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Aujourd’hui — 28 mars 2020Vos flux RSS

Video Friday: Qoobo the Headless Robot Cat Is Back

Par Evan Ackerman

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!):

ICARSC 2020 – April 15-17, 2020 – [Online Conference]
ICRA 2020 – May 31-4, 2020 – [TBD]
ICUAS 2020 – June 9-12, 2020 – Athens, Greece
RSS 2020 – July 12-16, 2020 – [Online Conference]
CLAWAR 2020 – August 24-26, 2020 – Moscow, Russia

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


You need this dancing robot right now.

By Vanessa Weiß at UPenn.

[ KodLab ]


Remember Qoobo the headless robot cat? There’s a TINY QOOBO NOW!

It’s available now on a Japanese crowdfunding site, but I can’t tell if it’ll ship to other countries.

[ Qoobo ]


Just what we need, more of this thing.

[ Vstone ]


HiBot, which just received an influx of funding, is adding new RaaS (robotics as a service) offerings to its collection of robot arms and snakebots.

HiBot ]


If social distancing already feels like too much work, Misty is like that one-in-a-thousand child that enjoys cleaning. See her in action here as a robot disinfector and sanitizer for common and high-touch surfaces. Alcohol reservoir, servo actuator, and nozzle not (yet) included. But we will provide the support to help you build the skill.

[ Misty Robotics ]


After seeing this tweet from Kate Darling that mentions an MIT experiment in which “a group of gerbils inhabited an architectural environment made of modular blocks, which were manipulated by a robotic arm in response to the gerbils’ movements,” I had to find a video of the robot arm gerbil habitat. The best I could do was this 2007 German remake, but it’s pretty good:

[ Lutz Dammbeck ]


We posted about this research almost a year ago when it came out in RA-L, but I’m not tired of watching the video yet.

Today’s autonomous drones have reaction times of tens of milliseconds, which is not enough for navigating fast in complex dynamic environments. To safely avoid fast moving objects, drones need low-latency sensors and algorithms. We depart from state of the art approaches by using event cameras, which are novel bioinspired sensors with reaction times of microseconds. We demonstrate the effectiveness of our approach on an autonomous quadrotor using only onboard sensing and computation. Our drone was capable of avoiding multiple obstacles of different sizes and shapes at relative speeds up to 10 meters/second, both indoors and outdoors.

[ UZH ]


In this video we present the autonomous exploration of a staircase with four sub-levels and the transition between two floors of the Satsop Nuclear Power Plant during the DARPA Subterranean Challenge Urban Circuit. The utilized system is a collision-tolerant flying robot capable of multi-modal Localization And Mapping fusing LiDAR, vision and inertial sensing. Autonomous exploration and navigation through the staircase is enabled through a Graph-based Exploration Planner implementing a specific mode for vertical exploration. The collision-tolerance of the platform was of paramount importance especially due to the thin features of the involved geometry such as handrails. The whole mission was conducted fully autonomously.

[ CERBERUS ]


At Cognizant’s Inclusion in Tech: Work of Belonging conference, Cognizant VP and Managing Director of the Center for the Future of Work, Ben Pring, sits down with Mary “Mary” Cummings. Missy is currently a Professor at Duke University and the Director of the Duke Robotics Labe. Interestingly, Missy began her career as one of the first female fighter pilots in the U.S. Navy. Working in predominantly male fields – the military, tech, academia – Missy understands the prevalence of sexism, bias and gender discrimination.

Let’s hear more from Missy Cummings on, like, everything.

[ Duke ] via [ Cognizant ]


You don’t need to mountain bike for the Skydio 2 to be worth it, but it helps.

[ Skydio ]


Here’s a look at one of the preliminary simulated cave environments for the DARPA SubT Challenge.

[ Robotika ]


SherpaUW is a hybrid walking and driving exploration rover for subsea applications. The locomotive system consists of four legs with 5 active DoF each. Additionally, a 6 DoF manipulation arm is available. All joints of the legs and the manipulation arm are sealed against water. The arm is pressure compensated, allowing the deployment in deep sea applications.

SherpaUW’s hybrid crawler-design is intended to allow for extended long-term missions on the sea floor. Since it requires no extra energy to maintain its posture and position compared to traditional underwater ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles), SherpaUW is well suited for repeated and precise sampling operations, for example monitoring black smockers over a longer period of time.

[ DFKI ]


In collaboration with the Army and Marines, 16 active-duty Army soldiers and Marines used Near Earth’s technology to safely execute 64 resupply missions in an operational demonstration at Fort AP Hill, Virginia in Sep 2019. This video shows some of the modes used during the demonstration.

[ NEA ]


For those of us who aren’t either lucky enough or cursed enough to live with our robotic co-workers, HEBI suggests that now might be a great time to try simulation.

[ GitHub ]


DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 is a complete aerial imaging solution, designed for the professional creator. Featuring a 1-inch CMOS sensor that can shoot 4K/60fps videos and 20MP photos, the Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 grants filmmakers absolute creative freedom. The OcuSync 2.0 HD transmission system ensures stable connectivity and reliability, five directions of obstacle sensing ensures additional safety, and a dedicated remote controller with a built-in screen grants even greater precision and control.

US $1600, or $2k with VR goggles.

[ DJI ]


Not sure why now is the right time to introduce the Fetch research robot, but if you forgot it existed, here’s a reminder.

[ Fetch ]


Two keynotes from the MBZIRC Symposium, featuring Oussama Khatib and Ron Arkin.

[ MBZIRC ]


And here are a couple of talks from the 2020 ROS-I Consortium.

Roger Barga, GM of AWS Robotics and Autonomous Services at Amazon shares some of the latest developments around ROS and advanced robotics in the cloud.

Alex Shikany, VP of Membership and Business Intelligence for A3 shares insights from his organization on the relationship between robotics growth and employment.

[ ROS-I ]


Many tech companies are trying to build machines that detect people’s emotions, using techniques from artificial intelligence. Some companies claim to have succeeded already. Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett evaluates these claims against the latest scientific evidence on emotion. What does it mean to “detect” emotion in a human face? How often do smiles express happiness and scowls express anger? And what are emotions, scientifically speaking?

[ Microsoft ]


Hier — 27 mars 2020Vos flux RSS

IEEE’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Par Toshio Fukuda
Illustration of a megaphone with announcement icons and the IEEE logo on the megaphone
Illustration: iStockphoto

THE INSTITUTE As you are aware, on 11 March the World Health Organization officially declared the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, a pandemic. This global health crisis is a unique challenge that has impacted many members of the IEEE family. We would like to express our concern and support for all the members of the IEEE community, our staff, our families, and all others affected by this outbreak.

Governments around the world are now issuing restrictions on travel, gatherings, and meetings in an effort to limit and slow the spread of the virus. The health and safety of the IEEE community is our first priority and IEEE is supporting these efforts.

We request that all members avoid conducting in-person activities in areas impacted by the coronavirus threat and instead maximize the use of our online and virtual alternatives. IEEE provides many tools to support our membership with virtual engagement, including our online collaboration space IEEE Collabratec.

Following the advice of local authorities, most IEEE conferences and meetings have already been postponed or replaced with virtual meetings.

IEEE publications continue to accept submissions and publish impactful cutting-edge research. Our online publications remain available to researchers and students around the world.

IEEE standards development also continues, using online collaboration to replace in-person working groups.

IEEE Educational Activities continues to offer online instruction and IEEE’s preuniversity educational resources may be of assistance to families of students whose classroom activities have been disrupted.

All IEEE operations are continuing. At many of our global offices, IEEE staff will support IEEE’s mission while teleworking from their homes to minimize risk. As of this time, on the advice of local authorities, IEEE offices in China remain open.

We know that many of you are directly and indirectly engaged in the fight against this disease: supporting biomedical research and applications, supporting data analysis and modeling, maintaining critical communications and power infrastructure and caring for each other.We are grateful for your work.

We extend our heartfelt thanks and appreciation to all of our IEEE members for your understanding. These are difficult times, but we will get through them by working together. Thank you for your support of our shared mission to advance technology for humanity.

Please stay safe and well.

Toshio Fukuda is the 2020 IEEE president. Stephen Welby is the IEEE executive director.

