Tag Archives: robotics

Video Friday: The Army Has a Bigger Robotic Vehicle Than You Do

Post Syndicated from Evan Ackerman, Erico Guizzo and Fan Shi original https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/robotics-hardware/video-friday-robotic-breach-vehicle

Your weekly selection of awesome robot videos

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!):

Nîmes Robotics Festival – May 17-19, 2019 – Nîmes, France
Isolierband Robotics Competition – May 19, 2019 – Israel
ICRA 2019 – May 20-24, 2019 – Montreal, Canada
URC 2019 – May 30-1, 2019 – Hanksville, Utah
Dynamic Walking 2019 – June 3-6, 2019 – Canmore, Alberta, Canada
2nd Annual Robotics Summit & Expo – June 4-6, 2019 – Boston, Mass., USA
ICUAS 2019 – June 11-14, 2019 – Atlanta, Ga., USA
Energy Drone Coalition Summit – June 12-13, 2019 – Woodlands, Texas, USA
Hamlyn Symposium on Medical Robotics – June 23-26, 2019 – London, U.K.
ETH Robotics Summer School – June 27-1, 2019 – Zurich, Switzerland
MARSS 2019 – July 1-5, 2019 – Helsinki, Finland

Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.


Robonaut and Astrobee Will Work Together on Space Station

Post Syndicated from Evan Ackerman original https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/space-robots/robonaut-and-astrobee-to-will-work-together-on-iss

NASA’s robots will help each other with useful tasks on the International Space Station

NASA has two robots that will, hopefully, be operating on the International Space Station (ISS) this year. There’s Robonaut, a humanoid (complete with legs) that will be on its way up there later this year, as well as Astrobee, a family of three free-flying robotic cubes that are already on the ISS as of a few weeks ago.

Astrobee and Robonaut are totally different in both form and function, but that just means that they have skills and abilities that complement each other, and the teams working on these robots have been making plans for on-orbit teamwork. To learn more about this collaboration, we spoke to Astrobee technical lead Trey Smith and Robonaut project manager Julia Badger.

Photo Essay: Tornadoes and Frisky Birds Couldn’t Stop These Delivery Drones

Post Syndicated from Evan Ackerman and Michael Koziol original https://spectrum.ieee.org/robotics/drones/photo-essay-tornados-and-frisky-birds-couldnt-stop-these-delivery-drones

At the Lake Victoria Challenge, cargo drones showed off their capabilities

Tech Expedition report logo, link to report landing page

In October of 2018, the World Bank and the Government of Tanzania cosponsored the first Lake Victoria Challenge (LVC). Set on the southern shore of Lake Victoria, in the city of Mwanza, the event is intended to promote the development of delivery drones.

It’s a good spot for such a gathering; Lake Victoria is the largest lake in Africa, and the towns and villages scattered across its islands and along its shores could benefit from drones that transport goods.

  • In addition to a symposium on drone policy, the LVC featured demos from a handful of European delivery-drone companies. The German company Wingcopter flew its high-speed cargo drone, which has a range of 100 kilometers and a maximum payload of 6 kilograms. The drone takes off vertically, then its propellers rotate 90 degrees for efficient fixed-wing flight.

  • RigiTech, a company based in Switzerland, sees its drone as a cargo workhorse. The boxy interior can hold up to 15 liters in volume, and the drone is both rugged and easy to repair—important features when operating in areas with little infrastructure.

  • The drone from Stockholm-based Globhe is designed for high-speed delivery of medical supplies and blood samples for humanitarian organizations. It can also be equipped with a camera to provide data for automated image analysis after disasters. While Globhe is optimistic about the future business potential for cargo deliveries, company representatives say that today’s restrictive regulations have shifted its current focus to aerial mapping.

  • Lake Victoria’s shores are home to a diverse population of birds—including hawks that didn’t always appreciate robotic intrusions into their airspace. While the hawks were mostly just curious, they occasionally made close feints at the drones. As far as we know, no drones (and no birds) were harmed during the LVC. But the avian harassment was a reminder that drones will have to deal with a variety of natural hazards.

  • Juma Island is one of nearly 1000 islands in Lake Victoria. Most of Juma’s inhabitants make their living by fishing, as do the residents of many of the other islands. Currently, these fishing communities rely on middlemen with motorboats to bring their catch to the market in Mwanza. During the LVC, the Zurich-based startup Wingtra demonstrated that its drone could fly autonomously to Juma. One day, larger cargo drones might transport fish to market.

  • On the day of Wingtra’s mission to Juma, the weather was ominous, with tornadoes in the forecast. But if cargo drones are to operate commercially, they’ll need to make deliveries even if conditions aren’t optimal. On mission day, Wingtra representatives got reports of multiple waterspouts touching down over the lake but decided to fly their bright orange drone anyway.

  • At the LVC launch area, safety-crew members and Juma community leaders gathered around two members of the Wingtra team who were monitoring their drone’s flight. While the drone flew autonomously, the Wingtra technicians watched it closely throughout the flight in case some emergency required them to take the controls.

