Drones vs. Stupid Pet Tricks

Drones are everywhere today, from disrupting flights at JFK to filming your neighbors’ next reality TV segment. Like us, the eagle in the video below has had enough of annoying pilots giving robots a bad name…

All kidding aside, I marvel at the creativity of some drone applications from agricultural “bot-swarms” to autonomous UAVs for water management. The most impressive are robots that save lives, freeing humans from dangerous tasks.  In this post I have highlighted two promising innovations.

I. LIVE OIL RIG INSPECTIONS 

Since 2009, Sky-Futures has worked with more than 30 of the biggest oil and gas companies including Apache, BG Group, BP, ConocoPhillips, Shell and Statoil and offers drone inspection services in the North Sea, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and North Africa, and has recently opened an office in Houston to serve clients in the Gulf of Mexico. Sky-Futures is one of the first companies to receive FAA regulatory approval to operate in the US. Their drones collect HD video, stills and thermal imagery data, which is analyzed and delivered to their clients for safety site inspections.

Sky-Futures also established a new Safety Overwatch Service where the UAV provides real time video and high definition recording of heavy lifting or other topside operations. This provides an additional layer of safety to various operations both onshore and offshore that was previously unavailable with clients being able to view operations through electronic goggles if they wish.

Last month, Sky-Futures announced a new Rapid Response Service, available to operators and contractors in the North Sea, will mobilize an inspection team from Aberdeen (Scotland) within 48 hours. This will enable asset managers to make rapid assessments of their installations in order to minimize risk to personnel and prevent unnecessary shutdowns in production.

Steve Moir, Sky-Futures Engineering Manager, who will lead the new Rapid Response Service, said, “with aging assets and the current drop in oil price, Sky-Futures understand that now more than ever, preventing loss of production is critical. Our UAV Inspection Service is available at short notice, and for preventative routine maintenance of assets, both safer and more cost-effective than previous techniques.”

Before Sky-Futures, oil operators had to shut down production (costing millions in lost revenue) and have human inspectors suspended hundreds of feet over the ocean physically observe the rig.  The value proposition in both human and cost savings is a no brainer.

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II. TUNNEL DRONES FOR FIGHTING TERROR

Last summer it was discovered that Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist organization, built a network of tunnels into Israel from the Gaza strip. This threat eventually led to a month long war. Inspecting a tunnel could be one of the most deadly jobs given to a solider, however now the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are experimenting with a new UAV system developed at by the Jerusalem College of Technology’s Lev Academic Institute.

So a JCT team led by Shimon Mizrahi has developed a low-cost ($3,800) idiot-proof navigation system for a sensor-and camera-laden drone (below) that can be used in a wide variety of safety and security scenarios.

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“Our four propeller quadcopter is designed for use by an ordinary person who is not skilled in operating advanced remote controls,” Mizrahi said. “It’s the first indoor drone, and the ideal solution for use in structures or scenarios where it would be dangerous for individuals to venture.”

That would include, said Mizrahi, a Gaza terror tunnel…

“Finding the tunnels is actually the easier part of dealing with this threat,” said Mizrahi. “The IDF and Defense Ministry have gotten thousands of proposals over the past two years that claim to be solutions to locating tunnels, based on ultrasound and other technologies, and there are advanced practical solutions being developed for this. The question is, what do you do with a tunnel once you find it? That’s the problem our solution deals with, and it is the first one that can do this.”

In tunnel discovery, as well as tunnel exploration, the problem isn’t the technology – it’s the interface, said Mizrahi.

“Sensors and cameras for drones are not the problem, but controlling the drone to make sure that the equipment does what it is supposed to is the challenge. You have to look at it from the point of the operator, who in this case is an 18- or 19-year-old kid whose previous remote control skills were in controlling a television or video game. The interface has to be easy enough for that soldier to use in the field, without destroying the expensive piece of equipment he is using.”

To do that, the JCT quadcopter contains a “self-preservation” element that enables it to avoid crashing into walls or other obstacles.

“The drone has sensors that send back data about environmental conditions inside, such as atmosphere, temperature, and other data, as well as cameras that send back photos and videos,” said Mizrahi. “The drone is of course controlled by its operator, who is outside the structure being explored. In a small, narrow space like a tunnel, the chances of crashing into a wall are very high – but our quadcopter contains a mechanism that ensures that this won’t happen. Even if the operator’s actions advance it toward an obstacle, the drone will draw back or conduct other evasive action to avoid the problem.”

The drone is responding to a sort of universal self-preservation instinct – a “prime directive” – that places its survival as its primary goal.

“Of course this is programmed into the quadcopter,” said Mizrahi. “The challenge is to ensure that it can override user error. Many companies and research bodies have been working on that problem for a long time. We are the first ones to demonstrate that it is possible.”

