Research: NASA to explore Mars with swarm of robot bees

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nasa wants to explore mars with robotic bees

Researchers have proposed a swarm of collaborative robots as a better means of exploring Mars. Malek Murison reports.

Mars is a long way away. At its closest to Earth, it would be 33.9 million miles away, and at its furthest, 250 million miles. NASA’s preferred measurement is 140 million miles, with Earth’s closer orbit to the Sun lapping Mars every 2.16 years, providing the space agency with launch windows between planets whose relative positions are constantly changing.

Whichever measurement you choose, it’s clear that exploring Mars comes with enormous challenges. For human beings, these include a one-way trip lasting six to eight months of zero gravity and radiation exposure, during which time they would have to keep themselves fed, hydrated, and constantly exercised to prevent atrophy of body and mind.

Then they would have to land safely – tricky in a thin atmosphere – survive on Mars for long enough to make the project worthwhile, launch from the surface back into space, and make the journey home in the same hazardous conditions. That means carrying enough food, water, and fuel to survive a return trip that may be even longer than the first. Finally, it may take weeks or months to adjust to life back on Earth.

So far, these obstacles have proved to be insurmountable, especially since the last time astronauts ventured beyond Earth orbit was 46 years ago, when Apollo 17 touched down on the Moon. This why all explorations of Mars to date have been via telescope, space probe, or landing a robot on the surface – several attempts at which have failed.

So NASA’s solar-powered, 185 kilograms (408 lb) Mars rover, Opportunity, is a stunning scientific and technological achievement, and to date it has spent more than 5,000 days roaming the planet. But while there is no doubting the scale of NASA’s Mars progress to date, a single rover moving slowly over the surface doesn’t represent an efficient way to explore a planet.

NASA is well aware of this, and has invited research teams to submit alternative methods as part of its Innovative Advanced Concepts program, which aims to “nurture visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions with the creation of breakthroughs radically better, or entirely new aerospace concepts.”

Read more: Bee robotic: Walmart files patents on automating agriculture

Harnessing the power of swarms

Among the 25 shortlisted proposals are plans to develop a swarm of small, flying robotic drones, called Marsbees.

An article published by the University of Alabama’s Chang-kwon Kang provides details of a robotic program that could “increase the set of possible exploration and science missions on Mars by investigating the feasibility of flapping-wing aerospace architectures in a Martian environment.”

Put simply, NASA wants to see whether a swarm of small, flying reconnaissance robots could operate in tough Martian conditions – including its much thinner atmosphere – or if the idea belongs in the realm of science fiction.

The proposed system would use a Mars rover as a kind of beehive – the home base where recharging takes place. The Marsbees might be around bumblebee size, with wings the size of a cicada’s. Each robot would be fitted with sensors and wireless communication devices.

Should the concept prove successful in tests, the exploration of Mars could benefit from an swarm that creates an adaptable, resilient sensor network. Environmental samples and data collection could be carried out by single Marsbees, or by groups working collaboratively.

Read more: NASA tests drone traffic control system across the US

Internet of Business says

Developing the Marsbee concept will bring together expertise from both the US and Japan, with greatest challenge being to address the physics of winged flight in the thin Martian atmosphere.

Fortunately, the team from Japan has already developed similar technology, highlighted by one of the only hummingbird micro air vehicles (MAV) in the world. The University of Alabama team will now work to optimise the technology to suit the atmospheric conditions on the red planet.

Read more: NASA looks to bring IoT to space with wireless comms test

Read more: SpaceX successfully blasts broadband into space

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Right now, Amazon has a few products on sale that might interest you if you’re the kind of person who is thinking of upgrading their smart home. There are two robot vacuums — one from Eufy and another from Ecovacs — that are going for $ 200 and $ 180, respectively, as well as a Genie smart speaker and a smart plug from Eufy that are also 33% and 18% off, respectively. The Ecovacs vacuum in particular is a pretty good deal, since it’s the upgraded version of the Wirecutter’s pick for “best robot vacuum” and yet comes out cheaper than the older model by $ 15 with a coupon code.

