News Roundup – 01/26/2017

Today we have an autonomous construction tool and a robotic, genetically engineered dragonfly.

Autonomous Building Construction ‘Bot – A team at ETH Zurich built a device that can build a brick wall and weld a wire frame. Who cares? The 1970’s called and they want simple automaton back.

The big deal here is that the tool is more a sensor than an actuator, and is merely the on-site component of a significant computational system. As the ‘bot builds its brick wall, it dynamically assesses the wall’s position and adjusts its brick placements. This constant reevaluation is required since the wall will unpredictably change its own form as it’s built. The ground underlying the wall can shift as weight is applied, eventually making the wall sag. When grouted in place, the bricks of the wall be irregularly positioned to some degree, again eventually making the well sag.

A human bricklayer would compensate. Armed with experience and a general understanding of what is to be built, a bricklayer would adjust future brick placements in response to what the wall is currently doing. This is to say, every brick wall you see is the result of a complex iterative cycle of plan, act, observe, re-plan, … carried out effortlessly in the brain of a bricklayer. As usual, “simple” activities like talking, listening, driving, and bricklaying aren’t simple at all. Only now with capable robots, cheap sensors, and vast cloud computational resources, is building a brick wall under ordinary circumstances even a possibility.

James Bond’s Genetically Modified Robotic Dragonfly – It’s pretty simple: if a quadcopter drone could autonomously navigate and avoid objects as well as your average dragonfly, that would be a $10 billion company. But at 1/10th the size, 1/1000th the weight, and 100 times the flight-time, a dragonfly represents a mechanical marvel from the far future.

What if you could just use a dragonfly today? Previous insect cyborgs have been rather gruesome, with wires threaded through holes poked in shells attached to neurons. Defines a new level of “single-use” only doesn’t it?

The big deal here is that dragonflies have been genetically engineered to make this whole destructive poking obsolete. Genes were added that allow neurons to be activated using pulses of light. When fitted with a saddle containing a radio and several LEDs, pulses of light can be remotely triggered to cause the dragonfly to veer one direction or the other.

As a past dragonfly wrangler (it’s a real thing, HBO’s Westworld had a fly wrangler) I was fascinated by this cyborg sensor.

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