Last week’s announcement that Hyundai acquired Boston Dynamics from SoftBank left us with a lot of questions. We attempted to answer many of those questions ourselves, which is typically bad practice, but sometimes it’s the only option when news like that breaks.
Fortunately, yesterday we were able to speak with Michael Patrick Perry, vice president of business development at Boston Dynamics, who candidly answered our questions about Boston Dynamics’ new relationship with Hyundai and what the near future has in store.
Robotic solutions can help your operation keep up with the demands of today’s changing e-commerce market. Honeywell Robotics is helping DCs evaluate solutions with powerful physics-based simulation tools to ensure that everything works together in an integrated ecosystem.
Put more than a quarter-century of automation expertise to work for you.
Coconuts may be delicious and useful for producing a wide range of products, but harvesting them is no easy task. Specially trained harvesters must risk their lives by climbing trees roughly 15 meters high to hack off just one bunch of coconuts. A group of researchers in India has designed a robot, named Amaran, that could reduce the need for human harvesters to take such a risk. But is the robot up to the task?
The researchers describe the tree-climbing robot in a paper published in the latest issue of IEEE/ASME Transactions on Mechatronics. Along with lab tests, they compared Amaran’s ability to harvest coconuts to that of a 50-year-old veteran harvester. Whereas the man bested the robot in terms of overall speed, the robot excelled in endurance.
To climb, Amaran relies on a ring-shaped body that clasps around trees of varying diameter. The robot carries a control module, motor drivers, a power management unit, and a wireless communications interface. Eight wheels allow it to move up and down a tree, as well as rotate around the trunk. Amaran is controlled by a person on the ground, who can use an app or joystick system to guide the robot’s movements.
Once Amaran approaches its target, an attached controller unit wields a robotic arm with 4 degrees of freedom to snip the coconut bunch. As a safety feature, if Amaran’s main battery dies, a backup unit kicks in, helping the robot return to ground.
Rajesh Kannan Megalingam, an assistant professor at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham University, in South India, says his team has been working on Amaran since 2014. “No two coconut trees are the same anywhere in the world. Each one is unique in size, and has a unique alignment of coconut bunches and leaves,” he explains. “So building a perfect robot is an extremely challenging task.”
While testing the robot in the lab, Megalingam and his colleagues found that Amaran is capable of climbing trees when the inclination of the trunk is up to 30 degrees with respect to the vertical axis. Megalingam says that many coconut trees, especially under certain environmental conditions, grow at such an angle.
Next, the researchers tested Amaran in the field, and compared its ability to harvest coconuts to the human volunteer. The trees ranged from 6.2 to 15.2 m in height.
It took the human on average 11.8 minutes to harvest one tree, whereas it took Amaran an average of 21.9 minutes per tree (notably 14 of these minutes were dedicated to setting up the robot at the base of the tree, before it even begins to climb).
But Megalingam notes that Amaran can harvest more trees in a given day. For example, the human harvester in their trials could scale about 15 trees per day before getting tired, while the robot can harvest up to 22 trees per day, if the operator does not get tired. And although the robot is currently teleoperated, future improvements could make it more autonomous, improving its climbing speed and harvesting capabilities.
“Our ultimate aim is to commercialize this product and to help the coconut farmers,” says Megalingam. “In Kerala state, there are only 7,000 trained coconut tree climbers, whereas the requirement is about 50,000 trained climbers. The situation is similar in other states in India like Tamil Nadu, Andhra, and Karnataka, where coconut is grown in large numbers.”
He acknowledges that the current cost of the robot is a barrier to broader deployment, but notes that community members could pitch together to share the costs and utilization of the robot. Most importantly, he notes, “Coconut harvesting using Amaran does not involve risk for human life. Any properly trained person can operate Amaran. Usually only male workers take up this tree climbing job. But Amaran can be operated by anyone irrespective of gender, physical strength, and skills.”
Boston Dynamics has been fielding questions about when its robots are going to go on sale and how much they’ll cost for at least a dozen years now. I can say this with confidence, because that’s how long I’ve been a robotics journalist, and I’ve been pestering them about it the entire time. But it’s only relatively recently that the company started to make a concerted push away from developing robots exclusively for the likes of DARPA into platforms with more commercial potential, starting with a compact legged robot called Spot, first introduced in 2016.
When Rovenso’s co-founder and CEO Thomas Estier started thinking about how autonomous security and monitoring robots could be helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic, adapting them for UV-C disinfection seemed like it made a lot of sense—while you patrol at night, why not also lower the viral load of shared areas? But arguably the first question that a company has to ask when considering a new application, Estier tells us, is whether they can offer something unique.