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Newsbyte: Total to deploy autonomous robot on North Sea platform

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total oil and gas to use autonomous robot in north sea

French oil giant Total has partnered with Austrian robotics company Taurob, and German university TU Darmstad, to develop an autonomous robot for deployment to an oil and gas platform in the North Sea.

Taurob and research partner TU Darmstadt won Total’s ARGOS Challenge, in which five teams from around the world competed to develop a robot for routine inspections and on-platform emergency operations.

The winning robot is expected to be deployed to Total’s gas plant on Shetland. It will then move on to operations on the firm’s Alwyn platform in the North Sea, some 440km north-east of Aberdeen.

The 90kg robot moves on two tracks and uses laser scanners to read instruments and valve positions. It can also measure air temperature and gas concentrations, detect abnormal noises, sense obstacles, and move with ease on slick, slippery staircases.

Read more: Shell joins digital twin initiative for offshore oil and gas assets

When working on oil and gas platforms, the priority for any machinery or operations is to avoid anything that can cause a fire.

“Our robot is also the first fully automated inspection robot in the world that can be used safely in a potentially explosive atmosphere,” says Dr. Lukas Silberbauer, who founded Taurob with partner Matthias Biegl in 2010. The robot is fully ATEX certified to ensure it doesn’t trigger an explosion while operating near explosive gases.

Falling revenues in the North Sea oil industry present one side of the argument for increased automation. But Total expects that it will also make inspections more reliable and safer.

Dave Mackinnon, head of technology and innovation for Total, believes that autonomous robots are very much here to stay in the oil and gas industry.

“Total believes that robots have the potential to play an important role on offshore platforms,” he said. “We are on the cusp of delivering technology that will improve safety, reduce costs, and even prolong the life of North Sea operations.”

Internet of Business says

The use of robots and also drones for remote or offshore maintenance – particularly in hazardous environments – is both a growing application of the technology, and ‘low hanging fruit’ in regulatory terms.

For example, a number of startups are focusing on drone maintenance of offshore wind farms in order to prove that the technology works and is safe. Authorities are happy to approve these deployments as test cases, because there are few other people around and airspace is less crowded.

In this way, the offshore energy industry is both an ideal application of robotics in itself, and a proving ground for the technology.

Read more: Aerones creates drone to de-ice and service wind turbines

Read more: DJI and FLIR launch drone tech that saves lives

Read more: The world’s fastest drone fleet is ready to service the US

Read more: Robot teachers take classes at Finland primary school

Read more: Predictability key to robot-human collaboration, finds Disney research

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MIT’s CSAIL lab studies aquatic life with robot fish

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Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have developed a solution to a problem faced by marine biologists around the world.

Getting a closer look at ocean life can be a challenge. Conventional methods require boats, divers, and camera rigs. Together, these tend to disturb both sea creatures and their sensitive habitats, such as coral reefs.

The observer effect also applies: the creatures’ behaviour changes as a result of them being watched.

The solution is obvious: blend in, which is why MIT has developed a robot fish, SoFi, which moves just like a real one.

Read more: Robot swans to measure water quality in Singapore

SoFi is made of silicon rubber. It has an undulating tail and can control its own buoyancy, swim in a straight line, turn and dive up or down, all controlled via a waterproof Super Nintendo controller.

“To our knowledge, this is the first robotic fish that can swim untethered in three dimensions for extended periods of time,” writes CSAIL PhD candidate Robert Katzschmann, lead author of a new article about the project published in Science Robotics.

“We are excited about the possibility of being able to use a system like this to get closer to marine life than humans can get on their own.”

Exploring coral reefs without disturbing them

Swimming untethered has been a challenge for robots until now. In part, this is because using standard radio frequencies to communicate underwater is practically impossible. Instead, the SoFi system uses acoustic signals that allow divers to take control using a modified Nintendo remote from up to 70 feet away.

SoFi has had successful test dives at Fiji’s Rainbow Reef, where the robot managed depths of more than 50 feet for 40 minutes at a time. The robot fish was able to record high-res photos and videos using – appropriately enough – a fisheye lens.

