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Robotics

These robo-ants can work together in swarms to navigate tricky terrain

These robo-ants can work together in swarms to navigate tricky terrain

July 12, 2019

While the agility of a Spot or Atlas robot is something to behold, there’s a special merit reserved for tiny, simple robots that work not as a versatile individual but as an adaptable group. These “tribots” are built on the model of ants, and like them can work together to overcome obstacles with teamwork.

Developed by EPFL and Osaka University, tribots are tiny, light and simple, moving more like inchworms than ants, but able to fling themselves up and forward if necessary. The bots themselves and the system they make up are modeled on trap-jaw ants, which alternate between crawling and jumping, and work (as do most other ants) in fluid roles like explorer, worker and leader. Each robot is not itself very intelligent, but they are controlled as a collective that deploys their abilities intelligently.

In this case a team of tribots might be expected to get from one end of a piece of complex terrain to another. An explorer could move ahead, sensing obstacles and relaying their locations and dimensions to the rest of the team. The leader can then assign worker units to head over to try to push the obstacles out of the way. If that doesn’t work, an explorer can try hopping over it — and if successful, it can relay its telemetry to the others so they can do the same thing.

Fly, tribot, fly!

It’s all done quite slowly at this point — you’ll notice that in the video, much of the action is happening at 16x speed. But rapidity isn’t the idea here; similar to Squishy Robotics’ creations, it’s more about adaptability and simplicity of deployment.

The little bots weigh only 10 grams each, and …

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This new autonomous startup has designed its delivery robot to conquer winter

This new autonomous startup has designed its delivery robot to conquer winter

July 11, 2019

Refraction, a new autonomous delivery robot company that came out of stealth Wednesday at TC Sessions: Mobility, sees opportunity in areas most AV startups are avoiding: regions with the worst weather.

The company, founded by University of Michigan professors Matthew Johnson-Roberson and Ram Vasudevan, calls its REV-1 delivery robot the “Goldilocks of autonomous vehicles.”

The pair have a long history with autonomous vehicles. Johnson-Roberson got his start by participating in the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2004 and stayed in academia researching and then teaching robotics. Vasudevan’s career had a stint at Ford working on control algorithms for autonomous operations on snow and ice. Both work together at University of Michigan’s Robotics Program.

The REV-1 is lightweight and low cost — there are no expensive lidar sensors on the vehicle — it operates in a bike lane and is designed to travel in rain or snow, Johnson-Roberson, co-founder and CEO of Refraction told TechCrunch.

The robot, which debuted onstage at the California Theater in San Jose during the event, is about the size of an electric bicycle. The REV-1 weighs about 100 pounds and stands about 5 feet tall and is 4.5 feet long. Inside the robot is 16 cubic feet of space, enough room to fit four or five grocery bags.

It’s not particularly fast — top speed is 15 miles per hour. But because it’s designed for a bike lane, it doesn’t need to be. That slower speed and lightweight design allows the vehicle to have a short stopping distance of about five feet.

Refraction has backing from eLab Ventures and Trucks Venture Capital.

Consumers have an appetite and an expectation for on-demand goods that are delivered quickly. But companies are struggling to find consistent, reliable and economical ways to address that need, said Bob Stefanski, managing director …

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Luminar eyes production vehicles with $100M round and new Iris lidar platform

Luminar eyes production vehicles with $100M round and new Iris lidar platform

July 11, 2019

Luminar is one of the major players in the new crop of lidar companies that have sprung up all over the world, and it’s moving fast to outpace its peers. Today the company announced a new $100 million funding round, bringing its total raised to more than $250 million — as well as a perception platform and a new, compact lidar unit aimed at inclusion in actual cars. Big day!

The new hardware, called Iris, looks to be about a third of the size of the test unit Luminar has been sticking on vehicles thus far. That one was about the size of a couple hardbacks stacked up, and Iris is more like a really thick sandwich.

Size is very important, of course, as few cars just have caverns of unused space hidden away in prime surfaces like the corners and windshield area. Other lidar makers have lowered the profiles of their hardware in various ways; Luminar seems to have compactified in a fairly straightforward fashion, getting everything into a package smaller in every dimension.

Test model, left, Iris on the right.

Photos of Iris put it in various positions: below the headlights on one car, attached to the rear-view mirror in another and high up atop the cabin on a semi truck. It’s small enough that it won’t have to displace other components too much, although of course competitors are aiming to make theirs even more easy to integrate. That won’t matter, Luminar founder and CEO Austin Russell told me recently, if they can’t get it out of the lab.

“The development stage is a huge undertaking — to actually move it towards real-world adoption and into true series production vehicles,” he said (…

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Udelv partners with H-E-B on Texas autonomous grocery delivery pilot

Udelv partners with H-E-B on Texas autonomous grocery delivery pilot

July 10, 2019

Autonomous delivery company Udelv has signed yet another partner to launch a new pilot of its self-driving goods delivery service: Texas-based supermarket chain H-E-B. The pilot will provide service to customers in Olmos Park, just outside of downtown San Antonio where the grocery retailer is based.

