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Harvard's robot arm can grab squishy sea animals without hurting them

July 21, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Wyss Institute at Harvard University

As you might imagine, you can’t just grab extra-soft sea creatures like jellyfish or octopuses when you want to study them. Not if you want them to remain intact, anyway. Thankfully, researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute have a far more delicate solution. They’ve created a robot arm (the RAD sampler) whose petal-like fingers can quickly form a ball shape around an animal, capturing it without risking any harm. It’s simpler than it looks — it uses just a single motor to drive the entire jointed structure, so it’s easy to control and easier still to repair if something breaks.

To date, the arm has only been useful for catch-and-release experiments. In the future, though, biologists could outfit the machine with cameras and sensors to collect information about whatever’s inside the sphere, whether it’s the material composition, size or the genetic sequencing. If that happens, researchers could study fragile undersea critters in their native habitats and glean insights that wouldn’t be available above water or with dead specimens.

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Tech News

DARPA's insect-sized SHRIMP robots could aid disaster relief

July 19, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

DARPA

DARPA’s efforts to propel military technology forward often manifest in a diverse fashion, spanning everything from drone submarine development to a biostasis program that aims to buy more time to rescue soldiers on the battlefield. The SHRIMP program, short for SHort-Range Independent Microrobotic Platforms, is another potentially life-saving initiative that is being designed to navigate through hazardous natural disaster zones.

What differentiates SHRIMP from microrobotics limited by SWaP (size, weight and power) constraints is its size. DARPA has managed to shrink the tech down to the size of an insect — a scale of mm-to-cm. Program manager Dr. Ronald Polcawich says the smaller scale is what gives SHRIMP robots an advantage over larger robots — which are too large to inspect damaged environments.

Downsizing robotics comes with various trade-offs, which notably include the loss of technical power and control to effectively carry out tasks. To combat such challenges, DARPA plans to pursue actuator materials and mechanisms that would prioritize factors like strength-to-weight ratio and maximum work density. Advances in these areas could equip SHRIMP with both the endurance and ability required to execute critical tasks.

The SHRIMP robots are part of DARPA’s push to drive forward functional microrobotics that offer unrestricted mobility, dexterity, and maneuverability. They’re set to undergo rigorous “Olympic-style” trials which will scrutinize SHRIMP’s capacity to jump, lift increasingly larger masses, and traverse inclines and measure its overall efficacy. The tests are expected to begin in March 2019. DARPA says it anticipates a total of $32 million to help fund research and development.

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'Robot chemist' could use AI to speed up medical breakthroughs

July 18, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

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Getty Images/iStockphoto

Scientists can only do so much to discover new chemical reactions on their own. Short of happy accidents, it can take years to find new drugs that might save lives. They might have a better way at the University of Glasgow, though: let robots do the hard work. A research team at the school has developed a “robot chemist” (below) that uses machine learning to accelerate discoveries of chemical reactions and molecules. The bot uses machine learning to predict the outcomes of chemical reactions based on what it gleans from direct experience with just a fraction of those interactions. In a test with 1,000 possible reactions from 18 chemicals, the machine only needed to explore 100 of them to predict study-worthy reactions in the entire lot with about 80 percent accuracy.

The University said it found four reactions just through this test, and one reaction was in the top one percent of unique responses.

That may not sound like a great success rate, and it will ideally get better. However, it’s easy to see the robot dramatically speeding up the discovery process by letting scientists focus on the handful of reactions that are most likely to pan out. That could accelerate the development of new treatments, new battery formulas and extra-strong materials. And it wouldn’t necessarily cost jobs — rather, it could help chemists focus on the trickier aspects of research instead of plowing through mundane tests.

Tech News

Rolls-Royce may use bug-like robots to assist airplane engine repair

July 18, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Rolls-Royce

Rolls-Royce showed off a handful of small robots this week that could aid in the inspection and repair of airplane engines sometime in the future. Though still under development, the tiny robots could lead to faster, less labor-intensive engine inspections as well as cost reductions for engine maintenance. The technologies, which were displayed at the Farnborough Airshow, are being developed in partnership with other companies as well as researchers at the University of Nottingham and Harvard University.

