Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):
We usually don’t toss around the word “disrupting” in a technology context without some serious eye roll. But Zipline really has been disrupting medical supply delivery in Africa by using drones to bypass busy roads and hilly terrain to deliver medical supplies to hospitals and clinics in minutes rather than hours. We visited Zipline in Rwanda last year, and the system it has for delivering blood, blood products, and medication is versatile, reliable, and even (in some cases) more affordable than any other delivery method available.
It’s not at all surprising that the unique capabilities Zipline offers have caught the attention of the U.S. military, which (at least in terms of personnel ratios) is primarily a massive logistics and support organization and secondarily a fighting force. For the past year or so, the Defense Department’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) has been working with Zipline to evaluate how their technology could be used to help the U.S. Marines Corps. In July, Zipline deployed to Australia to participate in a joint military exercise to demonstrate “how its instant drone delivery capability could help save lives in austere and tactical emergency environments, which include live-fire artillery.”
World’s first small-scale topographic and bathymetric scanning LiDAR
ASTRALiTe’s edge™ is the world’s first small-scale topographic and bathymetric scanning LiDAR that can detect small underwater objects, measure shallow water depth, and survey critical underwater infrastructure from a small UAV platform.
The edge™ can see beneath the water surface at depths from 0-5 meters and is completely self-contained with its own Inertial Navigation System with GNSS, battery, and onboard computer. It weighs about 5 kg and is designed for deployment on UAV systems for faster, safer, and more accurate bathymetric surveys. This patented 2-in-1 topographic and bathymetric LiDAR offers a centimeter-level depth resolution. There are numerous possible applications for this LiDAR, such as coastal mapping and surveying, infrastructure inspection, or even military logistics.
Importance of geo-referencing and motion stabilization
“We needed a motion and navigation solution for our LiDAR. Our requirements included high accuracy along with low size, weight, and power” explains Andy Gisler, Director of Lidar Systems with ASTRALiTe. In addition, the system needed to be able to apply Post-Processing Kinematic (PPK) corrections to the LiDAR data to provide higher accuracy results to ASTRALiTe’s customers.
The LiDAR provides a comprehensive point cloud that needs to be motion-compensated and geo-referenced to be usable. Two methods can be used to reach the centimeter-level accuracy requested by surveyors. The first one is Real-Time Kinematic (RTK), which makes use of corrections obtained from a base station or a base station network in real-time thanks to a radio or a GSM link. The second one is used after the mission using a PPK software. This software will apply the same correction as RTK, but it will also re-compute all the inertial data and raw GNSS observables with a forward-backward-merge algorithm to correct all the trajectories, fill any loss of position, and greatly improve the overall accuracy.
This PPK software gives access to offline RTK corrections from more than 7,000 base stations located in 164 countries and is designed to help UAV integrators get the best of their GNSS or INS/GNSS solution.
About SBG Systems INS/GNSS
SBG Systems is an international company which develops Inertial Measurement Unit with embedded GNSS, from miniature to high accuracy ranges. Combined with cutting-edge calibration techniques and advanced embedded algorithms, SBG Systems manufactures inertial solutions for industrial & research projects such as unmanned vehicle control (land, marine, and aerial), antenna tracking, camera stabilization, and surveying applications.
The word “autonomy” in the context of drones (or really any other robot) can mean a whole bunch of different things. Skydio’s newest drone, which you can read lots more about here, is probably the most autonomous drone that we’ve ever seen, in the sense that it can fly itself while tracking subjects and avoiding obstacles. But as soon as the Skydio 2 lands, it’s completely helpless, dependent on a human to pick it up, pack it into a case, and take it back home to recharge.
For consumer applications, this is not a big deal. But for industry, a big part of the appeal of autonomy is being able to deliver results with a minimum of human involvement, since humans are expensive and almost always busy doing other things.
Today, Skydio is announcing the Skydio 2 Dock, a (mostly) self-contained home base that a Skydio 2 drone can snuggle up inside to relax and recharge in between autonomous missions, meaning that you can set it up almost anywhere and get true long-term full autonomy from your drone.
