution regime and the new, but for some, there was an obvious period before the lockdown was announced where people were obviously curtailing their activity. It’s always interesting pore over data like this and speculated what it all means.

While the in-person aspects of almost every conference under the sun have been canceled, many of them have switched to a virtual meeting that can at least partially make up for the full experience. And coming up next weekend is Virtually Maker Faire, in the slot where Bay Area Maker Faire would normally be offered. The call for makers ends today, so get your proposals in and sign up to attend.

And finally, there aren’t too many times in life you’ll get a chance to get to visualize a number so large that an Evil Empire was named for it. The googol, or 10100, was a term coined by the nine-year-old nephew of mathematician Edward Kasner when he asked the child for a good name for a really big number. To put the immensity of that number into perspective, The Brick Experiment Channel on YouTube put together an improbably long gear train using Lego pieces we’ve never seen before with a reduction ratio of 10103.4:1. The gear train has a ton of different power transmission elements in it, from plain spur gears to worm drives and even planetary gears. We found the 2608.5:1 harmonic gear particularly fascinating. There’s enough going on to keep even a serious gearhead entertained, but perhaps not for the 5.2×1091 years it’ll take to revolve the final gear once. Something, something, heat-death of the universe. [Ed note: prior art, which we were oddly enough thinking of fondly just a few days ago. Synchronicity!]

Sonic The Hedgehog Self-Balancing Robot Can Bend At The Knees

Building your own self-balancing robot is a rite of passage for anyone getting into the field of robotics. Master of robots, [James Bruton] has been there, done that, and collected a few T-shirts. Now he’s building a large Sonic the Hedgehog self balancing robot that can bend at the knees and hip, allowing it to lean while turning and handle uneven terrain. Check out the first video embedded after the break.

Standing about 1 m tall, the robot is inspired by Boston Dynamic’s box handling bot, Handle. It’s “skeleton” consists of 20×20 aluminium extrusions, bolted together using a bunch of 3D printed fittings in the signature blue and red of Sonic. The wheels and tyres are also 3D printed, and driven by brushless motor via a toothed belt. The knee/hip mechanism is actuated using a ball screw, also driven by a brushless motor.

[James] intends to implement an active shock absorption system into the leg mechanism, using the same technique he tried on his OpenDog robot. It works by bolting a load cell onto one of the leg extrusion to sense when it flexes under load, and then actuating the knee mechanism to absorb the force. His first version of the system on OpenDog used PWM signals to send the load cell data to the main controller, but the motors on the legs induced enough noise in the signal wires to make it unusable. He has since started experimenting with the CAN bus protocol, which was specifically designed to work reliably in noisy systems like modern automobiles. If he gets it working on the two legs of this Sonic robot, he plans to also implement it on the quadruped OpenDog.

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Hackaday Links: September 29, 2019

In a sure sign that we’ve arrived in the future, news from off-world is more interesting this week than Earth news. When the InSight probe landed on Mars last year, it placed the first operating magnetometer on the Red Planet. Since then, the sensitive instrument has been logging data about the planet’s magnetic field, and now there are reports that researchers have discovered a chain of pulsations in the magnetic field. Pulsations in planetary magnetic fields aren’t all that strange; pulse trains that occur only at Martian midnight are, though. Researchers haven’t got a clue yet about what this means. We assume they’ve eliminated artifacts like something on the lander being turned on at local midnight, so when they figure it out it should be fascinating.

In more news from the future, Boston Dynamics is trolling us again. We covered the announcement early this week that they’re putting their Spot quadruped robot on sale – sort of. Turns out you need to be selected to qualify based on the application you have in mind, plus have several Ferraris full of cash to spend. While everyone was watching the adorable antics of Spot as it wandered through improbably industrial vignettes, Boston Dynamics also released this slightly terrifying video of their Atlas robot running through a gymnastics routine.  It starts with a headstand and a front roll and ends with a slipt leap and whatever the gymnastics equivalent of a figure skating axel jump is. Yes, it has a special roll cage attached to make the tumbles a bit smoother, but it’s still some remarkable stuff.

How are your RF design skills? If they’re good enough to design an RF power amp, you might want to check out this homebrew RF design challenge. Put on by NXP Semiconductors, the design must use one of their new LDMOS RF power transistors. They’ll send you samples so you can build your design, and you stand to win up to $3000 plus $1000 worth of NXP products. The contest opened back in May but is running through the middle of November, so you’d better hurry.

Speaking of RF, wouldn’t it be interesting to see a snapshot of the RF spectrum over the entire planet? ElectroSense thinks so, and they’re working on a crowdsourcing model to set up a globe-spanning network of connected RF sensors. The idea is similar to what FlightAware does for monitoring the locations of aircraft with a distributed network of ADS-B receivers. But where FlightAware only monitors a narrow slice of spectrum, ElectroSense wants it all – DC to 6 GHz. You can build a sensor from an SDR and a Raspberry Pi and start contributing to the effort, which only has a handful of sensors at the moment.

Has affordable metal 3D-printing finally arrived? For certain values of affordability, it soon will, when One Click Metal launches their new selective laser melting printer. Thomas Sanladerer did a video with the principals, and the prototype looks promising. SLM is not a new process, but patents on the core process recently ran out, so startups like One Click Metal are jumping into the market. Their printer won’t be cheap — you’ll still need to write a check with many zeroes — but with more players, the price should come down.

And finally, what’s this world coming to when a startup specializing in building giant fighting robots can’t make a go of it? MegaBots is shutting down, and while that’s certainly bad news for its founders and employees, it’s great news for anyone in the market for used battle bots. The company’s flagship bot, the 15-ton Eagle Prime, is currently up for auction on eBay. Bidding started at $1 with no reserve, but if you were looking for a steal, you’re a bit late. The high bid is currently $100,100, which is still an incredible buy considering it cost $2.5 million to build. You’ll have to pay for shipping, but you’ll have a super-destructive mecha of your own to drive around. And think how cool you’ll look rolling into some kid’s backyard birthday party. Presumably one you’ve been invited to.

