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    In Brief: Bomb Squads Test Robots in Rodeo

    Bomb squad robots have always fascinated me--we've seen them in films and occasionally in news footage, but we don't know too much about how they're designed, developed, and tested. But events like last week's Sandia Labs "Robot Rodeo" give a little bit a transparency to bomb-defusal robot operations. Squads from all around the country gathered for five days of exercises to practice using a variety of robots in simulated real-life emergencies. Scenarios included IED disablement, airplane searches, and yep, an obstacle course. For the first time, UAVs were also introduced to show their potential for assisting emergency responders. The photos that came out of this rodeo event are pretty fantastic.

    SteamVR's "Lighthouse" for Virtual Reality and Beyond

    One of the most important aspects of virtual reality will be accurate positional tracking of the headset and user motion. Valve Software's SteamVR--the best virtual reality implementation we've tried so far--uses a beacon-based tracking system called Lighthouse. We chat with Lighthouse engineer Alan Yates about how Lighthouse and its components work, the technology's strengths and limitations, and how it could be used in other applications outside of VR.

    Testing: Bionic Bird Remote Controlled Ornithopter

    I've gotten a few questions about this small RC bird since sharing it on the podcast last week, so I wanted to share some thoughts from testing it that you should know before rushing out and buying your own. The Indiegogo funded Bionic Bird was something I first learned about at this year's CES, after seeing (and hearing) it fly around by the company's booth. It's the invention of Edwin Van Ruymbeke, who's the son of Tim Bird toy inventor G de Ruymbeke. And in function, the Bionic Bird is very similar to the Tim Bird ornithopter popularized in the 70s and 80s.

    An ornithopter is an aircraft that flies by flapping wings--a very basic example of biomimicry. That design yields flight characteristics that are advantageous for small flying devices--the ability to take off without a lot of power, and to stay for long periods in the air by gliding. The Bionic Bird builds on the principles introduced in the Tim Bird, except it has a built-in battery for motorized flight and a radio for directional control (through wing deformation). Looking closer, the Bionic Bird is actually just a tweaking of the $120 Avitron V2.0 RC ornithopter released by Ruymbeke's company in 2012. The primary difference is that Bionic Bird is controlled via a smartphone over Bluetooth, and the Avitron comes with its own dedicated transmitter. For most people, the Avitron is the simplest solution for an RC ornithopter.

    Bay Area Readers: Come Watch BattleBots with Us!

    In case you haven't heard, BattleBots is coming back to television this summer on ABC. Our parent company is actually producing the show, and filming of the fights is taking place later this month in the Bay Area (about 45 minute outside of San Francisco). If you're local, tickets for the live event are available now on Eventbrite, at $10 for each filming session, which starts on Thursday, May 21st and concludes on Saturday, May 23. We'll be hanging out for a few of those days to watch the fights as well, so come by to watch along with us!

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    Hands-On with DJI's Phantom 3 Quadcopters

    We take the new DJI Phantom 3 Advanced and Professional quadcopters out for some test flights! Eric Cheng of DJI joins us to discuss how these new quads differ from previous models in terms of their flight capability and cameras, bringing in features previously introduced in the Inspire 1. We then put these quadcopters up in the air to test the new stabilization systems and 4K video!

    Engineering the Ideal Robotic Fish

    From Motherboard: "When NYU's Professor Maurizio Porfiri looks at fish, he sees more than just a bunch of aquatic animals - he sees an animal that could someday replace the rat as the key to better studying and understanding human and animal behaviors in laboratory research. But fish can be unpredictable, which is why Porfiri has dedicated his life's work to building the ultimate robotic fish." Read more about Porfiri's research here.

    How to Get into Hobby RC: Testing Ares Quadcopters

    In my recent look at starter FPV quads, I had an opportunity to log some flight time with the Ares Ethos FPV. I'll admit that I wasn't really familiar with Ares products prior to pulling together that article. I later found out that Ares is a house brand for Hobby Town, a chain of brick-and-mortar hobby shops across the US. Until very recently, I didn't have a Hobby Town within 100 miles of my house. I guess that explains my knowledge gap. Regardless, I was impressed by the Ethos FPV. So I decided to investigate some of the other quads that they offer.

    The quads in the Ares lineup vary greatly in size, but they are all geared towards beginners and sport flyers. While some carry cameras, none have gimbals or GPS that would be necessary to make them serious aerial photography platforms. These machines are primarily for the sole enjoyment of flying. I tested three models: the Spectre X, Ethos QX 130, and Ethos HD.

    This family portrait of a few Ares brand multi-rotors illustrates the significant size differences between quads that were tested.

