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    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.

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    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.

    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.

    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.

    How to Get Into Hobby RC: Taking Off with Airplanes

    Previous installments of this series have covered tips for getting started with RC quadrotors, cars and boats. While those are all fun RC vehicles (and there is more to come regarding each of them), my greatest enthusiasm for RC revolves around airplanes. The reasons for this are difficult to pin down. I suppose I was born with an incurable fascination for flying things. Aeromodeling has always provided an avenue for hands-on exploration of that interest on a practical and affordable scale.

    The Delta Ray’s SAFE stabilization system does indeed make the airplane very easy to fly…even for beginners. It does not, however, remove all crash risks.

    In a more cerebral sense, creating RC airplanes simultaneously feeds my cravings for scientific and artistic stimulation. On top of all that is the excitement and challenge of actually flying these widely varied machines. I don’t expect that all RC enthusiasts share my depth of interest and satisfaction in the hobby, and that’s OK. It’s an activity that you can simply mingle in if you choose. There are, however, a few initial summits that you must climb in order to get started at a practical level.

    Choosing the Right Path

    The most common misconception about RC airplanes is that flying them is intuitive…it’s not.

    The most common misconception about RC airplanes is that flying them is intuitive…it’s not. Even pilots of full-scale aircraft often lack all of the key skills to be RC flyers. There are countless stories of a father and son bringing their new RC plane to the park the day after Christmas. They arrive full of excitement, perhaps fueled by Snoopy-like dreams of vanquishing the Red Baron. More often than not, those dreams end up in the same garbage bag as their short-lived model aircraft. It’s a shame to hear these stories because a little guidance on the front end can often make the difference between disgruntled one-timers and enthusiastic rookies.

    In my opinion, making a successful first flight in this hobby requires three basic things:

    1. A rudimentary understanding of aerodynamics

    2. An airworthy model suitable for beginners

    3. Basic piloting skills

    There are many ways to attain this triad. Some roads are worn, while others are less-travelled. I will attempt to explain a few of these approaches and you can choose the path that suits you.

    Testing: Waypoint Navigation on Phantom 2 Vision+ Quadcopter

    Last night, we posted a video showing our test of the DJI Phantom 2's new waypoint navigation feature, which lets it fly without direct control from a transmitter. I decided to pull the video after getting some feedback from Tested readers and quadcopter enthusiasts. There were a few concerns not only over the legality of the FPV (first-person video) flight, but the appropriateness of the test location. We flew it out over the San Francisco bay, but the quadcopter passed over city streets in doing so, and briefly left our field of view behind some tall trees. According to the new FAA guidelines, operators have to maintain line of sight with their craft, and follow community guidelines like the model aircraft safety code instituted by the Academy of Model Aeronautics.

    In retrospect, I made a mistake in choosing where to fly the Phantom for this video, especially in testing a new feature that is not without its bugs. Even though I had the ability to take manual control of the drone at any time, the video made the flight look more risky than we're comfortable with, and reflects poorly on the quadrotor hobbyist community. It's difficult striking a balance between creating informative videos to demonstrate new technology and engaging viewers with visually striking footage, but the latter should not come at the expense of safety--even if it's just the perception of risk. I apologize for that, and am currently looking into other locations and best practices for us to test future quadrotor gear. In the Bay Area, our options are getting increasingly limited; we recently heard of a hobbyist getting cited for flying a Phantom over Ocean Beach, which is under the purview of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservatory.

    In terms of the actual waypoint navigation feature of the Phantom, the feature works as advertised, but isn't without its problems. You can set up to 16 GPS waypoints using a satellite map overlay in the Vision app, but the map relies on you to determine if the flight path may intersect with any tall structures. It was also difficult to zoom into give the Phantom very precise waypoints--it's not accurate to get a Phantom circling around the bases of a baseball field, for example. We also experienced the unintended problem of both Will and my phones stealing the Wi-Fi connection from the transmitter, which accounted for our failure to send the flight path to the Phantom on several tries. Waypoint Nav on the Vision+ also doesn't have feature parity with DJI's Ground Station accessory, like the ability to set different flight speeds between waypoints. The best thing about the updated Vision app is the automatic "Return Home" button that tells the Phantom to return home and slowly land from almost exactly where it took off.

    Here's the unlisted video of our test if you want to watch it. For enthusiasts who've had more experience flying autonomous drones and using FPV, I'd love to hear your input about the best places and ways to test these new machines.

