Spot the robot dog takes a licking and keeps on walking

Robotics company Boston Dynamics, now part of Google, is showing off its latest robot — Spot, a four-legged robot that can navigate office hallways or uneven wooded terrain. It can also recover after being tripped and even withstand what looks to be a full-on assault, if this new video is to be believed.

Check it out:

From the video notes: “Spot is a four-legged robot designed for indoor and outdoor operation. It is electrically powered and hydraulically actuated. Spot has a sensor head that helps it navigate and negotiate rough terrain. Spot weighs about 160 lbs.”

Spot appears to be the smaller, younger brother of BigDog, an existing robot model by Boston Dynamics, which also builds prototype warrior robots.

Move over Emeril: Robot learns how to prep food from YouTube

These days, you can learn just about anything from YouTube videos — from how to tie a knot to the best way to open a wine bottle with a shoe. And it isn’t just humans who are benefitting. University of Maryland researchers have programmed a robot to learn basic cooking skills from YouTube videos, a feat that could eventually be expanded into other skills like equipment repair.

The researchers worked with Baxter, a robot built by Rethink Robotics. Baxter is popular for its safety around humans and ease of use; it can be programmed quickly just by moving its arms, and it is smart enough to adapt to a changing work area.

But Baxter’s default software isn’t smart enough to understand a video, let alone recognize the correct measuring cup or ingredient. With the Maryland team’s help, Baxter was able to watch YouTube videos and learn what types of objects to recognize, catalog directions by picking out action verbs and observe which type of grasp would be most effective for holding each tool. Baxter then repeated the steps in the video without any input from its human operators.

University of Maryland computer scientist Yiannis Aloimonos (center) observes as Baxter measures ingredients.

University of Maryland computer scientist Yiannis Aloimonos (center) observes as Baxter measures ingredients.

“This system allows robots to continuously build on previous learning—such as types of objects and grasps associated with them—which could have a huge impact on teaching and training,” DARPA program manager Reza Ghanadan said in a release. “Instead of the long and expensive process of programming code to teach robots to do tasks, this research opens the potential for robots to learn much faster, at much lower cost and, to the extent they are authorized to do so, share that knowledge with other robots.”

DARPA, which funded the project, has other applications in mind like military repairs and logistics. Now that Baxter is cooking, there is no word on when the robot will learn to do the dishes.

Robotics funding is off to a hot start in 2015

Robotics hardware startups have already raised more than $51.9 million in 2015 thus far, bolstered by home robotics startup Jibo’s $25.3 million Series A round Tuesday.

That’s chump change for a lot of industries, but not for robotics companies, which have traditionally seen much lower investment rates. Google X engineer Travis Deyle’s annual semi-scientific tally put venture funding for robot companies at around $341.3 million in 2014. That’s up significantly from $250.7 million in 2013.

While home robots like Jibo are playing a part in the trend, drones are also a major factor, drawing in $105 million in 2014 by Deyle’s count. They are still here in 2015; Skydio and Galileo grabbed $3 million and an undisclosed amount, respectively, in their seed rounds this month.

That $51.9 million figure also includes Rethink Robotics, which raised a $26.6 million Series D. Unlike Jibo’s home assistant bot, Rethink Robotics’ Baxter robot is best known for its work in labs and factories, where it can be quickly trained to take over repetitive tasks from humans.

The increased interest in consumer-level robots might be due in part to crowdfunding sites, where novel hardware often turns into a blockbuster campaign. Personal Robot, a home assistant much like Jibo, is in the middle of a campaign that has raised well over $100,000. And there is no question it will be another big year for crowdfunded drones.

DARPA’s updated ATLAS robot runs on battery, is even more badass

Those disappointed by the glacial pace of the competitors in last year’s DARPA Robotics Challenge trials will appreciate the newly updated ATLAS robot DARPA debuted today. ATLAS is the generic robot body used by teams that concentrate on software, and therefore has a very strong presence in the competition.

The most obvious change in the ATLAS robot, which was built and now updated by Google-owned Boston Dynamics (which pulled its own robot from the competition), is it now has a shiny white chest plate that makes it look like a cross between a Stormtrooper and the Terminator. But the biggest upgrade is its power now comes from batteries instead of a tethered cable, which will allow it to move more freely in the competition.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=27HkxMo6qK0&w=560&h=315]

According to DARPA:

Atlas will now carry an onboard 3.7-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, with the potential for one hour of “mixed mission” operation that includes walking, standing, use of tools, and other movements. This will drive a new variable-pressure pump that allows for more efficient operation.

Free movement is important because the DARPA Robotics Challenge is actually a demonstration of the technology that will someday evolve into search and rescue robots. When a robot enters a burning building, it can’t be moving at two miles per hour trailing a power cord. It needs to be capable of quick autonomous action even in the face of rubble and the collapse of communication networks.

Overall, only ATLAS’s lower legs and feet remain the same. It has more flexibility in its wrists and can now see its hands at work. It’s also stronger and quieter.

