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    Racing Mini-Quads with FPV Control

    Looks like the speeder bike chase on the forest moon of Endor, but it's really FPV quad enthusiasts racing their mini-quads in a fairly dense park. FPV flying is thrilling, but somewhat of a controversial practice when it comes to the quadcopter hobby. It's one of the things that the FAA is looking to heavily regulate. Still, the high-speed flights (and crashes) make for great video. Now imagine if these were shot with very wide-angle lenses, allowing for Parrot Bebop-style VR support.

    Snake Robot Helps Roboticists and Herpetologists

    Howie Choset's team built Elizabeth, a snake-like robot designed to explore parts of caves that were unsafe, or too small, for humans. Elizabeth performed really well in most situations, but it had problems climbing sandy slopes. As is often the case, the roboticists looked to the natural kingdom for engineering help. By mimicking the movement of sidewinder rattlesnakes, Elizabeth can now climb steep, sandy slopes. Ed Yong has a full writeup about the project.

    Turning Tiny Satellites into Cheap, Deep Space Drones

    There are lots of tiny little satellites orbiting the earth above your head right now. But that’s all they do: orbit, around and around. There is a plan, however, to give these cheap, so-called CubeSats the ability to strike out on their own. With the aid of some relatively simple propulsion technology, the goal is to push these tiny satellites beyond earths’s gravitational pull and into the outer reaches of space.

    The idea is that, in the not so distant future, unmanned space exploration will be accessible to everyone, and not just the NASAs of the world – like tiny little drones in space.

    Image credit: University of Michigan

    Key to all this is little more than water. Using an electrolysis propulsion system, researchers from Cornell University have been working since 2009 on a system that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen gas that can then be ignited to create thrust. The plan is to launch two of these water-propelled CubeSats into space, and send them orbiting around the moon. Another CubeSat propulsion project is being conducted at the University of Michigan, and raised money through a successful crowdfunding campaign.

    “It kind of levels the playing field for a lot of science inquiry. Not everybody is capable of running a billion dollar spacecraft mission for NASA,” explained Mason Peck, former chief technology officer for NASA, who is now working with fellow researcher Rodrigo A. Zeledon at Cornell on the electrolysis propulsion system. “This actually democratizes access to space.”

    Unlike, say, a communications or military satellite, CubeSats are practically microscopic by comparison – mere 10cm cubes, according to the specification first defined in 1999, that have a volume of just 1 liter and can weigh no more than 1.33 kilograms. But, surprisingly, it’s not size that’s held CubeSat propulsion efforts back.

    It's not the CubeSat's small size--10cm--that has held propulsion efforts back.

    “It’s primarily the fact that CuebSats are secondary payload,” Peck explained. “They’re hitching a ride on some other space craft, and that other space craft does not want the little CubeSat to destroy its expensive payload. So for that reason, the CubeSat specification that allows you to launch these as secondary payloads, prohibits you from using material under pressure, or material that’s explosive, or material that’s volatile, in the sense that if it leaks out it would evaporate and poke the surfaces of the spacecraft.”

    But water, explains Peck, is not only non-volatile, it’s “pretty much the ultimate green propellant.” It sits in a tank, gets zapped by an electrolyzer, which separates the hydrogen and oxygen, and is then sent to a combustion chamber until enough pressure builds up to ignite the whole thing. Safe and simple! In theory.

    In Brief: FAA Begins Granting Production Companies Drone Waivers

    Last Thursday, the FAA announced that it has begun granting video production companies exemptions to its unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) regulations. Six companies now have permission to use quadcopters and drones for production purposes, after convincing the FAA that their operations would meet a minimum standard for safety. Operators at these companies, for example, would hold private pilot certificates, keep the aerial systems within line of sight at all times, and keep flights restricted to designated "sterile areas" on set. The FAA would still have to inspect the aircraft before each flight, and nighttime aerial production is still prohibited. But this establishes a precedence and procedure for commercial companies to seek regulatory exemptions for drone flights with the FAA. 40 more requests are being considered, and the FAA is encouraging interested firms to work with their respective industry associations to create the appropriate safety manuals and operating procedures required for new exemptions. In other quadcopter news, DHL has begun a monthlong trial of autonomous aerial delivery of medicine and supplies to a sparsely populated island off the coast of Germany.