“The authors show a number of technical achievements in fabrication, powering, and water resistance that allow the robot to move underwater without a tether,” says Cecilia Laschi, a professor of biorobotics at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy.

“A robot like this can help explore the reef more closely than current robots, both because it can get closer more safely for the reef, and because it can be better accepted by the marine species.”

Read more: CSAIL team pairs robots with VR for smart manufacturing

Looking ahead

Katzschmann has said that plans are already in the pipeline to improve SoFi. For example, the team wants to increase the fish’s speed by improving its pump system and improving the overall design.

They also want to add tracking algorithms to allow SoFi to follow real fish automatically using its onboard camera.

“We view SoFi as a first step toward developing almost an underwater observatory of sorts,” says Rus. “It has the potential to be a new type of tool for ocean exploration and to open up new avenues for uncovering the mysteries of marine life.”

Internet of Business says

With the media’s coverage of robotics tending to focus on humanoid, industrial, transport, or aerial drone applications, marine robots are often overlooked, but in fact are a major area of development worldwide. For example, robots that move on or below the ocean waves play an important role in environmental, climate, or disaster monitoring, and have applications in offshore installation maintenance too.

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Robot teachers take classes at Finland primary school

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A primary school in Tampere, Finland has had an altogether different supply teacher experience this week. The school has been the venue for a robot teacher trial as part of a pilot to see how effective humanoid machines might be at taking charge of lessons.

Read more: Dublin City University, Talent Garden team up for IoT campus

Robotic language and maths teachers

Two humanoid robots, Elias and OVObot, were tasked with taking language and maths classes, respectively. On the surface, the two subjects might seem to be very different, but both require an understanding of, and ability to navigate through, logical structures.

The Elias robot can speak and understand 23 different languages. Its software has been designed to help it understand the language levels and specific requirements of each child.

Elias is based on the NAO humanoid companion robot. Educational software company Utelias developed a program especially for the platform to enable it to teach languages to young children.

The NAO machines were originally designed and developed by French company Aldebaran Robotics, now SoftBank Robotics, a division of the Japanese communications giant that now owns Boston Dynamics. The company also makes the emotion-sensing Pepper machine, and humanoid care robot Romeo.

An Elias (NAO) robot wakes up.

A range of apps can be downloaded onto NAO robots – including storytelling programs, specialist tools for teaching children who are on the autism spectrum, and dances such as Gangnam Style and Thriller – which doubtless makes the learning experience engaging for younger pupils.

OVObot, tasked with teaching maths, is a smaller speech-recognition-based machine that resembles an owl. The robot has been developed in Finland by startup Ovobots, specifically to teach maths skills. It asks questions and awards points according to how well pupils answer them. The platform also supports personalised learning.

Read more: Women in AI & IoT: Why it’s vital to Re-Work the gender balance

Motivating kids with technology

The pilot intends to discover the effect of robots on both the quality of teaching and the progress of children’s maths and language learning. Elias robots and OVObots have been deployed in a number of schools across the country as part of the project.

“I think in the new curriculum the main idea is to get the kids involved and get them motivated and make them active. I see Elias as one of the tools to get different kinds of practice and different kinds of activities into the classroom,” said language teacher Riikka Kolunsarka.

“In that sense, I think robots, and coding the robots and working with them, is definitely something that is according to the new curriculum, and something that we teachers need to be open-minded about.”

Read more: SoftBank acquires Google robotics specialists Boston Dynamics and Schaft

Additional reporting: Chris Middleton.

Internet of Business says

The use of NAO machines in the classroom has a long history: the robots have a range of educational and storytelling apps that are ideal for younger children, which can be downloaded via the developer community.

However, one challenge is that far more apps are available for older versions of the NAO humanoid, which was originally conceived by Aldeberan Robotics as a research and development platform. Newer versions of the machines, which have improved stability and engineering, are unable to run some of the older code.

The problem seems to be that since the robots have left developers’ labs and made their way into wider, more public applications, enthusiasm for developing new apps seems to have waned among the coder community – a familiar paradox. That said, the robots are easy to program via their own Choreograph (or Choreographe) app.

robot teachers have been trialed as part of a pilot program in finland school
OVObot in the classroom.

