Hackaday Links: August 2, 2020

If you somehow manage to mentally separate yourself from the human tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic, it really has provided a fascinating glimpse into how our planet operates, and how much impact seven billionpeople have on it. Latest among these revelations is that the shutdowns had a salubrious effect in at least one unexpected area: solar power. Researchers found that after the Indian government instituted mandatory lockdowns in March, output from solar power installations in Delhi increased by more than eight percent. The cause: the much-diminished smog, which let more sunlight reach solar panels. We’ve seen similar shutdown-related Earth-impact stories, from decreased anthropogenic seismicity to actually being able to see Los Angeles, and find them all delightfully revealing.

Remember Google Glass? It’s hard to forget, what with all the hype leading up to launch and the bitter disappointment of realizing that actually wearing the device wouldn’t go over well in, say, a locker room. That said, the idea of smart glasses had promise, and several startups tried to make a go of combining functionality with less out-there styling that wouldn’t instantly be seen as probable cause for being a creep. One such outfit was North, who made the more-or-less regular looking (if a bit hipsterish) Focals smart glasses. But alas, North was bought out by Google back in June, and as with so many things Google acquires, Focals smart glasses are being turned off. Anyone who bought the $600 specs will reportedly get their money back, but the features of the smart glasses will no longer function. Except, you know, you’ll still be able to look through them.

It looks like someone has finally come up with a pretty good use case for the adorably terrifying robot mini-dogs from Boston Dynamics. Ford Motors has put two of the yellow robots to work in their sprawling Van Dyke Transmission Plant in Michigan. Dubbed Fluffy and Spot (aww), the dogs wander around the plant with a suite of cameras and sensors, digitally mapping the space to prepare for possible future modifications and expansions. The robots can cover a lot of ground during the two hours that their batteries last, and are even said to be able to hitch a ride on the backs of other robots when they’re tuckered out. Scanning projects like these can keep highly trained — and expensive — engineers busy for weeks, so the investment in robots makes sense. And we’re sure there’s totally no way that Ford is using the disarmingly cute robo-pets to keep track of its employees.

We all know that the Linux kernel has some interesting cruft in it, but did you know that it can actually alert you to the fact that your printer is aflame? We didn’t either until  Editor-in-Chief Mike Szczys shared this reddit post that details the kernel function lp_check_status and how it assumes the worst if it detects the printer is online but also in “check mode.” The Wikipedia entry on the “lp0 on fire” error message has some interesting history that details how it’s not as implausible as it might seem for a printer, especially one in the early 1970s, to burst into flames under the right conditions. A toner fuser bar running amok on a modern laser printer is one thing, but imagine a printer with a fusing oven running out of control.

And finally, because 2020 is apparently the gift that can’t stop giving, at least in the weirdness department, the US Department of Defense let it slip that the office charged with investigating unidentified aerial phenomena is not quite as disbanded as they once said it was. Reported to have been defunded in 2017, the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program actually appears to live on, as the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force, operating out of the Office of Naval Intelligence. Their purpose is ostensibly to study things like the Navy videos of high-speed craft out-maneuvering fighter jets, but there are whispers from former members of the task force that “objects of undetermined origin have crashed on earth with materials retrieved for study.” All this could just be a strategic misdirection, of course, but given everything else that has happened this year, we’re prepared to believe just about anything.

Training A Dog To “Speak” With A Sound Board

The field of Augmentative and Alternative Communciation (AAC) covers communication methods used by those who are unable to otherwise produce or comprehend spoken or written language. Many will be familiar with the speech synthesizer used by Stephen Hawking as just one such example of AAC technology. [Christina Hunger] is a speech language pathologist, and is intimately familiar with such tools. She decided to use these techniques to teach her dog, Stella, to talk.

[Christina] began her project by implementing a button board which triggers various speech samples when triggered. There are plenty of typical words that a dog may wish to use, like beach, park, and ball – as well as words describing concepts, such as where, later, and come. Over time, she has observed Stella using the button board in various ways, that she claims indicate a deeper understanding and use of language than would normally be ascribed to a dog.