    Norman
    Cirque du Soleil Use Quadcopters for a Fantasia-Like Performance

    Cirque du Soleil released a short film earlier this week using tightly synchronized quadcopters so simulate the effect of flying lampshades around a magician. It immediately reminded me of Disney's Fantasia, and the performance is really effective. I wanted to share this behind-the-scenes video Cirque du Soleil shot about the making of this film, which was a collaboration with roboticists at ETH Zurich. 10 quadcopters--consumer-grade DJI Phantoms--were choreographed to become characters in the performance, resulting in this innovative use of technology for stage. Watch the full short film here. It's really quite stunning.

    Testing: Blade 350 QX2 AP Combo Quadcopter Review

    I’ve been flying an original DJI Phantom quadrotor for almost two years. Even though it’s never given me an ounce of trouble, watching the super-stable video footage from quads equipped with camera gimbals convinced me that I needed an upgrade. Rather than add a gimbal to my Phantom, I decided to keep it as a sport flyer and add a new quad to my fleet. The new ship is a Blade 350QX2 AP Combo (~$900). Its features are similar to the Phantom 2 Vision + reviewed by Norm and Will, but there are a several differences. I will talk about those variances throughout this review.

    The Blade 350QX series is not new. It was first released in the summer of 2013. Like the Phantom, the 350QX lineup has seen continuous improvements and added options. The AP Combo is the first 350QX equipped with a 2-axis gimbal and a camera. Blade brand quads and helicopters are quite popular, so you are likely to find kits and spare parts at your local hobby shop.

    What’s In the Box

    The AP Combo is a turnkey setup. It includes the factory-built quad, a Spektrum DX4 transmitter, the gimbal, a 3-cell 3000mAh LiPo battery, and an AC charger for the battery. The only thing I had to add was a micro-SD card for the GoPro-like CGO1 camera. I used a SanDisk 16GB class 10 card. The quad was 95% ready to fly when I opened the box. Even the props were installed (a full extra set is included as well).

    The one required assembly step was to snap the gimbal unit into place on the bottom of the quad. If you’re not paying attention, it can be installed backwards. Trust me on that. If it doesn’t click into place easily, you’re doing it wrong. Retreat, regroup, and charge again. While I was working on the gimbal, I had the flight battery and camera charging on their respective chargers. The camera charges through a micro-USB cable (included).

    The Blade 350QX2 AP Combo includes everything except a micro-SD card for the camera. Very little assembly is required.

    Blade includes a Quick Start Guide to lead you through the necessary steps to get the quad in the air. It is easy to follow and understand. A full manual is available online as are numerous videos. I found the online videos especially helpful. Since I had watched several of them while the quad was being shipped, I already knew what to expect when I opened the box.

    The battery connectors are the popular EC3 style that is included with most Blade products as well as the other house brands distributed by Horizon Hobby (E-flite, Parkzone, ECX, Losi, Vaterra, etc.). They work fine and there is no reason to replace them. However, all of my RC equipment is configured with Deans Ultra Plugs. For the sake of consistency, I swapped the EC3s on the 350QX2 for Deans.

    Octobot Doubles Its Speed with Webbed Arms

    From the Foundation for Research & Technology's Institute of Computer Science: "Adding a soft silicone web to a small robotic octopus helps the machine hit the gas. The first robot shown propels itself by snapping shut rigid plastic legs. The second bot uses flexible silicone legs and moves at about the same speed. The third robot zips along faster, using silicone arms and a web that helps it push through water." Material science and animal biology come together in this robot's clever mimicking of an Octopus. Read more at Science News.

    No More Peek-a-Boo: Inventing a Modern Periscope

    The physical design and internal mechanics of a periscope has changed quite a bit over the years, but there’s one thing that still remains the same: in order to see what’s going on above the water even the most high-tech modern periscope still has to poke it’s little head out above the surface. And when you’re a military machine whose main goal is stealth that isn’t exactly a smart move. That’s why, for at least a decade, some scientists and engineers have been trying to figure out how to build a virtual periscope. One that can see what’s happening all around without having to come up for air. And they’re starting to make some significant and exciting progress.

    Photo credit: US Navy Naval Historical Center

    An Extremely Brief History of Periscopes

    According to the US Navy, the first periscope was designed in 1854 by a French chemist named Edme Hippolyte Marie-Davie. It was simply a long tube with mirrors set at 45 degrees angles at each opening. There were several attempts to perfect the design through the following decades--among them a 65-foot, 130-ton tube set with eight prisms designed by American John Holland in 1900, which gave the viewer a very dim 360 degree view of the horizon and could actually be rotated.