Swarm robots are small, cockroach-inspired robots that in theory will be able to be delivered inside of an engine and with small cameras, provide a look inside. This way, the engine wouldn’t have to be removed from the plane in order for an inspection to take place. Researchers at Harvard University are working on scaling down the robots, which, as of now, are still too big for this type of work.

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Along with the Swarm robots, Rolls-Royce also displayed a periscope-like robot that could be embedded within an engine itself and could always be on the lookout for any repairs that may need to be performed. A pair of snake-like robots were also on display, and their flexible design would allow them to travel throughout an engine, sort of like an endoscope, and then work together to perform repairs. And lastly, Rolls-Royce displayed its remote boreblending robots, which could be installed in an engine by pretty much anyone and an expert can then control it remotely, negating the need for these specialists to travel to an aircraft’s location to perform certain repairs.

“While some of these technologies, such as the Swarm robots, are still a long way from becoming an everyday reality, others, such as the remote boreblending robot, are already being tested and will begin to be introduced over the next few years,” James Kell, an on-wing technology specialist with Rolls-Royce, said at the airshow. “We have a great network of partners who support our work in this field and it is clear that this is an area with the potential to revolutionise how we think about engine maintenance.”

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Rolls-Royce | Remote boreblending robots from Rolls-Royce on Vimeo.

Tech News

Pro drone racing confronts its amateur roots

July 18, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

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“The drone racing league is a sport. We are a league. We do an annual season. We have a clear rule system and scoring system,” Nick Horbaczewski, founder and CEO of the Drone Racing League (DRL), enthuses in a small business suite located on the second floor of the Circus Circus Casino in Las Vegas. With a deal with ESPN in the bag, his league is poised to bring the sport mainstream, and within moments of our introduction, he’s let me know he’s serious.

Horbaczewski has delivered this pitch before; his whole business depends on it. Right now, drone racing is punching its way onto our TV screens. Not necessarily because viewers demand it, but because Horbaczewski and his rivals believe in it and have sold their vision to financial backers and media executives.

The DRL’s investors include the company behind the F1 and the WWE, a fact that becomes more apparent once you compare DRL’s pilot page with the WWE’s current lineup. Men in moody lighting with menacing looks peer back at you, with names like Wild Willy and Jawz. And that’s just the drone pilots.

I’m at Circus Circus because the DRL is hosting one of this season’s races in the Casino’s on-site Adventuredome theme park. I want to see how far the sport has come since leagues like DRL and DR1 started taking things mainstream. Tonight, pilots will fly in, over and around the synthetic mountains and Canyon Blaster roller coaster. As an amusement park, it’s fading, but DRL’s neon racing gates and branded adornments have given it a modern, if temporary, facelift.

Ask anyone involved in drone racing about the sport, and you’ll hear some version of “it’s come a long way.” Most of the bigger leagues (DRL, DR1 and MultiGP) only sprang into existence a few years ago. Before that, drone flying was languishing in its “Z-boys” era. Pockets of enthusiasts around the globe created the technology (mostly by hand and through experimentation) and pioneered new moves and flying styles.

In 2018, drone racing faces a new issue: It’s growing in popularity but isn’t yet a viable career. Right now, the grassroots scene is as thriving as ever, but the number of pilots making a living out of flying remains pitifully small.

“In our inaugural season, I would probably guess that not a single pilot who competed in the league made their living as a drone racer,” Horbaczewski told Engadget. “At the end of that season we gave out the first championship contract, which went to Jet, and he earned a six-figure salary to compete in the league next year.” That’s the DRL’s champion. If you’re placing lower down the table, you’re likely running a second job or hustling side gigs.

Chris Thomas, the CEO of rival league MultiGP, paints a similar picture. MultiGP’s grassroots events take a different

Tech News

DeepMind, Elon Musk and more pledge not to make autonomous AI weapons

July 18, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Joshua Lott via Getty Images

Today during the Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, the Future of Life Institute announced that more than 2,400 individuals and 160 companies and organizations have signed a pledge, declaring that they will “neither participate in nor support the development, manufacture, trade or use of lethal autonomous weapons.” The signatories, representing 90 countries, also call on governments to pass laws against such weapons. Google DeepMind and the Xprize Foundation are among the groups who’ve signed on while Elon Musk and DeepMind co-founders Demis Hassabis, Shane Legg and Mustafa Suleyman have made the pledge as well.

