First Licensed Autonomous Truck [VIDEO]

The first officially licensed autonomous-capable semi-truck is here. Licensed in Nevada (only on highways during daylight hours and good weather), it is not a driverless vehicle; humans are still required. However, the human is not an operator, at least all the time. In theory, he could be playing Candy Crush or watching a ball game.

The truck is named “Inspiration.” Freightliner, its manufacturer, is by far not the only one looking to make a splash in the autonomous car game. Apple, Tesla, Uber, and of course ,Google all have plans for autonomous cars.

Toyota, working with MIT and Stanford, will invest at least $50 million over the next five years in “assisted autonomy.”  Unlike the famous Google car, this will not be a fully autonomous vehicle. Toyota’s goal is to have AI that prevents crashes of human-operated cars. This neatly avoids many (but not all) legal liability issues that plague autonomous systems.

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In spite of all the interest of big players, Freightliner, is the first licensed autonomous vehicle. This is the first vehicle that is legally allowed to operate autonomously. This means on your next visit to Las Vegas, you might see a big semi barreling down the highway, while the person at the steering wheel is reading a newspaper.

Learn more about the Inspiration at IEEE Spectrum or check out Freightliners cheery video below.

This video explains how radar, cameras, and “platooning” work.

Space Robot’s Unique Locomotion [VIDEO]

Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) faced an unusual problem. NASA wanted a rover that could navigate the uneven surfaces of asteroids and comets. However, rovers, such as the ones used on Mars, have treads and wheels. In the low gravity environment of small extra-planetary objects, the rovers with wheels would lose their grip on the ground and literally drift off into space. None of the conventional means of unmanned propulsion – propellers, wings, or wheels –would work. How would you move an unmanned system when it can’t swim, walk, fly, or roll?  Their solution, as demonstrated in the video below is ingenious.

You can also learn more at Space.com

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UFC Fighters vs. Marines [VIDEO]

A bunch of mixed martial art stars visited the Marine Corps Martial Arts Center of Excellence, and basically had their rear ends handed to them. This is a slight exaggeration, but not much of one. See video below.

We asked Richard Barrios, AMREL’s Web Marketing Specialist, UFC fan and ex-Devil Dog, why the Marines dominated the UFC fighters so thoroughly (besides, of course, the transcendental awesomeness that are the Marines). He explained:

“They are trained for completely things.  Marines fight in full battle kit and with weapons. UFC guys fight in spandex and shorts, and are obviously unprepared to move around with heavy equipment.  Strip the Marines down, and have them fight as the UFC do, and you would see a much more equal  competition.

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“US Marines both active duty and former have fought in the UFC.  Although competitive, only a few have reached a championship level.  The UFC fighters in the documentary are stars and championship level and have dedicated more then ¾ of their lives to MMA style of fighting or some kind martial art.  Put a MCMAP Marine in a octagon and the UFC fighters will have their hands full, but would teach the MCMAP Marines a few things about cage fighting.”

The highly selective “truths” of the Iran deal [OPINION]

Did you know the Bible commands us to commit adultery? Sure you do, it’s right there in the seventh commandment, which begins “Thou shalt…” and ends with “…commit adultery.” What could be clearer?

Of course, what I did was edited out significant words, and misleadingly quoted out of context.  Something like this is happening with the Iran deal. People with no background in arms control or nuclear technology are making a lot of questionable assertions based on highly selective interpretations of the proposed agreement.

Below are four highly publicized falsehoods. I also threw in some speculation at the end.

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Side deals allow Iran to self-inspect

First off, this accusation refers to one facility, the Parchin site, which, admittedly, is an important one. Virtually the entire Iranian nuclear infrastructure – from the mines to the processing plants – will be subject to onsite 24/7 inspections by 130 to 150 independent workers of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This kind of unfettered access is unprecedented. No nation, in peacetime, has ever allowed this before.

This accusation is based on an AP story which has been changed several times and is viewed skeptically by nuclear experts. As noted in previous the blog post, the Iranian deal represents a gold mine of intelligence information. To mitigate this, the Iranians have insisted on certain limitations, including the right to do some of their own sampling.