Confinement : un camping pour ne pas séparer les sans-abri de leurs animaux

Par Mégane Bouron
À La Rochelle, le camping municipal du Soleil accueille les sans-abri qui ont des animaux de compagnie pendant toute la durée du confinement.

What the Right To Repair Movement Gets Wrong

Par G. Pascal Zachary

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.

THE ENGINEER’S PLACE The end came with a whimper. My personal laser printer showed a persistent error message. In the past, closing the cover cleared the message and let me print. Not this time. I surveyed guidance on the Web, even studied the remedies proposed by the printer’s maker. No joy.

After weeks, and then months after opening and closing the cover, and turning the printer off and on, I surrendered. Last week, I unplugged it, removed the ink cartridge (for re-use) and carried the printer to a nearby responsible electronics recycler.

I cringed and wondered. Should I feel shame for contravening the nifty dictum of the self-styled “right to repair” movement, which insists that "instead of throwing things out,” we should “reuse, salvage and rebuild?” 

In the case of my zombie printer, I’m convinced the recycler was the best destination. A near-identical model, brand new, sells on Amazon for $99. The ink cartridge costs a third as much. Even if the printer could be repaired, at what expense in parts and labor?

So I bought a new printer.

When I ponder the wisdom of my decision, I think “Shame on me.” Rather than fight to repair my wounded device, I did what Big Tech and other manufacturers increasingly want owners to do. I threw it away.

Today repair remains an option, one that makers want to monopolize or eliminate. Apple, the world’s most valuable company, is the worst offender, effectively forbidding owners to repair or maintain their smart phones. Not even the battery is replaceable by an owner. Forbidden also are repairs by owners of cracked screens. Such brazen actions void Apple’s warranty.

Many people have a tale of trying to bootleg an iPhone repair. My favorite is when I found a guy on Yelp! who asked me to meet him inside a Starbucks. His nom de repair is ScreenDoc, and he ran our rendezvous like a drug buy. He only entered the shop after I ordered a coffee and sat down. Seated at my table, working with tiny tools, he swapped my broken screen for a new one. I slipped him $90 in cash, and he left.

Sound tawdry? The nationwide campaign, led by Repair.Org, agrees, which is why Repair.Org supports legislation in at least 20 states to promote “your right to repair,” by requiring manufacturers “to share the information necessary for repair.”

Long before the advent of the repair campaign, and a related movement called the Maintainers, there were loud critics of “planned obsolescence.” During Depression-era America, an influential book published 1932 advocated “creative waste”—the idea that throwing things away and buying new things can fuel a strong economy. One advocate, Bernard London, wrote a paper in 1932, “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence,” in which he called on the federal government to print expiration dates on manufactured goods. “Furniture and clothing and other commodities should have a span of life, just as humans have,” he wrote. “They should be retired, and replaced by fresh merchandise.”

Manufacturers purposely made stuff that broke or wore out, so consumers would have to buy the stuff again. Echoes of this practice persist. In shopping for new tires, for instance, drivers pay more for those “rated” to last longer.

The big threat to devices today isn’t failure, but rather “creative destruction,” or the new advent of new and improved stuff. Who needs to think about repairs when we are dazzled by the latest “upgrade.”

The newest iPhones, for instance, are promoted on the appeal of their improved cameras. The latest Apple watch series boasts new band colors. Such incremental improvements long pre-date Apple’s popularity. One hundred years ago, General Motors decided to release new models, new colors, and faster engines every year. “The changes in the new model should be so novel and attractive as to create demand…and a certain amount of dissatisfaction with past models as compared with the new one,” wrote Alfred Sloan, then automaker’s CEO, in his 1963 autobiography My Years With General Motors.

Some of us never grow disenchanted with certain machines. We love them forever. And we strive to keep them going. Some cherished cars fall into this category, and computers do, too. I’m typing this article on my beloved 2014 Mac Powerbook. My battery is toast, so I can only securely use the laptop while plugged in. And I type on an external keyboard because the original keys are so worn out that a few won’t function at all even though Apple has twice replaced the key caps for me.

I don’t want my PowerBook Pro to die; yet my repair options are ruled by Apple. And a cruel master is she. My best path forward is to ask Apple to replace the keyboard and battery. I dread finding out whether Apple continues to offer this option. Though I feel no shame regarding my utter dependence on Apple for repairs, I do feel outrage and puzzlement. I am aware that the do-it-yourself (DIY) movement that has transformed how we maintain our homes and our bodies, how we eat and drink, work and play.

But DIY maintenance is not for everybody or appropriate for every situation. Nor does it inevitably produce greater “caring.” Results vary. Quality can suffer. While a person’s self-esteem may rise with every home improvement they carry out, the value of their home may decline as a result (because of the quality of the DIY fixes). I favor a simple rule: encourage consumers to repair if they wish but not insist on self-repair under every circumstance, and leave the option that original makers of complex devices will repair them the best (Tesla owners, take heed!)

When self-reliance becomes non-negotiable, the results can be dispiriting. But when the impulse to do things yourself, like brewing your own beer, baking your own bread, raising your own chickens and building your own computers, takes hold, the results can be good for your soul.

In 1974, a repair enthusiast named Robert Pirsig published a book that proved highly influential and sold millions of copies. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance came to define a spiritual and mental outlook by contrasting the approaches of two bike owners. One rides an expensive new bike and relies on professionals to repair. The other rides an older bike that he repairs on his own and, by doing so, hones his problem-solving abilities and, unexpectedly, connects to a deeper wisdom that enhances his sense of dignity and endows his life with greater meaning.

The shift in attitudes a half-century ago was dramatic, reflecting the profound expansion of the human-built world. Once humans sought to “connect” with nature; now they wished to do the same (or more) with their machines. In many ways, the repair movement is a revival of this venerable counter-cultural tradition.

Today’s repair enthusiasts would have us believe that the well-maintained artifact is the new beautiful. But denying consumers the ability to repair their stuff is, to me, chiefly an economic, not a spiritual or aesthetic, issue.

The denial of the repair option is not limited to laptops and smart phones. Automobiles are now essentially computers on wheels. Digital diagnostics make repair no longer the dominion of the clever tinkerer. Specialized software, reading reports from the sensors scattered throughout your car, decides which “modules” to replace. The ease comes at a price. Your dealer now dominates the repair business. Independent car shops often can’t or won’t invest in the car manufacturer’s expensive software. And the hardy souls that once maintained their own vehicles, in their driveway or on the street, are as close to extinction as the white rhino.

The predatory issue is central. The denial of the repair option is often a form of profiteering. The manufacturer earns money from what he or she considers the “after market.” Many makers of popular devices now see repair and maintenance as a kind of annuity, a stream of revenue similar in type to that provided by sales of a printer cartridge or razor blade. For auto dealers, profits from “service” now can exceed profits from sales of new cars. Increasingly products are designed, across many categories, to render impossible, or greatly limit, repair by owner.

I am not sure the practice is wrong, and certainly not wrong in all cases. The profits from repair are often justified by claims of superior service. Brand-name makers, in theory, can control reliability by maintaining their own devices. Reliability easily conflates with “peace of mind,” so that the repair path collides squarely with another basic human urge: convenience.

Not everyone opposes convenience, so the Repair movement might regret choosing to advocate for a “right” to repair rather than an “option.” An option implies protecting a consumer’s choice, not mandating a specific repair scenario. I’m skeptical about applying the language of legal rights to the problem of repair and maintenance; because there are many cases where technology companies especially have the obligation to repair problems, and not foist them onto their customers.

Here’s a live example. Among my chief reasons for my loyalty to the iPhone is that Apple supplies updated software that protects me against viruses and security hacks; Apple even installs this software on my phone sometimes without my conscious assent, or awareness. If I had to assent explicitly to each iPhone software update, I would invariably fail to have the latest protection and then suffer the negative consequences. So I don’t want to be responsible for repairing or maintaining a phone that is inherently collective in nature. I am freer and happier when Apple does it.

I understand that ceding the repair to an impersonal System might seem to libertarians like a road to serfdom. But having the System in charge of repair probably makes sense for essential products and services.

The artifacts in our world are profoundly networked now, and even though some devices look and feel individual to us, they are not. Their discreteness is an illusion. Increasingly no person is a technological island. Our devices are part of systems that depend on collective action and communal support.