    Image credit: US Patent Office

    The modern periscope, or, at least, the one we all remember from Looney Toons, was a perfected version of Holland’s design. Patented in 1911 by Dr. Frederick O. Kollmorgen, the new version used two telescopes instead of a series of lenses (or prisms). Because it didn’t need prisms at the opening or a series of lenses throughout, the new periscope could be built at a variety of lengths and its opening above the surface could be much smaller. Kollmorgen started a company to develop and update his telescope design and, in fact, the company he created (called Kollmorgen) still exists today.

    Kollmorgen’s original design went through several upgrades through the years--adding night vision, star pattern recognition systems, optical magnification, and antennas for satellite communication, but the overall concept mostly remained the same. Then, in the 1960s, the US Navy created the Type 18 periscope, which added television cameras that allowed its images to be displayed anywhere on the submarine and also recorded.

    In modern US submarines, beginning around 2004 on all Virginia-class attack subs, the periscopes were replaced by photonics masts. These are telescoping arms that have visible and infrared digital cameras at the top. Since they don’t use mirrors or telescopes, there is no need for the control room to be located directly below the masts anymore. Because of this, the Navy has relocated these sub’s operations area away from the hull and down one deck where there is a lot more space.

    Designing Underwater Robots for Deeper Dives

    In May, the remotely operated underwater vehicle Nereus descended 10,000m to the bottom of the Kermadec Trench, one of the ocean’s deepest, and never came back. It’s believed that Nereus—a hybrid remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, that could also operate autonomously—likely imploded. The pressure at such depths can be as great as 16,000 pounds per square inch.

    What’s weird is that Nereus was *designed* to withstand such pressure. That’s what made it unique. Unlike most other ROVs, which get their buoyancy from a material called syntactic foam, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), which designed and built Nereus, opted for a radical new design involving hundreds of ceramic spheres instead.

    Photo credit: WHOI

    While we still don’t really know how or why Nereus failed–it completed numerous previous dives, some to deeper depths, without issue–there’s no denying that its novel design allowed Nereus to dive deeper, be built lighter, and stay underwater longer than probably any other ROV in existence. So, implosion aside, why aren’t we yet building more ROVs like Nereus—even the ones that aren’t destined for places as deep or pressures as intense as those of the Kermadec Trench?

    Putting anything underwater requires a delicate balance between buoyancy and weight, explains Andy Bowen, director of the WHOI’s National Deep Submergence Facility, and maintaining that balance becomes more difficult the deeper you go down.

    “You want the vehicle to be slightly positively buoyant, or at least neutrally buoyant. So all the stuff that weighs something has to be offset by something that doesn’t weigh as much–or, in fact provides, a buoyancy offset,” Bowen says. “You can broadly divide these things into parts that float or parts that don’t.”

    Syntactic foam block machined for ROV use.

    Obviously, batteries, cameras, lights and motors are the things that don’t, and it’s the job of people like Bowen to make them float. Traditionally, manufacturers have used a material known as syntactic foam, which is composite material filled hollow microscopic glass bubbles. These bubbles lower the material’s density, making it buoyant. It’s flexible, well-understood, and has been in use for decades. When you look at a photo of a typical ROV, it's the brightly colored material mounted to the top of the robot's frame. "You can make syntactic foam to go just about anywhere you want it to go,” says Bowen, “but with a price.”

    Watch Robots Make Cake

    This has been a morning of self-discovery for me. I was surprised to learn that I really enjoy watching robots make cake. In my dive down the rabbit hole that is ads for cake-making robots on YouTube, I also discovered that the music on factory equipment sales videos is outstanding. I put a handful of my favorites in a playlist for you.

    Building and Testing a Custom RC Airboat

    Sometimes you seek inspiration. Sometimes inspiration smacks you in the face. As I was walking down the clearance isle at Walmart, I was smacked in the face. They had a few kid’s kickboards on clearance. With my Mini Alligator Tours airboat experiences still fresh on the brain, I immediately thought that one of these kickboards could be the starting point of a scratchbuilt airboat.

    Sitting next to the Mini Alligator Tours, the wide stance and minimalist design of my DIY airboat is apparent.