However, the sampling is supervised by IAEA inspectors, and is subjected to rigorous verification and authentification procedures. For a detailed discussion of the verification methods, see the always wonderful War on the Rocks.  In this article, Cheryl Rofer, 35 year veteran of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, points out how the AP story suspiciously leaves out critical aspects of the inspection regime. She details the rather rigorous verification procedure for the samples, which include videotaping and GPS information.

In the video below, another expert, Dr. Jeffry Lewis, finds this criticism so preposterous he can barely stop from laughing. He makes it clear that independent inspectors will be onsite, examining the controversial Parchin facility.

The United States is giving Iran hundreds of billions of dollars in previously frozen assets

Most of the frozen assets are held by non-American entities, so we are not “giving” them anything. Media Matters cites Center On Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (CACNP), who in turn draws on a CIA report:

“Critics of the Iran deal like to exaggerate the amount of blocked funds Iran will receive, claiming that Iran will receive up to $300 billion in sanctions relief. According to US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, that figure is more like $50 billion. Iran owes at least $20 billion to China in addition to tens of billions in non-performing (unpaid) loans and has around $500 billion worth of pressing domestic investment requirements and government obligations.”

Iran will unquestionably benefit economically from this deal, but to what degree and how much money will be channeled to terrorist proxies is very much in dispute.

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The restrictions lasts only 10 to 15 years

According to the Arms Control Association (ACA) (emphasis added)

“The agreement will set up a multilayered system to monitor and inspect every aspect of Iran’s nuclear supply chain and fuel cycle, including continuous monitoring at some sites for 20–25 years. Other elements, including access to a wider number of nuclear sites—notably centrifuge manufacturing sites — and inspections on short notice under the terms of Iran’s additional protocol, will be permanent. Inspectors will have timely access to any site, anywhere, including military sites, if there is evidence of suspicious nuclear activities.”

Click chart below to enlarge

iran chart

All the economic sanctions will be lifted immediately on Iran

You could be forgiven for believing this, since the Iranian proponents of the deal are telling this to their own people in order to drive up support. The reality is lot more complicated:

  1. Before any sanctions can be lifted, Iran has to prove that it “…has taken steps to limit its uranium-enrichment program, convert the Arak heavy water reactor, provide required transparency, and give the IAEA the information needed to resolve questions about past activities with possible military dimensions.” (ACA). Some are guessing that this could take 6 months. Others are saying that it could take a lot longer.
  2. The sanctions against trade for technology that would enable nuclear-capable missiles will last at least 8 years.
  3. American economic sanctions based on human-rights violations will last indefinitely, or until Iran becomes a Jeffersonian democracy, whichever comes first.

Of course, sanctions could be “snapped backed” with evidence of violations. The effectiveness of this provision has been criticized as unrealistic. The one thing that is unquestionable is that it is historically unprecedented that China and Russia gave up their prized veto for this provision.

 

Iran has a nuclear weapons program

I cannot definitely state that Iran has no nuclear weapon program. In fact, I would not bet money on this assertion.

However, this contention has surprisingly strong backing. For one thing, both the IAEA and the CIA concluded that Iran had abandoned its weapon program years ago (12 years ago is one estimate). Luminaries, such as David H. Petraeus, Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, have agreed with this assessment (New York Times).  Bizarrely, the IAEA and the CIA shave stuck with this conclusion, even after admitting that Iran had been conducting suspicious enrichment activities.

This leads to a speculative theory, which again, seems odd, but has surprising merit: the entire Iranian nuclear weapons program is a scam. What is known is that Iran has been trying for decades to get relief from economic sanctions.  After an unceremonious rejection from President Clinton (he wouldn’t even talk with them), Iran decided they needed something to trade in exchange for the lifting of the sanctions. Hence, the Iranian nuclear program was born.  Not because they wanted a bomb (their theocratic leaders have publicly ruled nuclear weapons to be contrary to their religion), but because they wanted economic relief.

