News Roundup – 02/21/2017

Today we have Bat-drone, UPS trucks as drone bases, and Minecraft as an AI learning environment

Na-na na-na na-na na-na BAT DRONE! – A team of scientists, mad scientists, working alone in secret, deep in a cave under a major metropolitan area, have just unleashed their Frankensteinian invention on the unsuspecting populace. MUAHAHAHAHA!!!

Well, the team were starving grad students, driven ‘mad’ in pursuit of free pizza, and by ‘in-secret’ I mean with a blog and everything, and by ‘cave’ I mean the artificially lit sub-basement of Caltech in sunny Los Angeles. Finally, by ‘unleashed’ I mean kept indoors because it’s fragile and can’t fly for very long. BUT IT IS A BAT!

Why bats? Professor Soon-Jo Chung says that the bat drone’s soft membrane wings and lack of rapidly spinning propellers make it much safer around humans. So robo-bats were chosen since they are less terrifying than quadcopters.

The coolness here is the wonderous biomechanical mimicry that allows a device to fly with flapping wings. Truly, an inter-disciplinary tour-de-force involving biologists studying bat flight and anatomy, material scientists creating light-weight but strong and flexible membranes, mechanical engineers building a motorized skeleton, and computer scientists programming on-board chips to allow autonomous flight. Kudos!

We love drone logistics – United Parcel Service (UPS, yes, those dull brown delivery trucks that compete with those flashy and colorful FedEx trucks to get your gummy bears rush-delivered from your Amazon Dash button) has just conducted a drone test.

The idea is to outfit UPS delivery trucks with roof-mounted drone nests, allowing drones to be launched, collected, and recharged from a mobile platform. The drones and drone nest are the HorseFly system built by Workhorse, a delivery truck manufacturer.

While cool, don’t expect this useful application to come to your neighborhood anytime soon: in compliance with FAA rules, the driver or driver’s assistant must maintain line-of-sight on the drone, thus preventing them from driving and delivering packages (you know, doing their job) while the drone is flying. As is increasingly clear, the FAA’s line-of-sight, one-on-one, drone-to-human pilot requirement is the only thing keeping a trillion-dollar industry chained to the ground.

But, as long as we’re dreaming, what about a Nvidia self-driving delivery truck, with an internal Amazon Kiva robot shuffling packages, and an Airobotics arm swapping the drone’s battery so it doesn’t have to wait to recharge. Now THAT would get my Pretty Princess Pony action figurines delivered in no time!

Minecraft: The Next Frontier – Hardware is hard. Software is also hard. Robotics, the combination of both hardware and software, is really hard, because the software needs hardware in order to be tested, and the hardware needs software in order to be built. It’s kinda like the chicken and the egg, which came first?

One extremely promising idea is to test robotics software in a virtual world. Instead of dealing with actual hardware, if a simulation of the hardware could interact with a simulated environment, software could be built independently of hardware, making robotics no longer really hard, just hard.

This is the direction taken by Project Malmo, which aims to turn a Minecraft world into a testing ground for AI vision, learning, and planning algorithms. The team at Microsoft have done the hard infrastructure work to allow video and other data to be piped out of, and commands to be piped into Minecraft. Having myself tried the tutorial from the Malmo GitHub repository, I can attest to the real-life magic of seeing your code learn to avoid drowning in lava by drowning in lava hundreds of times!

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