The pledge comes as a handful of companies are facing backlash over their technologies and how they’re providing them to government agencies and law enforcement groups. Google has come under fire for its Project Maven Pentagon contract, which is providing AI technology to the military in order to help them flag drone images that require additional human review. Similarly, Amazon is facing criticism for sharing its facial recognition technology with law enforcement agencies while Microsoft has been called out for providing services to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“Thousands of AI researchers agree that by removing the risk, attributability and difficulty of taking human lives, lethal autonomous weapons could become powerful instruments of violence and oppression, especially when linked to surveillance and data systems,” says the pledge. It adds that those who sign agree that “the decision to take a human life should never be delegated to a machine.”

“I’m excited to see AI leaders shifting from talk to action, implementing a policy that politicians have thus far failed to put into effect,” Future of Life Institute President Max Tegmark said in a statement. “AI has huge potential to help the world — if we stigmatize and prevent its abuse. AI weapons that autonomously decide to kill people are as disgusting and destabilizing as bioweapons, and should be dealt with in the same way.”

Google has already released its own set of principles, the purpose of which is guide the company’s ethics on AI technology. Its policy states that it won’t design or deploy AI for use in weapons, surveillance or technology “whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.” Microsoft has stated that its work with ICE is limited to email, calendar, messaging and document management, and doesn’t include any facial recognition technology. The company is also working on a set of guiding principles for its facial recognition work.

In 2015, Musk donated $10 million to the Future of Life Institute for a research program focused on ensuring AI will be beneficial to humanity. And last year, Musk, Hassabis and Suleyman signed a Future of Life Institute letter sent to the UN that sought regulation of autonomous weapons systems.

Tech News

Wirecutter's best Amazon Prime Day deals: the PM edition

July 17, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

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This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and Engadget may earn affiliate commissions. that support its work. Read Wirecutter’s continuously updated list of Prime Day deals here.

DJI Spark Fly More Combo

Street price: $550; deal price: $500

A solid $50 discount on a great starter drone, this discounted price extends to all colors.

The DJI Spark Fly More Combo is the budget pick in our guide to the best drones. Mike Perlman wrote, “it has all the important features you need from a video drone: 1080p video recording, image and flight stabilization, collision-avoidance technology, and an included controller, and smart-flight modes like ActiveTrack (tracks and follows a subject) and gesture controls all come standard.”

Dyson V8 Absolute

Street price: $450; deal price: $365

This matches the best price we’ve seen on a similar new model, the V8 Animal. While we sometimes see great $300 deals on refurb models, you’ll be hard pressed to do better on a new model.

The Dyson V8 Absolute is the upgrade pick in our guide to the best cordless stick vacuum. Liam McCabe and Michelle Ma wrote, “the very best cordless vacuum cleaner, with more attachments, a longer battery life, and slightly stronger suction than our main pick.”

Bonavita BV382510V 1.0L Gooseneck Kettle

Street price: $65; deal price: $45

A new low by nearly $10 on our runner-up pick for best electric kettle and top pick for pour-over coffee.

Michael Sullivan, Winnie Yang, and Tim Barribeau wrote, “We recommend this precise-aim gooseneck kettle for anyone preparing pour-over coffee, or for tea lovers who will geek out over its spot-on temperature accuracy.”

TP-Link Smart Wi-Fi Light Switch

Street price: $35; deal price: $26

Although this product tends to experience a lot of price fluctuations we would estimate the street price to be around $35, and the drop to $26 is a really solid discount.

The TP-Link Smart Wi-Fi Light Switch is the budget pick in our guide to the best in-wall wireless light switch and dimmer. This is the least expensive stand-alone model we tested.

iRobot Roomba 671

Street price: $350; deal price: $230

Although we’re changing our runner-up pick, this is still a solid deal and the lowest price we’ve seen on this variant of our runner-up pick in our guide to the best robot vacuum. Great for pet hair and Wi-Fi enabled, this is a great price to pick up a good robot vacuum.

