MIT’s Autonomous ‘Roboats’ Learn to Shapeshift


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Self-driving cars may be the future for most cities, but Amsterdam is about one-quarter water thanks to its extensive canal network. So, maybe autonomous boats are worth exploring? MIT has been working with the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute) to create just that. When we last checked in on the so-called “Roboat” vessels, they had just learned to reliably link up while floating on water. Now, MIT reports Roboats can shapeshift into different conformations in just a few minutes. 

Each individual Roboat is a fully fledged vessel, but the idea is not to have you hop on a single boat and use it as a taxi. From the start, MIT and AMS Institute have worked toward a multi-use role for the robotic vessels. Rather than designing different boats for different tasks, the Roboats can link up to become whatever people need. They could form bridges, stages, cargo transports, and floating busses. 

Progress has been swift for the Roboat project. In 2016, MIT tested a prototype boat that could move along pre-programmed routes. In 2018, it developed a method to 3D print the boats and tested advanced location tracking algorithms. Earlier this year, MIT and AMS Institute demoed the latching system that lets the robots link together on the water. 

The latest advance adds a layer of complexity to the Roboat docking system, marking a major step toward the goals of the project. MIT says it has developed new algorithms that allow the boats to smoothly reshape themselves in a few minutes. So, controllers can ask for a confirmation of Roboats like lines, squares, and L-shapes. The boats talk amongst themselves and determine the best way to morph into the desired shape. 

Testing the automated latching.

The shapes demonstrated in a pool at MIT are admittedly simple, consisting of just a handful of boats. However, the programming that went into it is still incredibly complex. Engineers had to make sure each boat was aware of its location relative to others, as well as how the group could move while shapeshifting to avoid collisions. To make that happen, the team created a division of labor. Both classes of Roboat have four propellers, wireless communication gear, and multiple docking hardpoints. The coordinators also have GPS and inertial measurement units (IMUs) that allow them to form the “core” of a structure. One or more worker Roboats connect to the coordinator and use actuators to help steer it. 

The current Roboats are one-quarter scale versions of the planned units. They’re about one meter long and half a meter wide. The team believes the trajectory-planning algorithms developed for the smaller boats will scale up to the full-sized ones when they exist in a few years.

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Starship Technologies Wants to Deploy Thousands of Delivery Robots at US Colleges


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College campuses are being flooded with new students right now, but there could be some other new arrivals if Starship Technologies has its way. The robotics company has closed a new round of funding that will allow it to deploy a small army of autonomous sidewalk delivery robots to as many as 100 college campuses around the US. 

The six-wheeled Starship robots are small, about knee-high, and fully electric. Since launching in 2018, Starship Technologies has tested its robots in more than 100 cities in 20 different countries. They’ve rolled 350,000 miles, crossed 4 million streets, and made over 100,000 deliveries. The robot uses a bank of cameras inside its Cylon-like visor to scan the world and identify objects. 

Starship Technologies says it has secured $40 million through series-A funding to get the new rollout going. The deployment has already started at George Mason University and the University of Northern Arizona, and it will expand to the University of Pittsburgh and the Purdue University in Indiana in September. Starship plans to have between 25 and 50 robots active on each campus within two years. Therefore, it could have a fleet of more than 5,000 delivery bots visiting dorm rooms by 2021. 

A Starship delivery robot.

Starship Technologies is interested in college campuses for several reasons. First, there are a lot of people living in a small space who are likely to order items online. The robots have a top speed of 4 miles per hour, so they won’t cover a lot of ground, but they can haul 20 pounds of cargo. A single robot could make several deliveries around campus in a short time. Colleges also have plenty of walking paths with well-defined boundaries and pedestrian traffic. That’s an ideal environment to improve the autonomous driving technology.

Customers can use Starship Technologies to get groceries, meals, packages, and more. It just costs $1.99 per order, much less than similar outfits that use people to deliver orders. Starship Technologies thinks this approach will appeal to students who don’t want to inconvenience a real person to bring them some random item. Although, the robots won’t be able to come to the door like a human. They can roll up curbs, but steps are a no-go. Starship CEO Lex Bayer thinks buildings may eventually build ramps and doors specifically for delivery robots, but we’re a long way from that.