When detectives and other forensics specialists arrive at a crime scene, there is a pressing need to survey the area quickly. Environmental disturbances such as wind or an incoming tide could ruin valuable evidence, and even the investigators themselves are at risk of contaminating the crime scene. Could a fleet of evidence-surveying drones be of help?
Pompílio Araújo, a criminal expert for the Federal Police of Brazil, is responsible for recording crime scenes exactly as found. In his other role as a researcher at the Intelligent Vision Research Lab at Federal University of Bahia, he is trying to make his first job easier by developing drones that can—very quickly—home in on a piece of evidence and record it from multiple angles.
When Skydio announced the R1 in early 2018, it was one of the most incredible drones we’d ever seen. It’s been a year and a half, and in the fast-paced world of drones, the Skydio R1 is somehow still, by a huge margin, the most intelligent and capable drone in existence, offering a level of autonomy that would be impressive even if it was a one-off research project, which it wasn’t, because you could buy one for US $2,500.
The R1, though, was really not intended to be a consumer drone in the sense that it wasn’t a direct competitor to the likes of DJI, which has overwhelmingly dominated the consumer drone space since the early days of consumer drones. Rather, the R1 was meant to demonstrate exactly what Skydio was capable of, offering the chosen few who could justify paying for one a magical experience that couldn’t be found anywhere else.
Today, Skydio is announcing their second drone: the Skydio 2. The Skydio 2 takes everything that made the R1 so amazing, and squeezes it into something smaller, smarter, and at $999, alarmingly close to affordable.
Battery power is a limiting factor for robots everywhere, but it’s particularly problematic for drones, which have to make an awkward tradeoff between the amount of battery they carry, the amount of other more useful stuff they carry, and how long they can spend in the air. Consumer drones seem to have settled around about a third of their overall mass in battery, resulting in flight times of 20 to 25 minutes at best, before you have to bring the drone back for a battery swap. And if whatever the drone was supposed to be doing depended on it staying in the air, then you’re pretty much out of luck.
When much larger aircraft have this problem, and in particular military aircraft which sometimes need to stay on-station for long periods of time, the solution is mid-air refueling—why send an aircraft all the way back to its fuel source when you can instead bring the fuel source to the aircraft? It’s easier to do this with liquid fuel than it is with batteries, of course, but researchers at UC Berkeley have come up with a clever solution: You just give the batteries wings. Or, in this case, rotors.
In a paper appearing in Science Robotics this week, the roboticists behind AquaMAV present a fully operational robot that uses a solid-fuel powered chemical reaction to generate an explosion that powers the robot into the air.
An emergency parachute failure raises questions about the safety of urban delivery drones
For about a year, Swiss Post and Matternet have been collaborating on a drone delivery service in three different cities in Switzerland, with drones ferrying lab samples between hospitals far faster and more efficiently than is possible with conventional ground transportation. The service had made about 3,000 successful flights as of last January, but a January 25th crash into Lake Zurich put things on hold until April.
A second crash in May caused Swiss Post to suspend the service indefinitely, and a recently released interim report published by the Swiss Safety Investigation Board provides some detail on what happened—and a reminder that for all the delivery drone hype, there are some basic problems that are still not totally solved.
This drone can dynamically fold and unfold its arms to pass through narrow gaps
Late last year, we wrote about a foldable drone from Davide Scaramuzza’s lab at the University of Zurich that could change its shape in mid-air to squeeze through narrow gaps. That drone used servos to achieve a variety of different configurations, which made it very flexible but also imposed a penalty in complexity and weight. At ICRA in Montreal earlier this year, researchers from UC Berkeley demonstrated a new design for a foldable drone, able to shrink itself by 50 percent in less than half a second thanks to spring-loaded arms controlled by the power of the drone’s own propellers.