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Daily Deals via Ancheer: eBay 15% off flash sale, $180 EcoVacs robot vacuum, and more

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Robot Exoskeletons, Artificial Muscles, Handheld Printers — Here Are the Top 6 Advances in Tech (So Far)

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Six technology advancements will revolutionize our future, but which will have the biggest impact?

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This puking robot has a purpose: making rocket fuel safely

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You won’t be surprised to hear it, but rocket fuel is dangerous stuff. It’s potent and volatile, meaning it can explode before it even gets into the rocket. That makes manufacturing it tricky, as you need to mix together certain materials, but fling them around too hard and they’ll start doing their job early. The solution? Well, scientists from Japan suggest puking robots.

In the video above (spotted by IEEE Spectrum) you can see prototype apparatus designed by engineers from Chuo University and Japan’s national aerospace agency (JAXA) to mix solid rocket fuel. It’s basically a series of connected segments of tube that compress back and forth like a worm. This motion mimics how our intestines and esophagus move food around our body — a…

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Berkeley researchers unveil “most dexterous robot ever created”

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Berkeley robot is dexterous in mind and body

Researchers at UC Berkeley have developed and unveiled a first in robotics: a robot that matches two highly versatile limbs with the ability to reason and simulate different outcomes via two onboard neural networks.

The university team claims that this combination of technologies makes it the world’s most dextrous robot.

Professor Ken Goldberg and one of his graduate students, Jeff Mahler, displayed the results of their work at EmTech Digital, an AI event in San Francisco organised by MIT Technology Review.

The two-armed robot relies on software called Dex-Net, which gives it the ability to reason and make decisions with as much dexterity as its arms are capable of moving. Via this onboard system, the robot is capable of quickly determining how best to grasp objects, based on simulations that take place within two separate, deep neural networks.  

The robot can be seen in action here.

Read more: Ocado bots offer safe pair of hands for packing shopping

Mean picks per hour 

The potential for dexterous robots in industrial, commercial, and other settings is obvious. That’s one of the reasons why companies such as Ocado are pouring resources into developing sophisticated warehouse robots.

To move on from looking at dexterity in a simple or binary sense, the Berkeley researchers use the preferred metric of ‘mean picks per hour’. This is calculated by multiplying the average time per pick with the average probability of success for a consistent set of objects.

The Dex-Net system can determine how to grasp an object based on what it has seen before. It can even nudge an item to gain more insight into how to handle it.

The system has gone through several iterations over the past year. The latest version combines a high-resolution 3D sensor with two arms – one with a robot gripper, and the other with a suction system. Each is controlled by its own neural network. The Dex-Net software scans an object and uses both networks to determine which approach is best for that particular object.

The new machine is already capable of between 200 and 300 mean picks per hour, according to Goldberg. That’s substantially more than the winner of a recent Amazon robotics contest. Humans are capable of between 400 and 600 mean picks per hour, so the machines are fast catching up.

Internet of Business says

While the mass-media has grown more hostile to robots and AI in recent months – and arguably more hostile to technology overall – robots’ ability to work quickly, safely, and non-stop among human beings is fast developing. ‘Cobots’ are rapidly becoming smart, programmable platforms, rather than dumb, single-task machines – following the smartphone model of the apps being the most important factors, not the hardware.

And while many people may be misinformed about the threat to humanity from intelligent, dextrous machines, most will enjoy the lower costs, faster services, and cheaper products that automated production will bring.

However, buy-side organisations need to consider the application of robotics carefully from both a strategic and an operational angle. Flippy, the burger-flipping robot in the US, was removed from service after less than one week because it was working so fast that human employees were unable to keep up with it.

Read more: Disney researches safe human-robot interactions

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Last summer, my wife and I got married and we moved from Portugal to Boston almost immediately after our honeymoon. It’s great to have a place just for ourselves, but we quickly found that neither of us were big fans of having to vacuum our apartment. It’s a laborious and monotonous job that takes up a lot of time, but it’s also an unavoidable fact of life that homes get dirty and need to be cleaned regularly.

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