JCT has presented its solution to the Defense Ministry as well as other rescue bodies – such as firefighters – who could use the quadcopter to explore dangerous venues, such as burning buildings. 

“Right now it’s a proof of concept, but we have gotten a lot of interest from groups – public and private – who want to help develop this further.”

There has been a lot of talk about unicorns in the venture world, quite possibly Sky-Futures or Mizrahi could be the next big thing…

Robots to Save Food Crisis

Our global population is devouring food in record numbers, depleting valuable resources at alarming rates. The romantic vision of a family farm is more of a postcard of our nostalgic past. Today, agriculture is big business that relies heavily on data driven technologies and robotics to maximize yield.

 

Mark Bryant is a farmer in Ohio with 12,000 acres, on which he raises corn, soybeans and soft red winter wheat. He is rarely on a tractor, because that isn’t how farms work anymore.

Instead, Mr. Bryant’s days are spent surveying dashboards full of data gathered from the 20 or so iPhones and five iPads he has supplied to his employees, on which they report on his acreage in real time, thanks to software from a Google-funded startup called Granular. Data gathered from aircraft, self-driving tractors (below) and other forms of automated and remote sensors—for yield, moisture and soil quality—are also essential to how he does his work.

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“Just imagine, up until Granular came, for us everything was done on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet,” says Mr. Bryant.

Mr. Bryant isn’t atypical. Increasingly, this is how farming must be done for a farm to remain competitive.

“If we’re really going to be professional farmers and feed everybody in the world, we really have to utilize this technology to do the job,” says Jeremy Jack, a farmer in Belzoni, Miss., which bills itself as the “Catfish Capital of the World.”

Here’s the problem we face: We live on a planet of 7 billion people that is projected to have more than 2 billion more mouths to feed by the middle of the century. Another billion or so people will enter the middle class in that time, radically accelerating their demand for calories in the form of meat and other energy-dense foods. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations projects that the world’s farmers will have to produce 70% more calories by 2050, on less land (perhaps much less land) and with less water than they do today.

The alternative is people starve, governments clamp down and there is, as there was during the 2007-2008 global food crisis, blood in the streets.

There is currently a lot of debate about the sustainability of our agricultural system, which is heavily dependent on both water and fossil fuels. People also are divided over GMOs vs. organic, and grass-fed vs. factory-farmed. But in any scenario, with any mix of ad-hoc solutions to these issues, one fact remains: America’s family farmers—97% of America’s 2.1 million farms are family farms—are going to have to produce a lot more food per acre, on top of a century of productivity gains unprecedented in the history of agriculture.

America has more arable land than any other country on Earth, but that amount is shrinking—3,000 acres are lost to development every day. Despite this, 889 million acres, or 40% of our land area, is devoted to farming, and the U.S. is by far the biggest exporter of grain.

In a very real sense, America feeds the world.

Getting more food from every acre without devastating the land for future generations requires accomplishing two contradictory things at once: Making farms ever larger—consolidation leads to efficiency, as in any other industry — and allowing farmers to understand every single thing happening on their farms, down to a resolution of single days, square meters and even individual plants.

The result is a panoply of farming technologies that surprised me, but maybe that’s just because advances in tractors hardly get the media attention that the tiniest iteration in consumer technology warrants.

And these are technologies that are already in use.

The world’s largest producer of autonomous four-wheeled vehicles isn’t Tesla or Google, it’s John Deere. And the cab of one of these self-driving tractors is now so full of screens and tablets that it has come to resemble the cockpit of a passenger jet—an accurate comparison in more ways than one, since perhaps only the airline industry can match farming in the degree to which its vehicles have become automated.

“When you think of John Deere you think of a bunch of mechanical engineers who are designing big steel parts, but we have 2,600 employees who come in every day who are writing software,” says John May, chief information officer of John Deere. (For reference, a tech company like Facebook, which has been hiring like crazy of late, has only about three times as many developers.)

The result is that John Deere and its competitors aren’t just turning out tractors, combines and trucks that can drive themselves and even each other, automatically coalescing into tight formations as they cross a farmer’s field, like fighter jets at an air show, they are also turning out wirelessly connected sensors that map every field, as well as planting and spraying machines that can variably apply seed and nutrients to a field, as if they were 20-ton print heads for 3D printers.

Unlike most other areas of technology, this is happening today. John Deere has been selling self-driving tractors for 15 years. What’s new is data-centric companies with Silicon Valley pedigrees, like 2 1/2-year-old Granular and aerial surveillance startup DroneDeploy, that have the ability to tap into all this machinery and run farms as efficiently as Google runs its data centers.