Of course, there is a contravening theory that the US and its allies have scammed Iran. After all, the sanction regime, which is one of the most severe in history, was never expected to last under any circumstance. Essentially, we are getting them to throttle their nuclear program in exchange for something (sanctions relief) that they would have gotten anyway.

Whatever the truth is, we can all hope that the proposed agreement will do what it is supposed to do, i.e. prevent the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb. Let’s just pray that we are all around in 25 years to see if it actually worked.

This post is the opinion solely of the author and does not reflect the positions of AMREL or its other employees.

Do you have an opinion? Send it to editor@amrel.com. Be advised we may use the content of your email in a future blog post.

 

 

 

Happy Anniversary Curiosity Mars Rover! [VIDEOS]

It’s the anniversary of the Curiosity’s landing.  For three years, the Mars rover has successfully navigated the rough terrain of the red planet, looking for water and signs of life.

We should take a moment to remember just how improbable was the success of the landing. For one thing, the fourth planet had proved not especially hospitable to early missions. In fact, Mars had been nicknamed the “Probe killer.”

Here are a few facts and figures about the Curiosity’s landing on Mars.

154 million miles

Distance of Earth from Mars at time of landing.

7 minutes                

Time delay for communication from Mars to Earth.  This is a remote controlled vehicle, so commands take 7 minutes to reach Curiosity, a significant limitation. “7 minutes of terror” is the nickname for the delay from the time of the landing to the moment that the rover’s signal reached Earth

1600 degrees

Heat of decent.

100 times thinner than Earth’s

Thickness of Mars skimpy atmosphere.

Thousand miles an hour

Speed of decent before parachute is deployed.

6,500 pounds of force

Strength necessary for the parachute.

100 pounds

Weight of parachute.

9Gs

Force generated by deployment of parachute.

6

Vehicle configurations.

76

Pyrotechnic devices.

500,000

Lines of code used.

Zero

Margin of error

Keep in mind that there was an important onboard package of instruments that had to be protected at all costs, including:

  • 17 cameras
  • Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer
  • Chemistry and Camera
  • Chemistry and Mineralogy
  • Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons
  • Mars Descent Imager
  • Mars Hand Lens Imager
  • Mast Camera
  • Radiation Assessment Detector
  • Rover Environmental Monitoring Station
  • Sample Analysis

The above considerations and others necessitated a Rube Goldberg landing system that looks like a particularly implausible stunt out of a James Bond movie.  To see the bizarre strategy adopted for landing, watch video below.

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For an update of Curiosity’s current status, watch video below:  

 

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.

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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.

hitchbot-in-bits-325x325

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?

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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.

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.

Revolutionary Hawkeye 105mm Control Unit [VIDEO]

Built by the Mandus Group, the Hawkeye 105mm Weapon System is a revolutionary system that decreases recoil by 70% without degradation of performance. Recoil is dissipated by a hybrid of the traditional oil & gas system and what is known as a “soft recoil” system.  Watch the video below to see the mobile howitzer in action.


Notice that before the Hawkeye discharges, the barrel is cocked slightly forward.  This is part of the “soft recoil” control.

Recoil is so reduced that the Hawkeye can be mounted on a truck with only four bolts. The lack of recoil (and light weight) means the Hawkeye can be used on a wide variety of military vehicles including those that are wheeled, tracked, towed as well as rail, watercraft, and aircraft.

This mobile, powerful weapon is controlled by AMREL’s ROCKY DK10 Rugged Tablet. The Mandus group chose this 12.1” tablet because they needed modifications for a low volume order, which is AMREL’s specialty.

In order to be the Hawkeye’s Operational Control Unit (OCU), the DK10 tablet was modified to have thumbwheel connectors and joysticks. The DK10 OCU:

  • Issues elevation and transverse commands
  • Manages sensors
  • Engages the safety system
  • Enters firing missions & controls direct fire
  • Interacts with laser range finder
  • Interfaces with internal navigation system and electrical control box

In addition to functioning as a handheld control unit, the DK10 can be used in cab for navigation.

To learn more about AMREL customized table solutions, click here.