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.

Robert Dunn holds a button in his hand for controlling a spot welder

Gorgeous Battery Welder Hits The Spot

Raise you’re hand if you’ve ever soldered directly to a battery even though you know better. We’ve all been there. Sometimes we get away with it when we have a small pack and don’t care about longevity. But when [Robert Dunn] needed to build a battery pack out of about 120 Lithium Ion cells, he knew that he had to do it The Right Way and use a battery spot welder. Of course, buying one is too simple for a hacker like [Robert]. And so it was that he decided to Build a Spot Welder from an old Microwave Oven and way too much mahogany, which you can view below the break.

A Battery Cell with a spot welding tab attached
Spot Welding leaves two familiar divots in the attached tab, which can be soldered or welded as need.

For the unfamiliar, a battery spot welder is the magical device that attaches tabs to rechargeable batteries. You’ll notice that all battery packs with cylindrical cells have a tab with two small dimples. These dimples are where high amperage electricity quickly heats the battery terminal and the tab until they’re red hot, welding them together. The operation is done and over in less than a second, well before any heat damage can be done. The tab can then be soldered to or spot welded to another cell.

One of the most critical parts of spot welding batteries is timing. While [Robert Dunn] admits that a 555 timer or even just a manual switch and relay could have done the job, he opted for an Arduino Uno with a 4 character 7 segment LED display that shows the welding time in milliseconds. A 3d printed trigger and welder handle wrap up the hardware nicely.

The build is topped off by a custom mahogany enclosure that is quite a bit overdone. But if one has the wood, the time, the tools and skills (and a YouTube channel perhaps?) there’s no reason not to put in the extra effort! [Robert]’s resulting build is almost too nice, but it’ll certainly get the job done.

Of course, spot welders are almost standard fare here at Hackaday, and we’ve covered The Good, The Bad, and The Solar. Do you have a battery welder project that deserves a spot in Hackaday’s rotation? By all means, send it over to the Tip Line!

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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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Hackaday Links: January 10, 2021

You know that feeling when your previously niche hobby goes mainstream, and suddenly you’re not interested in it anymore because it was once quirky and weird but now it’s trendy and all the newcomers are going to come in and ruin it? That just happened to retrocomputing. The article is pretty standard New York Times fare, and gives a bit of attention to the usual suspects of retrocomputing, like Amiga, Atari, and the Holy Grail search for an original Apple I. There’s little technically interesting in it, but we figured that we should probably note it since prices for retrocomputing gear are likely to go up soon. Buy ’em while you can.

Remember the video of the dancing Boston Dynamics robots? We actually had intended to cover that in Links last week, but Editor-in-Chief Mike Szczys beat us to the punch, in an article that garnered a host of surprisingly negative comments. Yes, we understand that this was just showboating, and that the robots were just following a set of preprogrammed routines. Some commenters derided that as not dancing, which we find confusing since human dancing is just following preprogrammed routines. Nevertheless, IEEE Spectrum had an interview this week with Boston Dynamics’ VP of Engineering talking about how the robot dance was put together. There’s a fair amount of doublespeak and couched terms, likely to protect BD’s intellectual property, but it’s still an interesting read. The take-home message is that despite some commenters’ assertions, the routines were apparently not just motion-captured from human dancers, but put together from a suite of moves Atlas, Spot, and Handle had already been trained on. That and the fact that BD worked with a human choreographer to work out the routines.

Looks like 2021 is already trying to give 2020 a run for its money, at least in the marketplace of crazy ideas. The story, released in Guitar World of all places, goes that some conspiracy-minded people in Italy started sharing around a schematic of what they purported to be the “5G chip” that’s supposedly included in the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. The reason Guitar World picked it up is that eagle-eyed guitar gear collectors noticed that the schematic was actually that of the Boss MetalZone-2 effects pedal, complete with a section labeled “5G Freq.” That was apparently enough to trigger someone, and to ignore the op-amps, potentiometers, and 1/4″ phone jacks on the rest of the schematic. All of which would certainly smart going into the arm, no doubt, but seriously, if it could make us shred like this, we wouldn’t mind getting shot up with it.

