Monthly Archives: December 2017

Miniature robotics: Military robots are getting smaller and more capable

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ON NOVEMBER 12th a video called “Slaughterbots” was uploaded to YouTube. It is the brainchild of Stuart Russell, a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of California, Berkeley, and was paid for by the Future of Life Institute (FLI), a group of concerned scientists and technologists that includes Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal. It is set in a near-future in which small drones fitted with face-recognition systems and shaped explosive charges can be programmed to seek out and kill known individuals or classes of individuals (those wearing a particular uniform, for example). In one scene, the drones are shown collaborating with each other to gain entrance to a building. One acts as a petard, blasting through a wall to grant access to the others.

“Slaughterbots” is fiction. The question Dr Russell poses is, “how long will it remain so?” For military laboratories around the planet are busy developing small, autonomous robots for use in warfare, both conventional and unconventional. In America, in particular, a programme called MAST (Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology), which has been run by the US Army Research Laboratory in Maryland, is wrapping up this month after ten successful years. MAST co-ordinated and paid for research by a consortium of established laboratories, notably at the University of Maryland, Texas A&M University and Berkeley (the work at Berkeley is unrelated to Dr Russell’s). Its successor, the Distributed and Collaborative Intelligent Systems and Technology (DCIST) programme, which began earlier this year, is now getting into its stride.

In 2008, when MAST began, a spy drone that you could hold in the palm of your hand was an idea from science fiction. Such drones are now commonplace. Along with flying drones, MAST’s researchers have been developing pocket-sized battlefield scouts that can hop or crawl ahead of soldiers. DCIST’s purpose is to take these autonomous robots and make them co-operate. The result, if the project succeeds, will be swarms of devices that can take co-ordinated action to achieve a joint goal.

A hop, skip and jump away

At the moment, America’s defence department is committed to keeping such swarms under human control, so that the decision to pull a trigger will always be taken by a person rather than a machine. The Pentagon is as alarmed by the prospect of freebooting killer robots as the FLI is. But, as someone said of nuclear weapons after the first one was detonated, the only secret worth keeping is now out: the damn things work. If swarms of small robots can be made to collaborate autonomously, someone, somewhere will do it.

Existing small drones are usually polycopters—helicopters that have a set of rotors (generally four or six) arranged at the vertices of a regular polygon, rather than a single one above their centre of gravity. Some MAST researchers, however, think they have alighted on something better.

Their proposed replacement is the cyclocopter. This resembles an airborne paddle steamer. Though the idea of cyclocopters has been around for a while, the strong, lightweight materials needed to make them have hitherto been unavailable and the computing tools needed to design them have only recently been created. Now that those materials and tools do exist, things are advancing rapidly. Over the course of the MAST project the researchers have shrunk cyclocopters from being behemoths weighing half a kilogram to svelte devices that tip the scales at less than 30 grams. Such machines can outperform polycopters.

Cyclocopter aerodynamics is more like that of insects than of conventional aircraft, in that lift is generated by stirring the air into vortices rather than relying on its flow over aerofoils. For small cyclocopters this helps. Vortex effects become proportionately more powerful as an aircraft shrinks, but, in the case of conventional craft, including polycopters, that makes things worse, by decreasing stability. Cyclocopters get better as they get smaller.

They are also quieter. As Moble Benedict of Texas A&M, one of the leaders of the cyclocopter project, observes, “aerodynamic noise is a strong function of the blade-tip speed”—hence the whup-whup-whup of helicopters. The blade-tip speeds of cyclocopters are much lower. That makes them ideal for spying. They also have better manoeuvrability, and are less disturbed by gusts of wind.

Dr Benedict reckons cyclocopters are about two years away from commercial production. Once that happens they could displace polycopters in many roles, not just military ones. But they are not the only novel technology in which MAST has been involved. The programme has also worked on robots that hop.

Ready to spring into action

One of the most advanced is Salto, developed by the Biomimetic Millisystems Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. Salto (pictured) is a monopod weighing 98 grams that has a rotating tail and side-thrusters. These let it stabilise itself and reorient in mid-leap. That gives it the agility to bounce over uneven surfaces and also to climb staircases.

