Autonomous drifting [VIDEO]

You know how the stuntmen make fast cars drift in action movies? Have you ever wanted to make a remote-controlled toy car drift like that? Of course you have.  If there ever were awards for endeavors that sound silly, but is actually technically interesting, then the folks at MIT’s Aerospace Controls Lab would surely be nominated.

Unmanned systems are rarely fully autonomous.  Instead, researchers are pursuing “sliding” autonomy, i.e. an operator retains control, while some behaviors are made autonomous. Aerospace Controls Lab decided to teach a remote-control toy car how to autonomously drift.

They started by running their learning algorithm through simulations.  Information from these simulations was transferred to performance modifiers. When the car was run through its drifting actions in reality, the algorithm was constantly modified. The result is a car that can maintain drifting in a full circle even when salt is added to the floor, or another vehicle interferes with it.

See video below.

[layerslider id=”31″]

R.I.P. hitchBOT [VIDEO]

Unmanned systems are performing more and more important functions. Robots are active in IED detection, farming, surveillance, medicine, elder care, and hitchhiking.

That last one is a bit of mystery to me. What is the “important function” of a hitchhiking unmanned system? To tell tedious, pointless stories on long, boring trips? Crash on your couch? Hit you up for a handout?

Evidently, hitchBOT is some kind of social experiment that explores human-robot interactions. A relatively simple machine, it has a GPS tracker, a camera that takes a picture every 20 minutes, and the capability for simple conversation. It has successfully traveled through Germany and Netherlands, as well as from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.

However, when it got to the US, foul play ensured. Despite the claims put forward in a fake video, culprits are unknown.


The fact that someone thought it would be fun that to vandalize an innocuous robot should not be too great a surprise. After all, there are numerous stories of soldiers becoming attached to their Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV).  UGVs are given names, accorded rank, nominated for medals, taken fishing, and even rescued at great risk to their human companions. If robots can be objects of affection, why not hostility?

[layerslider id=”31″]

In fact, hitchBOT’s experience is consistent with a Japanese experiment in which children attacked a UGV in a mall.  The robot in the Japanese experiment was able to successfully learn avoidance behaviors that decreased its chances of abuse.


There is some speculation that the violence inflicted by the children reflected stages of moral development as well as their attitudes towards animated non-living objects (as someone who has taught third grade, I can testify that children are perfectly willing to kick and hit living adults as well as robots).

Lest you think all of humanity is a reservoir of unredeemable hostility, the creators of the hitchBOT has been inundated with messages of sympathy as well as offers of support for a rebuilt version. Whether the hitchBOT will once again roam the highways has yet to be determined.

To learn more about the hitchBOT, watch the video below.

Killer Robots Are Here

From the very beginning, people have been concerned not only about what unmanned systems can do for them, but also what they can do to them. Indeed, the first time the word “robot” was used, was in a 1920 Czech play that depicted a machine rebellion against mankind.

More recently, there has emerged an international campaign to stop “killer drones.” This blog has previously expressed skepticism over the supposed “inherent immorality” of unmanned warfare. However, I think the more important issue may be the lethality of non-military unmanned systems.

For one thing, concerns about safety issues have significantly delayed the spread of unmanned system to civilian markets. An expert once told me that safety and legal concerns are the single biggest factor in delaying unmanned agricultural systems. They are also a major reason for the slow adoption of autonomous cars.

Many are anxious over the role of robots in industrial accidents. The rate of injuries and deaths of civilians in work settings is nothing to sneeze at. For example, we are used to thinking of casualties during war as being something that happens exclusively on the battlefield, but “The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that each year between 1942 and 1945 there were some two million disabling or deadly industrial accidents, a total of more than six million.” Indeed, the eHistory website asserts that for every American military casualty, there were eight industrial casualties on the home front.

[layerslider id=”31″]

After a worker’s death in Germany, killer robots and industrial accidents are in the news. In response to to this report, journalist Margarita Noriega interviewed a cyberlaw expert. The interview below originally appeared in Vox.

After sharing a story on Twitter about a robot who killed a man in Germany, Ryan Calo, professor of robotics and cyberlaw at the University of Washington School of Law, replied that it is not that unusual for robots to kill people. Naturally, I had a few questions. Here they are with Calo’s answers, including why robots aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Margarita Noriega: What just happened in Germany?

Ryan Calo: A man was killed while setting up an industrial robot at a Volkswagen plant. Apparently the robot grabbed the man and crushed him against a metal plate.

Margarita Noriega: You mentioned that this was more commonplace than people might think. Can you explain?

Ryan Calo: About a person a year dies in robot related accidents in the U.S. alone. You can see this in the statistics complied by OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Recent incidents include “Maintenance Worker Is Struck And Killed By A Robot”(2013) and “Robot Crushes And Kills Worker Inside Robot Work Cell” (2012). The reason people are reporting on this death, I think, is that robots are very much on the mind. Of course, we should keep this all in perspective—more people are killed by bees or sharks than robots, at least in the United States.

