The Birth Of The Modern Robot

When Isaac Asmiov was writing I, Robot, the field of robotics was still in its infancy. As he notes in The Complete Robot, as the field began to mature, it started showing signs of conforming to the popular ideas held by science fiction writers about what robotics ought to be. Notions of humanoid robots, the functions that robots would have in domestic settings, even the ethical quandaries that AI ethicists face today were all themes of early sci-fi writers.

The idea of a robot – at least of automata – predates the field of robotics. The idea of an independent automata may have existed as early as the ancient Egyptians Chinese, and Greeks, who attempted to build self-operated machines that resembled animals and humans. Myths of clay golems in Jewish legends and clay giants in Norse legends perpetuated the idea of an artificial being that could mimic the actions of living creatures. A 400 BC myth from Crete spoke of a man of bronze who guarded their island from pirates.

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5G Is For Robots

Ecclesiastes 1:9 reads “What has been will be again, what has done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Or in other words, 5G is mostly marketing nonsense; like 4G, 3G, and 2G was before it. Let’s not forget LTE, 4G LTE, Advance 4G, and Edge.

Just a normal everyday antenna array in a Seattle parking garage.

Technically, 5G means that providers could, if they wanted to, install some EHF antennas; the same kind we’ve been using forever to do point to point microwave internet in cities. These frequencies are too lazy to pass through a wall, so we’d have to install these antennas in a grid at ground level. The promised result is that we’ll all get slightly lower latency tiered internet connections that won’t live up to the hype at all. From a customer perspective, about the only thing it will do is let us hit the 8Gb ceiling twice as faster on our “unlimited” plans before they throttle us. It might be nice on a laptop, but it would be a historically ridiculous assumption that Verizon is going to let us tether devices to their shiny new network without charging us a million Yen for the privilege.

So, what’s the deal? From a practical standpoint we’ve already maxed out what a phone needs. For example, here’s a dirty secret of the phone world: you can’t tell the difference between 1080p and 720p video on a tiny screen. I know of more than one company where the 1080p on their app really means 640 or 720 displayed on the device and 1080p is recorded on the cloud somewhere for download. Not a single user has noticed or complained. Oh, maybe if you’re looking hard you can feel that one picture is sharper than the other, but past that what are you doing? Likewise, what’s the point of 60fps 8k video on a phone? Or even a laptop for that matter?

Are we really going to max out a mobile webpage? Since our device’s ability to present information exceeds our ability to process it, is there a theoretical maximum to the size of an app? Even if we had Gbit internet to every phone in the world, from a user standpoint it would be a marginal improvement at best. Unless you’re a professional mobile game player (is that a thing yet?) latency is meaningless to you. The buffer buffs the experience until it shines.

So why should we care about billion dollar corporations racing to have the best network for sending low resolution advertising gifs to our disctracto cubes? Because 5G is for robots.

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Tiny Robots That Grow Taller (And Wider)

Sometimes one just needs an extra hand or six  around the workbench. Since you’re a hacker that should take the form of a tiny robot swarm that can physically display your sensor data, protect you against a dangerously hot caffeine fix and clean up once you’re done. [Ryo Suzuki] and [Clement Zheng] from the University of Colorado Boulder’s ATLAS Institute developed ShapeBots, small shape-shifting swarm robots that aim to do exactly that and more.

The robots each consist of a cube shaped body with 2 small drive wheels, onto which 1-4 linear actuator modules can attach in various positions. For control the robots’ relative positions are tracked using an overhead camera and is shown performing the tasks mentioned above and more.

To us the actuators are the interesting part, consisting of two spools of tape that can extend and retract like a tape measure. This does does lead us to wonder: why we haven’t seen any hacks using an old tape measure as a linear actuator? While you likely won’t be using it for high force applications, it’s possible to get some impressive long reach from a small from factor. This is exactly what the engineers behind the Lightsail 2 satellite used to deploy it’s massive space sail. Space the two coils some distance apart and you can even achieve full 2-axis motion.

You can also control your swarm using your favourite wifi chip or have them skitter around using vibration or 3D print some linear actuators.

Thanks for the tip [Qes]!