“For me, what was also interesting is that the crisis motivated us to consider existing solutions for disinfection, and then understanding that [those solutions] are not adapted for large workshops and offices,” he says. “Instead, it would make sense for a robot to ‘understand’ its environment and act intelligently and to better spend its energy, and this loop of sense-analyze-act is the essence of robotics. When you use the full power of robotics, then you can really innovate with new use cases.”
In three weeks, Estier and his team developed what he’s calling “a hack,” turning their highly mobile security robot into an autonomous and efficient coronavirus destroyer.
We’ll take a look at what’s new with Spot, and talk with Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert as well as Zack Jackowski, lead robotics engineer on Spot, about some of the highlights of the 2.0 update, how Spot now understands what stairs are, and when we’ll finally be seeing that arm hit commercial production.
Had enough of injuries, delays and worker turnover on the loading dock?
Next-generation robotic unloaders from Honeywell Robotics can perform the same task fully autonomously, while handling products with greater care. They don’t suffer any loss of productivity when working in hot or cold weather, either.
And with our physics-based simulation tools, you can see how the unloader will perform with your unique product mix and learn how quickly you’ll see return on your investment.
Two years ago, we wrote about an AI startup from UC Berkeley and OpenAI called Embodied Intelligence, founded by robot laundry-folding expert Pieter Abbeel. What exactly Embodied was going to do wasn’t entirely clear, and honestly, it seemed like Embodied itself didn’t really know—they talked about “building technology that enables existing robot hardware to handle a much wider range of tasks where existing solutions break down,” and gave some examples of how that might be applied (including in manufacturing and logistics), but nothing more concrete.
Since then, a few things have happened. Thing one is that Embodied is now Covariant.ai. Thing two is that Covariant.ai spent almost a year talking with literally hundreds of different companies about how smarter robots could potentially make a difference for them. These companies represent sectors that include electronics manufacturing, car manufacturing, textiles, bio labs, construction, farming, hotels, elder care—“pretty much anything you could think about where maybe a robot could be helpful,” Pieter Abbeel tells us. “Over time, it became clear to us that manufacturing and logistics are the two spaces where there’s most demand now, and logistics especially is just hurting really hard for more automation.” And the really hard part of logistics is what Covariant decided to tackle.
At first glance, the crops don’t look any different from other crops blanketing the Salinas Valley, in California, which is often called “America’s salad bowl.” All you see are rows and rows of lettuce, broccoli, and cauliflower stretching to the horizon. But then the big orange robots roll through.
The machines are on a search-and-destroy mission. Their target? Weeds. Equipped with tractorlike wheels and an array of cameras and environmental sensors, they drive autonomously up and down the rows of produce, hunting for any leafy green invaders. Rather than spraying herbicides, they deploy a retractable hoe that kills the weeds swiftly and precisely.
The robots belong to FarmWise, a San Francisco startup that wants to use robotics and artificial intelligence to make agriculture more sustainable—and tastier. The company has raised US $14.5 million in a recent funding round, and in 2020 it plans to deploy its first commercial fleet of robots, with more than 10 machines serving farmers in the Salinas Valley.
FarmWise says that although its robots are currently optimized for weeding, future designs will do much more. “Our goal is to become a universal farming platform,” says cofounder and CEO Sébastien Boyer. “We want to automate pretty much all tasks from seeding all the way to harvesting.”
Boyer envisions the robots collecting vast amounts of data, including detailed images of the crops and parameters that affect their health such as temperature, humidity, and soil conditions. But it’s what the robots will do with the data that makes them truly remarkable. Using machine learning, they’ll identify each plant individually, determine whether it’s thriving, and tend to it accordingly. Thanks to these AI-powered robots, every broccoli stalk will get the attention it needs to be the best broccoli it can be.
Automation is not new to agriculture. Wheeled harvesters are increasingly autonomous, and farmers have long been flying drones to monitor their crops from above. Also under development are robots designed to pick fruits and vegetables—apples, peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, grapes, cucumbers, asparagus. More recently, a number of robotics companies have turned their attention to ways they can improve the quality or yield of crops.
Farming robots are still a “very nascent market,” says Rian Whitton, a senior analyst at ABI Research, in London, but it’s one that will “expand significantly over the next 10 years.” ABI forecasts that annual shipments of mobile robots for agriculture will exceed 100,000 units globally by 2030, 100 times the volume deployed today.
It’s still a small number compared with the millions of tractors and other farming vehicles sold each year, but Whitton notes that demand for automation will likely accelerate due to labor shortages in many parts of the world.
FarmWise says it has worked closely with farmers to understand their needs and develop its robots based on their feedback. So how do they work? Boyer is not prepared to reveal specifics about the company’s technology, but he says the machines operate in three steps.