Margarita Noriega: What do we mean by “robot” in these cases, anyway? And how is “likeness to humans” defined?

Ryan Calo: In my work, I define a robot as having three qualities that distinguish it from previous or constituent technologies. A robot must sense its environment, process what it sense, and then be organized to act directly on the world. I don’t define human likeness because I don’t think it’s necessary. I do, however, think that robots that look and act like people raise particularly interesting legal and ethical issues. You can read more here in my article Robotics and the Lessons of Cyberlaw.

Margarita Noriega: How are these cases handled, since the robot has no malicious intent?

Ryan Calo: Most industrial accidents—robot or otherwise—are handled in the U.S. by workers compensation. This means that the worker or their family receives a statutorily defined amount of money from a fund, depending on the severity of their injury. Technically the worker could sue the manufacturer of the robot but would have to show that s/he operated the robot within specifications. Usually some human error is involved, as apparently was the case in Germany. Where it gets tricky is when robots are not designed for any particular purpose and can run third party apps.

[layerslider id=”31″]

Another hard issue is what to do when the robot displays emergent behavior, that is, behavior no one involved in the programming could anticipate. My paper Robotics and the Lessons of Cyberlaw discusses. We’re already seeing this with Internet bots that, for instance, threaten someone’s life.

Margarita Noriega: You predict here that robot cases will increase. How does one avoid being killed by a robot, anyway?

Ryan Calo: I think the answer is that you are very unlikely to be killed by a robot, unless you come into military conflict with the United States. If you are, for instance, a factory worker, it is very important to follow established security protocols around robots and especially to stay out of the danger zone unless you are sure the robot is off. What I predicted in that 2009 blog post was that robotics would become the subject of laws and legal cases. And it is. Think of all the recent cases and statutes involving drones.

Margarita Noriega: What question haven’t I asked about killer robots?

Ryan Calo: One question is what is different about industrial robots. Industrial robots generally stay in one place and do the same thing over and over. They are dangerous because they can exert enormous force are not usually able to sense the presence of a person. As robots come to do more and more things, as they leave the factory floor and enter our offices, hospitals, and homes, they will be designed to be much safer.

Why are autonomous cars happening now?

Why are we seeing self-driving cars right now?  This question was originally asked in Quora. Below is my answer:

To understand the development of autonomous cars, it is helpful to think of them as a kind of a robot, or to use a term more favored by those in the industry, an “unmanned system.” Autonomous cars (Unmanned Ground Vehicles) transform the role of people from that of an operator/driver to one of payload/cargo. Two trends, one demographic and the other technological, are driving the development of autonomous cars.

The significant demographic trend is the aging of population. In the 2013 Robotics Roadmap, which was presented to the Congressional Robotics Caucus by industry leaders, the impact of this surging senior demographic was discussed for almost every possible unmanned application. Countries as diverse as the United States, Japan, Mexico, and even in the Middle East are experiencing a growth in the number of elderly inhabitants. These people want to maintain their independence as long as possible. Seniors are a growing and eager market for autonomous cars.

The driving technological trend has been the spread of unmanned systems, especially for military purposes. The military view unmanned systems as a “force multiplier,” i.e. a way of reducing the number of personnel (soldiers). Since soldiers are the single most expensive item on a battlefield (a wounded US combatant can cost $2 million), the deployment of unmanned systems can result in significant cost savings.

However, most unmanned systems still require humans to operate them. To realize their full economic and tactical potential, some degree of autonomy is required. As a result, there is very good research being done on autonomous capabilities of unmanned systems. Since autonomous cars are actually a kind of unmanned system, this technology is maturing very rapidly.

There are other factors driving the development of unmanned cars. Some futurists think that economic doldrums will place private vehicle ownership out of reach of ordinary people. Supposedly, the next generation will come to depend on fleets of taxicabs, made more economically practical by their autonomous capabilities.

For more discussion on this issue, please see the following articles:

[layerslider id=”31″]

Robot pelted by dodge balls [VIDEO]

In the great wheeled vs. legged unmanned system debate, the pro-wheel faction likes to point out the impracticality of bipedal robots.  They’re not only more challenging from an engineering perspective, but they also have a more difficult time maintaining their balance.

Building a robot with legs that balances well has given developers a great excuse to beat the living daylights out of their creations.  This blog has already featured a video of Boston Dynamics abusing their four-legged “Spot.” Not to be outdone, Dynamic Robotics Labs barrages their ATRIAS unmanned system with dodge balls.

Not only will robots take our jobs, help the elderly, drive our cars, and give us our medicine, but one day they will also take the place of the puny, bullied children everywhere.

To see more amazing ATRIAS videos, click here.