    Spectre X

    The Spectre X ($89.99) is a mini-quad meant for indoor flying. With a diameter of 120mm, it is in the same league as the Heli-Max 1SQ and Hubsan X4 that we have often recommended as starter quads. While the Spectre X is not Ares' smallest quad, it is the smallest with a camera.

    The camera records video at 640x480 at 25fps and photos are 1280x960 JPEGs. With those specs, you won't be shooting any documentary scenes with the Spectre X. But the camera is a fun little novelty to play with. A 2GB micro-SD card for the camera and USB card reader are included as well.

    The included transmitter is a medium sized unit with conventional layout. In addition to the two joysticks and trim levers used to control the quad, there are four buttons on the face of the transmitter. They allow you to start/stop video recording, take a still photo, switch between low, medium, and high control rates, and initiate an aerial flip. It runs on four AA alkaline batteries, which are included.

    The Ares Spectre X offers very sedate handling, making it ideal for new pilots.

    A 1S-700mAh Lipo battery is provided with the Spectre X. This is good for about 9 minutes of flight. The 500mA USB charger takes about 1.5 hours to charge a dead battery. The battery is housed in an enclosed compartment of the quad.

    The hinged door of the battery compartment kept falling off every time I opened it. The piece that is supposed to hold the door's hinge pin just didn't fit tightly enough. To correct this, I began by adding a thin layer of grease to the hinge pin. With the door in place, I then filled the gap in the plastic pin holder with Household Goop adhesive. The grease on the pin prevents the Goop from bonding to it.

    The first time I flew the Spectre X, I appreciated how sedate the controls are. Many other mini-quads have overly sensitive controls, which makes them difficult to fly for beginners. Sure, most of them can be adjusted to make them more docile. But the Spectre X is the first I've seen that is configured this way out of the box. On low rates, it is really docile…just what new fliers need.

    3D Robotics Announces 'Solo' Quadcopter

    3D Robotics, the US company responsible for the Pixhawk multi-rotor flight controller and several DIY and RTF kits, today announced its latest quadcopter: Solo. This ready-to-fly quadcopter looks like 3DR's most consumer-friendly product yet; it's a self-contained package utilizing 3DR's own transmitter, app, and GoPro camera gimbal. If that sounds a lot like the RTF quads we've seen over the past year, it's not surprising--big multi-rotor companies see a lot of value in the RTF market for first-time quadcopter owners and aspiring aerial cinematographers.

    To that end, 3DR's Solo has some automated video shooting features that may allow a single pilot to fly and film complex aerial shots. For example, a "cable cam" flight mode allows you to set two anchor points for the quad to fly between, and either manually control the GoPro between them or program the camera's position at those endpoints for automated panning. The quad's app also taps into the GoPro for camera setting changes on the fly--no more pressing the record button before taking off. Flight time is estimated to be 20 minutes with a GoPro attached, and 25 minutes without the gimbal.

    Solo goes on sale this May, with a price point of $1000 for the quad and transmitter, and $1400 for a gimbal (no GoPro included). 3D Robotics is also touting a generous return policy and warranty. If you crash Solo and it's your fault (according to flight data), 3DR will sell you a refurbished unit at a discount. If the crash was Solo's fault, you get a free replacement. My recommendation: don't buy any of these $1000 quadcopters if you plan on relying on a warranty. Practice flying with a smaller and safer quad first. But we'll be testing one of these as soon as possible.

    Jamie Hyneman's 'Arborist' Quadcopter Test

    While Adam's interest in quadcopters is from a photography and cinematography perspective, Jamie can't help but think of other potential applications for RC multi-rotors. For example, using a quad for landscaping work on otherwise unreachable foliage. We head out to a remote location to safely test Jamie's modification, with some surprising results and lessons learned. Definitely don't try this at home.

    Jamie Hyneman's Robot Racing Spiders: Postmortem

    At the conclusion of the Robot Racing Spiders project, we check in with Jamie to talk about what went right and wrong with this experiment. Jamie walks us through the mechanics of the spider build, how his design was implemented, and what he didn't expect to happen.

    Adam Savage's Custom Quadcopter Gear

    Since getting his DJI Inspire 1 quadcopter, Adam has been flying it regularly to learn its abilities as a videography platform. And as he becomes familiar with its operating procedures, Adam can't help but built custom accessories and gear to optimize his flight setup. From flight log notebooks to battery charging racks, we check out some of Adam's specialized flight equipment.

    Biomimetics: Lessons from MIT's Sprinting Cheetah Robot

    There’s an entire field of science that believes nature and evolution have already solved some of humanity’s most complicated problems. Called biomimetics, the field focuses on studying these natural solutions and attempting to copy them, rebuild them, and use them in ways that can benefit mankind. Over the next few weeks, we’re profiling US laboratories that specialize in biomimicry and highlighting how the animal kingdom is helping humans innovate.