Bringing Pneumatics To The Masses With Open Source Soft Robotics

Soft robotics is an exciting field. Mastering the pneumatic control of pliable materials has enormous potential, from the handling of delicate objects to creating movement with no moving parts. However, pneumatics has long been overlooked by the hacker community as a mode of actuation. There are thousands of tutorials, tools and products that help us work with motor control and gears, but precious few for those of us who want to experiment with movement using air pressure, valves and pistons.

Physicist and engineer [tinkrmind] wants to change that. He has been developing an open source soft robotics tool called Programmable Air for the past year with the aim of creating an accessible way for the hacker community to work with pneumatic robotics. We first came across [tinkrmind]’s soft robotics modules at World Maker Faire in New York City in 2018 but fifty beta testers and a wide range of interesting projects later — from a beating silicone heart to an inflatable bra — they are now being made available on Crowd Supply.

We had the chance to play with some of the Programmable Air modules after this year’s Makerfaire Bay Area at Bring A Hack. We can’t wait to see what squishy, organic creations they will be used for now that they’re out in the wild.

If you need more soft robotics inspiration, take a look at this robotic skin that turns teddy bears into robots from Yale or these soft rotating actuators from Harvard.

See a video of the Programmable Air modules in action below the cut. Continue reading “Bringing Pneumatics To The Masses With Open Source Soft Robotics”

Dashing Diademata Delivers Second Generation ROS

A simple robot that performs line-following or obstacle avoidance can fit all of its logic inside a single Arduino sketch. But as a robot’s autonomy increases, its corresponding software gets complicated very quickly. It won’t be long before diagnostic monitoring and logging comes in handy, or the desire to encapsulate feature areas and orchestrate how they work together. This is where tools like the Robot Operating System (ROS) come in, so we don’t have to keep reinventing these same wheels. And Open Robotics just released ROS 2 Dashing Diademata for all of us to use.

ROS is an open source project that’s been underway since 2007 and updated regularly, each named after a turtle species. What makes this one worthy of extra attention? Dashing marks the first longer term support (LTS) release of ROS 2, a refreshed second generation of ROS. All high level concepts stayed the same, meaning almost everything in our ROS orientation guide is still applicable in ROS 2. But there were big changes under the hood reflecting technical advances over the past decade.

ROS was built in an age where a Unix workstation cost thousands of dollars, XML was going to be how we communicate all data online, and an autonomous robot cost more than a high-end luxury car. Now we have $35 Raspberry Pi running Linux, XML has fallen out of favor due to processing overhead, and some autonomous robots are high-end luxury cars. For these and many other reasons, the people of Open Robotics decided it was time to make a clean break from legacy code.

The break has its detractors, as it meant leaving behind the vast library of freely available robot intelligence modules released by researchers over the years. Popular ones were (or will be) ported to ROS 2, and there is a translation bridge sufficient to work with some, but the rest will be left behind. However, this update also resolved many of the deal-breakers preventing adoption outside of research, making ROS more attractive for commercial investment which should bring more robots mainstream.

Judging by responses to the release announcement, there are plenty of people eager to put ROS 2 to work, but it is not the only freshly baked robotics framework around. We just saw Nvidia release their Isaac Robot Engine tailored to make the most of their Jetson hardware.

Watch These Two Robots Cooperate On A 3D Print

Putting a 3D printer on a mobile robotic platform is one thing, but two robots co-cooperatively printing a large object together is even more impressive. AMBOTS posted the video on Twitter and we’ve embedded it below.

The robots sport omnidirectional wheels and SCARA format arms, and appear to interact with some kind of active tabletop to aid positioning. The AMBOTS website suggests that the same ideas could be used for other tasks such as pick and place style assembly work, and the video below of co-operative 3D printing is certainly a neat proof of concept.

As a side note: most omni wheels we see (such as the ones on these robots) are of the Mecanum design but there are other designs out there you may not have heard of, such as the Liddiard omnidirectional wheel.

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Hacker Abroad: Vietnam’s Hardware Hackers

One of the unfortunate things about Hackaday’s globe-spanning empire is that you often don’t get to meet the people you work with in person. Since I was in China and it’s right next door, I really wanted to pop over to Vietnam and meet Sean Boyce, who has been writing for Hackaday for a couple of years, yet we’ve never met. I suggested we could make this happen if we put together a meetup or unconference. Sean was immediately confident that the Ho Chi Minh City hardware hackers would turn out in force and boy was he right! On Sunday night we had a full house for the first ever Hackaday Vietnam Meetup.

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