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    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)

    Norman
    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.

    Tested: Soloshot 2 Robot Cameraman Review

    It is often said that the number one rule of photography is “Get the shot.” Sure, I understand the point that being at the right place with a camera in hand is more important than any technical or artistic aspect of the resulting photo. But whoever came up with that mantra never watched a cellphone video of an RC plane in flight, which often ends up looking like a housefly buzzing around a baby blue wall. Getting the shot isn't just about being at the right place, at the right time. Sometimes you need certain equipment and techniques to make the effort worthwhile.

    I do not claim to be an expert RC photographer by any stretch. But I have shot enough photos and videos of tiny aircraft to know that capturing consistently good media of RC aircraft is a two man job:

    1. A pilot who understands the lighting and positioning needs of the photographer, and has the willingness/ability to fly the model accordingly (usually low, slow, and with precision)

    2. A photographer who understands the performance limitations of the subject model and is also comfortable tracking a small object moving in three dimensions while composing flattering shots.

    I’ve often had a difficult time finding people with the skills and disposition to fill either role. Factor in weather constraints and dynamic personal schedules and it’s a wonder that any of my RC photo shoots ever panned out. So when I saw an advertisement for the SOLOSHOT 2, I immediately recognized an opportunity to fill the photographer role with a robot. I’ve now been using SOLOSHOT 2 for about two months. Although it has not completely replaced my need for a warm-blooded cameraman, it has certainly lessened my dependence.

    What is a "Robot Cameraman?"

    SOLOSHOT 2 (SS2) is essentially a two-part system that starts at $400. On the camera end is a motorized two-axis gimbal called the “base” that pans and tilts the attached camera so that it is always pointed at the desired subject--wherever it moves. On the subject end is a device called the “tag”. The radio signals emitted by the tag are the key to keeping the subject under the camera’s unflinching eye.

    SS2 was created by surfers as a way to automatically film themselves. Like me, they often lacked someone who was able or willing to man the camera while they were out enjoying their hobby. Although the SS2 developers recognized the potential value of the system for other sports, filming RC aircraft was not on their radar. When I contacted SOLOSHOT, they told me that they were very surprised by the amount of interest they were receiving from RC flyers.

    SOLOSHOT 2 HAS TWO PRIMARY COMPONENTS: THE BASE WITH A 2-AXIS GIMBAL FOR THE CAMERA, AND THE TAG THAT STAYS WITH YOUR SUBJECT.

    Knowing full well that I intended to use the SS2 in ways that it was never intended, SOLOHOT provided a “Camera Bundle” for me to review and experiment with. The bundle includes the base and tag previously mentioned as well as a tripod, a Camera Controller, and a Sony CX240 video camera. The Camera Controller provides an interface between the camera itself and the SS2. This opens up additional features such as automatic zooming as the subject get further away and also the ability to start/stop recording remotely via the tag.

    In Brief: Disney Research's Beach Bot Makes Sandy Sketches

    One of the areas of research at Disney's R&D labs in Zurich is entertainment robotics. Disney was a pioneer in audioanimatronics, and the latest robots being employed at its theme parks are mostly more advanced versions of the pre-programmed robo actors. They're elaborate automata, but locked in the confines of a scripted ride. Beach Bot, a new Disney Research project, is autonomous, and may be deployed to Disney's vacation resorts. As Wired reports, this adorable sand scrawler can draw elaborate images onto beaches shores, traversing sandy terrain and relatively protected from the elements. Its large-scale drawings look cool, but the act of drawing is a kind of performance too. I'd love to see a dozen of these roam the shores of local beaches.

    Norman
    The 10 Weirdest Robots At CES 2015

    The halls of CES are packed to the gills with gadgets of all sorts, and this year one of the big buzzwords was robots. Yes, self-motivated robotic helpers are hot again, but the latest crop are designed to do things that R2-D2 never imagined. Here are ten of the most unusual droids from this year's Consumer Electronics Show.

    How to Build a FPV Racing Quadcopter!

    After learning about the world of FPV quadcopter racing, we couldn't wait to build our own. With the help of Lumenier and FPV quadcopter flyer Charpu, we learn about all the components needed to build a solid mini racing quadcopter for under $850, camera and FPV goggle kit included. Charpu helps us assemble the quadcopter and gives useful tips for first-time builders. It's really not that difficult!