Given the deep interconnectedness of our built environment, the distinction between repairing your own devices and letting others do so breaks down; and insisting on maintaining the distinction strikes me as inherently anti-social and destructive to the common good. At the very least the question of who repairs what should be viewed as morally neutral. Our answers should be shaped by economics and practicality, not romantic notions about individual freedom and responsibility.

Because the right-to-repair movement is based on a romantic notion, and pits those who maintain against those who don’t, a backlash against the concept is inevitable. A healthier approach to the genuine challenge of maintaining technological systems, and their dependent devices, would be to also strengthen collective responses and systems of repair and maintenance.

Much is at stake in this argument. Thinking about who is responsible for what aspects of our techno-human condition helps clarify what forms of resistance are possible in a world dominated by Big Tech companies and complex socio-technical systems. Resistance can and should take many forms, but resistance will be far more effective, I submit, if we do not choose repair and maintenance as a proxy for democratic control over innovation.

So I offer different solution. Rather than burden individuals with enhanced rights and duties for repair and maintenance of our devices, let’s demand that makers of digitally-controlled stuff make repairs at fair prices, quickly and reliably. Or maybe we go further and demand that these companies repair and maintain their products at a slight loss, or even a large loss, in order to incentivize them to design and build high-quality stuff in the first place; stuff that requires less maintenance and fewer repairs.

By insuring that repair is fair, reliable and low cost by law and custom, we can achieve the best of both worlds: keep our gadgets running and feel good knowing that the quality of our stuff is not the measure of ourselves.

À partir d’avant-hierVos flux RSS

IEEE Standards Association Launches a Platform for Open Source Collaboration

Par IEEE
0s and 1s form a globe shape
Illustration: iStockphoto

THE INSTITUTE After adopting a new visual identity last year to signal its growth beyond standards development, the IEEE Standards Association recently introduced a platform for new technical communities to collaborate on open-source projects. Called IEEE SA Open, the platform enables independent software developers, startups, industry, academic institutions, and others to create, test, manage, and deploy innovative projects in a collaborative, safe, and responsible environment.

The neutral platform is available to anyone developing open-source projects. It also will help developers increase their project’s visibility, drive adoption, and grow their community.

Many IEEE members from several technical societies and standards groups have already expressed interest in pursuing open-source collaboration within the organization.

WHY IEEE?

Today, much of the world’s infrastructure is run by software, and that software needs to comply with standards in communications networking, electrical grids, agriculture, and the like, IEEE Fellow Robert Fish, IEEE SA president, said during a recent interview with Radio Kan.

“A lot of standardization work winds up standardizing technologies that are implemented through software,” he said. “Our idea is that the next stage of standardization might include not just producing the documents that have the technical specifications in them, but also the software that implements it.”

As software becomes increasingly prevalent in the world today, ethical alignment, reliability, transparency, and democratic governance become must-haves. IEEE is uniquely positioned to endow open-source projects with these attributes. Indeed, with the addition of the new platform, the IEEE SA provides developers with proven mechanisms throughout the life cycle of incubating promising technologies—including research, open source development, standardization, and go-to-market services. The platform also exposes earlier-stage technology research from academia to industry for potential capitalization opportunities.

IEEE SA Open programs provide exceptional opportunities to all IEEE communities, especially to those members who are working on advanced solutions. It is a platform that exposes earlier stage technology research from academia to industry for potential capitalization opportunities.

To learn more, visit the IEEE SA Open page.

Confinement : La Fête du court métrage vous propose de voir les films gratuitement depuis chez vous

Par Mégane Bouron
Du 25 au 31 mars, c'est La Fête du court métrage... à la maison. L'occasion parfaite de regarder des films pour toute la famille depuis chez vous.

Confinement : le Palais des Festivals de Cannes se transforme en centre d’accueil pour les sans-abri

Par Sophie Renassia
À défaut d'accueillir des stars de cinéma, c'est aux personnes sans-abri que le Palais des Festivals de Cannes ouvre ses portes. Une initiative admirable.

Here’s Where and How We Think China Will Land on Mars

Par Andrew Jones

China aims to become only the second country to land and operate a spacecraft on the surface of Mars (NASA was first with a pair of Viking landers in 1976 if you don’t count the former Soviet Union’s 1971 Mars 3 mission). With just a few months before launch, China is still keeping key mission details quiet. But we can discern a few points about where and how it will attempt a landing on the Red Planet from recent presentations and interviews. 

The launch

Long March 5 rocket
Photo: CASC

Celestial mechanics dictate that China, along with NASA’s Perseverance rover and the Hope orbiter from the United Arab Emirates, will launch around late July during a Hohmann transfer window, which comes around only once every 26 months and allows a trip to Mars using as little propellant as possible.

A huge Long March 5 rocket will send the Chinese spacecraft on a journey for about seven months, after which it will fire rockets in order to enter orbit around Mars in February 2021.

The 5-metric-ton spacecraft consists of an orbiter and the landing segment for the rover. It’s expected that the spacecraft will remain coupled in orbit until April. The orbiter will employ a pair of cameras to image the preselected landing sites, before attempting to set down the 240-kilogram rover (which has yet to be publicly named) on the surface.

The landing

Landing on Mars presents unique challenges. There’s a thin atmosphere that dangerously heats spacecraft but does little to slow them and a different gravitational field than is found on Earth. But China has experience from earlier space exploits to guide the way.

Earth and Mars will be around 150 million kilometers apart when the orbiter arrives, so it will take eight minutes for communications signals to travel each way. Therefore the spacecraft’s guidance, navigation, and control, or GNC, for the landing process will be fully autonomous. This system will be based on the GNC of Chang’e-4, which autonomously achieved the first landing on the far side of the moon in 2019.

The blunt body aerodynamics of the entry capsule’s heating shield, which is shaped like a spherical cone whose tip forms a 70-degree angle, will provide the first deceleration as it hits the atmosphere traveling at a rate of kilometers per second. Next, while traveling at supersonic speeds, a disk-gap-band parachute will deploy to further slow the spacecraft, and then be discarded. China has drawn on technology and experience from its Shenzhou crewed spacecraft, which has allowed astronauts to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and safely land, for these phases.

Retropropulsion will be responsible for slowing the spacecraft during its final descent. Most of this will be provided by a 7,500-Newton variable thrust engine, like the main engine used by China’s Chang’e-3 and -4 lunar landers. The lander will employ a laser range finder and a microwave ranging velocity sensor to gain navigation data—technology that was also developed initially for China’s moon missions.

The lander will separate from the main body of the spacecraft at an altitude of 70 meters, according to Zhang Rongqiao, mission chief designer, and enter a hover phase to search for a safe landing spot. 3D laser scanning, or lidar, will provide terrain data such as elevation. Obstacle-avoiding mode, facilitated by optical cameras, will begin at 20 meters above the surface.

Some of these processes are apparent in this mesmeric footage of the Chang’e-4 landing. An obstacle avoidance phase is apparent as the spacecraft makes its descent to the crater-covered lunar surface which appears fractal in nature. 

The landing site

A Candidate Landing Site in Utopia Planitia
Image: University of Arizona/JPL/NASA
This image shows a candidate landing site in Utopia Planitia on Mars.

China was initially considering several sites within two broad landing areas, which has since been narrowed down to two preliminary sites near Utopia Planitia, according to a presentation at the European Planetary Science Congress meeting in Geneva last September.

Alfred McEwen, director of the Planetary Image Research Laboratory (PIRL) at the University of Arizona, who attended the session, recently produced an image of one of these areas, in Utopia Planitia.

He wrote in a statement released with the image: “While smooth on large scales, HiRISE reveals small-scale roughness elements, including craters, boulders, and other features. Such hazards may be avoided by using ‘terminal hazard avoidance,’ a technology China has demonstrated on the Moon.”

McEwen notes that “Utopia Planitia may have been extensively resurfaced by mud flows, so it is an interesting place to investigate potential past subsurface habitability.”

Other potential targets are within Chryse Planitia, close to the landing sites of Viking 1 and Pathfinder. For these areas, scientists with the Institute of Space Sciences at Shandong University, have formulated probabilities of dust storms occurring during landing.