California-based Udelv will provide H-E-B with one of its Newton second-generation autonomous delivery vehicles, which are already in service in trials in the Bay Area, Arizona and Houston, providing deliveries on behalf of some of Udelv’s other clients, which include Walmart, among others.

Udelv CEO and founder Daniel Laury explained in an interview that they’re very excited to be partnering with H-E-B because of the company’s reach in Texas, where it’s the largest grocery chain with approximately 400 stores. This initial phase only covers one car and one store, and during this part of the pilot the vehicle will have a safety driver on board. But the plan includes the option to expand the partnership to cover more vehicles and eventually achieve full driverless operation.

“They’re really at the forefront of technology, in the areas where they need to be,” Laury said. “It’s a very impressive company.”

For its part, H-E-B has been in discussion with a number of potential partners for autonomous delivery trials, and, according to Paul Tepfenhart, SVP of Omnichannel and Emerging Technologies at H-E-B, it liked Udelv specifically because of their safety record, and because they didn’t just come in with a set plan and a fully formed off-the-shelf offering — they truly partnered with HEB on what the final deployment of the pilot would look like.

Both Tepfenhart and Laury emphasized the importance of customer experience in providing autonomous solutions, and Laury noted that he thinks Udelv’s unique advantage in the increasingly competitive autonomous curbside delivery business is its …

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Where May Mobility’s self-driving shuttles might show up next

Where May Mobility’s self-driving shuttles might show up next

July 8, 2019

May Mobility might be operating low-speed self-driving shuttles in three U.S. cities, but its founders don’t view this as just another startup racing to deploy autonomous vehicle technology.

They describe the Ann Arbor-based company as a transportation service provider. As May Mobility’s co-founder and COO Alisyn Malek told TechCrunch, they’re in the “business of moving people.” Autonomous vehicle technology is just the “killer feature” to help them do that. 

TechCrunch recently spent the day with May Mobility in Detroit, where it first launched, to get a closer look at its operations, learn where it might be headed next and why companies in the industry are starting to back off previously ambitious timelines.

Malek will elaborate on what markets are most appealing to May Mobility while onstage at TC Sessions: Mobility on July 10 in San Jose. Malek will join Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli, head of partner product and programs at Aurora, to talk about what product makes the most sense for autonomous vehicle technology.

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Watch a plane land itself truly autonomously for the first time

Watch a plane land itself truly autonomously for the first time

July 5, 2019

A team of German researchers has created an automatic landing system for small aircraft that lets them touch down not only without a pilot, but without any of the tech on the ground that lets other planes do it. It could open up a new era of autonomous flight — and make ordinary landings safer, to boot.

Now it would be natural to think that with the sophisticated autopilot systems that we have today, a plane could land itself quite easily. And that’s kind of true — but the autoland systems on full-size aircraft aren’t really autonomous. They rely on a set of radio signals emitted by stations only found at major airports: the Instrument Landing System, or ILS.

These signals tell the plane exactly where the runway is even in poor visibility, but even so, an “automatic” landing is rarely done. Instead, the pilots — as they do elsewhere — use the autopilot system as an assist, in this case to help them locate the runway and descend properly. A plane can land automatically using ILS and other systems, but it’s rare and, even when they do it, it isn’t truly autonomous — it’s more like the airport is flying the plane by wire.

But researchers at Technische Universität München (TUM, or think of it as Munich Tech) have created a system that can land a plane without relying on ground systems at all, and demonstrated it with a pilot on board — or rather, passenger, since he kept his hands in his lap the whole time.

The automated plane comes in for a landing

A plane making an autonomous landing needs to know exactly where the runway is, naturally, but it can’t rely on GPS — too imprecise — and if it can’t use ILS and other ground …

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These humanoid robots can autonomously navigate cinder block mazes thanks to IHMC

These humanoid robots can autonomously navigate cinder block mazes thanks to IHMC

July 5, 2019

Programming robots to walk on flat, even ground is difficult enough, but Florida’s Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) is tackling the grander challenge of making sure bipedal robots can successfully navigate rough terrain. The research organization has been demonstrating its work in this area since 2016, but its latest video (via Engadget) shows the progress it has made.

In the new video, IHMC’s autonomous footstep planning program is at work on both Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot, and the NASA-developed Valkyrie robot (humanoid robots have the coolest names). This video shows off navigation of a heaping pile of cinder blocks, as well as narrower paths, which are trickier to navigate because of limited navigation options.

Basically, IHMC manages these complex navigation operations by specifying a beginning and end point for the robot, and then mapping all possible paths on a footstep-by-footstep basis, evaluating the cost of each and ultimately arriving at a best possible path — all of which can occur relatively quickly on modern hardware.

These robots can also quickly adapt to changes in the environment and path blockage thanks to IHMC’s work, and can even manage single-path tightrope-style walking (albeit on a narrow row of cinder books, not on an actual rope).