  • On Juma, the Wingtra demonstration drew many curious bystanders. Island residents waited for well over an hour after bad weather delayed the launch, but they were rewarded when the drone finally arrived and landed flawlessly on a smooth patch of sandy beach.

  • While all of the companies demonstrating delivery drones at the LVC were from Europe, Tanzania is developing its own drone industry. One of the primary challenges for local companies is the availability of affordable materials and components that are also easy to fix. That’s why Tanzanian native Bornlove Ntikha designed a drone made partially of bamboo.

  • With a bamboo frame, simple motors, and about US $60 worth of electronics, Ntikha’s drone made a successful test flight at the LVC. Drones like his are able to carry small cameras for short periods of time. In Tanzania, that capability can enable an entrepreneur to start a small business taking aerial photos or performing agriculture surveys.

  • Leka Tingitana is the managing director of Tanzania Flying Labs, an organization that promotes drones for social good. He used the LVC as an opportunity to introduce drone technology to students in nearby schools. Leka hopes to inspire the next generation of drone pilots, who will be able to fulfill the growing demand for drone services across Tanzania.

  • There is already substantial demand for drone services in Tanzania, particularly for aerial photography and the creation of high-resolution community maps. For example, most small farmers in Tanzania don’t have official titles to their land, and being able to define the boundaries of the farm with an aerial map allows them to take out loans against their land to fund improvements.

  • During Tingitana’s demonstration at a high school, the students seemed fascinated by the drones. Those interested in studying the technology and its applications may go on to institutions like the State University of Zanzibar, which has an active drone lab; the university has been collaborating on the Zanzibar Mapping Initiative for years.

  • Drone innovation will also continue at the Lake Victoria Challenge, which is planning its next event—with more competitions for cargo drones—for late November 2019.

Event Camera Helps Drone Dodge Thrown Objects

Post Syndicated from Evan Ackerman original https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/drones/event-camera-helps-drone-dodge-thrown-objects

Watch this drone not get hit by a soccer ball

Davide Scaramuzza’s Robotics and Perception Group at the University of Zurich pioneered the use of event cameras on drones. We first wrote about event cameras back in 2014: These are sensors that are not good at interpreting a scene visually like a regular camera, but they’re extremely sensitive to motion, responding to changes in a scene on a per-pixel basis in microseconds. A regular camera that detects motion by comparing one frame with another takes milliseconds to do the same thing, which might not seem like much, but for a fast-moving drone it could easily be the difference between crashing into something and avoiding it successfully.

In a paper recently accepted to IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters, Davide Falanga and Suseong Kim from Scaramuzza’s group take a look at exactly how much of a difference it can make to use an event camera on drones moving at high speeds. And to validate their research, they hurl soccer balls at a drone as hard as they can, and see if it can dodge them.

Video Friday: This Drone Is a Flying Tray for Your Smart Home

Post Syndicated from Evan Ackerman, Erico Guizzo and Fan Shi original https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/robotics-hardware/video-friday-this-drone-is-a-flying-tray-for-your-smart-home

Your weekly selection of awesome robot videos

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!):

Nîmes Robotics Festival – May 17-19, 2019 – Nîmes, France
Isolierband Robotics Competition – May 19, 2019 – Israel
ICRA 2019 – May 20-24, 2019 – Montreal, Canada
URC 2019 – May 30-1, 2019 – Hanksville, Utah, USA
2nd Annual Robotics Summit & Expo – June 4-6, 2019 – Boston, Mass., USA
ICUAS 2019 – June 11-14, 2019 – Atlanta, Ga., USA
Energy Drone Coalition Summit – June 12-13, 2019 – Woodlands, Texas, USA
Hamlyn Symposium on Medical Robotics – June 23-26, 2019 – London, U.K.
ETH Robotics Summer School – June 27-1, 2019 – Zurich, Switzerland
MARSS 2019 – July 1-5, 2019 – Helsinki, Finland

Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.


Tech Expedition: East Africa’s Big Bet on Drones

Post Syndicated from IEEE Spectrum Recent Content full text original https://spectrum.ieee.org/static/tech-expedition-east-africas-big-bet-on-drones

IEEE Spectrum reporters traveled across East Africa with their own drones and 360 video cameras to capture new perspectives on the growing drone industry

Tech Expedition:

East Africa’s Big Bet On Drones

Supported by the IEEE Foundation

IEEE Spectrum reporters traveled across East Africa with their own drones and 360 video cameras to capture new perspectives on the growing drone industry. In Rwanda and Tanzania, they visited companies and met entrepreneurs who are setting an example for the rest of the world.

360 Video: Zoom Over Zanzibar With Tanzania’s Drone Startups

Post Syndicated from Evan Ackerman, Michael Koziol and Eliza Strickland original https://spectrum.ieee.org/video/robotics/drones/360-video-zoom-over-zanzibar-with-tanzanias-drone-startups

Come along for the ride as drones soar over the farms and schools of Tanzania

Tech Expedition report logo, link to report landing page

With 360-degree video, IEEE Spectrum puts you aboard drones that are flying high above the Tanzanian landscape: You’ll ride along as drones soar above farms, towns, and the blue expanse of Lake Victoria. You’ll also meet the local entrepreneurs who are creating a new industry, finding applications for their drones in land surveying and delivery. And you’ll get a close-up view from a bamboo grove as a drone pilot named Bornlove builds a flying machine from bamboo and other materials.