Self-driving car accident [VIDEO]

Autonomous cars supposedly have a great safety record.  They do not make mistakes.  This frequently heard assertion is hardly comforting after viewing the video below.

Volvo explained the accident by stating that the autonomous system involved was not designed to avoid pedestrians (that’s a more expensive option than the one installed in the car in the video).  In other words, it’s the fault of the people, not the car.

Volvo’s explanation that the people did not understand the nature of the automatic avoidance system seems plausible, but it raises a concern. Autonomous cars (which we have argued are really Unmanned Ground Vehicles) will not happen all at once. Self-driving subsystems will be adopted piecemeal over the years.  Will future passengers/drivers understand what capabilities are and are not autonomous in their cars?  Should we expect more videos like this? What is the responsibility of the car company to educate its clients?

This incident reminds me of airplane calamities. Have you ever noticed how often airplane disasters are blamed on “pilot error”? I have always had the suspicion that airlines fault pilots for big crashes, because to acknowledge mechanical failure (which could be caused by inadequate maintenance or overuse) may leave them vulnerable to greater legal liability.

As I wrote above, Volvo’s explanation is believable, but the similarity to the overuse of “pilot error” is unsettling.

Unmanned Grape Suturing [VIDEO]

Operating an unmanned system can be a tricky task.  The display may not present an accurate image (see War and depth: Why your battlefield robot needs 3D). The controls might be sticky. The effectors at the ends of robotic arms may be inadequately sensitive.

Nevertheless, it is possible to complete a delicate job via remote control. Watch the video below which demonstrates robotic arms controlled by a surgeon suturing a grape.

(BTW, a You Tube commenter noted that the grape survived the surgery and went on to live a fulfilling life as a raisin)

The Russian Robots are Coming [VIDEOS]

Supposedly, by 2025, 30% of Russian military equipment will be unmanned. This goal is part of an ambitious program to upgrade Russia’s military. Currently, 10% of its military equipment qualifies as “modern.” They want that figure to rise to 70% by 2020.

It is tempting to dismiss Russian technology with the same snark that American defense analysts reserve for the transparently phony “super-weapons” seen in Iranian parades. See the video below of Russian strongman and Chuck Norris wannabe, Putin, watching the humanoid “Avatar” drive around in circles. Superficially, it looks like a crude cosplay of a Cylon robot.

While the “Avatar” looks ridiculous, not all Russian robots deserve disdain. Much more impressive are the firefighting Uran-14 and the minesweeper Uran-6. The latter has been used in the battle-scarred Chechen republic. Watch below.

The Russians have announced that they are developing search-and-rescue systems for the Arctic areas. We have previously reported on the Great Powers’ interest in the Polar regions as well as the opportunities in disaster relief unmanned applications. The Russians have had great success in designing equipment and vehicles for extremely cold environments, so their efforts are worth watching.

The Russians have heavily promoted their weaponized Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV), specifically the Wolf-2 mobile robotic system and the grenade launching Platform-M. We do not know their true capabilities. Do they have non-Lone Of Sight operation? What about sliding autonomy? What are their pathfinding, navigation, and internal map-making capacities? Despite the press releases and vivid photographs, there is more unknown than known about these UGVs.

It would be wrong to assume that the above weapon platforms are merely empty shells. Yes, corruption and brutal regimes has yielded Russian achievements that are more cardboard than real. However, I have worked personally with Russian scientists and engineers. Given the right environment, they can be astonishingly effective. While I am not worried about Americans losing their dominance in the unmanned field, we shouldn’t be too surprised if the Russians do something surprising.

To read about the Russian unmanned efforts in the Arctic, click here.

For a good summary of their military unmanned systems, click here.


AUVSI 2015: Impressions & Rumors

AUVSI Unmanned Systems Conference was bigger and better than ever. AMREL was there of course. What did our team think of this tradeshow?

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) explosion

UAVs were everywhere. It seemed as if everyone was peddling their own UAV or looking for one to invest in.

Not all were impressed with the proliferation of UAVs. “They all look the same,” complained one person. “Like quadcopter toys from a hobby shop.”

One unusual UAV that got people’s attention was the Goose BRAVO from Mist Mobility Integrated Systems Technology (MMIST). An upgrade of the CQ-10A that supported Special Forces, it is a modern version of an old technology: gyrocopter (autogyro). Usually, a gyrocopter is something you see in 1930’s movies, not in modern skies. Yet, it can lift 600 pounds, fly 70 mph, and reach 18,000 feet.

Operator Control Unit (OCU) explosion

Since AMREL is the premier supplier of OCUs, we were especially interested in the control units. Again, individuals in our staff were not impressed. There were as many control units as there were UAVs. Every developer was controlling their UAVs with devices that were dedicated to their specific offering. It seems that the Pentagon’s decades long campaign for interoperability is being completely ignored.