Whichever spot it targets, the mission will have landing ellipses—the areas in which the spacecraft is statistically likely to land—of around 100 x 40 kilometers. By comparison, NASA, with its vast Mars landing experience, has a proposed ellipse of just 25 x 20 kilometers for Perseverance, thanks to its Range Trigger technology.

Other necessary pieces of China’s mission are also in place. Tracking stations are now operating across China, as well as in Namibia and Argentina. The Long March 5 rocket passed engine tests in January, while the rover underwent final space environment tests—under simulated conditions experienced during launch, cruising in deep space, and on the Martian surface—around the Chinese New Year. The next big step to set up the 2021 landing attempt is a successful launch from Wenchang in July.

Confinés chez eux, les étudiants de cette chorale reprennent « Somewhere over the Rainbow »

Par Sophie Renassia
Puisque le concert de leur chorale a été annulé, ces étudiants décident d’unir leurs voix depuis chez eux. Et le résultat est magnifique.

Baisse spectaculaire de la pollution de l’air à Paris : du jamais vu

Par Sophie Renassia
Une semaine seulement après les mesures de confinement, la capitale assiste à une amélioration historique de la qualité de l’air.

Mois de la Forêt : « Il faut prendre conscience que la forêt nous est utile au quotidien »

Par Publi-Rédactionnel
Chaque année, au mois de mars, Reforest'Action organise le Mois de la Forêt. Objectif ? Nous sensibiliser et nous permettre d’agir pour les protéger.

PAM4 Gigabit Ethernet Electrical SERDES Analysis, Debug and Compliance Testing

This white paper shows how the introduction of complicated figures of merit like SNDR, COM, and ERL, plus FEC (forward error correction) changes how we think about SERDES performance. SERDES tests require more than pristine signal generation and error counting. This paper presents the key SERDES tests, the need for FEC test patterns and the ability to insert errors that can probe Reed-Solomon FEC, and techniques for calibrating interference and jitter tolerance tests.

IEEE Plots a Path for Wide Bandgap Semiconductors Used in the Power Industry

Par Kathy Pretz
Illustration icons relating to semicondoctor production.
Illustration: Shutterstock

THE INSTITUTE There’s a lot of excitement in the power industry about devices made with wide bandgap (WBG) semiconductors such as silicon carbide (SiC) and gallium nitride (GaN).

The materials’ bandgaps—the energy difference between insulating and conducting states—are significantly greater than that of silicon. As a result, WBG power devices use less energy, can handle higher voltages, can operate at higher temperatures and frequencies, and can produce more reliable forms of electricity from renewable energy. But their technology is also fairly new, and the devices cost more than silicon-based ones, which have a proven track record.

To encourage the use of WBG technology, the IEEE Power Electronics Society (PELS) recently released the International Technology Roadmap for Wide Bandgap Power Semiconductors (ITRW).

“The road map is a strategic look at the long-term landscape of WBG, its future, what the trends are, and what the possibilities are,” says IEEE Fellow Braham Ferreira, chair of the ITRW steering committee. “The purpose of the document is to facilitate an acceleration in the R&D process to fulfill the potential this new technology has.”

The road map committee is divided into working groups that focus on four areas: substrates and devices, modules and packaging, GaN systems and applications, and SiC systems and applications. Experts from around the world are participating, including materials scientists and engineers, device specialists and researchers, policymakers, and representatives from industry and academia.

The road map identifies key trends, design challenges, and potential applications as well as a preview of future applications.

“We could not give marching orders for industry on the production and development of these devices,” Ferreira says. “By consensus and agreement, we identified what the potential new applications could be, and gave direction for investment in long-term R&D.”

BENEFITS APLENTY

There are several reasons for using WBG semiconductors for power electronics and other applications, according to the ITRW executive summary. SiC and GaN devices are becoming more affordable and widely available. They also offer performance that can’t be achieved with silicon.

The new generation of WBG semiconductor devices made from SiC and GaN power converters have the potential to switch 100 to 1,000 times faster than their silicon counterparts.

They also can save a lot of energy, Ferreira says: “With a typical silicon converter, you get about 95 percent efficiency. But using a WBG converter, the efficiency is closer to 99 percent.”

The road map summary lists the markets that could benefit most from the adoption of WBG technology, including ones for photovoltaic converters, hybrid and pure electric automotive drivetrains, and data centers.

The road map authors also foresee clear benefits for the technology in radiation-hardened electronic equipment used in space and other places where a lot of radiation is present, Ferreira says.

Markets that can benefit from WBG’s smaller converters and reduced losses and noise are power supplies for computers, laptops, televisions, and electric vehicles.

WHAT’S INSIDE

The road map identifies short- (5 years), mid- (5 to 15 years) and long-term time frames for commercialization. Short-term indicators are given for existing products and devices. The mid-term section explains what it would take for specific technologies to turn a profit. Longer-term trends highlight research that could lead to new devices.

Several case studies are included. One looks at integrated switching cells for modular wide-bandgap conversion. Another considers high-voltage packages for silicon carbide MOSFETs.

PELS members can download the road map for free. The cost is US $50 for other IEEE members and $250 for nonmembers.

The society also offers webinars about WBG semiconductors.

Coronavirus : « Ils sauvent la vie », une reprise de Goldman… par Goldman

Par Sophie Renassia
En chanson, Jean-Jacques Goldman remercie tous les professionnels mobilisés pour nous durant cette épidémie de Coronavirus. Un hommage vibrant.

Coronavirus : soignants, personnes isolées, vulnérables, sans-abri… vous pouvez les aider

Par Sophie Renassia
Vous souhaitez soutenir les soignants et les personnes vulnérables en cette période de coronavirus ? Vous pouvez leur offrir des Paniers Solidaires.

Enevate’s Silicon Anodes Could Yield EV Batteries That Run 400 km on a 5-Minute Charge

Par Prachi Patel

Battery makers have for years been trying to replace the graphite anode in lithium-ion batteries with a version made of silicon, which would give electric vehicles a much longer range. Some batteries with silicon anodes are getting close to market for wearables and electronics. The recipes for these silicon-rich anodes that a handful of companies are developing typically use silicon oxide or a mix of silicon and carbon.

But Irvine, CA-based Enevate is using an engineered porous film made mainly of pure silicon. In addition to being inexpensive, the new anode material, which founder and chief technology officer Benjamin Park has spent more than 10 years developing, will lead to an electric vehicle (EV) that has 30 percent more range on a single charge than today’s EVs. What’s more, the battery Enevate envisions could be charged up enough in five minutes to deliver 400 km of driving range.

Big names in the battery and automotive business are listening. Carmakers Renault, Nissan, and Mitsubishi, as well as battery-makers LG Chem and Samsung, are investors. And lithium battery pioneer and 2019 Chemistry Nobel Prize winner John Goodenough is on the company’s Advisory Board.

When lithium-ion batteries are charged, lithium ions move from the cathode to the anode. The more ions the anode can hold, the higher its energy capacity, and the longer the battery can run. Silicon can in theory hold ten times the energy of graphite. But it also expands and contracts dramatically, falling apart after a few charge cycles.

To get around that, battery makers such as Tesla today add just a tiny bit of silicon to graphite powder. The powder is mixed with a glue-like plastic called a binder and is coated on a thin copper foil to make the anode. But, says Park, lithium ions react with silicon first, before graphite. “The silicon still expands quite a bit, and that plastic binder is weak,” he says, explaining that the whole electrode is more likely to degrade as the amount of silicon is ramped up.

Edge of punched double-sided finished anode, Cu foil in the middle
Image: Enevate
Edge of punched double-sided finished anode, with copper foil in the middle.

Enevate does not use plastic binders. Instead, its patented process creates the porous 10- to 60-µm-thick silicon film directly on a copper foil. The cherry on top is a nanometers-thick protective coating, which, says Park, “prevents the silicon from reacting with the electrolyte.” That type of reaction can also damage a battery.

The process does not require high-quality silicon, so anodes of this type cost less than their graphite counterparts of the same capacity. And because the material is mostly silicon, lithium ions can slip in and out very quickly, charging the battery to 75 percent of its capacity in five minutes, without causing much expansion. Park likens it to a high-capacity movie theater. “If you have a full movie theater it takes a long time to find the one empty seat. We have a theater with ten times more capacity. Even if we fill that theater halfway, [it still doesn’t take long] to find empty seats.”