You can follow the action in a 360-degree video in three ways: 1) Watch on your computer, using your mouse to click and drag on the video; 2) watch on your phone, moving the phone around to change your view; or 3) watch on a VR headset for the full immersive experience.

If you’re watching on an iPhone: Go directly to the YouTube page for the proper viewing experience.

For more stories of how drones are changing the game in Africa, check out IEEE Spectrum’s “Tech Expedition: East Africa’s Big Bet on Drones.”

This Robot Hummingbird Is Almost as Agile as the Real Thing

Post Syndicated from Evan Ackerman original https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/drones/robot-hummingbird-is-almost-as-agile-as-the-real-thing

Purdue roboticists have built a bio-inspired micro air vehicle that flies much like a real hummingbird

Hummingbirds are some of the most nimble fliers on Earth. Their speed and agility are spectacular, driven by the complex muscles that control their wings. This is a difficult system for robots to emulate, and in general, the small winged robots that we’ve seen have relied on compromises in control in order to be able to use flapping wings for flight.

At Purdue University’s Bio-Robotics Lab, Xinyan Deng and her students are taking a very deliberately bio-inspired approach towards winged robotic flight that has resulted in one of the most capable robotic hummingbirds we’ve ever seen. It’s just about the same size and shape as the real thing, and the researchers hope it will be able to perform the same sorts of acrobatic maneuvers as an actual hummingbird. And more importantly, it’s robust enough that it can use its wings as sensors to navigate around obstacles, meaning that it has a shot at being useful outside of a lab.

Machine Learning Predicts Kids at Risk of Not Getting Vaccinated

Post Syndicated from Jeremy Hsu original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/robotics/artificial-intelligence/machine-learning-predicts-kids-at-risk-of-not-getting-vaccinated

Predictive computer models could prompt physicians to talk with families who are skeptical of vaccines

Growing skepticism toward vaccines has sparked a flareup of measles outbreaks affecting New York City neighborhoods, cruise ships, international airports and even Google’s Mountain View headquarters. To help family physicians reach out to vaccine-hesitant parents, data scientists have shown how computer models can predict the likelihood that an individual child’s parents will not get him or her vaccinated.

IEEE Spectrum Introduces Drones and 360 Video to Its Reporting

Post Syndicated from Eliza Strickland original https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/robotics/drones/ieee-spectrum-introduces-drones-and-360-video-to-its-reporting

To produce 360 videos, reporters navigated technical challenges and red tape

Tech Expedition report logo, link to report landing page

Reporters used to head out into the field with nothing but a notebook. But when IEEE Spectrum associate editor Michael Koziol [left] and contributing editor Evan Ackerman [right] traveled to East Africa last October, they had plenty more gear to schlep. In addition to their laptops and digital recorders, they brought two DJI drones and an assortment of 360-degree video cameras

The trip was part of an experiment in immersive storytelling. Koziol and Ackerman journeyed through Rwanda and Tanzania to report on pioneering companies that are using small consumer drones for such tasks as delivering medical supplies and surveying roads. The two gathered material for several articles, including a feature story about a company called Zipline that’s delivering blood to Rwanda’s rural hospitals.

They also sent their own drones aloft bearing their cameras, capturing footage for two videos included in our special report on drones in East Africa. One video brings viewers inside Zipline’s operations in Rwanda, the other, which will be published on Thursday, takes to the air with Tanzania’s drone startups. In these 360-degree videos the viewer can rotate the point of view in a complete circle, to see everything on all sides of the camera. That maneuvering is particularly fun when the camera is flying high over the landscape. 

The reporters had to overcome various logistical and technical challenges to get their shots. First they had to navigate the maze of regulations that govern the flying of consumer drones, rules that differ from country to country. Because the technology is so new, the rules and procedures are a work in progress. And filming with the 360-degree cameras presented novel technical issues, says Ackerman, as he and Koziol had to consider everything that the viewer might see in the shot. There were two questions they often asked themselves, Ackerman says: “How do we make the whole scene interesting? And how do we hide from the camera?”

The technology and the travel were funded by a generous grant from the IEEE Foundation. We thank the foundation for supporting Spectrum’s mission: covering emerging technology that can change the world, and using cutting-edge technology to do so.  

A version of this post appears in the May 2019 print magazine as “Flying Into the Unknown.”

360 Video: Go on a Mission With Zipline’s Delivery Drones

Post Syndicated from Evan Ackerman, Michael Koziol and Eliza Strickland original https://spectrum.ieee.org/video/robotics/drones/360-video-go-on-a-mission-with-ziplines-delivery-drones

Immerse yourself in the action as Zipline catapults its drones into the Rwandan sky

Tech Expedition report logo, link to report landing page

With 360 video, IEEE Spectrum takes you behind the scenes with one of the world’s first drone-delivery companies. Zipline, based in California, is using drones to deliver blood to hospitals throughout Rwanda. At an operations center in Muhanga, you’ll watch as Zipline technicians assemble the modular drones, fill their cargo holds, and launch them via catapult. You’ll see a package float down from the sky above a rural hospital, and you’ll get a closeup look at Zipline’s ingenious method for capturing returning drones.