The Robotics Challenge finals will take place in June in Pomona, Calif., where the winning teams will split $3.5 million in prize money. At least 20 teams are expected to compete, and the competitors will be different than last year’s mix.

The newest version of the ATLAS robot runs on battery, instead of a tethered power source.

The newest version of the ATLAS robot runs on battery, instead of a tethered power source.

Forgoing the power cord brings ATLAS in line with changes DARPA is requiring for the competition’s finals. The DARPA announcement states:

  • Robots will have to operate completely without wires — they may not be connected to power cords, fall arrestors, or wired communications tethers. Teams will have to communicate with their robots over a secure wireless network.
  • Teams are not allowed any physical intervention with their robot after it begins a run. If a robot falls or gets stuck, it will have to recover and continue with the tasks without any hands-on assistance. If a robot cannot sustain and recover from a fall, its run will end.
  • DARPA will intentionally degrade communications between the robots and human operators working at a distance. The idea is to replicate the conditions these robots would face going into a disaster zone. Spotty communication will force the robots to make some progress on their own during communications blackouts.

Hopefully the change in rules will push teams to be more daring, which will lead to both greater successes and failures.

Robots embrace Ubuntu as it invades the internet of things

Canonical has revealed what I reckon is its biggest announcement in years: Ubuntu is about to invade the internet of things with a minimal version of the Linux distribution that it hopes will provide a standardized platform for connected devices from drones to home hubs.

“Snappy” Ubuntu Core came out of [company]Canonical[/company]’s mobile efforts (which are yet to go anywhere) and was made available on [company]Amazon[/company] Web Services, [company]Microsoft[/company] Azure and the [company]Google[/company] Cloud Platform at the end of 2014. Now it’s available for smart devices, and Canonical has already got players such as the Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF), drone outfit Erle Robotics and connected hub maker NinjaBlocks on board.

From mobile to IoT, via the cloud

Unlike traditional, package-based Ubuntu for servers and desktops, the extensible Core keeps apps and each part of the OS securely isolated from one another, and it allows for “transactional updates” — they only need to include the difference between the old and new version, allowing for easy upgrading and rolling-back if needed. In the cloud, Canonical is pushing Ubuntu Core as ideal for Docker and other containerized apps.

Mark Shuttleworth

Mark Shuttleworth


However, Core’s suitability for the container trend was more or less an accidental bonus while the technology was quietly making its way from Ubuntu Touch to the internet of things, Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth told me in an interview. According to Shuttleworth, Core’s development began as Canonical grappled with carriers’ annoyance at existing mobile firmware update mechanisms, and as cheap development systems such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino started to take off.

[pullquote person=”Mark Shuttleworth” attribution=”Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical founder” id=”907873″]Let us deliver those updates to your device with the same efficiency as with a phone[/pullquote]”Two years ago we started seeing a lot of what I’d call alpha developers starting to tinker with what at the time people called embedded development,” Shuttleworth said. “We realized there was a very interesting commonality between the work we were doing for mobile — specifically this update mechanism work – and the things you’d want if you were to build a product around one of these boards.”

Canonical had “invested in the container capabilities of the Linux kernel as it happened for the mobile story,” Shuttleworth said, as it was needed to fix security issues on the phone, such as isolating untrusted apps from the address book. “Docker is based on those primitives that we built,” he noted.

Developer push

For makers of connected devices, the same technology means being able to concentrate on the connected app and keeping the device more secure. “[Currently] if you’re going to get an update for that firmware, what you’re getting is a whole blog of kernel and OS and app, and the net effect is you rarely get them, so a lot of devices are vulnerable,” Shuttleworth said. “With Core, you can let us worry about Heartbleed and so on, and let us deliver those updates to your device with the same efficiency as with a phone.”

What’s more, Core for smart devices comes with an app store (that can be white-labeled for brands) that provides developers with a distribution mechanism, and also opens up the possibility of running different apps from different vendors on connected devices.

Shuttleworth gave the example of a smart lawnmower that could take an add-on spectral camera from a different manufacturer and run that manufacturer’s app:

It’s going from a single-device stodgy world to more cross-pollination between devices from different vendors. Because you have a store, you can see more innovation where people concentrate on the software – they don’t have to build a whole device. Because it’s a common platform, they can deliver that app to many devices.

One of the key benefits of Core is its flexibility. The base Ubuntu Core code is identical across the cloud, connected devices and even the desktop – it supports both ARM and x86. This means device makers can prototype their “Snappy” apps on a PC before running thousands of simulations in the cloud, and it also means old PCs can be easily repurposed as a home storage server or photo booth or what have you.

Early adopters

The OSRF is going to use Ubuntu Core for its new app store, so developers can push updates to their open robots. Erle Robotics is using Core to power its new Erle-Copter open educational drone (pictured above), which will ship in February.

NinjaBlocks' Ninja Sphere smart home controller

NinjaBlocks’ Ninja Sphere smart home controller

NinjaBlocks’ is using Core and its app store as the basis for its new Ninja Sphere smart home controller (pictured right).

