Personal Appearances

I'll be making two important public appearances in the next few weeks. I'll be addressing the IVTT (Intelligent Vehicle Technology Transfer) workshop on Intellidrive - Vehicle Infrastructure Integration this week (July 30) in Washington DC. This is held at the Holiday Inn in Gaithersburg MD, next door to NIST. My presentation will be on "Network Centric Operations".

I'll also be making a presentation entitiled "Reducing Operator Workload" at the AUVSI (Association of Unmanned Vehicles Systems International) conference in Washington on August 10th. My company will have a robot exhibit at this conference with our UGV's, UAV's and USV's. (ground, air, and sea vehicles).
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Its MAGIC! Another robot challenge

OK, we liked the DARPA Grand Challenge, and its successor the Urban Challenge. And the X-Prize was very exciting, dramatic, and had a wonderful outcome. The Lunar Google X-Prize is a little daunting, and not for the timid, and will require LOTS of fundraising. What else is there to go after for inventors and robotics tinkerers? Now there is a new contest in town, and you have to like the name. Its MAGIC - Multi-Autonomous Ground robotic International Challenge. It's jointly sponsored by the US RDECOM (a research section of the Army) and DSTO, the Australian equivalent of DARPA. The objective is for a team of three robots to perform a task of mapping and searching an urban terrain. And they have to work together as a team. This sounds quite interesting, and I'll be keeping an eye on this. Sounds like a wonderful excuse to go to Australia.
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The Truth about EATR

It is always gratifying when something I'm involved in gets a wide reception around the Internet. In the case of EATR (see post, below) there has been a lot of speculation and just wild rumors about what we are trying to do with the Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot. For example

Bot Junkie: Robot runs on Soylent Green
The Register: Robot to consume all life on earth as fuel
DARPA Funds Flesh Eating Robot

Which stories basically took the concept of a robot that finds its own food, and then wildly speculated on what that food might be, because in the press releases we just said "biomass" without specifying what that might include.

I'm one of the principles involved in EATR, as my company is one of the commercial investors in this project.


EATR was always conceived as identifying, selecting, and consuming vegetable matter (leaves, twigs, branches, grass) as its energy source. In particular, the easiest vegetable matter to grab from the robot's perspective, is what is already lying on the ground - dead leaves, dropped branches, etc. That material is gathered up and then ground into small bits that can be easily dropped into the burner. EATR IS A VEGETARIAN.

So EATR is far more like a robot cow or horse, grazing for its food to convert to energy.

And frankly, we don't have any means at all of converting protein into energy, so any sort of animal material would be useless.

As noted in the press release, there are four parts of EATR:
the computer system with the sensors,
a large robot arm,
an external combustion engine (in this case, the Cyclone power unit)
the mobility platform (i.e. a car or mobile vehicle like a golf cart)

In the first phase of EATR, all of the components are stationary and mounted on a platform. We will be "teaching" the system to recognize potential food, and be able to pick it up and place it in a container. That alone is a very difficult prospect. In this stationary state, we will be placing different materials near the robot and using various sensors to identify and classify the material, and then use 3D sensors to show the robot where the material is and how to pick it up. Right now we are using small tree branches about 1/2 inch in diameter.

The material will go into a chipper that will render it down into sawdust. What will work best is dry leaves, twigs, and small branches--in other words, dead vegetable matter.

The team chose a steam-type engine (actually an external combustion engine) since that was the simplest and most direct way to make energy out of found material. We can just burn the material and use the heat to make electricity, which is our aim.

So the main food source of EATR, what we will get the best energy from, will be dead plant material that has dried out. Animal biomass would not be usable at all.
We are also planning for EATR to have a helper. It carries one or more smaller "marsupial" robots in a garage in the back of the vehicle (see image). We are thinking that these smaller robots (like the Elbit Beagle Robot pictured) can assist the larger "mother" vehicle to gather material into a heap that would be easier to pick up. The small "joey" robots would be battery powered and recharged by the larger EATR main vehicle. This would help deal with small scale objects like dead leaves that may not be efficiently picked up by the large robot arm by itself.

For our next phase, if we get to do one. is to create a more sustainable fuel source. NASA refers to what we do as "In-Situ Resource Utilization" or ISRU. They are studying using processes to extract fuel, air, and water from local materials on the Moon, and Mars. It is obviously a tremendous advantage if you don't have to carry all of your supplies with you everywhere you go. Here on Earth, the EATR team is considering some sort of bio-mass fuel creation, either using alge to make some sort of oil or bio-diesel, or something to do with either methane or ammonia, both of which can be used in internal combustion engines. It probably would not hurt to suppliment the energy budget with some solar electricity.

What do you do with an EATR? We've come up with a list of ideas, which include long border patrols, pipeline inspection, long term climate studies, wildlife research, mobile observation posts, and forest management. Any project that needs long duration missions away from civilization would be a possible application.

Frankly, I'm as interested in other technological spinoffs as the possiblility of making fuel. Just solving the object recognition and manipulation tasks would have immediate benifits for tasks like humanitarian landmine removal, or creating a robot that could tend plants. EATR represents an serious advance in autonomous robotics, and has tangible benifits to the military and society in general. I'm proud to be a part of the project, and particularly delighted to be working with the calibre of talent that is involved.

Also, by the way, I created most of the artwork that you are seeing in the press on EATR, including all of the pictures on this blog. Dr. Jim Albus created the original robot design, and I created the drawings. The "Tree eating robot" cartoon was my idea.