Crucial MX500 250GB

Street price: $73; deal price: $60

The price of the 250GB version has been slowly declining over the past months with a new low of $65 just recently. When you take this SSD to checkout your final price will be $55 before tax, the best price we’ve ever seen and nice discount from a street price around $73.

The Crucial MX500 is the top pick in our

Tech News

Using your body to control a drone is more effective than a joystick

July 17, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

EPFL

If you’ve ever been chastised for throwing your entire body around during gaming (because physically leaning into track corners definitely helps somehow), here’s a bit of science-backed vindication. Researchers in Switzerland have discovered that using your torso to control a drone is far more effective than using a joystick.

The team from EPFL monitored the body movements and muscular activity of 17 people, each with 19 markers placed all over their upper bodies. The participants then followed the actions of a virtual drone through simulated landscapes, via virtual reality goggles. By observing motion patterns, the scientists found that only four markers located on the torso were needed to pilot a drone through an obstacle course, and that the method outperformed joystick control in both precision and reliability.

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The study’s lead author, Jenifer Miehlbradt of EPFL’s Translational Neuroengineering Laboratory, said: “Using your torso really gives you the feeling that you are actually flying. Joysticks, on the other hand, are of simple design but mastering their use to precisely control distant objects can be challenging.”

The proof-of-concept system still depends on body markers and external motion detectors to work, so the team’s next challenge will be making the tech wearable and completely independent. However, the range of applications for it are enormous. Being able to virtually fly while your head, limbs, hand and feet are free to perform other tasks could be a major development for gaming, drone control or even the planes of the future.

Tech News

Girl Scouts add badges for cybersecurity and the environment

July 17, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

The US Girl Scouts campaign to promote STEM education is advancing to its next logical step: even more badges. The organization is introducing 30 new badges that promise to foster scientific and computer know-how across the Scouts’ age groups. Younger members from kindergarten to grade 5 can earn badges for topics like cybersecurity (particularly online privacy and safety) and space science, while older Scouts can learn to design and program robotics as well as prepare for college. And regardless of age, they can earn Environmental Stewardship badges that teach them to care for the planet.

There’s more. The outfit is now rolling out its previously unveiled national computer science program for girls in middle school and above. Likewise, there are are two Leadership Journeys that encourage girls to embrace programming and engineering. And a Mechanical Engineering badge that previously stopped at grade 3 now covers the net two grades up, increasing the opportunities to learn about crafting basic vehicles and understanding the physics that guide them.

The goals remain the same as with earlier badges. The Girl Scouts team hopes to not only encourage girls to enter STEM fields, but to prepare them for a modern world full of digital opportunities and threats. It’s not guaranteed that they’ll strive for the badges, but it’s at least an acknowledgment that the focus of the Girl Scouts needs to change with the times.

Tech News

Facebook improves AI by sending 'tourist bots' to a virtual NYC

July 11, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Reuters/Brendan McDermid

As a general rule, AI isn’t great at using new info to make better sense of existing info. Facebook thinks it has a clever (if unusual) way to explore solutions to this problem: send AI on a virtual vacation. It recently conducted an experiment that had a “tourist” bot with 360-degee photos try to find its way around New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen area with the help of a “guide” bot using 2D maps. The digital tourist had to describe where it was based on what it could see, giving the guide a point of reference it can use to offer directions.

The project focused on collecting info through regular language (“in front of me there’s a Brooks Brothers”), but it produced an interesting side discovery: the team learned that the bots were more effective when they used a “synthetic” chat made of symbols to communicate data. In other words, the conversations they’d use to help you find your hotel might need to be different than those used to help, say, a self-driving car.

The research also helped Facebook’s AI make sense of visually complex urban environments. A Masked Attention for Spatial Convolution system could quickly parse the most relevant keywords in their responses, so they could more accurately convey where they were or needed to go.

As our TechCrunch colleagues observed, this is a research project that could improve AI as a whole rather than the immediate precursor to a navigation product. With that said, it’s easy to see practical implications. Self-driving cars could use this to find their way when they can’t rely on GPS, or offer directions to wayward humans using only vague descriptions.

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