    12 Days of Tested Christmas: Favorite Starter Quadcopter

    For this third day of Tested Christmas, Norm shares his pick for a starter quadcopter to learn basic flying techniques. We've tested several micro quads like the Estes Proto X and Heli-Max 1SQ, but the Hubsan X4 offers a sweet spot for price and flight ability. You can fly it indoors!

    Tested: The Show — Jamie Hyneman's Racing Spiders Project

    Jamie takes the stage at our live show to introduce his Racing Spiders project, an experiment in implementing a new linkage system that has never been tested before. Instead of individual motors responsible for each of the mechanical spider's legs, Jamie's design is powered by just two motors. The movement is mesmerizing!

    Hands-On with DJI's Inspire 1 Quadcopter

    DJI's new quadcopter is one of the coolest we've seen--a huge upgrade from the current Phantom 2 Vision+ we've been using. The Inspire 1 can record 4K video, lifts its propeller struts, and transmit clear HD video to the pilot. We chat in-depth with Eric Cheng, DJI's Director of Aerial Imaging, about all the new features in the Inspire 1 and then take it out for a test flight!

    In Brief: Knightscope Preparing Rollout of Security Droid

    Knightscope, a robotics firm based in Mountain View, has been testing its K5 security robot since last year--and the droid may soon be ready for deployment. According to MIT Technology Review, the company has built seven of these robots that use HD cameras and navigation sensors to perform security sweeps and anomalous behavior along a patrol route. Four of the $6 million robots will be tested in the field at a tech company in the area, which has not been named (natch). The robots won't carry any weapons, and will be used to report activity to operators in a control room. And according to Technology Review, one demo K5 tipped itself over in a test and couldn't right itself up. R2D2, this is not.

    Norman
    Watch Beautiful Industrial Robots at Work

    The Association of Robots in Architecture runs an annual conference and competition showcasing the work of industrial robots used in many different fields--manufacturing, fabrication, and even art. This video shows the submission of Carrara Robotics, an Australian robotics company whose robot beautifully demonstrates precision marble cutting. The other entries on Robots in Architecture's Vimeo page are just as delightful--check out that robot photographer!

    Research Robots Versus the Volcano

    The last time NASA scientists sent a robot into the crater of a volcano was 1994.

    It’s name was Dante II, an autonomous, eight-legged crawler packed with video cameras, lasers and other sensors. It was designed by scientists from Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute to rappel and hobble down the inside of the active Alaskan volcano Mount Spurr – a proof-of-concept for encounters with the types of hostile environments that NASA robots might deal with in space.

    Photo credit: Phil Hontalas/NASA

    But a tumble towards the end of Dante’s mission and subsequent helicopter rescue offered a stark reminder that “the possibility of catastrophic failure is very real in severe terrain,” the robot’s designers wrote. Even with today’s technology – we have self-driving cars now! – there hasn’t been another Dante since.

    “To get a robot to go over the varied and often difficult terrain is very challenging. Robotics has come a long way since Dante, but […] it’s just not quite at the level where they can handle volcanic terrain yet,” explained Carolyn Parcheta, a volcanologist and NASA postdoctoral fellow sponsored by Tennessee’s Oak Ridge Associated Universities. It’s part of the reason that the U.S. Geological Survey still believes that "experienced volcanologists are a better and more cost-effective alternative for monitoring dangerous volcanoes” than robots – at least, for now.

    In a volcanic environment, there are myriad materials of different sizes and shapes. You’ll find small round rocks where each step is like walking on the shifting sands of a beach. On the more extreme end of the spectrum is lava that’s sharp and jagged, making it near impossible to find space both flat and wide enough for a human foot. You’re always walking at an angle. In the middle, you have what Parcheta describes as “the slow, oozing, ropy looking stuff” that’s still difficult to walk on, but less so than the jagged stuff.

    Photo credit: Phil Hontalas/NASA

    “Volcanic terrain is much more complicated than just a set of stairs or an inclined slope, because it’s often all those different things combined,” Parcheta explains. “There’s no regular pattern to the landscape. It feels random. And to the robot it will be random. It needs to learn how to assess that before it can take its steps, and humans do this on the fly, naturally.” This is, as you might expect, difficult – and one of the big problems that Dante’s designers had. So, for years, humans have instead sufficed.

    But there’s also another reason that volcano crawling robots haven’t exactly been subject to pressing demand. According to Dr. Peter Cervelli, associate director for science and technology at the USGS Volcano Science Center, his agency has had “limited need for ground based robotics” – in large part because the majority of volcanoes in the United States don’t presently pose a threat to human volcanologists.

    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