    There were a few features of this kickboard that I particularly liked, in addition to its clearance price. First of all, it has a very wide stance. That would serve to prevent tipovers--hopefully. Another appealing aspect was its slippery plastic shell. I thought that would help it slide the water, as well as grass and other surfaces. The other kickboards that I saw had a nylon mesh-type covering. That’s probably great if you are actually using it as a kickboard, but not so great in airboat mode.

    The one thing that I did not like about the kickboard was its very pronounced curvature (as viewed from the side). Most airboats use flat-bottomed hulls. I figured I would give it a try anyway and see what happened.

    Keeping It Simple

    Early on, I decided that my focus with this project would be to make the simplest airboat that I possibly could. That proved to be a surprisingly elusive goal. I discarded numerous design sketches over the course of an afternoon before I felt that I had shaved my concept down to the bare essentials.

    In Brief: Witness the Kilobot Swarm

    Earlier this month, we wrote about how roboticists use swarms of ants as models for programming collective groups of robots, but past experiments in swarming bots (or drones) have only utilized dozens of machines. In a new demonstration of the open-source kilobots project, Harvard roboticist Mike Rubenstein shows off how a system of over a thousand tiny robots could organize themselves to elegantly form two-dimensional shapes. The kilobots--which unfortunately sound like "killerbots"--are to be a test bed for new algorithms that govern swarms of autonomous robots. And rest assured, the only way these robots could hurt you is if you tried to eat one, said Rubenstein in an NPR interview. Watch a video of the kilobots in action below.

    Norman 3
    How To Get Into Hobby RC: Testing and Upgrading an Airboat

    A few months ago, we took a look at the RC boating hobby by dissecting two small, electric setups from AquaCraft: the beginner-friendly Reef Racer II and the speedy Minimono. Both boats are still going strong and my family continues to enjoy them. In fact, I decided that I wanted to bring along at least one RC boat on our summer trip to Florida.

    As I was mentally justifying the cargo space for toy boats and thinking of the different lakes we could visit, I remembered fishing at many of those same lakes as a kid. I recalled that most of them had grass, lily pads, reeds, and even cypress knees all along the shoreline. While all of that aquatic flora is what I miss most about living in Florida, it would cause nothing but headaches with the submerged propellers of my RC boats. I decided that I needed a boat that was designed to traverse this kind of environment…an airboat, to be exact.

    If you’re not familiar with the basic design of an airboat, I’ll elaborate. They utilize a wide, flat-bottomed hull. Rather than a submerged water propeller, airboats have a large airscrew like you would find on a Cessna. One or more large rudders are stuck right in the propwash to provide turning authority. This configuration allows an airboat to ignore most vegetation on the water. It just skims right over it all. Many can even claw their way across dry land. In short, airboats are loud, obnoxious, and extremely useful machines.

    In my last-minute search for an airboat, I found that there are several wood kits that are available, as well as varied plans to DIY. But I was in a hurry and needed something off the shelf. I realized that there aren’t many hobby-quality RC airboats available as turnkey packages. In fact, I could find only two: the Alligator Tours and Mini Alligator Tours. Both are also AquaCraft products. The larger version of the Alligator Tours is powered by a fuel-burning motor, while the mini version is electric. I chose the electric version.

    Augmenting Your Hand with Two Robot Fingers

    I missed this while at Comic-Con, but a cool example of one of the many human-robot interaction experiments being conducted at MIT: "Researchers at MIT have developed a robot that enhances the grasping motion of the human hand. The device, worn around one's wrist, works essentially like two extra fingers adjacent to the pinky and thumb. The robot, which the researchers have dubbed "supernumerary robotic fingers," or "SR fingers," consists of actuators linked together to exert forces as strong as those of human fingers during a grasping motion." More information here.

    In Brief: MIT Origami Robot Walks Away from Laser Cutter

    MIT roboticists have had a storied history with experimental transforming robots. There are the tiny caterpillar-like robots with a motorized design inspired by proteins, as well as the self-assembling M-blocks that use flywheels to spin into place. Even the concept of origami robots have their origins at MIT's labs. But the latest folding robots--with parts all cut from a laser cutter--actually self-fold and can walk right off the laser bed (after a battery is connected to the single motor, of course). Developed in conjunction with Harvard University, the origami robot assembles and moves using a principle called the "one-degree-of-freedom-structure," in which one crank moves the system of linkages to enact the walking movement, much like a Strandbeest design. The self-folding is made possible by use of shape-memory polymer in its joints, which fold when heated. And the electronics of the robot are all embedded in the robot's five layers of materials, including a network of copper leads sandwiched between two layers of paper and the memory polymer.