You can follow the action in a 360-degree video in three ways: 1) Watch on your computer, using your mouse to click and drag on the video; 2) watch on your phone, moving the phone around to change your view; or 3) watch on a VR headset for the full immersive experience.

If you’re watching on an iPhone: Go directly to the YouTube page for the proper viewing experience.

For more about Zipline’s technology and operations, check out the feature article “In the Air With Zipline’s Medical Delivery Drones.

These Robotic Objects Are Designed to Be Stabbed and Beaten to Help You Feel Better

Post Syndicated from Evan Ackerman original https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/home-robots/these-robotic-objects-are-designed-to-be-stabbed-and-beaten-to-help-you-feel-better

Cathartic objects help users physically express strong emotional states

At a human-computer interaction conference this week in Glasgow, U.K., Carnegie Mellon University researcher Michal Luria is presenting a paper on “Challenges of Designing HCI for Negative Emotions.” The discussion includes a case study involving what Luria calls “cathartic objects”: robotic contraptions that you can beat, stab, smash, and swear at to help yourself feel better.

Video Friday: Watch This ‘RoboCop’ Make a Traffic Stop

Post Syndicated from Evan Ackerman, Erico Guizzo and Fan Shi original https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/robotics-hardware/video-friday-watch-this-robocop-make-a-traffic-stop

Your weekly selection of awesome robot videos

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!):

Nîmes Robotics Festival – May 17-19, 2019 – Nîmes, France
Isolierband Robotics Competition – May 19, 2019 – Israel
ICRA 2019 – May 20-24, 2019 – Montreal, Canada
URC 2019 – May 30-1, 2019 – Hanksville, Utah, USA
2nd Annual Robotics Summit & Expo – June 4-6, 2019 – Boston, Mass., USA
ICUAS 2019 – June 11-14, 2019 – Atlanta, GA, USA
Energy Drone Coalition Summit – June 12-13, 2019 – Woodlands, Texas, USA
Hamlyn Symposium on Medical Robotics – June 23-26, 2019 – London, U.K.
ETH Robotics Summer School – June 27-1, 2019 – Zurich, Switzerland
MARSS 2019 – July 1-5, 2019 – Helsinki, Finland

Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.


Anki, Jibo, and Kuri: What We Can Learn from Social Robots That Didn’t Make It

Post Syndicated from Guy Hoffman original https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/home-robots/anki-jibo-and-kuri-what-we-can-learn-from-social-robotics-failures

It’s been a tough few years for social home robots: Where do we go from here?

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.

News of Anki’s shutdown has spread like wildfire through the social robotics research community. Following the demise of Jibo and Kuri less than a year ago, it now seems that three of the most viable contenders to lead the budding market of social home robots have failed to find a sustainable business model.

Anki’s Cozmo robot was arguably an even bigger blow to the hopes of social robotics enthusiasts than Jibo or Kuri. Anki was a well-funded company, having reportedly secured over US $180 million in total investments, and was selling Cozmo (and a newer model, called Vector) at a competitive price point. When Jibo and Kuri tanked, some attributed it to their high price tag, but now that Anki with its $250 product is also on its way out, perhaps it is a sign that there is something more fundamentally wrong with the concept of social home robots.

I have worked in the research field of social robotics and human-robot interaction for over 15 years, designed several companion robot prototypes, and have co-founded a social robotics startup in 2012, which shut down two years later. In my circles, there is much discussion about what happened, and why. Some say that the technology is just not ready for the user experience that these companies promised. Others have argued that robotics research tends to over-promise and under-deliver when it comes to technological capabilities. Some mention the lack of a “real need” for a social robot, a missing “killer app,” or the impossibility of competing with disembodied voice agents. But I am not convinced. I actually view the closing of these companies not so much as proof that they were doing something wrong, but rather as an opportunity to learn important lessons for the next generation of social robots. 

With “Leapfrog” Technologies, Africa Aims to Skip the Present and Go Straight to the Future

Post Syndicated from Eliza Strickland original https://spectrum.ieee.org/robotics/drones/with-leapfrog-technologies-africa-aims-to-skip-the-present-and-go-straight-to-the-future

IEEE is promoting engineering education and access to the latest technologies through its Africa initiative

By 2022, forecasters estimate that sub-Saharan Africa will have nearly 1 billion mobile phones—enough for the vast majority of the projected 1.2 billion people who will live there. What it won’t have are the endless streams of telephone poles and wires that cascade across other continents. Development experts call this an example of a “leapfrog technology.” By going straight to mobile, many African nations will be able to skip the step of building extensive and expensive landline infrastructure.