    In Brief: FAA Claims Jurisdiction Over FPV RC Flying

    The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 included verbiage which prevents the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) from imposing any new rules on model aircraft. This exemption, which is defined in Section 336 of the law, applies so long as a short list of requirements is met by the operator and model. Like so many legislative documents, the five exemption requirements leave numerous grey areas. Thus, the FAA recently issued its interpretation of the exemption and how the agency intends to define model aviation going forward. The FAA takes a particularly harsh stance on First Person View (FPV) flying. The document states in no uncertain terms the operator must be able to see the model aircraft in direct line of sight with nothing more powerful than corrective lenses. Any other optical aids (specifically FPV devices) negate the exemption and put you under the FAA’s law enforcement jurisdiction.

    Other views expressed by the FAA interpretation are less direct, but have equally far-reaching effects to RC aviators--even those who don’t participate in FPV. The “community-based organization” mentioned in the law is the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), whose lobbying efforts were largely responsible for the exemption’s presence. The AMA quickly issued a response to the FAA. Spoiler: they aren’t happy. This could be a critical “David and Goliath”-like standoff regarding the future of RC flying. If you have any interest in this hobby, don’t be passive. I suspect that the AMA will soon provide suggestions for where/how to focus efforts against the FAA interpretation.

    In Brief: Waypoint Navigation for DJI Phantom 2 Vision+

    Our DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ got a pretty substantial upgrade this morning with the release of the new Vision controller app. The update grants the quadcopter GPS waypoint navigation, meaning you can pre-program a sequence of up to 16 waypoints on a satellite map for the quad to fly before returning home. That kind of autonomous flight is what makes the Vision+ really a drone. It's a feature that had previously been available to the Phantom 2, but required a separate Ground Station accessory that paired with the quad over bluetooth. There are a few restrictions--waypoint-based flights are restricted to a 1640 feet radius (500 meters) from the pilot, altitude is capped at 656 feet, and flights can't exceed 3.1 total miles. The app will also let users know if there isn't enough expected battery life remaining to complete a flight. The video below explains how the ground station feature in the updated DJI Vision apps works. We'll be testing it in a future video!

    In Brief: Chatbot "Passes" Turing Test, But Does It Matter?

    I'm glad that a chatbot has finally succeeded in passing the Turing Test. It means that cognitive scientists and A.I. researchers can finally move on from this outdated milestone of artificial intelligence and focus on metrics that really matter. The Turing Test, as we've discussed at length in the past, was proposed by Alan Turing as a way to determine if computers could "think". The actual test, which puts a chat program in front of 30 judges to engage in conversation, only actually requires that it convinces 30% of the judges to believe that it's a real person. The winning program, a chatbot named Eugene Goostman, succeeded in convincing 33% of the judges by playing the role of a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy without a mastery of English. Basically, it had an advantage in fooling the judges by establishing the terms of its "intelligence" through its purported identity. That didn't stop the University of Reading, where the challenge was held, to boast about the significance of the achievement. (Probably doesn't hurt that there's a biopic coming out later this year on the life of Turing, either.) The larger problem with the victory is that the Turing Test is more a statement about our own limits of perception and language comprehension, rather than of computational prowess. Chatbots can do a good job of imitating intelligence through effective scripting, not modeling of the human brain or our linguistics systems. It's definitely not proof of anything close to consciousness. Good for Eugene Goostman and its creators, but it's nothing more than a fancy Chinese Room.

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    Stunt Flying Aerobatics with RC Multi-Rotors

    One of the most popular segments of RC flying is a genre called “3D aerobatics”. If you’re not familiar with the concept of 3D flight, just imagine airplanes and helicopters performing low-altitude maneuvers that seemingly cheat physics. It was only a matter of time before multi-rotors evolved to be able to execute the same types of daredevil stunts. That time has arrived, and the kits you can build for 3D flight are pretty great.

    Photo credit: Encore RC

    What is 3D Flying?

    With fixed-wing aircraft (airplanes), the definition of 3D flying is relatively simple. It includes any (intentional) maneuver performed below the airplane’s stall speed. A vertical component of the propeller’s thrust augments the lift from the wing to keep the airplane flying. During tricks such as a torque roll, the propeller is providing all of the lift.

    Rotary-wing 3D flight includes maneuvers such as inverted, backwards, sideways, and pirouetting flight.