First, the sensor array captures images and other relevant data about the crops and stores that information on both onboard computers and cloud servers. The second step is the decision-making process, in which specialized deep-learning algorithms analyze the data. There’s an algorithm trained to detect plants in an image, and the robots combine that output with GPS and other location data to precisely identify each plant. Another algorithm is trained to decide whether a plant is, say, a lettuce head or a weed. The final step is the physical action that the machines perform on the crops—for example, deploying the weeding hoe.
Boyer says the robots perform the three steps in less than a second. Indeed, the robots can drive through the fields clearing the soil at a pace that would be virtually impossible for humans to match. FarmWise says its robots have removed weeds from more than 10 million plants to date.
Whitton, the ABI analyst, says focusing on weeding as an initial application makes sense. “There are potentially billions of dollars to be saved from less pesticide use, so that’s the fashionable use case,” he says. But he adds that commercial success for agriculture automation startups will depend on whether they can expand their services to perform additional farming tasks as well as operate in a variety of regions and climates.
FarmWise says it has recently completed a redesign of its robots. The new version is better suited to withstand the harsh conditions often found in the field, including mud, dust, and water. The company is now expanding its staff as it prepares to deploy its robotic fleet in California, and eventually in other parts of the United States and abroad.
Boyer is confident that farms everywhere will one day be filled with robots—and that they’ll grow some of the best broccoli you’ve ever tasted.
Sarcos has been developing powered exoskeletons and the robotic technologies that make them possible for decades, and the lobby of the company’s headquarters is a resting place for concepts and prototype hardware that’s been abandoned along the way. But now, Sarcos is ready to unveil the prototype of the Guardian XO, a strength-multiplying exoskeleton that’s about to begin shipping.
As our introductory briefing concludes, Sarcos CEO Ben Wolff is visibly excited to be able to show off what they’ve been working on in their lab. “If you were to ask the question, What does 30 years and $300 million look like,” Wolff tells us, “you’re going to see it downstairs.”
This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.
Autonomous robots are coming around slowly. We already got autonomous vacuum cleaners, autonomous lawn mowers, toys that bleep and blink, and (maybe) soon autonomous cars. Yet, generation after generation, we keep waiting for the robots that we all know from movies and TV shows. Instead, businesses seem to get farther and farther away from the robots that are able to do a large variety of tasks using general-purpose, human anatomy-inspired hardware.
Although these are the droids we have been looking for, anything that came close, such as Willow Garage’s PR2 or Rethink Robotics’ Baxter has bitten the dust. With building a robotic company being particularly hard, compounding business risk with technological risk, the trend goes from selling robots to selling actual services like mowing your lawn, provide taxi rides, fulfilling retail orders, or picking strawberries by the pound. Unfortunately for fans of R2-D2 and C-3PO, these kind of business models emphasize specialized, room- or fridge-sized hardware that is optimized for one very specific task, but does not contribute to a general-purpose robotic platform.
Boston Dynamics is announcing this morning that Spot, its versatile quadruped robot, is now for sale. The machine’s animal-like behavior regularly electrifies crowds at tech conferences, and like other Boston Dynamics’ robots, Spot is a YouTube sensation whose videos amass millions of views.
Now anyone interested in buying a Spot—or a pack of them—can go to the company’s website and submit an order form. But don’t pull out your credit card just yet. Spot may cost as much as a luxury car, and it is not really available to consumers. The initial sales, described as an “early adopter program,” is targeting businesses. Boston Dynamics wants to find customers in select industries and help them deploy Spots in real-world scenarios.
We humans spend most of our time getting hungry or eating, which must be really inconvenient for the people who have to produce food for everyone. For a sustainable and tasty future, we’ll need to make the most of what we’ve got by growing more food with less effort, and that’s where the robots can help us out a little bit.
FarmWise, a California-based startup, is looking to enhance farming efficiency by automating everything from seeding to harvesting, starting with the worst task of all: weeding. And they’ve just raised US $14.5 million to do it.
Universal Robots, already the dominant force in collaborative robots, is flexing its muscles in an effort to further expand its reach in the cobots market. The Danish company is introducing today the UR16e, its strongest robotic arm yet, with a payload capability of 16 kilograms (35.3 lbs), reach of 900 millimeters, and repeatability of +/- 0.05 mm. Universal says the new “heavy duty payload cobot” will allow customers to automate a broader range of processes, including packaging and palletizing, nut and screw driving, and high-payload and CNC machine tending.
The latest version of ANYbotics’ four-legged robot can do useful real-world inspection tasks
The collective thoughts of the interwebz
The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.