In fact, “some places will go straight to 5G,” says Vincent Kaabunga, chair of the IEEE Ad Hoc Committee on Africa, which has helped craft IEEE’s strategy to increase engineering capacity on the continent. With this kind of leapfrogging, African nations can take the lead in certain types of technological development and deployment, he says. Just look at mobile money: Companies such as M-Pesa sprang up to solve a local problem—people’s lack of access to brick-and-mortar banks—and became a way for people not only to make payments, but also to get loans and insurance. “We’ve refined the concept of mobile money over the last 10 or 15 years,” says Kaabunga, “while other parts of the world are just now coming around to embracing it.”

IEEE and its members in Africa are facilitating the application of new technologies by promoting education and access, says Kaabunga, who also works for a technology consulting firm in Kampala, Uganda. The IEEE in Africa Strategy, launched in 2017, calls for IEEE to support engineering education at every level and to advise government policymakers, efforts that Kaabunga and his colleagues in the region have already begun. For example, they’re currently working with the Smart Africa alliance, an initiative that aims to create standard policies for information and communications technology to enable a single digital marketplace across the continent.

Some governments are particularly aware of the need for more in-country engineering expertise. IEEE is currently concentrating its efforts in five nations—Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zambia—all of which have long-term development plans emphasizing science and technology. These plans call for building human capital in the form of well-trained scientists and engineers, in addition to building fiber-optic broadband networks and clean power plants.

Rwanda is the setting of IEEE Spectrum’s behind-the-scenes report on a drone delivery company. The Rwandan government is trying to modernize its highway infrastructure, but it will be a long process; currently, narrow roads wind through the hilly terrain. Rwandan hospitals needing emergency supplies find that truck deliveries are often too slow for patients who require urgent care.

To address this need, a drone company called Zipline is providing air deliveries of blood to hospitals all across the country, and will soon begin delivering other lightweight medical supplies as well. While Zipline hails from California, it’s dedicated to building up local engineering capacity, and offers extensive training and professional development to its employees in Rwanda. And Zipline is not an anomaly. A vibrant drone startup scene has arisen in East Africa, with local companies finding applications in agriculture, road surveying, mining, and other areas.

Zipline is now expanding its drone delivery services to Ghana. It’s not yet clear how successful the company will be in its attempt to scale up its operations. Zipline’s financials are opaque, and its business model may not be viable without government subsidies. But the company is now working on a demonstration project in North Carolina. Whether or not medical drone delivery works out in the long run, one thing is certain: Africa is trying it first.

This article appears in the May 2019 print issue as “Engineering Change in Africa.”

In the Air With Zipline’s Medical Delivery Drones


Post Syndicated from Evan Ackerman and Michael Koziol original https://spectrum.ieee.org/robotics/drones/in-the-air-with-ziplines-medical-delivery-drones

Commercial operations in Rwanda prove the company can deliver emergency blood packs in minutes, rather than hours


Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills, and our car seems to go over every one of them as we drive from the small town of Muhanga to the even smaller town of Kinazi. The 50-kilometer trip into western Rwanda will take us well over an hour. We’re on our way to rendezvous with a blood-carrying drone that will make the trip in under 14 minutes.

The drone is operated by Zipline, a California-based company focused on delivering medical supplies in areas with poor infrastructure. And not long after we arrive at Kinazi’s hospital, the fixed-wing drone materializes out of the blue. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, the drone descends, opens a set of doors in its belly, and drops a small package that parachutes to the ground. The drone immediately begins to climb and vanishes over the hills as a staff member crosses the hospital parking lot to pick up the package—a shipment of blood ordered by WhatsApp less than half an hour earlier.

We then climb back into our car to start our bone-jarring return drive to Muhanga, one of Zipline’s launch sites, winding our way over dirt roads. By the time we make it back, the drone is flying smoothly toward another hospital elsewhere in Rwanda, with a fresh package of blood in its belly.

Delivery by drone is a futuristic idea that has caught the public’s imagination, and there are plenty of attempts to turn it into a commercial reality. Amazon, Google, and Domino’s Pizza have all pulled off carefully controlled demonstrations and pilot projects, delivering items such as sunscreen, burritos, and (of course) pizza to backyards and fields. But the world is waiting to see whether any company can find a business model that makes drone delivery a sustainable and profitable endeavor.

The answer may be here in Rwanda, where Zipline is delivering blood to 25 hospitals and clinics across the country every day. Zipline is betting that transporting lifesaving medical supplies, which are often lightweight and urgently needed, will be the killer app for delivery drones.

We visited Zipline’s Rwanda operations to understand the technical challenges of building a drone-based delivery service. We found obsessively engineered drones that the company has optimized for blood delivery, along with a detailed plan for integrating them into the country’s medical system. Zipline’s methods could be a model for Africa, as the company’s founders expand their drone services into other countries on the continent this year. But despite the company’s technological and logistical successes thus far, Zipline still has to prove that it can scale up its operations—that it can go big enough to match its soaring ambitions.

Rwanda has modernized rapidly since the 1990s, when the country began its recovery from civil war and genocide. The change has been remarkable: Since 2000, the percentage of the population living below the poverty line has dropped from 59 to 39 percent, and life expectancy has increased by nearly 20 years. The government’s Vision 2020 national development plan emphasizes technology infrastructure, and fiber-optic cables now run alongside main roads. More than 95 percent of the population is covered by 4G cellular networks.