    The definition of 3D flying is not so clean with rotary-wing aircraft (helicopters and multi-rotors) since they do not really have a stall speed. According to the ace RC pilots that I introduce below, rotary-wing 3D flight includes maneuvers such as inverted, backwards, sideways, and pirouetting flight. Bluntly stated, 3D is in-your-face flying that flaunts the unearthly abilities of the pilot and his machine.

    Whether talking about fixed-wing or rotary-wing aircraft, 3D aerobatics require a machine with tremendous power and aggressive maneuverability, not to mention a fearless pilot with finely-tuned flying skills. Here's what's available for those daredevil RC pilots today.

    FIRST Robotics 2014 World Championship

    Battlebots and Combots may no longer be around, but robotics competition is still thriving in Dean Kamen's annual FIRST Robotics event for high school students. This past April, over 12,000 students brought their robots to St. Louis for this year's championship to compete in various challenges, leading up to the main event: a cooperative robot game called Aerial Assist. Teams from all over the country have just six weeks to design and build their robots from a set of common parts. You can watch more videos from the FIRST championship event here.

    In Brief: Why Do We Love R2-D2?

    Of all the cyborgs, androids, and automatons in pop culture media, why does one stand out as such a fan favorite? I'm talking, of course, about R2-D2. When seen scooting around Disneyland, conventions, and Maker Faires, the beloved droid attracts a flock of admirers, young and old. People can't help but love R2. But why don't other sci-fi robots get the same kind of adoration? Peter Novak of Alphabeatic and writer Clive Thompson have a theory: the appeal of R2 lies in his distance from the so-called uncanny valley. As Thompson wrote for The Smithsonian Magazine, "The most engaging robot would be one that suggested human behavior, but didn’t try to perfectly emulate it." R2's beeping and booping has a ton of personality, but it's our imagination that grants him believability as a character. The design of industrial droids like R2 was a paradigm shift in robot design, something that both filmmakers and real toy makers are still trying to perfect. But there's one recent robot that meets the psychological criteria for endearment, which we've seen firsthand elicit unbridled glee from fans: Wall-E!

    Maker Faire 2014: Multi-Rotors Battle in Game of Drones

    We're not exactly sure why someone would want to spend dozens of hours building an RC quadcopter only to see it destroyed in an arena of robot death, but that's what some hobbyists are doing with their drones. In Game of Drones, multi-rotors are outfitted with armored shells and light weaponry to dismantle their opponents. It's kind of like Fight Club, but for flying robots.

    In Brief: Intel's 3D-Printed Robot to Arrive Later This Year

    I'm glad that Intel wants to make robotics more accessible, but I'm not sure it's "21st Century Robot" initiative is the way to do it. Intel's Robot, named Jimmy, made its first appearance at New York Maker Faire last fall, and creator (and Intel's resident futurist) Brian David Johnson brought it to this week's Code Conference, along with more details about how the robot works. Jimmy is an open-hardware platform for building humanoid robots, with limbs and a chassis that users will be able to design and print on their own. Intel will sell a kit later this year that includes the unprintable components--the battery, motors, and Intel's low-cost Edison computer (which itself runs Intel's Quark SoC). But if the goal is to lower the barrier to entry to robotics and teach students how to build and program their own robots, the expected $1,600 price may be inhibitive. Ardunio's robot platform is only $250, and while it doesn't look like a cute humanoid android, it's still a great way to introduce young makers to robotics.

    Google Unveils Its Self-Driving Car Prototype

    Following Microsoft's Satya Nadella at the Code Conference, Google co-founder and moonshot evangelist Sergey Brin announced the company's plans to build its own self-driving car prototypes. From the Google blog: "We're now developing prototypes of vehicles that have been designed from the ground up to drive themselves—just push a button and they'll take you where you want to go! We'll use these vehicles to test our software and learn what it will really take to bring this technology into the world." This two-seater has no steering wheel, brake, or accelerator. Just a push of a button to start and stop, and a top speed of 25 miles per hour. Google plans on building about a hundred of these prototype electric vehicles, which will take over autonomous driving testing from the modified Toyota Priuses that have been used so far.

    Maker Faire 2014: Talking Drones with 3D Robotics

    What makes a drone a drone? What are the components that you need to build your own? We chat with 3D Robotics about their Iris Drone and the individual pieces that let it autonomously fly around without direct control from a RC transmitter.