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Robot Vehicles Invade Las Vegas

AUVSI 2012 (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) was well worth the wait. I mentioned NASA's Curiosity that landed on Mars in my ealier blog (see Curiosity, Drones and AUVSI) so we decided to make it an Engineering I/O question of the day (watch Engineering I/O - NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover).

You can watch most of what I saw at the show via our AUVSI 2012 Engineering TV playlist. There are half a dozen videos already there with a lot more to come. In case videos are not your thing I have included a couple items here.

One of the first robots we saw was the RHex robot (Fig. 1) from Boston Dynamics. The RHex is a rugged, six legged robot that does not look like the usual six legged robot. Of course, we have a video of it and it happens to be posted already (watch RHex Robot from Boston Dynamics Inspired by Cockroach - AUVSI Unmanned Systems 2012). The RHex can churn through rocks and sand and did so in the demo area. It actually does betting in a rugged environment with hills, grass and rocks.

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Figure 1. Boston Dynamics' RHex robot uses a unique set of size legs to travel through almost any terrain.

Boston Dynamics had a host of robots on display including its four legged BigDog. They also demoed the SandFlea. The SandFlea looks like the typical 11 pound, 4 wheeled robot but it packs a punch, or rather it can go ballistic allowing it to jump over tall buildings. It can launch itself 30 feet up to 25 times. It has a stabilization system so it lands properly.

Liquid Robotics was showing off their Wave Glider (Fig. 2) unmanned marine vehicle (UMV). It consists of two parts. One floats on the surface and has a set of solar cells. These are used to charge the batteries for communication and the on-board computer. The other part is about half a dozen meters below. The two are connected by an umbilical cord.

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Figure 2. Liquid Robotics has a two part robot (top shown here) called the Wave Glider that can navigate the seas using waver power.

The bottom part of the Wave Glider is where the action occurs. It has a set of fins that can be angled up or down. This provides thrust as the top part pulls the bottom part up and allows it to go down. There is also a rudder to provide direction.

The Wave Glider can move in any direction since the waves only provide vertical movement. It is not the fastest marine vehicle but it is very efficient. It can track animals and has an array of sensors that can be used for a variety of applications. The Wave Glider is essentially self sufficient and autonomous so it can go hundreds of miles.

By the way, Liquid Robitics is hiring engineers. You get to play with some really neat technology.

I used to work at the Sarnoff lab in Princeton when it was owned by RCA. It is now part of SRI International but they are still doing cutting edge research. One of the applications that was on display at AUVSI was a digital image stabalization system that was attached to a quadrotor (Fig. 3). The quadrotor helicopter was used as an example but it was impressive.

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Figure 3. SRI's Sarnoff facility was showing off their software-based image stabilization platform using a quadrotor.

The compaison was the video stream with and without stabilization. The video was rock solid when stabilization was on.

I saw a similar demonstration at the GE Intelligent Platforms' booth. GE's module used their Texas Instruments OMAP processor module. Last year they were showing software on the module that did target tracking. We did a video of it at AUVSI 2011 (watch GE Miniaturizes Video Tracking and Image Stabilization for UAVs). There will be one for this year as well but it was not posted yet.

Another one you will have to wait for is HDT Global Robotics' new robotic hand (Fig. 4). HDT's MK-1 robot was a hit last year (watch MK-1 Robotic Arm Capable of Near-Human Dexterity and Disco Dancing). The new hand is more articulate and has multiple fingers. We even got it to shake hands with Curtis.

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Figure 4. Curtis Ellzey gives a hand to HDT's latest robotic hand.

Tiny quadrotors like Rotor Concept's $129 unit (Fig. 5) were on display and demoed at the show. These tend to be electric and come with their own on-board nav systems. There were a number of off-the-shelf quadrotors being used for demonstrating other devices like cameras including Parrot's AR.Drone (see Smart phone Controls Low-Cost Quadrotor).

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Figure 5. Rotor Concept was selling this little quadrotor at the show for only $129.

The controls for the quadrotors were sometimes game controllers but typically smartphones and tablets were the control of choice. This was especially true for autonomous and semi-autonomous units where a person would select waypoints. Often realtime control by the user was of an on-board camera.

It was not surprising to find iRobot at AUVSI 2012. I have covered iRobot on Engineering TV for a number of years. Of course, they have the Roomba series for consumers as well as an array of military robots including the Packbot.

Their newest and smallest is the iRobot 110 (Fig. 6). It weighs only 5 pounds. Like Qinetiq's Dragon Runner 10, it can be thrown (watch Dragon Runner 10 Easier to Throw, Still Tough as Nails).

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Figure 6. iRobot's 110 weighs in at only five pounds.

The iRobot 110 has a pair of flippers that help it climb stairs and get out of jams. They can rotate. It can survive a 16-foot drop and it is waterproof to 3 feet. The unit has cameras on both ends and each side and can support a range of add-on payloads including a mast mounted camera.

The multiple cameras highlight the trend to more sensors on a device. They provide more information without requiring movable sensors. We saw another quadrotor with ultrasonic sensors on all six sides.

Robots were not the only thing on display at AUVSI. There was plenty of hardware and software as well. One of the new hardware items was from Versalogic. The Falcon (Fig. 7) uses their new Embedded Processing Unit (EPU) form factor that is about the size of a credit card.

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Figure 7. Versalogic's Falcon Embedded Processing Unit (EPU) is a credit card size module designed for rugged devices.

It is designed to handle an industrial temperature range (-40° to +85°C) and it meets the MIL-STD-202G specification for impact and vibration. The Falcon has a low power Intel Atom E6x0T processor that is mounted on the bottom along with a heat plate. Input voltage ranges from 8 to 17 volts so it works with 12 volt systems.

The hardware provides a range of interfaces typically found on a larger board including Gigabit Ethernet with network boot capability, four USB 2.0 ports, four serial ports, a SATA 3 interface. There are two microSD sockets and a Mini PCIe socket with mSATA capability. These allow a range of storage options. The Falcon also supports an optional Trusted Platform Module (TPM). This provides secure boot and prevents unwanted modification of the software.

There was just too much at the show to pack into this article. For example, last year we saw LaserMotive demo their laser power delivery system (watch LaserMotive Laser Power Beaming for UAVs). This year they worked with Lockheed Martin to demonstrate the techonology on a real UAV instead of a small model. It works and we have new video too. So check out the AUVSI 2012 playlist on Engineering TV. I'll be covering more from the show in the near future.

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