The government has also invested heavily in health care. But its push to construct hospitals and clinics has resulted in some shiny new medical facilities opening their doors to patients before the roads leading to them have been improved. Traffic is slow on the two-lane highways that twist around the hills, while the roads that branch off toward small towns soon turn into dirt.

For hospitals in need of critical medical supplies, Rwanda’s roads pose a real problem. Hospital administrators worry most about blood and blood products, which have a short shelf life and strict storage requirements. It’s also difficult to predict how many packs of each blood type will be needed at a given facility, and when. In an emergency, it can take up to 5 hours for a Rwandan hospital to receive a blood delivery via road, which could easily mean death for a patient in need.

Three entrepreneurs—William Hetzler, Keller Rinaudo, and Keenan Wyrobeck—founded Zipline in 2014 with the goal of solving such problems through on-demand deliveries by drone. Rwanda was the ideal test bed, with its challenging terrain, relatively small size (about the same area as the U.S. state of Maryland), extensive wireless connectivity, and receptive government.

Outside observers are cautiously optimistic about the company’s efforts so far. “I like Zipline’s approach in Rwanda—they’re operating commercially, which is more than most drone delivery companies [are doing],” says Adam Klaptocz, cofounder and CEO of Rigitech, a Swiss startup that’s using small cargo drones to connect rural communities in the developing world. “They’re not trying to be the solution for all drone deliveries,” says Klaptocz. “But they’re doing this, and it seems like they’re doing it better than the existing way.”

Zipline has two fulfillment centers in Rwanda, which it refers to as “nests.” The Muhanga nest, which we visited, is about 50 km from the capital of Kigali, and a 2-hour drive, thanks to lumbering trucks that clog the main roads. Its small cluster of buildings abuts a maize field, and the locals who work the field grudgingly move out of the way whenever a drone passes low overhead.

Several times a week, blood and blood products arrive here by truck. When one shipment arrives during our visit, Israel Bimpe, Zipline’s head of national implementation, turns to us with a smile, saying: “The blood is here!” Workers spring into action, transferring the packs of whole blood, plasma, and platelets into refrigerators. When an order comes in from a hospital via phone, website, WhatsApp, or SMS, a worker wraps the needed packs in padding and stuffs the bundle into a bright red box, which has a wax-paper parachute attached.

A technician places the box and parachute in the belly of a drone behind a spring-loaded hatch, then snaps a modular battery pack into the drone’s nose. Two people carry the drone to a 13-meter-long electric catapult powered by a bank of supercapacitors, then run through a preflight checklist with the aid of a smartphone app. Zipline confirms the drone’s flight plan with the Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority and requests flight clearance, while the company’s technicians do their best to convince enthusiastic local kids to move a safe distance away from the launch. Finally, with a satisfying zzzing, the catapult flings the drone skyward, accelerating it to 100 kilometers per hour in half a second. It swiftly rises over the Rwandan countryside to a cruising altitude of 120  meters. It’s a dramatic moment—and at Muhanga it happens 20 to 30 times a day.

As soon as a drone—which the company calls a Zip—leaves the catapult, it’s fully autonomous. While both Zipline and the Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority track the aircraft and can redirect it at any time, in practice the Zips are mostly forgotten about until they return home, mission complete. In the air, each Zip follows a predetermined flight plan, relaying data on its position and status through Rwanda’s wireless network.

Our visit to the Kinazi hospital, one of the closer delivery sites, shows us the other end of a Zip’s journey. About 5 minutes before the drone arrives, hospital staff members get an automatic text alert telling them to send someone outside to await the delivery. At Kinazi, that means waiting at the edge of a small grassy field adjacent to the hospital’s parking lot. During our visit, the staff member arrives only after the drone has dropped its package, which just goes to show that blood delivery by drone isn’t the least bit exciting in Rwanda anymore.

Zips can carry relatively large payloads long distances because they’re fixed-wing aircraft, which are significantly more aerodynamically efficient than rotorcraft (such as today’s common quadcopters). Launching a fixed-wing drone from a catapult is easy, but landing it safely—without landing gear or a lengthy runway—is a challenge. Zipline’s solution is a recovery system that the team affectionately refers to as Tall Bob. Its two 10-meter-high towers each have a vertically mounted rotating arm, and a cable is strung between the arms. As a returning Zip flies between these two towers, the arms rotate upward, in a fraction of a second, to snag the cable on a tiny metal hook below the Zip’s tail. The drone is pulled to a stop within a few meters, then the arms allow the drone to swing down and back between the towers. In principle, it’s similar to the way planes land on aircraft carriers.

To reset the system, workers simply lift the Zip off the wire at ground level, and then rotate the arms back up to prepare for the next capture. The Zipline team has grown accustomed to the remarkable precision of its drone-capturing system, but during our visit we never get tired of seeing the wire pluck Zips out of the sky.