“Nobody is paying them to make interoperable control units,” explained Rob Culver, AMREL’s Director of Business Development, DOD Programs.  That’s because…

Defense is no longer the key target market

UAV developers are going after the civilian market big time. Targeted applications include photography, videography, filming, mapping, inspection, logistics (delivery), crowd control, patrolling, spot spraying fields, seeding farms, mining, herding, follow me, and of course the old standby, reconnaissance.

Defense is increasingly seen as a troublesome market. Lots of grumbling on the tradeshow floor about congressional shenanigans creating uncertainty in military funding.

At first glance, the UAV developers’ fixation with civilian applications seems warranted. Consumer Electronics Association predicts 1 million flights a day in American airspace during the next 20 years. Investors are looking forward to a billion dollar commercial market once the FAA permits non-Line Of Sight operation.

Indeed, at the conference, the FAA raised everyone’s hopes with its announcement about the Project Pathfinder initiative. Project Pathfinder is an agreement with CNN, PrecisionHawk and BNSF Railway to explore civilian applications.

However, the Defense market is far from finished. At a presentation at the conference, Derrick Maple, principal unmanned systems analyst for IHS Aerospace, predicted a global defense and security UAV market of $11.1 billion by 2024, a doubling of the current one. The US military may be slowing down its procurement of UAVs, but other countries are ramping up their purchases. Maple cited “Australia, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Poland, Spain and the Middle East region” as areas of opportunities for American manufacturers.

In addition, the major obstacles to commercial UAV applications are not going away soon. There are solid reasons why FAA has been dragging its heels on integrating UAVs into civilian airspace. No one has yet solved the fundamental challenges of poor visibility and collision avoidance. This isn’t even mentioning such problems as radio frequency conflicts, which will become more significant as commercial UAVs increase.

Seems like an awful lot of people are betting an awful lot of money that the FAA will overcome these problems soon. I hope they aren’t expecting a quick return on their investment.

Hot rumor#1: The rugged vs. non rugged debate lives on

Not all the talk at AUVSI 2015 was about unmanned systems. There was a rumor about the military’s utilization of non-rugged mobile handhelds.

Some have argued that Defense doesn’t need rugged mobile devices. Ordinary commercial devices have a better supply train, are more advanced, and are cheaper. Just stick a protective case on them, and you have a solution that is “rugged enough.”

Rugged proponents counter that using a protective case on a commercial mobile device is like trying to fly by sticking wings on a car. Looks good, but it just won’t work. To be truly tough, one needs a device built rugged from the ground up.

Way back in 2011, we reported on rumors of end-user discontent following the Network Integration Evaluation (NIE). Soldiers didn’t like the fragility of the commercial handhelds. Sand, high temperatures, and sunlight readability were significant problems.

Despite these negative results, the vision of buying off-the-shelf smartphones for soldiers proved too alluring. The non-rugged advocates preserved.

Commercial handhelds advocates may not have gone away, but neither have the problems. According to rumor, there is continued end-user dissatisfaction with non-rugged smartphones. Again, sunlight readability is a problem. Turns out the protective case does an OK job guarding against shock and drop, but actually makes temperature and vibration problems worse (An enclosed case around an electronic device causing heat problems? Should have been obvious).

Despite the latest brouhaha, it remains to be seen if the non-rugged advocates will finally concede to reality.

Hot rumor#2: ARMY aviation shake-up

Traditional aviation personnel are among the people who have had the most difficulties adjusting to the unmanned era. In their eyes, the Air Force exists so pilots can fly. Predator UAVs may be cool, but are obviously secondary to the thrill one feels at operating a jet going Mach 2.

Similarly, aviation personnel in the ARMY have been unenthusiastic about Tactical UAVs (TUAV). While foot soldiers value their backpackable TUAVS, the ARMY aviation folks would rather forget these toys, and concentrate on helicopters and their few fixed wing assets.

According to rumor, the responsibility of TUAVs will be transferred from ARMY aviation to the ground pounders. Undoubtedly, the once unloved TUAVS will now be greeted with affection and enthusiasm by their end-users.

The military doing something smart? We could use a lot more rumors like that.

Heard a hot rumor lately? What were your impressions of AUVSI 2015?  Send your stories to


Visit AMREL at Unmanned Systems 2015

auvsi 2015.jpg 3Among the products on display will be the ROCKY RS11, the lightest, thinnest, rugged laptop in the world. Weighing only 5.5 lbs and just an inch thick, it’s a super-strong laptop that you don’t need to be super-strong to carry.

An onsite demonstration will pair AMREL computing platforms with Silvus’ Teamster MIMO radios to form a comprehensive mesh network that integrates a mix of UAVs, UGVs, sensors, and other IP-enabled devices.

 To learn more about AMREL unmanned solutions, click here.