The company’s roll-to-roll processing techniques can make silicon anodes quickly enough for high-volume manufacturing, says Park. By coupling the silicon anode with conventional cathode materials such as nickel-manganese-cobalt, they have made battery cells with energy densities as high as 350 watt-hours per kilogram, which is about 30 percent more than the specific energy of today’s lithium-ion batteries. Enevate says it is now working with multiple major automotive companies to develop standard-size battery cells for 2024-25 model year EVs.

Video Friday: Robots Help Keep Medical Staff Safe at COVID-19 Hospital

Par Evan Ackerman

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!):

HRI 2020 – March 23-26, 2020 – [ONLINE EVENT]
ICARSC 2020 – April 15-17, 2020 – [ONLINE EVENT]
ICRA 2020 – May 31-4, 2020 – [SEE ATTENDANCE SURVEY]
ICUAS 2020 – June 9-12, 2020 – Athens, Greece
CLAWAR 2020 – August 24-26, 2020 – Moscow, Russia

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


UBTECH Robotics’ ATRIS, AIMBOT, and Cruzr robots were deployed at a Shenzhen hospital specialized in treating COVID-19 patients. The company says the robots, which are typically used in retail and hospitality scenarios, were modified to perform tasks that can help keep the hospital safer for everyone, especially front-line healthcare workers. The tasks include providing videoconferencing services between patients and doctors, monitoring the body temperatures of visitors and patients, and disinfecting designated areas.

The Third People’s Hospital of Shenzhen (TPHS), the only designated hospital for treating COVID-19 in Shenzhen, a metropolis with a population of more than 12.5 million, has introduced an intelligent anti-epidemic solution to combat the coronavirus.

AI robots are playing a key role. The UBTECH-developed robot trio, namely ATRIS, AIMBOT, and Cruzr, are giving a helping hand to monitor body temperature, detect people without masks, spray disinfectants and provide medical inquiries.

[ UBTECH ]

Someone has spilled gold all over the place! Probably one of those St. Paddy’s leprechauns... Anyways... It happened near a Robotiq Wrist Camera and Epick setup so it only took a couple of minutes to program and ’’pick and place’’ the mess up.

Even in situations like these, it’s important to stay positive and laugh a little, we had this ready and though we’d still share. Stay safe!

[ Robotiq ]


HEBI Robotics is helping out with social distancing by controlling a robot arm in Austria from their lab in Pittsburgh.

Can’t be too careful!

[ HEBI Robotics ]

Thanks Dave!


SLIDER, a new robot under development at Imperial College London, reminds us a little bit of what SCHAFT was working on with its straight-legged design.

[ Imperial ]


Imitation learning is an effective and safe technique to train robot policies in the real world because it does not depend on an expensive random exploration process. However, due to the lack of exploration, learning policies that generalize beyond the demonstrated behaviors is still an open challenge. We present a novel imitation learning framework to enable robots to 1) learn complex real world manipulation tasks efficiently from a small number of human demonstrations, and 2) synthesize new behaviors not contained in the collected demonstrations. Our key insight is that multi-task domains often present a latent structure, where demonstrated trajectories for different tasks intersect at common regions of the state space. We present Generalization Through Imitation (GTI), a two-stage offline imitation learning algorithm that exploits this intersecting structure to train goal-directed policies that generalize to unseen start and goal state combinations.

[ GTI ]


Here are two excellent videos from UPenn’s Kod*lab showing the capabilities of their programmable compliant origami spring things.

[ Kod*lab ]


We met Bornlove when we were reporting on drones in Tanzania in 2018, and it’s good to see that he’s still improving on his built-from-scratch drone.

[ ADF ]


Laser. Guided. Sandwich. Stacking.

[ Kawasaki ]


The Self-Driving Car Research Studio is a highly expandable and powerful platform designed specifically for academic research. It includes the tools and components researchers need to start testing and validating their concepts and technologies on the first day, without spending time and resources on building DYI platforms or implementing hobby-level vehicles. The research studio includes a fleet of vehicles, software tools enabling researchers to work in Simulink, C/C++, Python, or ROS, with pre-built libraries and models and simulated environments support, even a set of reconfigurable floor panels with road patterns and a set of traffic signs. The research studio’s feature vehicle, QCar, is a 1/10 scale model vehicle powered by NVIDIA Jetson TX2 supercomputer and equipped with LIDAR, 360-degree vision, depth sensor, IMU, encoders, and other sensors, as well as user-expandable IO.

[ Quanser ]

Thanks Zuzana!


The Swarm-Probe Enabling ATEG Reactor, or SPEAR, is a nuclear electric propulsion spacecraft that uses a new, lightweight reactor moderator and advanced thermoelectric generators (ATEGs) to greatly reduce overall core mass. If the total mass of an NEP system could be reduced to levels that were able to be launched on smaller vehicles, these devices could deliver scientific payloads to anywhere in the solar system.

One major destination of recent importance is Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, which may contain traces of extraterrestrial life deep beneath the surface of its icy crust. Occasionally, the subsurface water on Europa violently breaks through the icy crust and bursts into the space above, creating a large water plume. One proposed method of searching for evidence of life on Europa is to orbit the moon and scan these plumes for ejected organic material. By deploying a swarm of Cubesats, these plumes can be flown through and analyzed multiple times to find important scientific data.

[ SPEAR ]


This hydraulic cyborg hand costs just $35.

Available next month in Japan.

[ Elekit ]


Microsoft is collaborating with researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Oregon State University to compete in the DARPA Subterranean (SubT) challenges, collectively named Team Explorer. These challenges are designed to test drones and robots on how they perform in hazardous physical environments where humans can’t access safely. By participating in these challenges, these teams hope to find a solution that will assist emergency first responders to help find survivors more quickly.

[ Team Explorer ]


Aalborg University Hospital is the largest hospital in the North Jutland region of Denmark. Up to 3,000 blood samples arrive here in the lab every day. They must be tested and sorted – a time-consuming and monotonous process which was done manually until now. The university hospital has now automated the procedure: a robot-based system and intelligent transport boxes ensure the quality of the samples – and show how workflows in hospitals can be simplified by automation.

[ Kuka ]


This video shows human-robot collaboration for assembly of a gearbox mount in a realistic replica of a production line of Volkswagen AG. Knowledge-based robot skills enable autonomous operation of a mobile dual arm robot side-by-side of a worker.

[ DFKI ]


A brief overview of what’s going on in Max Likhachev’s lab at CMU.

Always good to see PR2 keeping busy!

[ CMU ]


The Intelligent Autonomous Manipulation (IAM) Lab at the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Robotics Institute brings together researchers to address the challenges of creating general purpose robots that are capable of performing manipulation tasks in unstructured and everyday environments. Our research focuses on developing learning methods for robots to model tasks and acquire versatile and robust manipulation skills in a sample-efficient manner.

[ IAM Lab ]


Jesse Hostetler is an Advanced Computer Scientist in the Vision and Learning org at SRI International in Princeton, NJ. In this episode of The Dish TV they explore the different aspects of artificial intelligence, and creating robots that use sleep and dream states to prevent catastrophic forgetting.

[ SRI ]


On the latest episode of the AI Podcast, Lex interviews Anca Dragan from UC Berkeley.

Anca Dragan is a professor at Berkeley, working on human-robot interaction -- algorithms that look beyond the robot’s function in isolation, and generate robot behavior that accounts for interaction and coordination with human beings.

[ AI Podcast ]


Build This 8-Bit Home Computer With Just 5 Chips


Par Matt Sarnoff
illustration
Illustration: James Provost

There’s something persistently appealing about 8-bit computing: You can put together a self-contained system that’s powerful enough to be user friendly but simple enough to build and program all by yourself. Most 8-bit machines built by hobbyists today are powered by a classic CPU from the heroic age of home computers in the 1980s, when millions of spare TVs were commandeered as displays. I’d built one myself, based on the Motorola 6809. I had tried to use as few chips as possible, yet I still needed 13 supporting ICs to handle things such as RAM or serial communications. I began to wonder: What if I ditched the classic CPU for something more modern yet still 8-bit? How low could I get the chip count?

The result was the Amethyst. Just like a classic home computer, it has an integrated keyboard and can generate audio and video. It also has a built-in high-level programming language for users to write their own programs. And it uses just six chips—an ATMEGA1284P CPU, a USB interface, and four simple integrated circuits.