While Zips can’t launch when crosswinds are too intense, they can handle both high winds and rain once they’re airborne, so weather-related delays at the launch site tend to be brief. But the system isn’t flawless: Zips will turn around if strong head winds drain too much of their battery power, and despite dual motors and redundant ailerons for flight control, mechanical failures do sometimes happen. If the Zip can’t make it back to the nest, it can autonomously deploy a parachute to bring itself gently to the ground. Zipline estimates that the emergency parachute deploys in around one in a thousand flights.

With dozens of orders coming in every day, Zipline needs to be sure that it always has drones ready to fly. So its engineers designed the Zips to be as modular as possible, allowing technicians to easily detach different pieces for repairs. While such repairs are common, particularly on the strain-bearing wings, there are always more than enough components to snap together into a fully assembled drone. A bank of chargers ensures that a charged battery pack is always ready to be slotted into a drone being prepped for launch.

The Zipline facility in Muhanga takes, on average, 10 minutes to launch an order. But Zipline’s engineers think that’s 9 minutes too long. Bimpe says that incremental changes to the process will eventually enable them to fulfill an order in less than 60 seconds. “We just need to improve it a bit more,” he says. “It’s tweaking operational procedures and improving software to reduce that time to 1 minute. We receive an order and as soon as we finish packing, we just put it on the Zip and it’s ready to go.”

Expected improvements in the Zips themselves will boost range: Today, the farthest hospital that Zipline delivers to is Butaro District Hospital, about 80 km away (45 minutes as the Zip flies). Because weight determines how long and how far a drone can fly, Zipline’s engineers are always looking for ways to lighten the load. Much of the focus is on the battery, which is the heaviest component of the aircraft. “We fight super, super hard to shave off grams,” says Michael Newhouse, Zipline’s battery lead. The Zipline team uses the smallest-gauge wires they can get away with and special wire strippers to remove excess insulation, thus saving fractions of grams.

The current Zipline battery is a combination of precision engineering and handmade charm. To make one battery, a technician puts 144 separate lithium-ion cells—each only slightly larger than an AA battery—into slots in the battery case, epoxies them by hand, and wires them together. “It feels halfway between hobby construction and an assembly line,” says Newhouse. The batteries were first assembled on-site in Rwanda, but are now shipping straight from California.

Zipline’s next-generation battery, currently in development, will be much easier to assemble, with cells that slip into prefabricated plates and get spot-welded into place. Yet the company can’t seem to stop reexamining, reconsidering, and refining its designs. “Watt-hours per kilo,” says Newhouse, referring to the essential metric driving the company’s battery design process. “That’s what’s going to make or break your system.”

Despite the intense focus on keeping the drone’s weight down, today’s Zips can carry a payload of only 1.3 kilograms. “Right now, with this generation, we can deliver two units of blood,” with some capacity to spare, says Eric Watson, a systems engineer at Zipline. The remodeled Zip that the company is currently working on will have a lighter chassis, a more efficient battery, and a payload of 1.75 kg, enabling a single drone to carry up to three units of blood at a time. It will also have a receiver for transponder signals from other aircraft, a backup communication system that uses a satellite link, and onboard sense-and-avoid equipment that will, Watson says, “be able to detect and avoid uncooperative aircraft in our airspace.” This advanced feature will likely become a safety-critical system for delivery drones as the skies get more crowded.

While the technology involved in drone delivery is impressive, the economics are more uncertain. Experts say Zipline’s high-tech solution for blood delivery is a new twist on an old story. “Go to any hospital in Africa and you’ll find a graveyard of machines,” says Jonathan Ledgard, who was the Afrotech director at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, in Switzerland, until 2016. “The whole history of Africa is medical equipment that was too expensive.”

Ledgard notes that Zipline currently receives subsidies from the Rwandan government to make its service affordable for hospitals. He suggests the company may be in trouble if those subsidies end. “The price points they have to charge once the subsidies end are far, far, far too high for developing countries,” Ledgard says.

Zipline is reluctant to disclose how much its Rwandan fulfillment centers cost to operate or how much it gets paid by the Rwandan government per delivery. The company has admitted that routine blood deliveries by drone are currently more expensive than routine deliveries by ground vehicle, which move more blood per load. But Zipline argues that the economics change in emergencies.

As Zipline seeks to expand its delivery services to more African countries, cost and sustainability are becoming central topics of discussion. Its first expansion effort, in Tanzania in 2018, fell through during contract negotiations with the government. But at the end of 2018, the government of Ghana approved a four-year contract [PDF] to deliver blood and other medical supplies by drone, worth an estimated US $12.5 million for Zipline.

The plan for Ghana calls for four fulfillment centers that will make between 100 and 150 deliveries per day. The Ghanaian government estimates a per-delivery cost of $17. Both the minority party in the country’s parliament and the Ghana Health Service criticized the contract as being too expensive, arguing that funds could be better spent elsewhere. Nevertheless, the contract was approved, and Zipline has already begun making deliveries from its first distribution center in the country.

Over the long term, Zipline argues that minimizing waste in the medical system will help the drones pay for themselves. In Rwanda, the cost to collect, test, and store a unit of blood is about $80. Before Zipline came along, about 7 percent of blood packs expired without being used, costing the Rwandan government more than $1 million annually. In 2018, the hospitals that Zipline serves wasted no blood packs at all.