    Norman
    The Computer's First Song

    The 1956 composition "Illiac Suite for String Quartet" is a pleasant enough sounding piece of music – for the first three movements, that is. It's when you get to the fourth and final movement, that things get...weird. The notes sound random and dissonant. It doesn't sound much like music at all. But the peculiarity of "Illiac Suite" makes a little more sense when you realize how it was composed. This was the computer's first algorithmically generated song.

    Programmed in binary by Lejaren A. Hiller, assistant professor of music at the University of Illinois, and Leonard M. Isaacson, a former research associate on the school's Illiac computer, "Illiac Suite" was nevertheless a revelation. That a computer might one day compose music indistinguishable from that of a human artist became an irresistible pop culture trope – for better and for ill. In his New York Times obituary, Hiller is said to have joked that "he would have computers compose all possible rock songs, then copyright them and refuse to let anyone perform them."

    Luckily for us, computers are nowhere close to realizing that humorous albeit dystopian vision. And yet "Illiac Suite" remains an impressive feat, even today.

    Photo credit: University of Illinois

    We can actually trace the beginnings of "Illiac Suite" back to none other than the British mathematician and computing pioneer Alan Turing. In 1951, Turing published a book on programming for an early computer known then as the Ferranti Mark I*. The machine had a loudspeaker, sometimes called a "hooter," that was used primarily to issue warnings or during debugging. But Turing found that the loudspeaker could also be used to produce solid tones – notes, if you prefer.

    It didn't take long before programmers began to exploit this functionality to playback simply melodies and songs. But two programmers by the name of David Caplin and Dietrich Prinz decided to take things a step further.

    In Brief: The First Conversational Robot

    Last month, Robohub posted a story about the first commercial toy that could respond to voice commands. Radio Rex, a toy dog that jumped out of a doghouse when called, was made and sold in 1922, decades before the first digital computers. Apparently, surviving models of Radio Rex still work today. Rex worked off of acoustic energy: a spring attached to the toy dog released when struck by 500Hz audio--roughly the "eh" vowel sound in the dog's name. The appeal of Rex resonates today, in our interactions with computers and robotics. Social robotics, pioneered by researchers like MIT's Cynthia Brezeal, is the next phase in human-computer interaction. It's why devices like the upcoming Jibo are so fascinating; roboticists believe that the humanizing of technology will forever change our relationship with it.

    Norman
    Karakuri Puppets, Japan's Automata

    "Japans modern day robots can be traced back to the Karakuri. Today Hideki Higashino is one of the few remaining craftsmen who is determined to keep the history and tradition of Japanese Karakuri alive." This past Saturday, production house Bot & Dolly hosted the fourth annual Robot Film Festival in San Francisco (MCed by friend of Tested Veronica Belmont). It was a celebration of films starring and documenting our fascination with robots, with showings of short films and the 2005 Japanese science fiction film Hinokio. The film festival has made past entries available online, and 2013's films--including the one above on Japanese Karakuri--are just wonderful. I especially like that there's a category for Best Human as Robot Actor.

    Jibo Puts a Friendly Face on Home Robotics

    We're pretty excited for this product. Jibo is a new robot developed by MIT Media Lab's Cynthia Breazeal, a roboticist on the forefront of social robotics research. (Here's a great TED talk she did on the rise of personal robots in 2010.) Breazeal is now taking that research into the marketplace, with a robot that she wants to be suitable for the home. At its core, it's a connected digital assistant that performs many of the same actions as a smartphone, like checking email, playing music, and making VOIP calls. But its also very expressive--the robot's three-axes of motorized rotation brings it to life, and lets it do things like track your voice or movement to take photos or communicate. There's a lot of Chumby, Romo, and Keepon here, in a design that evokes Wall-E's Eve robot (minus the anti-gravity hovering). Jibo is launching as an Indiegogo project today, with a $500 contribution securing a unit for delivery by the end of 2015. IEEE Spectrum has more details and an interview with Breazeal about Jibo here.