November 7, 2012
We’ve watched robotic flying insects steadily improve over the last couple of years — mostly in university laboratories funded by the defense department. Now a group of Georgia Tech researchers are trying to go commercial with their Dragonfly drone, which weighs only as much as a AA battery, but can compete (or so they say) with smartphone-controlled helicopters and quadrot0rs in terms of performance. If it works as well as it does in the video, this could be a hit.
You can reserve a basic (Alpha) version of the Dragonfly for $99 if you’re one of the first 50 contributors to their Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign, or wait ’til it’s sold in stores for $250.
August 16, 2012
The rocketeers at Masten Space Systems (see p. 3) are pretty happy with the Xombie they’ve created. The vertical take-off/vertical landing vehicle passed a big goal Tuesday: flying 750 meters downrange. As you can see in the video below, Xombie — which won Masten $150,000 from NASA and the X PRIZE for precision landing in the 2009 Lunar Lander Challenge — ascended over 475 meters before reorienting to travel to its destination at a little over 50 mph.
Founder and Chief Technology Officer Dave Masten said of the test, “I could not be happier.” As for Xombie’s next steps:
We are discussing going a bit faster and further downrange, but the real purpose of Xombie is to be useful as a testbed. Where we hope to go with this is enabling NASA, NASA contractors, and others to more effectively test their new technologies. Next for Xombie will be to fly similar trajectories but with new technologies to demonstrate that those technologies are ready for use in mission critical applications, such as landing on Mars.
JPL [one of Masten's clients for Xombie, among others] will be releasing their take on what they can do with Xombie in the near future and I don’t want to steal their thunder, so I won’t say much more along those lines.
Here’s another view of Xombie’s flight.
July 3, 2012
Is there anything robots can’t do? They operate on land, in the air, and at sea, and come in an astonishing range of shapes and sizes. Some weigh less than an insect, while others are large enough to carry several tons of bombs. For the military, they provide reconnaissance, defuse roadside bombs, and strike high-value targets. On the civilian side, a flying robot provided the first detailed video of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant after it was damaged in the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Robots are helping The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery search for Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra. And, as more than three million YouTube viewers have seen, they can even play the theme song from the James Bond franchise.
But one thing they do have difficulty with is recovering after collisions. That’s where AirBurr, a flying robot, has an advantage. Its flexible body protects the robot should it crash into a wall. And if it falls to the ground, AirBurr—using a leg design inspired by locusts and beetles—can right itself and continue flying. (During flight the robot’s four carbon-fiber legs are rolled up.)
“It all started when we looked at insects, and how they fly,” says researcher Adam Klaptocz, in EPFL’s video, below. “Even though they manage to avoid most obstacles, they still manage to fly into windows and fly into walls, yet it’s ok. They don’t break. They fall to the ground, they get back up again, and they keep flying.” The main application of this type of robot, says Klaptocz, is to explore hard-to-reach places where humans—or even other robots—can’t navigate, such as irradiated nuclear power plants, caves, and collapsed mines.
While some flying robots can try to avoid collisions by using on-board sensors that allow it to create a map of the environment, such platforms are heavier, fragile, and typically don’t survive any accidental crashes. The AirBurr team decided to create a robot that would withstand routine bumps and jolts. This approach allows them to use cheaper, less-complex sensors, and lightens the robot’s weight.
Learn more about AirBurr and the work of researchers Adrien Briod, Adam Klaptocz, Przemyslaw Mariusz Kornatowski, and Jean-Christophe Zufferey.
October 25, 2011
Most of you know about the Google Lunar X Prize already: the race for “the first privately funded team to safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon, have that robot travel 500 meters over the lunar surface, and send video, images and data back to the Earth.” Google is offering up $30 million in prizes to the 26 teams from around the world who joined the competition by the December 2010 application deadline.
In their efforts to “ignite a new era of lunar exploration,” GLXP wants more than just to send hardware to the moon. Along the way the teams must record their work and reach out through blogs and social media so that the rest of us (including the passionate but less engineering-inclined) can follow their progress. According to the rules, each team must write one blog post a week and post 45 minutes of video each quarter; Facebook and Twitter are not required, but many of the teams have incorporated them as well.
Amanda Stiles, GLXP’s Online Community and Google Liaison, says this about the online outreach requirement:
We hope that by encouraging the teams to tell their stories, the public will have the opportunity to get to know the personalities of the people involved with the competition and understand their motivations for pursuing the prize. These teams are pushing boundaries and doing great things in many arenas — technical, political, educational, and business, to name a few — all around the world, and we hope to showcase those efforts. And ultimately, when the winning teams eventually claim the prize purses then there will be well-documented stories of their trials, tribulations, and successes along the way.
GLXP recently redesigned their website so that it focuses more on these outreach efforts, with a streaming feed of all the competitors’ updates and pages for each team. Naturally, some of the output is better than others; many of the Twitter feeds don’t really seem to “live-tweet” the experience the way an observer might hope. Team Astrobotic Tech has one of the better Twitter feeds, with lots of interesting updates and links to pictures and video of their two Personal Exploration Rovers (PERs), Juno and Kosh.
Here’s a particularly informative video from Team Italia describing their rover engineering.
Space exploration outreach group Evadot has been keeping a running scorecard for each section of the GLXP competition, which puts team Part-Time Scientists in the lead for social outreach, though we’re not sure if that’s for strictly following the quantity requirements or if it takes into account quality, as well.
The online outreach is just one part of an obviously much bigger and more difficult challenge. But as Evadot notes, GLXP “is NOT just a simple race to the moon. The point is the change it can bring through the competition. It’s not the race, it’s what happens because of the race.” And the hope is that this kind of outreach will, as Stiles puts it, ”encourage teams to be seen as modern-day space heroes,” inspiring not just by reaching a goal, but by bringing us all along for the ride.
August 22, 2011
Robonaut 2—the humanoid robot soon to be tested as an astronaut’s helper on the International Space Station—is being powered up for the first time this morning (screen shot at left). Since arriving on the space shuttle last February, the robot has been sitting on its pedestal, lifeless. It won’t be commanded to move for a couple of weeks (this is a slow process, partly due to limited crew time for testing). And it will be many months—and several upgrades—before we see a robotic spacewalk like the one below.
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