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Planetary Society Declares Success as LightSail 2 Sails on Sunbeams


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Rockets are great if you want to get someplace fast, but there’s something whimsical about sailing on a beam of light. The Planetary Society has declared its LightSail 2 mission a success after it did just that. The satellite deployed its solar ail last week, and now it has successfully maneuvered in space without the help of engines. 

The Planetary Society launched its spacecraft aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in late June, which carried numerous other spacecraft into space. It took a decade of development for the organization to get LightSail 2 ready, and individual donations from some 50,000 supporters funded almost all of the $7 million price tag. 

Last week, The Planetary Society announced the craft had successfully deployed its sail. That was a problem for the first version of the spacecraft, which suffered from communication issues when it headed to the edge of space in 2015. It never got its sail deployed before falling back into the atmosphere. However, that mission was never intended to actually use the sail. LightSail 2 was more ambitious from the start. 

A light sail uses a large reflective surface area to harness the thrust from photons hitting the sail. LightSail 2 has a surface area of almost 30 square meters (322 square feet), but the thrust is still tiny. The Planetary Society reports that LightSail 2 enjoys forward propulsion equal to the weight of a paperclip when its mylar sail is facing the sun. Over time, that small speed boost can build up in the vacuum of space. 

A rocket would obviously be able to accelerate much faster, but LightSail 2 doesn’t need to explode out of the starting gate. At the lowest point in its orbit (perigee) the sail points directly at the sun, adding a little more speed to its orbit. That pushes the top of the orbit (apogee) higher. The Planetary Society now confirms the probe has raised its orbit by 1.05 miles (1.7 kilometers) using only sunlight. 

The team will continue raising the probe’s orbit for about a month until the perigee drops into the atmosphere and generates enough drag to outweigh the solar sail thrust. During this time, scientists will work to refine the solar sail, particularly how the craft’s momentum wheel works to keep the sails pointed at the sun. 

The Planetary Society doesn’t have any current plans to build a third solar sail spacecraft. However, it will make its technology available to future exploration missions that may want to use solar sails.

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Udemy Class Review: Introduction to Mechanical Engineering


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Engineering is a field of study that affects every aspect of our daily lives. The only reason we’re able to get up in the morning and brush our teeth or cook breakfast is someone somewhere engineered devices that make these tasks possible. Yet despite its importance, most people have little to no understanding of just what goes into engineering even the simplest of machines.

Udemy’s Introduction To Mechanical Engineering ($11.99) won’t turn you into an engineer overnight, but it aims to give you a basic understanding of the topic. Let’s take a closer look.

Course Overview

This course is primarily divided into two main sections. The first section introduces you to the course but has no real content. Similarly sections 4-8 aren’t lectures, but these instead contain practice questions and solutions to help reinforce what you will learn in sections 2 and 3.

Section 2 technically doesn’t dive into engineering topics, but it serves as an algebra refresher course to help get you up to speed on the type of math problems you will see throughout this course. Especially important here is the Quadratic Formula lecture:

The lecturer shows his work while working through this formula, but he could have done a better job explaining how he got to his answer. As I wasn’t familiar with the quadratic formula before, I was forced to turn to do a little research online to gain a firmer understanding of this topic before continuing the course. If you are already familiar with the quadratic formula, however, and if you have a solid understanding of algebra, then you could skip straight to section 3.

Throughout section 3 a wide range of topics are covered, including free body diagrams, shear force, bending stress, buckling, and more. All of this information is given to you in just two hours, which can make it difficult to get a firm understanding as the subject matter is fairly complex. The lecturer doesn’t rush through any part of this, either; instead, he calmly talks through each point. But I still found the need to re-watch parts of the lectures to truly understand them.

Conclusion

Having completed part of this course I can say that this isn’t a lecture series for the faint of heart. If you are really curious about what goes into engineering something like a bridge then this course will give you a solid idea of just that. That’s not to say that you will be building a large scale bridge anytime soon, but with the information in this course you could probably work out the math required to build a small bridge over a little stream or creek on your property.