Ask Hackaday: What Good Is A Robot Dog?

It is said that Benjamin Franklin, while watching the first manned flight of a hot air balloon by the Montgolfier brothers in Paris in 1783, responded when questioned as to the practical value of such a thing, “Of what practical use is a new-born baby?” Dr. Franklin certainly had a knack for getting to the heart of an issue.

Much the same can be said for Spot, the extremely videogenic dog-like robot that Boston Dynamics has been teasing for years. It appears that the wait for a production version of the robot is at least partially over, and that Spot (once known as Spot Mini) will soon be available for purchase by “select partners” who “have a compelling use case or a development team that [Boston Dynamics] believe can do something really interesting with the robot,” according to VP of business development Michael Perry.

The qualification of potential purchasers will certainly limit the pool of early adopters, as will the price tag, which is said to be as much as a new car – and a nice one. So it’s not likely that one will show up in a YouTube teardown video soon, so until the day that Dave Jones manages to find one in his magic Australian dumpster, we’ll have to entertain ourselves by trying to answer a simple question: Of what practical use is a robotic dog?

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Rise Of The Unionized Robots

For the first time, a robot has been unionized. This shouldn’t be too surprising as a European Union resolution has already recommended creating a legal status for robots for purposes of liability and a robot has already been made a citizen of one country. Naturally, these have been done either to stimulate discussion before reality catches up or as publicity stunts.

Dum-E spraying Tony StarkWhat would reality have to look like before a robot should be given legal status similar to that of a human? For that, we can look to fiction.

Tony Stark, the fictional lead character in the Iron Man movies, has a robot called Dum-E which is little more than an industrial robot arm. However, Stark interacts with it using natural language and it clearly has feelings which it demonstrates from its posture and sounds of sadness when Stark scolds it after needlessly sprays Stark using a fire extinguisher. In one movie Dum-E saves Stark’s life while making sounds of compassion. And when Stark makes Dum-E wear a dunce cap for some unexplained transgression, Dum-E appears to get even by shooting something at Stark. So while Dum-E is a robot assistant capable of responding to natural language, something we’re sure Hackaday readers would love to have in our workshops, it also has emotions and acts on its own volition.

Here’s an exercise to try to find the boundary between a tool and a robot deserving of personhood.

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Hackaday Links: October 21, 2018

A few weeks ago, we got word [Fran] was being kicked out of her workshop. You might remember [Fran] from her exploits in reverse engineering the launch computer for the Saturn V, her work on replicating the DSKY from an AGC, her visit to the Air & Space Museum annex (so jealous), and her other musical adventures. Why is she getting kicked out? Philly’s getting gentrified, ya jabroinis. Now, there’s a GoFundMe for a new Fran Lab. Go on and ring that bell.

Everyone needs a Sharpie sitting around, so how about one that weighs a pound or so? [MakingStuff] created a new body for a big ‘ol Sharpie marker, complete with knurling. Oh, man, the knurling.

A Powerball ticket costs $2. Last Friday, the expected return on a single Powerball ticket was more than $2. This doesn’t happen often, but last Friday the most logical course of action for everyone was to buy all the Powerball tickets they could.

Boston Dynamics built another dog robot and made it dance to Uptown Funk because we haven’t heard that song enough. No one has listened to Uptown Funk enough times in their life. It’s a great song that never gets old or overplayed.

[Wintergatan] is building a drum machine. You might remember this artisan of plywood from various marble machine builds that also play music. This build goes deep into the techniques of building gigantic mechanical contraptions out of plywood and steel.

Speaking of plywood, Rockler had a contest a while back to build something out of a single sheet of plywood. [OSO DIY] came up with the most interesting table I’ve ever seen. A lot of the entries into this plywood contest turned the plywood on its end, resulting in something that looks like it’s made out of skateboard decks. [OSO DIY]’s coffee table is no exception; it’s basically just a panel of edge-grain plywood made into a table. Where this gets really good is the actual design of the table. It’s clearly a mid-century modern piece, with threaded inserts holding the legs on. However, instead of something that was pressed out of a factory, this table just exudes an immense amount of manual labor. It’s a counterpoint between craftsmanship and minimalist design rendered in plywood and by far one of the most interesting pieces of furniture made in the last few years. Here are some more entries that also capitalize on edge-grain plywood

Atlas Is Back With Some New Moves

Atlas is back, and this time he’s got some sweet parkour moves to show off. Every few months, Boston Dynamics gives us a tantalizing glimpse into their robotics development labs. They must be doing something right, as these videos never fail both to amaze and scare us. This time Atlas, Boston Dynamics humanoid bipedal robot, is doing a bit of light parkour — jumping over a log and from box to box. The Atlas we’re seeing here is the evolution of the same robot we saw at the DARPA Robotics Challenge back in 2013.

The video caption mentions that Atlas is using machine vision to analyze the position of markers on the obstacles. It can then plot the most efficient path over the obstructions. The onboard control system then takes over and uses Atlas’ limbs and torso for balance and momentum as the robot jumps up and over everything in its path.

It’s interesting to see how smoothly Atlas jumps the offset staircase, leaping left to right from step to step. The jumping is extremely smooth and fluid — it seems almost human.  You can even see Atlas’ let foot just barely clear the box on the second jump. We have to wonder how many times Atlas fell while the software was being perfected.

One thing is for sure, logs and boxes may slow down zombies, but they won’t help anymore when the robot uprising starts.

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