Salto’s speed (almost two metres a second) puts huge demands on its single leg. Ron Fearing, one of the electrical engineers developing it, puts things thus: “imagine a cheetah running at top speed using only one leg, and then cut the amount of time that leg spends on the ground in half.” As with cyclocopters, the materials and processing power needed to do this have only recently come into existence.

Dr Fearing says Salto and its kin are quieter than aerial drones and can operate in confined spaces where flying robots would be disturbed by turbulence reflected from the walls. They can also travel over terrain, such as collapsed buildings, that is off-limits to wheeled vehicles. Salto still needs work. In particular, it needs to be able to cling more effectively to what it lands on. Dr Fearing uses the analogy of a squirrel leaping from branch to branch. Arriving at the next branch is only half the battle. The other half is staying there. Once that is solved, though, which it should be in the next year or two, small non-flying robots that can go where their wheeled, or even track-laying, brethren cannot should become available for practical use.

Bouncing over the rubble of a collapsed building is not the only way to explore it. Another is to weave through the spaces between the debris. Researchers at the Biomimetic Millisystems lab are working on that, too. Their solution resembles a cockroach. Its body is broad and flat, which gives it stability but also permits it to crawl through narrow spaces—if necessary by going up on one side. Should it tip over whilst attempting this, it has wing-like extensions it can use to flip itself upright again.

Getting into a building, whether collapsed or intact, is one thing. Navigating around it without human assistance is quite another. For this purpose MAST has been feeding its results to the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), America’s main federal military-research organisation. According to Brett Piekarski, who led MAST and is now in charge of DCIST, the Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) programme at DARPA will continue MAST’s work with the aim of developing small drones that can “ingress and egress into buildings and navigate within those buildings at high speeds”. Some of that has already been done. In June DARPA reported that polycopters souped up by the FLA programme were able to slalom through woodlands, swerve around obstacles in a hangar and report back to their starting-point, all by themselves.

Unity is strength

The next challenge—the one that people like Dr Russell particularly worry about—is getting the robots to swarm and co-ordinate their behaviour effectively. Under the aegis of MAST, a group from the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing & Perception (GRASP) laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania did indeed manage to make drones fly together in co-ordinated formations without hitting each other. They look good when doing so—but, to some extent, what is seen is an illusion. The drones are not, as members of a swarm of bees or a flock of birds would be, relying on sensory information they have gathered themselves. Instead, GRASP’s drone swarms employ ground-based sensors to track individual drones around, and a central controller to stop them colliding.

That is starting to change. A farewell demonstration by MAST, in August, showed three robots (two on the ground and one in the air) keeping station with each other using only hardware that was on board the robots themselves. This opens the way for larger flocks of robots to co-ordinate without outside intervention.

Moreover, as that demonstration showed, when drones and other robots can routinely flock together in this way, they will not necessarily be birds of a feather. “Heterogeneous group control” is a new discipline that aims to tackle the thorny problem of managing units that consist of various robots—some as small as a postage stamp, others as large as a jeep—as well as human team members. Swarms will also need to be able to break up into sub-units to search a building and then recombine once they have done so, all in a hostile environment.

Such things are the goals of DCIST. The first tranche of grants to these ends, some $27m of them, has already been awarded to the University of Pennsylvania, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley. When DCIST itself wraps up, probably in 2022, the idea of Slaughterbots may seem a lot less fictional than it does now.

Sound and softwareTech giants will probably dominate speakers and headphones

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Smartspeakers and wireless ear buds are sending the audio industry “horizontal”

MUSIC lovers do not typically go to the opera to buy a speaker. But at the Palais Garnier in Paris they now can: Devialet, a local maker of high-end speakers, on November 29th opened a store in the 19th-century music venue to sell its most sophisticated product, called Phantom. Looking like a dinosaur egg, this supercomputer for sound (priced at $3,000) is considered one of the best wireless speakers available. It also comes with a dedicated streaming service for live performances, including some at the Palais Garnier.