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As I struggled for an analogy to describe what’s going on in America’s farms, Sid Gorham, CEO and co-founder of Granular, suggested something unsexy but apt: Farming is finally getting its Enterprise Resource Planning software. This banal but critical area of software, dominated by the likes of SAP, Oracle and Microsoft, is what allows giant corporations to manage their entire supply chains and all their connected parts, including cash flow and human resources.

This change is revolutionary for those participating in it, like Mr. Bryant, who used to run his farm with paper forms, an Excel spreadsheet and a hard-won collection of gut feelings about when to plant and when to sow.

Or in other words, the way we will feed the 10 billion people whom demographers project will eventually inhabit this world will be by managing every acre of our farmland with the same precision that allows a company like Apple to deliver tens of millions of iPhones within weeks of each other.

* Thank you to WSJ’s Christopher Mims for his contribution to this post

The Airport of the Future, Today

Airports are ripe for disruption with their long lines and overtired (cranky) personnel. For example, three out of the last four United Airlines flights I had, they lost my luggage. Imagine truly friendly skies, where robots do the heavy lifting…

Tokyo’s Haneda airport is set to become a testing ground for new robot technologies under a joint project announced Thursday by its operator and leading robot developer Cyberdyne Inc. The companies said the project is aimed at showcasing Japan’s cutting-edge technologies and a model for robot utilization the rest of the world can follow.  The announcement came on the heels of the Cabinet’s approval Tuesday of the government’s revamped Japan Revitalization Strategy, which lists support for robot research and development as one of the main areas of focus.

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According to Haneda’s operator, Japan Airport Terminal Co., the key goal of the project is to “communicate Japan’s technology from Haneda airport, a doorstep of Japan” to the world.

“Haneda airport is a hub for domestic flights, and it’s seeing international landing slots expanding, routes expanding and inbound passengers increasing,” said President Isao Takashiro.  “And we have explored ways to take advantage of these characteristics and use the airport as a place where we can showcase the great things in Japan, such as its technology, industry, culture, history, and so on.”

Japan is fast embracing the use of robots in daily life. The Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Nagasaki Prefecture will open the Henna Hotel (Weird Hotel) on July 17, featuring humanoid robots that will greet visitors at the front desk while other robots serve coffee and do the cleaning. Meanwhile, Mizuho Bank is scheduled to unleash the Pepper, SoftBank Corp.’s talking humanoid robot, in various branches around the middle of this month, according to a bank spokesman.

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In the initial phase of the Haneda project, Cyberdyne, the Japanese firm known primarily for its HAL exoskeletal robot suits, will by September provide five versions designed to help workers complete loading tasks. They will be used, for example, by workers handling merchandise at airport shops. Cyberdyne says the suits work by detecting electric signals from the wearer’s brain to help people move the goods more easily.

“At airports, luggage is typically large, and people engaged in loading and unloading it put a big stress on their backs, giving them back pain,” said Cyberdyne CEO Yoshiyuki Sankai. “HAL can protect their backs by providing assisting power.”

The project will also introduce five stubby, cylindrical automatic cleaning robots that look like taller versions of the popular Roomba housecleaning robot, and three transportation robots capable of carrying up to 200 kg. Sankai said using an airport as a testing ground offer significant advantages compared to towns and cities, where laws and regulations could limit their uses.

“An airport is actually a huge place, like a small town, so to speak,” Sankai said.

“What it means for us to get a place like that to test our robots is, we have a chance to come up with something that can be directly applied to general society, something we can do to bring our towns to the next phase of development, like painting a future from the airport.”

While Japan is developing cutting edge robotic services for its airport, here in NYC ours are crumbling desperately awaiting the twenty-first century.

Mechanical Water Striders

Well after a three week hiatus in Eastern Europe and Israel, I am happy to back at my computer writing about the latest summer robotic innovation – Robotic Gerridae.  Yes, these amazing critters are able to sail and walk on water with amazing ease that one would think they are from the messianic age.  Unfortunately, we are still living in troubled times as these robots hale from Korea and will be one day used for surveillance and search & rescue missions.

Earlier this week, a team of researchers led by Seoul National University’s Je-Sung Koh published their paper on robotic water striders.  The technology was inspired by the actual insects, discovered using high-speed cameras to watch how the creature used their long legs to accelerate gradually over the water surface. When jumping from solid ground, a force is exerted on the ground below and the jumping object can push itself upwards. On water, however, you lose the surface tension force required. The team found the maximum force from the water striders’ legs always remains just below the maximum force the water surface tension can withstand. They also noticed how the insect rotated its legs as it took off.