Ledgard says Zipline may find a business model that works—but only for lifesaving medical deliveries. He says the current drones can’t compete with motorbikes, which can carry about 15 kg, for routine deliveries. “Until you get to 6 or more likely 12 kg [for drones], it’s not viable,” Ledgard says. Yet he gives Zipline credit for getting a delivery-drone company off the ground. “They’ve done what people like me have been talking about,” he says. “I take my hat off to them.”

As of press time, Zipline’s drones have flown a total of over 1 million km. As Zipline scales up its operations, it will likely clock its next million kilometers in under six months. In addition to its expansion into Ghana, Zipline is also part of a pilot program run by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which will test medical deliveries in rural areas of North Carolina later this year.

The Rwandan government recently awarded Zipline a new, three-year contract, which includes provisions for delivering other medical products beside blood, such as medicine and vaccines. That service expansion means that Zips will soon be making drops to many small clinics, not only to hospitals. Zipline is also planning to assemble its drones in Rwanda rather than importing them from the United States. Clearly, Zipline is in Rwanda to stay.

It’s getting dark at Zipline’s Muhanga nest as we pack our bags and get ready for the long, winding drive back to Kigali. Red landing lights turn on along the approach path that the Zips follow—the drones don’t need the lights, but they look cool. In the distance, we can hear the faint buzz of another Zip returning home after making its delivery of blood. Anywhere else on Earth, it would be futuristic. In rural Rwanda, it’s just routine.

This article appears in the May 2019 print issue as “The Blood Is Here.”

Consumer Robotics Company Anki Abruptly Shuts Down

Post Syndicated from Evan Ackerman and Erico Guizzo original https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/home-robots/consumer-robotics-company-anki-abruptly-shuts-down

After last-minute funding fell through, Anki becomes the latest consumer robotics company to close

Barely an hour ago, Recode broke the news that Anki, the consumer robotics company behind both Vector, Cozmo, and Overdrive, will be terminating several hundred employees and shutting down on Wednesday after it failed to secure a new round of financing at the end of last week.

This is a significant blow to the consumer robotics industry: Anki, which came out of stealth during Apple’s WWDC in 2013, had nearly US $100 million in revenue in 2017, and they seemed to have found a sweet spot with relatively sophisticated robotic toys that were still at least somewhat affordable. Despite having sold more than 1.5 million robots (hundreds of thousands of which were Cozmos) as of late last year, it wasn’t enough “to support a hardware and software business and bridge to our long-term product roadmap,” Anki said in a statement sent to press today.

Is There a Future for Laundry-Folding Robots?

Post Syndicated from Evan Ackerman original https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/home-robots/is-there-a-future-for-laundry-folding-robots

The company behind the Laundroid robot folds itself, but that’s not the end for laundry folding robots (yet)

The promising thing about laundry-folding robots is that they target a job that everybody does frequently, and nobody really likes. But to be successful in robotics, especially in consumer robotics, you have to be both affordable and reliable, and robots are, still, generally awful at those things. Laundroid, a robotic system that could ingest wads of laundry and somehow spit out neatly folded clothes, put on a few demos at CES over the past few years, but the Japanese company behind it just announced bankruptcy—probably because the robot didn’t work all the time, and would likely have been absurdly expensive.

Laundroid may not have been a success, but does that mean that other laundry-folding robots, most notably Foldimate, are doomed as well? Of course it doesn’t, although I’m not particularly optimistic.

Video Friday: Startup Wants to Build New Massive Solar-Powered Drone

Post Syndicated from Evan Ackerman, Erico Guizzo and Fan Shi original https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/robotics-hardware/video-friday-massive-solar-powered-drone-and-more

Your weekly selection of awesome robot videos

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!):

Nîmes Robotics Festival – May 17-19, 2019 – Nîmes, France
Isolierband Robotics Competition – May 19, 2019 – Israel
ICRA 2019 – May 20-24, 2019 – Montreal, Canada
URC 2019 – May 30-1, 2019 – Hanksville, Utah
2nd Annual Robotics Summit & Expo – June 4-6, 2019 – Boston, Mass., USA
ICUAS 2019 – June 11-14, 2019 – Atlanta, GA, USA
Energy Drone Coalition Summit – June 12-13, 2019 – Woodlands, Texas, USA
Hamlyn Symposium on Medical Robotics – June 23-26, 2019 – London, UK

Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.


NASA’s Robonaut to Return to Space Station With Legs Attached

Post Syndicated from Evan Ackerman original https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/space-robots/nasas-robonaut-to-return-to-iss-with-legs-attached

NASA has fixed Robonaut and is nearly ready to send it back to the International Space Station

A little over a year ago, we reported on the status of the Robonaut 2 on the International Space Station. Things had not gone all that well for R2 ever since an attempt had been made to install a pair of legs back in 2014, leading to an intermittent power problem that was very hard to diagnose. NASA brought Robonaut back to Earth last year for repairs, and a few weeks ago, we stopped by NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, to visit the Robonaut lab and get an update on what’s been happening with R2.