This Phantom at the opera is the latest example of how digital technology is transforming speakers, headsets and other audio devices. Once mostly tethered to hi-fi systems, they are now wireless, increasingly intelligent and capable of supporting other services. As a result, the industry’s economics are changing.

Only a few years ago the audio industry was highly fragmented, says Simon Bryant of Futuresource, a market-research firm. Hundreds of brands offered their wares, both premium and basic, often with identical components. As with other device businesses, the industry was a “vertical” one: if speakers used any software at all, it was specific to the product.

All this started to change with the advent of smartphones, which made music more portable by connecting music-streaming services such as Spotify with wireless speakers. Smartphones have also given a boost to headphones, which are becoming ever more versatile, with features now ranging from cancelling out ambient noise to real-time translation.

These new possibilities have proved hugely popular: the global market for audio devices has rocketed in recent years (see chart). According to Futuresource, only about 200,000 wireless speakers were sold in 2009; this year the number is expected to be 70m. Headphones have been on a similar tear.

Smartspeakers, which were pioneered in 2015 by Amazon with the Echo, will be even more disruptive. Nearly 24m of these devices, essentially voice-controlled remote controls for everything from music to lights, will be sold worldwide in 2017, estimates Strategy Analytics, another market researcher—a number it expects to quadruple by 2022. Once households have one, they buy more to spread them throughout their homes (apparently nearly a tenth now live in bathrooms).

Smartspeakers are pushing the audio-device industry to become “horizontal”. The voice that emanates from Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Home is not just a digital assistant, but a “platform” for all kinds of services, of which most are developed by other firms. Alexa, as Amazon’s version is called, already boasts more than 25,000 “skills”, as the firm calls such services. These range from ordering goods and finding a mobile phone to turning up the heating and (early next year) asking The Economistfor the latest on any given topic. Similarly, wireless ear buds, such as Apple’s AirPods and The Dash by Bragi, a startup, may become so clever that more and more people will leave them in all day, for instance to monitor their health or for constant access to a digital assistant.

Conventional speaker firms are trying to catch up. In September at IFA, a trade show in Berlin, booths of various makers were adorned with logos of Amazon or Google, signalling that they already have or will integrate a digital assistant in their products. But if the history of the smartphone is any guide, such platforms will turn the hardware into a commodity, with most of the profits going to the providers of software and services. Having sold 75% of all smartspeakers (at low prices that are thought to be close to the cost of making them), Amazon is now the world’s biggest speaker brand. Incumbents will also have to contend with Apple, despite the delay of its smartspeaker until early next year.

The dominance of a few platforms is not a forgone conclusion, says Mr Bryant of Futuresource. More specialised ones are likely to thrive, too—like Microsoft’s Cortana, which is good at understanding business jargon. But some audio firms feel the need to branch out. Sonos, which pioneered wireless speakers a decade ago, now wants to become an über-platform, integrating all voice assistants and streaming services, so consumers who like Sonos speakers have a choice. Harman, which in March was bought by Samsung Electronics, has similar plans for entertainment systems in cars.

And then there are companies which do not build their own speakers, but offer technology to enhance other products. Dolby and DTS, for instance, are busy creating software for what is called “immersive audio”. Combining several speakers, Dolby’s Atmos technology—first introduced in cinemas, but now available for home use—already “places” sounds in space. The next step is separate personal sound zones for each listener in a room, in effect creating invisible speakers.

So why does Devialet, which last year got €100m ($106m) in fresh capital, think it can succeed by selling expensive high-end speakers? The answer is that it wants to be a platform, too. The speakers are mostly meant to demonstrate its technology, in the hope that other companies will integrate it into their products. The first example, launched last month, is a soundbar (a slim loudspeaker) it has developed together with Sky, a broadcaster. “If you see yourself just as an audio company,” says Quentin Sannié, Devialet’s chief executive, “your days are numbered.”