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.

SoftBank Robots Pinch Hit For Baseball Cheerleaders

Grand venues of spectacle to entertain audiences has long been a part of history, but such tradition is highly problematic at the moment in the light of the pandemic. Some sports leagues are testing the waters with a soft restart by playing only to a broadcast audience, leaving the stadium empty. Many experiments are in progress trying to liven up an empty stadium and this is where SoftBank saw an opportunity: as a multinational conglomerate that has both a baseball team and a robotics division, they called a team of robots to cheer-leading duty.

Some clips of the cheerleading squad in action have started circulating. A few people may greet the sight with an indifferent shrug, but most tend to fall to an extreme: either finding them hilarious or react with horror. It is only natural to have a strong reaction to such a jarring sight.

Spot was only available for sale recently, and we admit this was not the type of task that came to our minds. Pepper has a longer track record and this is not Pepper’s first baseball game. The humanoid robot has been around long enough to raise questions about a robot’s role in society from unionization to sex work. We haven’t made much progress answering those questions, and now we have even more questions that the lightweight SoftBank Robotics press release (in Japanese) didn’t try to answer.

When people fret about “robots taking our jobs” the conversation doesn’t usually involve sports team cheerleaders, yet here we are. Welcome to the future.

DIY Baby MIT Cheetah Robot

3D printers have become a staple in most makerspaces these days, enabling hackers to rapidly produce simple mechanical prototypes without the need for a dedicated machine shop. We’ve seen many creative 3D designs here on Hackaday and [jegatheesan.soundarapandian’s] Baby MIT Cheetah Robot is no exception. You’ve undoubtedly seen MIT’s cheetah robot. Well, [jegatheesan’s] hack takes a personal spin on the cheetah robot and his results are pretty cool.

The body of the robot is 3D printed making it easy to customize the design and replace broken parts as you go. The legs are designed in a five-bar linkage with two servo motors controlling each of the four legs. An additional servo motor is used to rotate an HC-SR04, a popular ultrasonic distance sensor, used in the autonomous mode’s obstacle avoidance mechanism. The robot can also be controlled over Bluetooth using an app [jegatheesan] developed in MIT App Inventor.

Overall, the mechanics could use a bit of work — [jegatheesan’s] baby cheetah probably won’t outpace MIT’s robot any time soon — but it’s a cool hack and we’re looking forward to a version 3. Maybe the cheetah would make a cool companion bot?

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Boston Dynamics’ Spot Robot Gets A Price Tag: $75 Grand

One of Spot’s features is the ability to navigate real-world environments. This has not historically been a strong point for robots.

Not long ago, Boston Dynamics’ Spot finally went on sale, meaning the dog-like robot can now be purchased online. Previously it was available only to be leased by early adopters willing to pay to see what the robot had to offer. Pricing was tucked behind an NDA, and Spot could be only leased and not actually purchased — until now.

From a hobbyist’s perspective, Spot’s price is of course eye-watering; the cost of the accessories even more so. It would be perfectly understandable to ask what good is a robotic dog and what makes it worth such a cost?

From an industrial equipment point of view, the cost is perhaps less shocking. Maybe it’s a reminder that from an industrial and commercial perspective, the price of a thing matters mainly in relation to what kind of benefits it can bring, and what kind of price or savings can be hung on that.

Hackers being hackers and free from having to worry about such things, some choose to make their own four-legged robot pals with no winning lotto tickets, juicy grants, or enormous R&D budgets needed.

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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Spot Welding …Plastic?

Plastic milk bottles, when your project or prototype needs an urgent source of plastic, they are often the first thing to hand. Convenient and flexible, but strong at the same time and usually free, they’re the ultimate source of material in a pinch. However, when it comes to actually manipulating the HDPE plastic they’re made from, there’s often a challenge. It’s easy to cut, but not so easy to join. Conventional glues can have a hard time, making it difficult to bond.

Enter [zimitt], and a spot welding solution for joining HDPE with ease. Ok, so ‘spot welding’ might be a little optimistic given the speed of this process, but it’s useful nonetheless. To heat the plastic, a cheap soldering iron is recommended. A low wattage, straight-to-the-wall one does well, especially as they commonly have the washer-style end shown in the picture. To protect the plastic from burning, a BBQ mat is used – they’re temperature resistant and usually made with a PTFE surface.

First, place the two sheets of plastic face to face and sandwich top and bottom with the BBQ mat. Apply some heat to the mat with the soldering iron then, after a few seconds, remove the iron and provide pressure with a flat object to bond the plastic. [zimitt] used an espresso tamper for this which was ideal.

The results are impressive, and [zimitt] experiments with different plastics as well. Of course, you should exercise caution when attempting anything like this, given the health risks present when heating up different types of plastic.

HDPE is easy to recycle at home, and we’ve seen a lot of great uses: a plastic joiner’s mallet, plastic tiles, and even a filament extruder for 3D printing.