Shuttleworth said he was intrigued by the possibilities of hubs: “They may be routers or set-top boxes [but] you really want to think of them as extensible. Why can’t a NAS also have facial recognition capabilities; why can’t your Wi-Fi base station also run a more sophisticated firewall?”

The current Raspberry Pi won’t run Ubuntu Core as it uses the older ARMv6 architecture – Core requires ARMv7, though the ODroid-C1 provides a cheap ($35) option in that department. “We decided we wouldn’t go to lower specifications because our Core story is the next generation of devices,” Shuttleworth said.

Speaking of hardware, the Ubuntu founder also hinted that there might be further announcements in connection with the big silicon vendors, with which Canonical already has extensive relationships – “At the silicon level we’re a unifying factor” — though he didn’t want to go into detail just yet. The likes of Intel and Samsung and Qualcomm are all trying to develop their own (infuriatingly disparate) standards for the internet of things, and it would be interesting to see how Canonical can insert itself into this chaotic land-grab, if indeed it can.

Ubuntu’s future

For those wishing to repurpose old PCs, the private cloud storage outfit OwnCloud (already available in the Core app store) provides an interesting test case for the difference between Ubuntu Core and the full-fat Ubuntu. As Shuttleworth tells it, OwnCloud “got bitten” by the traditional package management system on Ubuntu, because that involves different packages for different versions of the OS.

“It came to the question of who’s responsible for an out-of-date, insecure version of OwnCloud,” he said. “We can’t usually give [developers] access rights to the archive to push updates – if something malicious is in there… it can go anywhere. [Now] we can say: ‘OK, there’s just one place you push the latest version of OwnCloud and it goes directly to every device with Snappy.’ If they were to do something malicious, we’d confine that to just the data you’ve already given to OwnCloud.”

So, is Core Ubuntu’s WinCE or the future of the venerable Linux distro? Shuttleworth was adamant that the Debian-package version of Ubuntu “will never go away because it’s the mechanism with which we collaborate amongst ourselves and with Debian” and would be of continued relevance for developers:

The question comes when you look to shipping the software to a device or user – folks are increasingly comfortable with the idea that a more bundled, precise and predictable delivery mechanism is attractive for that. I think there will be millions of people using Snappy, but I don’t think the package-based version will go away. It’s so useful for developers and in many cases for production, but in cases where you have a particular property of very high cost to go fix something if it breaks, the Snappy system is very attractive.

For any given application, it’s clear which would be better.

Rethink Robotics nabs $26.6M to keep building easy-to-train bots

Rethink Robotics, builder of the beloved Baxter robot, announced a $26.6 million Series D round today, bumping up its total funding to more than $100 million.

GE Ventures led the round. Goldman Sachs, Bezos Expeditions, CRV, Highland Capital Partners, Sigma Partners, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Two Sigma Ventures also participated. Rethink Robotics didn’t go into details about the funds’ use, but said the money will go toward international expansion and research.

Baxter is a human-sized robot that can be quickly trained to complete a new task by dragging its arms from place to place and telling it to repeat. It is safe to operate around humans and is popular in both industrial settings and laboratories. It sells for $25,000 — not the cheapest these days, but far below the cost of traditional industrial robots.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCML42boO8c&w=560&h=315]

Rethink Robotics announced a major software update in November that uses markers, similar to barcodes, to help Baxter recognize and interact with its environment. The robot uses the markers to keep track of items even after they are bumped or moved and alternate between tasks without having to be retrained.

For the drone fleet conductor comes PixiePath

Companies delivering packages or farms mapping acres and acres of fields might not want to stop at one drone. A fleet can get things done faster. But how do you keep them safe and effective while working as a group?

PixiePath, a drone software startup that launched today, thinks it has a solution: the cloud. Its software handles drone movement in real time, and it’s all browser-based so it can be accessed from any connected device. It also helps pilots monitor their drones’ battery levels, locations and tasks.

There are, of course, already ways to pilot groups of drones and monitor their vitals. But they tend to involve complex programming and the establishment of local networks. Moving data management into the cloud can also help turn around results faster because of the extra computing power that suddenly becomes available.

PixiePath is a product of serial entrepreneur Bryan Field-Elliot, who previously founded Ping Identity. Ping Identity dealt with secure access to the cloud, which is very relevant to the security-conscious drone industry.

Field-Elliot and his team will face some serious competition.  Laboratories have been working with drone swarms for years, and startups like DroneDeploy and Airware are already delving into the safe management of large groups of drones.

Drones have a lot to gain from the field of swarm robotics, which allows relatively simple devices to accomplish complex tasks. For example, in a rescue situation, a swarm of drones could quickly search a very large area. If one or more go down, the rest can regroup and continue their mission without much of an impact.

PixiePath’s system would have some weaknesses in a disaster, when the cloud could easily become inaccessible. But for everyday exercises like mapping and photography it could be a welcome tool.