From the outset, [Christina] has been intentional in her methods, being sure to only demonstrate the use of the board to Stella, rather than simply pressing the buttons for her. The experiment has many similarities to the case of Koko the gorilla, known for learning symbols from American Sign Language. The project is also documented on Instagram, where she films Stella using the device and gives interpretations of the meaning of Stella’s button pressing.

Attemping to communicate on a higher level with animals has long been a mysterious and complex pursuit; one which we’re sure to see more of as various technologies continue to improve. We’d love to see a broader scientific study on the use of AAC tools to “talk” to animals. In such matters, context and interpretation play a large role, and thus it’s difficult to truly gauge the quality of understanding an animal may actually have. More research would be great to shed light on these techniques. Video after the break.

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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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Alma The Talking Dog Might Win Some Bar Bets

Students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have a brain-computer interface that can measure brainwaves. What did they do with it? They gave it to Alma, a golden labrador, as you can see in the video below. The code and enough info to duplicate the electronics are on GitHub.

Of course, the dog doesn’t directly generate speech. Instead, the circuit watches her brainwaves via an Arduino and feeds the raw data to a Raspberry Pi. A machine learning algorithm determines Alma’s brainwave state and plays prerecorded audio expressing Alma’s thoughts.

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This Arduino Feeds The Dog

Part of the joy of owning a dog is feeding it. How often do you get to make another living being that happy? However, sometimes you can’t be there when your best friend is hungry. [El Taller De TD] built an auto dog feeder using an Arduino and stepper motor. The video and links are in Spanish, but if your Spanish is rusty, YouTube’s caption autotranslation isn’t bad and Google Translate can help you with the web site.

The electronics are reasonably simple: an Arduino, a Bluetooth module, and a stepper motor driver. Mechanically, the motor and some PVC pipe are all you need. There’s a small phone application to drive the Bluetooth using App Inventor.

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[James Bruton] Is Making A Dog: OpenDog Project

There was a time when a two-legged walking robot was the thing to make. But after seeing years of Boston Dynamic’s amazing four-legged one’s, more DIYers are switching to quadrupeds. Now we can add master DIY robot builder [James Bruton] to the list with his openDog project. What’s exciting here is that with [James’] extensive robot-building background, this is more like starting the challenge from the middle rather than the beginning and we should see exciting results sooner rather than later.

James' motor and ball screws
James’ motor and ball screws

Thus far [James] has gone through the planning stage, having iterated through a few versions using Fusion 360, and he’s now purchased the parts. It’s going to be about the same size as Boston Robotic’s SpotMini and uses three motors for each leg. He considered going with planetary gearboxes on the motors but experienced a certain amount of play, or backlash, with them in his BB-9E project so this time he’s going with ball screws as he did with his exoskeleton. (Did we mention his extensive background?)

Each leg is actually made up of an upper and lower leg, which means his processing is going to have to include some inverse kinematics. That’s where the code decides where it wants the foot to go and then has to compute backwards from there how to angle the legs to achieve that. Again drawing from experience when he’s done it the hard way in the past, this time he’s designed the leg geometry to make those calculations easy. Having written up some code to do the calculations, he’s compared the computed angles with the measurements he gets from positioning the legs in Fusion 360 and found that his code is right on. We’re excited by what we’ve seen so far and bet it’ll be standing and walking in no time. Check out his progress in the video below.

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Bark Back IoT Pet Monitor

Does your pet get distressed when you’re not home? Or, perhaps their good behaviour slips when you’re not around and they cause a ruckus for the neighbours. Well, [jenfoxbot] has just such a dog, so she built a ‘bark back’ IoT pet monitor to keep an eye on him while she’s out.

The brains and backbone of the pet monitor is the ever-popular Raspberry Pi 3. A Sparkfun MEMS microphone breakout board listens for any unruly behaviour, with an MCP3002 analog to digital converter chip reading the mic input. Some trial-and-error coding allowed her to set a noise threshold that — once exceeded — will trigger an audio file, shushing her dog. It also logs events and uploads any status updates to a CloudMQTT server to be monitored while away from home. Her Imgur build album can be found here, and the GitHub project page is here if you want to build your own!

Check out the demo video after the break, that was probably confusing for her good dog, Marley.

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