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Latest Thoughts...

What I'm reading now

Old Man's War by John Scalzi. A new take on "Starship Troopers" where you can trade in your old body for a new model, provided you volunteer for military service in return. Some fascinating thoughts on the nature of consciousness and a truly different look at the future. Somewhat reminds me of the Reality Disfunction novels of Peter Hamilton, which are wildly inventive. Good book with several sequels.

DroidMaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution by Michael Rubin. Actually not about robots at all, but rather how George Lucas created entire new industries by accident in his quest to make digital filmmaking a reality. Discusses the birth of ILM (Industrial Light and Magic), LucasArts Games, and Pixar Films.

What I'm listening to now:

Tom Smith: The World's Fastest Filker. I have to blame Gerry Tyra, a buddy from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, for getting hooked on Filk, which is a science-fiction fan's version of folk music. Tom Smith is funny, gritty, thoughtful, and witty, as well as having a fast turn of verse ("It may not make sense but at least it will rhyme", he says). His biggest hit, Rocket Ride, has become my personal anthem. Also good is "Superman Sex Life Boogie", "Rich Fantasy Lives", and "Creatures of the Night". He just seems to get better, and some of his latest stuff, like "Lars Needs Women", and "Dead Again" is really good. Trust me. You'll find something to like.

I apologize that this annoying "Read More" flag shows up when I don't want it to. I had to try and cut down some of the longer posts so you can browse the blog easily, but it even shows up in the short ones. I'll get some help on this. Sorry!
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Video of the Week - Self Driving BMW

My video of the week is from one of my favorite TV shows. I really only have time to watch one or two shows a week. Anyone who knows me can tell you that my favorite show now on is Mythbusters. That makes sense, the hosts, Jamie, Adam and Grant, are robot builders and fellow contributors to Robot Magazine. My "fav" second show is Top Gear, which is on BBC America here in the US. This is a very off-the-wall, very British show about cars. Fast cars.

In this video, Jeremy Clarkson meets a self-driving BMW 3-series. I've always found this video amusing because shortly before I saw it, I was at an intelligent vehicle conference, and had lunch with a couple of engineers from BMW, who flat out told me that BMW had no interest in autonomous vehicles, since they were "all about the driving".

Now in their defense, I understand that this car is from their testing division, and is particularly designed to drive the exact same lap over and over so that the BMW engineers can gather data -- its not intended to be any sort of technology for a product. The other amazing fact is that this car is driving blind. BMW is using a form of extremely high precision GPS mapping to keep the car on the track. It has no obstacle detection or avoidance capability at all. This is fine for controlled conditions and closed tracks, and admittedly gets the job done for testing. It would not do to mix this car in with other traffic. Anyway, it makes me laugh, and I get to talk about Top Gear. Did you see the time they put all these rockets on a Mini Cooper.....

I do have other shows that I like that are no longer on. I'm a huge fan of Thunderbirds, and of the japanese anime series Captain Harlock.

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I'm starting a new series here on self-driving cars, or if you prefer, autonomous automobiles (or robo-cars - what do you think they should be called?)

I've had many people tell me that they just were not interesting in a car that drives itself. What fun would that be?

My answer is quite a lot! From a selfish perspective, I live in Texas. This means I drive a lot on long highways, especially since my relatives are some distance away, and my children are in college out of town. I also spent two years commuting once a week 200 miles away, and a year commuting 120 miles a day (60 to and from work). That is a lot of time in a car. I would much rather be reading, sleeping, playing a game, or composing my blog that driving my car on these long trips. How would you like to push the 'autopilot' button on your dash and fold your seat back and let the car take you the next few hours on the superhighway?

That's my reason, but there are lots of others. The most pointed one is the simple fact that each year over 27,000 people are killed on US highways. Every year. A greater number of people are injured or maimed, resulting in long-term hospital care. Annual drain on the US economy is in the billions. Now imagine a car that will not crash. It won't fall asleep, won't run red lights, and can't drive drunk. What is that worth?

Speaking of which, the widespread use of autonomous automobiles could eliminate drunk driving as a hazard, a crime, or a problem. If your too soused to drive, the car takes you home. You don't even have to remember where home is.

Another point is that self-driving cars could eliminate driver's licenses, age limits, and handicaps. Are you blind? The car can drive. Too old? No longer a problem. Too young? the car drives itself, is a license required? As we are all going to get old and infirm some day, the allure of keeping your personal transportation, safely, is tempting.

Now how about saving the environment. Every day your car sits in a parking lot, doing nothing. I drive to work and park my car. My wife goes in the opposite direction and does the same. If we had a self driving car, it could take me to work, then return home and pick up my wife, and take her to work. Then it could return home and wait for us to get off. No parking lot issues at work, and the whole family only needs one car.

Rental cars would also take in a whole new meaning. In the anime "Ex-Driver", the animators explore a world of autonomous cars. You need a car, you call on your cell phone to a rental agency. Minutes later a car shows up (following the GPS in your phone) by itself and picks you up. You type in where you want to go and sit back. When the car gets to your destination, it waits for the next call in the area and drives itself to get someone else. Seeing a movie? Make a reservation for the right time and the car is there waiting for you when you get out. No parking.

So that's just a start. In later posts, we can talk about how this can come about, what the roadmap is to the fully self-driving car, and how changes to the infrastructure, cars, and drivers can be brought about smoothly and incrementally.

For more information, I'm a member of the IVTT (Intelligent Vehicle Technology Transfer) organization. See their website for more information.

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