    The best movers in the world are animals, so why do all of our transportation modes rely on wheels and not legs? That’s the question that inspires the work at MIT’s Biomimetics lab. According to Sangbae Kim, an associate professor at the lab, their main goal is to develop walking robots that move as well as any animal -- and shape how all robots move in the future.

    They decided the best inspiration for locomotion would be to find the fastest moving animal on Earth and mimic its makeup in robot legs. Enter the cheetah. Capable of speeds up to about 64 miles per hour, the big cat outpaces all other running animals in the world (except, perhaps, the Paratarsotomus macropalpis -- a beetle the size of a sesame seed that can run 322 body-lengths per second compared to the Cheetah’s 16.)

    “Each animal has their advantage, but the cheetah uses speed as a survival skill. It doesn’t have many other skills -- it’s jaws aren’t very strong -- the only thing it’s good at is speed. And that’s why we can identify it’s mechanical features. We’re looking at it’s leg shape, mass distribution, the joints they’re using, and their gait,” says Kim.

    The cats are also incredibly good at changing direction at high speed. Their unique muscular makeup allows them to use their tail to pivot at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, says Kim, cheetahs are endangered so they can’t study one in the lab. The team has learned about the cats’ unique abilities by watching nature videos and reading studies by the few scientists that have had the chance to study them.

    “We read papers about them. Researchers at Royal College in England they recorded forces and slow motion in a captive cheetah. We take inspiration from videos and learn mechanical aspects like how they achieve a stable running,” he says.

    What they’ve learned is that the animal’s leg shape is essential: it has a slender leg and all of its muscles are concentrated up next to its body. That way they minimize their energy use and maximize the swing of their legs.

    Pleurobot Mimics the Movements of a Salamander

    From the EPFL Biorobotics Laboratory, a robot that mimics the skeletal movements of a Salamander to help researchers develop richer motor skills for quadruped robots: "Tracking up to 64 points on a Salamander skeleton, we were able to record three-dimensional movements of bones in great detail. Using optimization on all the recorded postures we deduced the number and position of active and passive joints needed for the robot to reproduce the animal movements in reasonable accuracy in three-dimensions." (h/t IEEE Spectrum)

    In Brief: Shift Accessory Adds Motion-Tracking to Quadcopters

    Shift is an upcoming quadcopter accessory from Perceptive Labs that adds a video tracker on top of a DJI Phantom or 3D Robotics Iris drone and takes control of camera tilting and panning for automated tracking shots. The $800 accessory ($600 during the pre-order period) adds a small 200 camera system to a quad, processes that video and sends it to a tethered tablet, where you can mark any point in its field of view for tracking. Software subject tracking is all done with an onboard processor, and the Shift connects to your quad flight controller to automate camera and the quad's yaw. Tracking in the video samples look smooth enough, but I'm still skeptical about Shift's ability to compensate for unexpected quad movement, as anyone who's tried to film a smooth panning shot with a Phantom could relate. Also, some of this functionality could be done purely with software, utilizing telemetry information from the quad and your phone as a tracking beacon. That's exactly the kind of stuff that DJI wants developers to build when it opened up its Phantom SDK late last year. Watch the video promo for the Shift below. (h/t Techcrunch)

    Jamie's Racing Spiders, Episode 3: The Test

    It's an exercise in troubleshooting as Jamie and the Kernerworks crew try various last-minute tweaks to the not-quite-operational spiders in order to make them race-ready the next day. For additional behind-the-scenes footage, Jamie's original build notes and project photos, click here.

    Jamie's Racing Spiders, Episode 2: The Build

    Just before leaving for his tour in Australia, a delighted Jamie stops by Kernerworks to see an early comp of his racing spiders design in action for the first time. For additional behind-the-scenes footage, Jamie's original build notes and project photos, click here.

    Jamie's Racing Spiders, Episode 1: The Pitch

    When given the opportunity by Evernote to build anything he wants, Jamie chooses a complicated exercise in engineering that he's mulled for years: racing robotic spiders. But the project comes at a time when Jamie and Adam will be abroad, so it's Evernote and a solutions shop called Kernerworks to the rescue. For additional behind-the-scenes footage, Jamie's original build notes and project photos, click here.

    Boston Dynamics' Autonomous "Spot" Robot

    Holy moly, it's been over a year since we've seen a new video from Boston Dynamics, the now-Google-owned robotics company. The wait has been worth it: "Spot is a four-legged robot designed for indoor and outdoor operation. It is electrically powered and hydraulically actuated. Spot has a sensor head that helps it navigate and negotiate rough terrain. Spot weighs about 160 lbs." Note the spinning LIDAR sensor at the head of the robot, which helps it autonomous navigate, as well as its armored padding.