The ATMEGA1284P (or 1284P), introduced around 2008, has 128 kilobytes of flash memory for program storage and 16 kB of RAM. It can run at up to 20 megahertz, comes with built-in serial-interface controllers, and has 32 digital input/output pins.

Thanks to the onboard memory and serial interfaces, I could eliminate a whole slew of supporting chips. I could generate basic audio directly by toggling an I/O pin on and off again at different frequencies to create tones, albeit with the characteristic harshness of a square wave. But what about generating an analog video signal? Surely that would require some dedicated hardware?

Then, toward the end of 2018, I came across the hack that Steve Wozniak used in the 1970s to give the Apple II its color-graphics capability. This hack was known as NTSC artifact color, and it relied on the fact that U.S. color TV broadcasting was itself a hack of sorts, one that dated back to the 1950s.

Originally, U.S. broadcast television was black and white only, using a fairly straightforward standard called NTSC (for National Television System Committee). Television cathode-ray tubes scanned a beam across the surface of a screen, row after row. The amplitude of the received video signal dictated the luminance of the beam at any given spot along a row. Then in 1953, NTSC was upgraded to support color television while remaining intelligible to existing black-and-white televisions.

Compatibility was achieved by encoding color information in the form of a high-frequency sinusoidal signal. The phase of this signal at a given point, relative to a reference signal (the “colorburst”) transmitted before each row began, determined the color’s underlying hue. The amplitude of the signal determined how saturated the color was. This high-frequency color signal was then added to the relatively low-frequency luminance signal to create so-called composite video, still used today as an input on many TVs and cheaper displays for maker projects.

graph
Illustration: James Provost
TV Trickery: An analog composite color video signal, as used by U.S. televisions [top left], is compatible with black-and-white receivers because a high-frequency sinusoidal chrominance signal is superimposed on the luminance signal [dotted line] that determines the brightness of a TV scan line. Filtering circuits separate out the signals inside the television. The phase of the chrominance signal with regard to a reference “colorburst” signal determines the hue seen on screen. With a high enough bit rate, a digital signal [bottom left] will be separated out as if it were an analog signal, with different bit patterns producing different colors. In this example, with two bits to each pixel, six colors are possible [four shown], but a faster bit rate allows more colors.

To a black-and-white TV, the color signal looks like noise and is largely ignored. But a color TV can separate the color signal from the luminance signal with filtering circuitry.

In the 1970s, engineers realized that this filtering circuitry could be used to great advantage by consumer computers because it permitted a digital, square-wave signal to duplicate much of the effect of a composite analog signal. A stream of 0s sent by a computer to a television as the CRT scanned along a row would be interpreted by the TV as a constant low-analog voltage, representing black. All the 1s would be seen as a constant high voltage, producing pure white. But with a sufficiently fast bit rate, more-complex binary patterns would cause the high-frequency filtering circuits to produce a color signal. This trick allowed the Apple II to display up to 16 colors.

At first I thought to toggle an I/O pin very quickly to generate the video signal directly. I soon realized, however, that with my 1284P operating at a clock speed of 14.318 MHz, I would not be able to switch it fast enough to display more than four colors, because the built-in serial interfaces took two clock cycles to send a bit, limiting my rate to 7.159 MHz. (The Apple II used fast direct memory access to connect its external memory chip to the video output while its CPU was busy doing internal processing, but as my computer’s RAM is integrated into the chip, this approach wasn’t an option.) So I looked in my drawers and pulled out four 7400 chips—two multiplexers and two parallel-to-serial shift registers. I could set eight pins of the 1284P in parallel and send them simultaneously to the multiplexers and shift registers, which would convert them into a high-speed serial bitstream. In this way I can generate bits fast enough to produce some 215 distinct colors on screen. The cost is that keeping up with the video scan line absorbs a lot of computing capacity: Only about 25 percent of the CPU’s time is available for other tasks.

illustration
Illustration: James Provost
Compact Computer: The Amethyst is a single-board computer. It uses just six integrated circuits—a CPU, USB interface, and four 7400 chips, which are used to make 215-color video graphics possible. Keyboard switches are soldered directly to the board, which also supports audio and four serial I/O connections for peripherals like game controllers or storage devices. A built-in Forth virtual machine provides a programming environment.

Consequently, I needed a lightweight programming environment for users, which led me to choose Forth over the traditional Basic. Forth is an old language for embedded systems, and it has the nice feature of being both interactive and capable of efficient compilation of code. You can do a lot in a very small amount of space. Because the 1284P does not allow compiled machine code to be executed directly from its RAM, a user’s code is instead compiled to an intermediate bytecode. This bytecode is then fed as data to a virtual machine running from the 1284P’s flash memory. The virtual machine’s code was written in assembly code and hand-tuned to make it as fast as possible.

As an engineer working at Glowforge, I have access to advanced laser-cutting machines, so it was a simple matter to design and build a wooden case (something of a homage to the wood-grain finish of the Atari 2600). The mechanical keyboard switches are soldered directly onto the Amethyst’s single printed circuit board; it does have the peculiarity that there is no space bar, rather a space button located above the Enter key.

Complete schematics, PCB files, and system code are available in my GitHub repository, so you can build an Amethyst of your own or improve on my design. Can you shave a chip or two off the count?

This article appears in the April 2020 print issue as “8 Bits, 6 Chips.”

Coronavirus Pandemic: A Call to Action for the Robotics Community

Par Erico Guizzo

When I reached Professor Guang-Zhong Yang on the phone last week, he was cooped up in a hotel room in Shanghai, where he had self-isolated after returning from a trip abroad. I wanted to hear from Yang, a widely respected figure in the robotics community, about the role that robots are playing in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. He’d been monitoring the situation from his room over the previous week, and during that time his only visitors were a hotel employee, who took his temperature twice a day, and a small wheeled robot, which delivered his meals autonomously.

An IEEE Fellow and founding editor of the journal Science Robotics, Yang is the former director and co-founder of the Hamlyn Centre for Robotic Surgery at Imperial College London. More recently, he became the founding dean of the Institute of Medical Robotics at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, often called the MIT of China. Yang wants to build the new institute into a robotics powerhouse, recruiting 500 faculty members and graduate students over the next three years to explore areas like surgical and rehabilitation robots, image-guided systems, and precision mechatronics.

“I ran a lot of the operations for the institute from my hotel room using Zoom,” he told me.

Yang is impressed by the different robotic systems being deployed as part of the COVID-19 response. There are robots checking patients for fever, robots disinfecting hospitals, and robots delivering medicine and food. But he thinks robotics can do even more.

Guang-Zhong Yang, founding dean of the Institute of Medical Robotics at Shanghai Jiao Tong University
Photo: Shanghai Jiao Tong University
Professor Guang-Zhong Yang, founding dean of the Institute of Medical Robotics at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

“Robots can be really useful to help you manage this kind of situation, whether to minimize human-to-human contact or as a front-line tool you can use to help contain the outbreak,” he says. While the robots currently being used rely on technologies that are mature enough to be deployed, he argues that roboticists should work more closely with medical experts to develop new types of robots for fighting infectious diseases.

“What I fear is that, there is really no sustained or coherent effort in developing these types of robots,” he says. “We need an orchestrated effort in the medical robotics community, and also the research community at large, to really look at this more seriously.”

Yang calls for a global effort to tackle the problem. “In terms of the way to move forward, I think we need to be more coordinated globally,” he says. “Because many of the challenges require that we work collectively to deal with them.”

Our full conversation, edited for clarity and length, is below.

IEEE Spectrum: How is the situation in Shanghai?

Guang-Zhong Yang: I came back to Shanghai about 10 days ago, via Hong Kong, so I’m now under self-imposed isolation in a hotel room just to be cautious, for two weeks. The general feeling in Shanghai is that it’s really calm and orderly. Everything seems well under control. And as you probably know, in recent days the number of new cases is steadily dropping. So the main priority for the government is to restore normal routines, and also for companies to go back to work. Of course, people are still very cautious, and there are systematic checks in place. In my hotel, for instance, I get checked twice a day for my temperature to make sure that all the people in the hotel are well.

Are most people staying inside, are the streets empty?