There’s still work to be done — the team at IHMC says that it’s having about a 50% success rate on narrow paths, but its ability to navigate rough terrain with these robots and its software is at a much higher 90%, and it’s pretty near a perfect track record on flat ground.

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BMW and Daimler partner on autonomous driving, first results of team-up in market by 2024

BMW and Daimler partner on autonomous driving, first results of team-up in market by 2024

July 4, 2019

Global automakers BMW and Daimler will join forces in a new long-term partnership to co-develop automated driving technologies, including levels of automation all the way up to SAE Level 4, which is defined as full self-driving, no human intervention required, but only under exactly defined conditions or domains – steering wheel and brakes not necessarily even present I the car.

This BMW/Daimler partnership includes developing automated driving technologies that precede Level 4, too, including advanced driver assistance features like smart cruise control and automated parking. And while it isn’t in scope of this specific arrangement, the two car makers also say that talks continue about expanding their cooperation to cover highly-automated driving within denser urban areas and in city driving conditions.

It’s a non-exclusive arrangement, which is the new normal in autonomous vehicle technology development, where cross-manufacturer partnerships have been increasingly common, and where we’ve also seen legacy automakers turn with fair frequency to startups and younger technology companies to supplement their in-house development efforts.

Daimler and BMW aim to develop a “scalable platform for automated driving” through their combined efforts, which the companies say is open for participation form both other automakers and tech providers. The resulting platform will also be made available to other OEMs under license.

Independently, Daimler is currently working on deploying its first Level 4/Level 5 self-driving vehicle pilot program in an urban environment in partnership with Bosch, and aims to have that operational this year. BMW’s next big automated driving push will be alongside its iNEXT lines of vehicles, with Level 3 technologies targeted release along with the first of those models in 2021. Both partners expect to implement the results of this partnership specifically in their own respective model series vehicles beginning in 2024, however.

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NASA picks a dozen science and tech projects to bring to the surface of the Moon

NASA picks a dozen science and tech projects to bring to the surface of the Moon

July 2, 2019

With the Artemis mission scheduled to put boots on lunar regolith as soon as 2024, NASA has a lot of launching to do — and you can be sure none of those launches will go to waste. The agency just announced 12 new science and technology projects to send to the Moon’s surface, including a new rover.

The 12 projects are being sent up as part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, which is — as NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has emphasized strongly — part of an intentional increase in reliance on private companies. If a company already has a component or rover or craft ready to go and meeting a program’s requirements, why should NASA build it from scratch at great cost?

In this case, the selected projects cover a wide range of origins and intentions. Some are repurposed or spare parts from other missions, like the Lunar Surface Electromagnetics Experiment. LuSEE is related to the Park Solar Probe’s STEREO/Waves instrument and pieces from MAVEN, re-engineered to make observations and measurements on the Moon.

Others are quite new. Astrobotic, which was also recently awarded an $80 million contract to develop its Peregrine lunar lander, will now also be putting together a rover, which it calls MoonRanger (no relation to the NES game). This little bot will autonomously traverse the landscape within half a mile or so of its base and map it in 3D.

The new funding from NASA amounts to $5.6 million, which isn’t a lot to develop a lunar rover from scratch — no doubt it’s using its own funds and working with its partner, Carnegie Mellon University, to make sure the rover isn’t a bargain-bin device. With veteran rover engineer Red Whittaker on board, it should be a good one.

“MoonRanger offers a …

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Startups at the speed of light: Lidar CEOs put their industry in perspective

Startups at the speed of light: Lidar CEOs put their industry in perspective

June 29, 2019

As autonomous cars and robots loom over the landscapes of cities and jobs alike, the technologies that empower them are forming sub-industries of their own. One of those is lidar, which has become an indispensable tool to autonomy, spawning dozens of companies and attracting hundreds of millions in venture funding.

But like all industries built on top of fast-moving technologies, lidar and the sensing business is by definition built somewhat upon a foundation of shifting sands. New research appears weekly advancing the art, and no less frequently are new partnerships minted, as car manufacturers like Audi and BMW scramble to keep ahead of their peers in the emerging autonomy economy.

To compete in the lidar industry means not just to create and follow through on difficult research and engineering, but to be prepared to react with agility as the market shifts in response to trends, regulations, and disasters.

I talked with several CEOs and investors in the lidar space to find out how the industry is changing, how they plan to compete, and what the next few years have in store.

Their opinions and predictions sometimes synced up and at other times diverged completely. For some, the future lies manifestly in partnerships they have already established and hope to nurture, while others feel that it’s too early for automakers to commit, and they’re stringing startups along one non-exclusive contract at a time.

All agreed that the technology itself is obviously important, but not so important that investors will wait forever for engineers to get it out of the lab.

And while some felt a sensor company has no business building a full-stack autonomy solution, others suggested that’s the only way to attract customers navigating a strange new market.

It’s a flourishing market but one, they all agreed, that will experience …

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