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They then applied this knowledge to create a robot using the same principle – something they call a torque reversal catapult (TRC) mechanism. Kyu-Jin Cho, one of the senior authors on the paper, explained: “What was very important for us while building the water jumping robot was to make sure the maximum force does not exceed the maximum surface tension force.

“What we have devised was a very small bio-inspired jumping mechanism called a torque reversal catapult mechanism which applies a small force initially then the force increases gradually and thereby we can maximize the momentum transfer without exceeding the maximum surface tension force. The water strider is rotating its legs to maximize the interaction time between the legs and the water thereby maximizing the momentum transfer.”

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In terms of the real-world application, the researchers said their main aim was just to engineer something that can jump on water like some insects can. “It was this challenge that drove us to this research,” they said. “This challenge was interesting to biologists, fluid mechanics researchers and robotics researchers, all alike.

“Our goal was to explore a new possibility of a robot’s aquatic mobility that was never possible before [surface-tension dominated jumping] with even a simple design and thus a low cost. We hope that this novel motility will be incorporated in the next-step research of small scale robots. If these endeavors are added up, we will see those robots only to be seen in movies for now, in reality later.”

They also noted it could be utilized for surveillance in the future: “This robotic technology could probably be used for building large number of robots that can float, and jump on water for surveillance missions.”

They added: “A small insect-mimicking robot cannot perform complicated tasks as large robots [like humanoids] aim to do. But there are situations where you don’t need an expensive large robot but need many small cheap robots carrying out simple tasks over a wide area at the same time. Those applications include surveillance, survivor search in disaster site, etc.

“In the far future, we would like to be able to build a robot that can swim and jump on water and perform various tasks on water for surveillance gathering data from the water surfaces. This would require various other technologies to be also miniaturized, such as the electronics, sensors, and batteries, which cannot be done by just our group.”

Pepper as Crazy Eddie

When I was running RobotGalaxy, one of my investors commented that I needed a “barker” outside my stores to increase foot traffic.  At first I was confused, but then I quickly thought of the many barkers on 14th Street screaming at me to buy their insanely priced merchandise.  Yes, to many these seems like a good idea…

Earlier this week, SoftBank Group announced that its new Pepper robot will be available to businesses to fill the barker need, as a humanoid sales associate outside storefronts.  The company is developing a customer support package and a service that allows businesses to manage a fleet of Peppers, Fumihide Tomizawa, chief executive officer of SoftBank Robotics, said in an interview in Tokyo on Monday. The Japanese wireless carrier and Internet company investor will reveal more details of the service at the SoftBank World event July 30 and 31, he said. I guess this will be an early “Christmas in August” sale – “these prices are IN-SANE!”

When Pepper went on sale to Japanese consumers on June 20, all 1,000 units sold out within one minute. SoftBank is targeting businesses to increase the robot’s installed base which Tomizawa estimates would have to be in the hundreds of thousands to support a community of developers and an application store modeled on Apple Inc.’s.

“We see Pepper appearing on sales floors, behind reception desks, in educational and health care settings,” Tomizawa said. “Who buys what and under what circumstances — Pepper could analyze marketing data to modify his sales pitch.”

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Pepper has already won over Mizuho Financial Group Inc., which said in March it will use the robot in some banks from this month and may roll it out to all branches across Japan. Nestle SA has plans to introduce Pepper to 1,000 stores in the country by the end of the year to help out with sales.

The robot costs 198,000 yen ($1,600) and comes with an optional 14,800 yen monthly service plan giving users access to cloud-based voice-recognition and an app store. SoftBank is readying a separate plan for business users, Tomizawa said.

Featuring more than 20 motors and highly articulated arms, Pepper is capable of human-like body language. Its shoulders heave when in standby mode, imitating sleep. But it’s not designed for menial tasks. Instead, SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son is betting the robot’s friendly physical appearance will spur adoption of cloud services and attract app developers.

Son is directly in charge of the robot business and has said it is central to his 30-year vision for Japan’s third-largest wireless carrier. Son has taken an active role in creating Pepper, weighing in on decisions ranging from the use of wheels instead of legs to the minute details of its body design, according to Tomizawa.

The attention has Tomizawa fielding inquiries from Son, Japan’s second-richest man, including a 4 a.m. phone call asking him to come up with a list of possible patents by noon. Son has said he personally has applied for several patents related to Pepper.

“Son always brings full attention to every business he’s involved in, but it’s even more so with robotics,” said Tomizawa, who’s been with SoftBank for 15 years. “He’s really serious about this.”

While I have no doubt that Pepper will be successful in raising the curiosity of shoppers, I just think it is an incredible waste of resources that could be better applied to helping our most vulnerable citizens cope with terminal illness or aging.

Please note that over the next three weeks RobotRabbi will be taking a summer vacation…