No, the streets are not empty. In fact, in Minhang, next to Shanghai Jiao Tong University, things are going back to normal. Not at full capacity, but stores and restaurants are gradually opening. And people are thinking about the essential travels they need to do, what they can do remotely. As you know in China we have very good online order and delivery services, so people use them a lot more. I was really impressed by how the whole thing got under control, really.

Has Shanghai Jiao Tong University switched to online classes?

Yes. Since last week, the students are attending online lectures. The university has 1449 courses for undergrads and 657 for graduate students. I participated in some of them. It’s really well run. You can have the typical format with a presenter teaching the class, but you can also have part of the lecture with the students divided into groups and having discussions. Of course what’s really affected is laboratory-based work. So we’ll need to wait for some more time to get back into action.

What do you think of the robots being used to help fight the outbreak?

I’ve seen reports showing a variety of robots being deployed. Disinfection robots that use UV light in hospitals. Drones being used for transporting samples. There’s a prototype robot, developed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, to remotely collect oropharyngeal swabs from patients for testing, so a medical worker doesn’t have to directly swab the patient. In my hotel, there’s a robot that brings my meals to my door. This little robot can manage to get into the lift, go to your room, and call you to open the door. I’m a roboticist myself and I find it striking how well this robot works every time! [Laughs.]

A ultraviolet disinfection robot developed by UVD Robots in an ICU
Photo: UVD Robots
UVD Robots has shipped hundreds of ultraviolet-C disinfection robots like the one above to Chinese hospitals. 

After Japan’s Fukushima nuclear emergency, the robotics community realized that it needed to be better prepared. It seems that we’ve made progress with disaster-response robots, but what about dealing with pandemics?

I think that for events involving infectious diseases, like this coronavirus outbreak, when they happen, everybody realizes the importance of robots. The challenge is that at most research institutions, people are more concerned with specific research topics, and that’s indeed the work of a scientist—to dig deep into the scientific issues and solve those specific problems. But we also need to have a global view to deal with big challenges like this pandemic.

So I think what we need to do, starting now, is to have a more systematic effort to make sure those robots can be deployed when we need them. We just need to recompose ourselves and work to identify the technologies that are ready to be deployed, and what are the key directions we need to pursue. There’s a lot we can do. It’s not too late. Because this is not going to disappear. We have to see the worst before it gets better.

So what should we do to be better prepared?

After a major crisis, when everything is under control, people’s priority is to go back to our normal routines. The last thing in people’s minds is, What should we do to prepare for the next crisis? And the thing is, you can’t predict when the next crisis will happen. So I think we need three levels of action, and it really has to be a global effort. One is at the government level, in particular funding agencies: How to make sure we can plan ahead and to prepare for the worst.

Another level is the robotics community, including organizations like the IEEE, we need leadership to advocate for these issues and promote activities like robotics challenges. We see challenges for disasters, logistics, drones—how about a robotic challenge for infectious diseases. I was surprised, and a bit disappointed in myself, that we didn’t think about this before. So for the editorial board of Science Robotics, for instance, this will become an important topic for us to rethink.

And the third level is our interaction with front-line clinicians—our interaction with them needs to be stronger. We need to understand the requirements and not be obsessed with pure technologies, so we can ensure that our systems are effective, safe, and can be rapidly deployed. I think that if we can mobilize and coordinate our effort at all these three levels, that would be transformative. And we’ll be better prepared for the next crisis.

Are there projects taking place at the Institute of Medical Robotics that could help with this pandemic?

The institute has been in full operation for just over a year now. We have three main areas of research: The first is surgical robotics, which is my main area of research. The second area is in rehabilitation and assistive robots. The third area is hospital and laboratory automation. One important lesson that we learned from the coronavirus is that, if we can detect and intervene early, we have a better chance of containing it. And for other diseases, it’s the same. For cancer, early detection based on imaging and other sensing technologies, is critical. So that’s something we want to explore—how robotics, including technologies like laboratory automation, can help with early detection and intervention.

One area we are working on is automated intensive-care unit wards. The idea it to build negative-pressure ICU wards for infectious diseases equipped with robotic capabilities that can take care of certain critical care tasks. Some tasks could be performed remotely by medical personnel, while other tasks could be fully automated. A lot of the technologies that we already use in surgical robotics can be translated into this area. We’re hoping to work with other institutions and share our expertise to continue developing this further. Indeed, this technology is not just for emergency situations. It will also be useful for routine management of infectious disease patients. We really need to rethink how hospitals are organized in the future to avoid unnecessary exposure and cross-infection.

Institute of Medical Robotics at Shanghai Jiao Tong University
Photo: Shanghai Jiao Tong University
Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Institute of Medical Robotics is researching areas like micro/nano systems, surgical and rehabilitation robotics, and human-robot interaction.

I’ve seen some recent headlines—“China’s tech fights back,” “Coronavirus is the first big test for futuristic tech”—many people expect technology to save the day.

When there’s a major crisis like this pandemic, in the general public’s mind, people want to find a magic cure that will solve all the problems. I completely understand that expectation. But technology can’t always do that, of course. What technology can do is to help us to be better prepared. For example, it’s clear that in the last few years self-navigating robots with localization and mapping are becoming a mature technology, so we should see more of those used for situations like this. I’d also like to see more technologies developed for front-line management of patients, like the robotic ICU I mentioned earlier. Another area is public transportation systems—can they have an element of disease prevention, using technology to minimize the spread of diseases so that lockdowns are only imposed as a last resort?

And then there’s the problem of people being isolated. You probably saw that Italy has imposed a total lockdown. That could have a major psychological impact, particularly for people who are vulnerable and living alone. There is one area of robotics, called social robotics, that could play a part in this as well. I’ve been in this hotel room by myself for days now—I’m really starting to feel the isolation…

We should have done a Zoom call.

Yes, we should. [Laughs.] I guess this isolation, or quarantine for various people, also provides the opportunity for us to reflect on our lives, our work, our daily routines. That’s the silver lining that we may see from this crisis.

Unity Drive autonomous vehicle delivering food during coronavirus pandemic in China
Photo: Unity Drive Innovation
Unity Drive, a startup spun out of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, is deploying self-driving vehicles to carry out contactless deliveries in three Chinese cities.

While some people say we need more technology during emergencies like this, others worry that companies and governments will use things like cameras and facial recognition to increase surveillance of individuals.

A while ago we published an article listing the 10 grand challenges for robotics in Science Robotics. One of the grand challenges is concerned with legal and ethical issues, which include what you mentioned in your question. Respecting privacy, and also being sensitive about individual and citizens’ rights—these are very, very important. Because we must operate within this legal ethical boundary. We should not use technologies that will intrude in people’s lives. You mentioned that some people say that we don’t have enough technology, and that others say we have too much. And I think both have a point. What we need to do is to develop technologies that are appropriate to be deployed in the right situation and for the right tasks.

Many researchers seem eager to help. What would you say to roboticists interested in helping fight this outbreak or prepare for the next one?

For medical robotics research, my experience is that for your technology to be effective, it has to be application oriented. You need to ensure that end-users like the clinicians who will use your robot, or in the case of assistive robots, the patients, that they are deeply involved in the development of the technology. And the second thing is really to think out of the box—how to develop radically different new technologies. Because robotics research is very hands on and there’s a tendency of adapting what’s readily available out there. For your technology to have a major impact, you need to fundamentally rethink your research and innovation, not just follow the waves.

For example, at our institute we’re investing a lot of effort on the development of micro and nano systems and also new materials that could one day be used in robots. Because for micro robotic systems, we can’t rely on the more traditional approach of using motors and gears that we use in larger systems. So my suggestion is to work on technologies that not only have a deep science element but can also become part of a real-world application. Only then we can be sure to have strong technologies to deal with future crises.

19 Suggestions for Bored Engineers

Par Stephen Cass

Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, a lot of us find ourselves working from home (including all of your editors here at IEEE Spectrum). To help stave off cabin fever, we looked through our recent archives for things that would best occupy your minds and hands, even if you don’t have much space. In the coming days we’ll be on the look out for more ideas—so if you have any tips or suggestions for your fellow readers, please send them to cass.s@ieee.org.