Remember the first time you saw a Kindle with an e-ink display? The thing was amazing — the clarity and fine detail of the characters were unlike anything possible with an LCD or CRT display, and the fact that the display stayed on while the reader was off was a little mind-blowing at the time. Since then, e-ink technology has come considerably down market, commoditized to the point where they can be used for price tags on store shelves. But now it looks like they’re scaling up to desktop display sizes, with the announcement of a 25.3″ desktop e-ink monitor by Dasung. Dubbed the Paperlike 253, the 3200 x 1800 pixel display will be able to show 16 shades of gray with no backlighting. The videos of the monitor in action are pretty low resolution, so it’s hard to say what the refresh rate will be, but given the technology it’s going to be limited. This might be a great option as a second or third monitor for those who can work with the low refresh rate and don’t want an LCD monitor backlight blasting them in the face all day.

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Boston Dynamics’ Dancing Bots Beg For Your Love A La Napoleon Dynamite

How do you get people to love you and sidestep existential fear of robots eclipsing humans as the solar system’s most advanced thinking machines? You put on a dance routine to the music of Berry Gordy.

The video published by Boston Dynamics shows off a range of their advanced robots moving as if they were humans, greyhounds, and ostriches made of actual flesh. But of course they aren’t, which explains the safety barriers surrounding the dance floor and that lack of actual audio from the scene. After picking our jaws up off the floor we began to wonder what it sounds like in the room as the whine of motors must certainly be quite impressive — check out the Handle video from 2017 for an earful of that. We also wonder how long a dance-off of this magnitude can be maintained between battery swaps.

Anthropomorphism (or would it be canine-pomorphism?) is trending this year. We saw the Spot robot as part of a dance routine in an empty baseball stadium back in July. It’s a great marketing move, and this most recent volley from BD shows off some insane stunts like the en pointe work from the dog robot while the Atlas humanoids indulge in some one-footed yoga poses. Seeing this it’s easy to forget that these machines lack the innate compassion and empathy that save humans from injury when bumping into one another. While our robotic future looks bright, we’re not in a rush to share the dance floor anytime soon.

Still, it’s an incredible tribute to the state of the art in robotics — congratulations to the roboticists that have brought use here. Looking back eleven and a half years to the first time we covered these robots here on Hackaday, this seems more like CGI movie footage than real life. What’s more amazing? Hobby builds that are keeping up with this level of accomplishment.

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Hackaday Links: November 22, 2020

Remember DSRC? If the initialism doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry — Dedicated Short-Range Communications, a radio service intended to let cars in traffic talk to each other, never really caught on. Back in 1999, when the Federal Communications Commission set aside 75 MHz of spectrum in the 5.9-GHz band, it probably seemed like a good idea — after all, the flying cars of the future would surely need a way to communicate with each other. Only about 15,000 vehicles in the US have DSRC, and so the FCC decided to snatch back the whole 75-MHz slice and reallocate it. The lower 45 MHz will be tacked onto the existing unlicensed 5.8-GHz band where WiFi now lives, providing interesting opportunities in wireless networking. Fans of chatty cars need not fret, though — the upper 30 MHz block is being reallocated to a different Intelligent Transportation System Service called C-V2X, for Cellular Vehicle to Everything, which by its name alone is far cooler and therefore more likely to succeed.

NASA keeps dropping cool teasers of the Mars 2020 mission as the package containing the Perseverance rover hurtles across space on its way to a February rendezvous with the Red Planet. The latest: you can listen to the faint sounds the rover is making as it gets ready for its date with destiny. While we’ve heard sounds from Mars before — the InSight lander used its seismometer to record the Martian windPerseverance is the first Mars rover equipped with actual microphones. It’s pretty neat to hear the faint whirring of the rover’s thermal management system pump doing its thing in interplanetary space, and even cooler to think that we’ll soon hear what it sounds like to land on Mars.

Speaking of space, back at the beginning of 2020 — you know, a couple of million years ago — we kicked off the Hack Chat series by talking with Alberto Caballero about his “Habitable Exoplanets” project, a crowd-sourced search for “Earth 2.0”. We found it fascinating that amateur astronomers using off-the-shelf gear could detect the subtle signs of planets orbiting stars half a galaxy away. We’ve kept in touch with Alberto since then, and he recently tipped us off to his new SETI Project. Following the citizen-science model of the Habitable Exoplanets project, Alberto is looking to recruit amateur radio astronomers willing to turn their antennas in the direction of stars similar to the Sun, where it just might be possible for intelligent life to have formed. Check out the PDF summary of the project which includes the modest technical requirements for getting in on the SETI action.

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