Starting out together and then splitting apart makes these bio-inspired drones fly farther and more precisely
As useful as conventional fixed-wing and quadrotor drones have become, they still tend to be relatively complicated, expensive machines that you really want to be able to use more than once. When a one-way trip is all that you have in mind, you want something simple, reliable, and cheap, and we’ve seen a bunch of different designs for dronegliders that more or less fulfill those criteria.
For an even simpler gliding design, you want to minimize both airframe mass and control surfaces, and the maple tree provides some inspiration in the form of samara, those distinctive seed pods that whirl to the ground in the fall. Samara are essentially just an unbalanced wing that spins, and while the natural ones don’t steer, adding an actuated flap to the robotic version and moving it at just the right time results in enough controllability to aim for a specific point on the ground.
Roboticists at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) have been experimenting with samara-inspired drones, and in a new paper in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters they explore what happens if you attach five of the drones together and then separate them in mid air.
This proposed crowdsensing approach for tracking drones allows participants to make some side cash
Because they’re so useful for so many things, drones will undoubtedly become a more common sight in the next few years. And as the number of drones in the sky increases, the need to track these mini-flying machines as they move from one spot to another will become more important.
In a recent study in IEEE Transactions on Mobile Computing, a team of scientists in China proposed an intriguing way to track unfamiliar drones through crowdsensing. Their approach leverages participants’ smartphones to detect the Wi-Fi signals of drones.
Tracking drones would be especially helpful in situations where the devices were being used for ill-intentioned purposes, such as for peeping in at someone or to transport illegal substances. But as Zhiguo Shi of Zhejiang University notes, “Detecting drones, especially in urban environments, is not easy. Traditional approaches are of huge cost, since the corresponding equipment, such as radars, cameras, and microphone arrays, are very expensive.”
His team sought to find a cheaper method. They realized that most drones use Wi-Fi technology to communicate with ground control stations. At the same time, virtually all smartphones can detect Wi-Fi signals and phones are abundant, especially in urban settings.
This whisker sensing system can detect air pressure from objects even before they make physical contact
Animals of all shapes and sizes have whiskers of some sort. Cats and dogs and rodents have them. Seals have them too. Some birds have them, as do insects and fish. Whiskers have shown up across such a diversity of animals because they’re an efficient and effective method of short range sensing. Besides just being able to detect objects that they come into direct contact with, whiskers can also sense fluid flows (like the speed and direction of moving air or water), and they work even if it’s dark or foggy or smoky.
While we’ve seen some research on whiskers before—I’m sure you remember the utterly adorable ShrewBot—there hasn’t been too much emphasis on adding whiskers to robots, likely because lidar and cameras offer more useful data at longer ranges. And that’s totally fine, if you can afford the lidar or the computing necessary to make adequate use of cameras. For very small, very cheap drones, investing in sophisticated sensing and computing may not make sense, especially if you’re only interested in simple behaviors like not crashing into stuff.
At ICRA last month, Pauline Pounds from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, demonstrated a new whisker sensing system for drones. The whiskers are tiny, cheap, and sensitive enough to detect air pressure from objects even before they make physical contact.
Amazon is finally starting to address some of the actual challenges with drone delivery, making us slightly less skeptical
Amazon has been working away at its Prime Air urban and suburban drone delivery for years. Many years. It’s been at least half a decade now. And for the entire time, we’ve been complaining that Amazon has been focusing on how to build drones that can physically transport objects rather than how to build drones that can safely and reliably transport objects in a manner that makes economic sense and that people actually want.
At its re:MARS conference today, Amazon showed off a brand-new version of its Prime Air drone. The design is certainly unique, featuring a hybrid tailsitter design with 6 degrees of freedom, but people have been futzing with weird drone designs for a long time, and this may or may not be a.) what Amazon has actually settled on long-term or b.) the best way of doing things, versus other techniques like Google Wing’s dangly box.
What’s much more exciting is that Amazon seems to now be addressing the issue of safety, and has added a comprehensive suite of on-board sensing and computing that will help the drone deal with many of the complex obstacles that it’s likely to encounter while doing its job.
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