Kits

Animated gif of the cycle-accurate Altair 8800 replica built around the Arduino Due

Some of us have great home workshops, but others rely on makerspaces or workplaces for our benches and are cut off. But here are three great kits that we’ve tried out, currently available to buy online, and which need just a small amount of desk space, some solder, and a soldering iron:

  • Make some history: Take a break from the troubles of the modern world, and build the computer that launched the personal computer revolution, the Altair 8800. Or at least a cycle-accurate replica built around the Arduino Due. You can toggle in programs using the front switches, or connect a terminal via a serial port or Bluetooth. You can also download the CP/M operating system and play classic games such as Zork. Since we reviewed the kit, its creator Chris Davis has changed the design of the case slightly for an even more retro look, and now also offers a “pro” version with more input/output options, including an audio jack and a USB keyboard connector.
  • Make some music: Folks around the world have been taking to their balconies and social media to sing and play instruments for each other. You can join in the action with the Ardu-Touch mini synthesizer developed by the creator of the (in)famous TV-B-Gone, Mitch Altman. He’s crammed some sophisticated digital signal processing software into the same microprocessor chip that’s used by the Arduino, and you can program your own synthesizer sounds too.
  • Make some magic: If you’re looking for something that will impress kids stuck at home from school (as well as some adults), try an acoustic levitator from MakerFabs. By wiring a lot of ultrasonic transducers together and mounting them in the 3-D printed stand, you can make small objects float in mid-air. We got a kick out of this kit, but I should say that in the months since I built it, I discovered the plastic mount had warped a little bit over time, so I recommend you reinforce it with something more rigid.

Games

We’ve reviewed two sets of games we think will tickle your fancy. All are great, but if you’re really looking for something that will take your mind beyond the confines of your home, then the galactic scope of Elite: Dangerous is hard to beat.

  • Three Computer Games That Make Assembly Language Fun: Each of these games simulates fictional machines in some way, but many of the skills required are exactly those needed by real programmers working “down on the metal.”
  • Space games for engineers: Four games for the player looking for something a little more engaging than simply blasting away at space invaders. Elite: Dangerous lets you explore an enormous and realistic model of the galaxy, including the supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way. Kerbal Space Program and StarMade both let you try out your own spacecraft and space station designs, and Orbiter provides a realistic and very detailed simulation of spaceflight, including what it’s like to fly actual spacecraft such as a shuttle to the International Space Station. Note that since we published this review, Elite: Dangerous is no longer available for the MacOS operating system, due to graphics software compatibility problems, and Kerbal Space Program 2 is due out sometime this year.

Movies

If you don’t have the space or energy for building a kit or playing a computer game, we have a bunch of recommendations for binge watching on your TV or computer from the various streaming services. Of all of these, if you’re most in need of an inspirational pick-me-up, I recommend The Farthest, a chronicle of the Voyager missions through the outer solar system, and Science Fair, which follows the heart-warming journeys of several teenagers to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

  • Documentaries For Engineers: Mission Control, Denial, and Viva Amiga—these are stories about NASA’s Apollo heyday, rebuilding the grid from the point of view of a small utility, and a celebration of the beloved Amiga series of computers.
  • Three More Documentaries for Engineers: California Typewriter, AlphaGo, and The Farthest. A requiem for a technology almost, but not quite, murdered by computers, the story of how a machine finally beat the best human Go player, and a trip to distant planets and moons.
  • Another Three Documentaries for Engineers: Bombshell, Gamechangers, and Science Fair. Actress Hedy Lamarr’s invention of spread spectrum communications, inside the world of competitive video gaming, and the adventures of science and engineering students from around the world dreaming of winning the big time.

Galactic Energy Prepares Ceres-1 Rocket for First Launch

Par Andrew Jones

Galactic Energy, a low-key private Chinese rocket firm, celebrated its second birthday in February. That’s early days for a launch company, and yet the company is set to make its first attempt to reach orbit this June.

The rocket is named Ceres-1, after the largest body in the asteroid belt, and will launch from China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. With three solid fuel stages and a liquid propellant fourth stage, it will be able to lift 350 kilograms of payload to an altitude of 200 kilometers in low Earth orbit.

The firm’s ability to move this quickly is due to a mix of factors—strong corporate leadership, an experienced team, and policy support from the Chinese state. 

Galactic Energy CEO and founder Liu Baiqi believes this is a moment to seize in spaceflight. Liu cites predictions that about 20,000 satellites will be launched globally between 2018 to 2025, with China accounting for a sizable portion of these.

Liu says we will soon see a trillion-dollar space economy, and that the post-5G age may come faster than we expect. Thus, the market is calling for a greater supply of low-cost, highly-reliable launch vehicles. 

“Our mission is to build this kind of new-generation vehicles to meet the demand,” says Liu. “This is also the main battlefield of domestic commercial rocket companies.”

A Ceres-1 launch will cost clients a flat rate of US $4 million, says Liu, who adds, “and we are working on reducing the launch price to less than $10,000 per kilogram.” While SpaceX’s partially reusable Falcon 9 offers lower prices per kilo, smaller satellites that hitch a ride on this much larger rocket must accept the schedule and chosen orbit of the main payload. 

Rendering of the Ceres-1 on launchpad
Illustration: Galactic Energy
This rendering shows the Ceres-1 rocket on a launch pad. 

Light launch vehicles like Ceres-1 provide different opportunities. Liu says his launcher is more reliable thanks to its vector control technology, which allows greater guidance of the launch vehicle’s attitude and angular velocity.

Liu earned a PhD from the prestigious Beihang University in Beijing before moving to the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), a major subsidiary of the country’s main space contractor. He says everyone on the core team at his company has 10 to 20 years of background in research and development, as well as experience in spaceflight.

The Chinese national strategy of military-civil fusion is a crucial ingredient in China’s nascent commercial launch sector. It facilitates the transfer of restricted military technologies for civilian use, and vice versa. Liu notes that the strategy strengthens China's commercial aerospace companies by establishing supply chains, providing access to test and launch sites, and securing orders from the government.

Beijing-based Galactic Energy is following in the wake of a first wave of Chinese private launch firms. Like those early starters, Galactic Energy also aims to transition from small rockets like Ceres-1 that rely on solid propellant (in this case Hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB) tri-propellant) to larger launch vehicles fueled by liquid propellant.

This development path is common among launch companies and likely relates to complexity, says Leena Pivovarova, an analyst at consulting firm Northern Sky Research. “Where liquid-based propulsion is very complex, solid is much simpler to design, manufacture, and launch, so it makes sense for early players to go with small solid launchers first,” she says. 

First stage firing test
Image: Galactic Energy
The rocket completes its first stage firing test.

Galactic Energy’s Pallas-1, also named after a large asteroid, will be a two-stage rocket powered by RP-1—a highly refined form of kerosene—and liquid oxygen. It will be more capable, lifting up to 4 metric tons to a low Earth orbit at an altitude of 200 kilometers. Like the Falcon 9, the first stage will be able to land vertically after launch thanks to a cluster of seven variable thrust engines, grid fins, and landing legs. It can then be reflown.

Asked why Galactic Energy chose RP-1, while Chinese firms Landspace and iSpace are developing liquid methane engines, Liu pointed to SpaceX. “The SpaceX Falcon 9 liquid oxygen/kerosene vehicle shows that this propellant is suitable for reuse,” Liu says. 

Galactic Energy - Solid engines
Photo: Galactic Energy
Solid engines are stationed at Galactic Energy, a private space launch company.

Looking beyond the Ceres-1 launch, Galactic Energy aims to get Pallas-1 on the pad by the end of 2022. The company has completed the hot fire tests of their independently-developed new gas generator for its 40-ton thrust ‘Cangqiong’ (Welkin) engines. The gas generator produces gas that powers turbopumps which in turn feed the rocket engine’s combustion chamber.       They are also making progress on new turbopumps.

Galactic Energy secured $21.5 million in funding in December, bringing its total funding so far to $43 million (300 million yuan). The firm also recently gained national high-tech enterprise certification, which reduces its corporate income tax and brings other benefits earned through continuous development and technological achievements in "high-tech fields supported by the state."

“The biggest challenge now is that due to the [coronavirus] epidemic, the development plan cannot go as planned. We hope this situation will end soon,” Liu says.

Beyond the June launch, Galactic Energy has its sights set high. Two of its ultimate goals are enabling asteroid mining and human spaceflight. Reaching orbit first, however, is no small task.

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