This class would also serve as an excellent starting point for someone considering a career as an engineer, as it gives you a solid foundation from which to build upon. But if complex topics and math sound unappealing to you, then it’s probably best you try a different course. This one is currently available from Udemy.

Top image credit: Pexels.com

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NASA Tests Mars 2020 Robotic Arm With ‘Biceps Curls’


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Slowly but surely, the Mars 2020 rover is taking shape at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Engineers have attached some of the rover’s many cameras, its wheels, and now it’s time to give its robotic arm a test run. This arm will have to do some heavy lifting on the red planet, so NASA is having it do some biceps curls on Earth. It’s actually studying how the rover will maneuver its hefty sensor turret, but the action looks a whole lot like the rover pumping iron. 

The Mars 2020 rover will have a 7-foot (2.1 meters) robotic arm similar to the one on Curiosity. It sports five electrical motors and five joints: the shoulder azimuth, shoulder elevation, elbow, wrist, and turret. NASA has to make sure it all works perfectly before launch because the arm isn’t just there for pumping iron.

At the end of the rover’s arm, engineers have mounted a raft of important tools and sensors like the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) and Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL). The arm is also home to the WATSON camera, which will provide us with Curiosity-style selfies of Mars 2020. We certainly can’t have that fail. 

The instrument package at the end of the arm weighs in at 88 pounds (40 kilograms) here on Earth. The new test, which you can see in video form below, was JPL’s first opportunity to see how the arm behaved with all the components connected. The arm moved smoothly between a deployed and stowed configuration. The arm will only weigh about a third as much on Mars, but the team is still making sure it’s robust enough to operate under Earth gravity. A great deal of Mars 2020’s science will depend on that arm reaching out and touching the red planet with its sensors and percussive drill. 

NASA still has a lot of work ahead of it before the rover can head off in search of adventure. If everything goes as planned. Mars 2020 will launch from Earth in July 2020 during an advantageous alignment of Earth and Mars. It will reach Mars in February 2021 to begin its one-year mission (687 Earth days). If Mars 2020 is anything like Curiosity, on which it is based, this rover will outlast the initial mission duration.

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SpaceX Starhopper Completes First Untethered Flight


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After a brief delay, SpaceX’s Starship has gone on its first flight. It was a short hover test, and the version of the spacecraft that took to the sky was a far cry from the one CEO Elon Musk wants to send to Mars. Still, the “Starhopper” prototype has proven that the rocket has what it takes to leave Earth behind. 

SpaceX has spent months putting the final touches on Starhopper at the company’s Boca Chica Beach, Texas facility. The eventual Starship rocket that travels to other planets will have six Raptor engines in the planned configuration, although Musk has suggested that could change. The Starhopper has just one Raptor, and the body has a blunted “water tower” shape instead of the sci-fi rocket design from the renders. Musk jokes in his announcement tweet that water towers can fly. 

The Starhopper hovered about 65 feet in the air (almost 20 meters) before setting down. Propulsive landings will be part of the Starship from the very start, a feature SpaceX perfected on the Falcon 9 after it entered service. This capability has made the company increasingly dominant in the private spaceflight industry by lowering costs and shortening launch timetables. 

The next step, according to Musk, is to complete another untethered Starhopper flight. In the next several weeks, SpaceX will attempt to reach ten times the altitude of last night’s test. The company could attempt a sub-orbital flight into space by the end of the year. However, SpaceX doesn’t have all the pieces it needs for full Starship operation. 

The Starship can’t reach space from Earth’s surface even with all six of its Raptor engines. SpaceX still has to build the Super Heavy launch platform. This gargantuan first-stage rocket will have 35 Raptor engines with enough power to get the spacecraft free of Earth’s gravity. On other planets like Mars, Starship will have enough power to launch itself without the Super Heavy. 

Musk has promised that the Starship (formerly known as BFR) will take over from SpaceX’s established Falcon 9 and the newer Falcon Heavy platforms in the future. It’s also designed to carry up to 100 colonists on a journey to Mars. Musk thinks that trip will only cost a few hundred thousand dollars, but many scientists caution we don’t know enough about the health effects of living on Mars.

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