Category Archives: DARPA

My CES highlight: riding in a robot car

I’m knee deep in the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas so over the next few days I’ll be posting some retrospective - and futurespective (if that’s a word) - thoughts on the show’s past and future. With any luck, I’ll post some cool stuff from this year’s show.

Today, I thought I’d start with my most memorable CES experience, which was riding in a robot car at the 2008 show. The car, a GM SUV designed by Carnegie Mellon engineers, was tricked out with GPS, ladar (also known as laser radar and LIDAR) and a host of other sensors, all of which let it drive itself. The Boss, as the vehicle was known, won the 2007 DARPA urban challenge, an open race held by the Pentagon’s mad science division in an effort to spur development of robotic vehicles.

I wrote about the surreal experience in a CBC blog post, which you can read here. Alas, if only video were as ubiquitous back then (it’s amazing how quickly things have changed, particularly the field of journalism, which is increasingly relying on video), I’d post a first-hand view of the experience, since words really can’t capture the feeling. Wired actually did so, although the video can’t be embedded - you can see what it’s like to ride in the car by going here.

Scientific American also interviewed some of the people behind the Boss, which is here:

In a story I wrote at the time, GM representatives said fully robotic cars would be on the roads within 10 years, which is only six years away now. With Google experimenting with such vehicles and more automated features creeping into cars every year, we’re well on the way.

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Posted by on January 11, 2012 in CES, DARPA, robots


Meet tomorrow’s weapon designer: you

The U.S. military gets its fair share of criticism when it comes to efficiency, what with the million-dollar screwdrivers it tends to buy and so on, but one thing it is pretty good at is changing with the times. Unlike some industries (cough media cough), the military is doing a solid job of adapting to and taking advantage of technological changes.

One example of this is a current project from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that is looking to build better Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. UAVForge is a program that combines social networking, crowd-sourcing and even video games in an effort to jumpstart the field. As the website states:

UAVForge is a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic (SSC Atlantic) collaborative initiative to design, build and manufacture advanced small unmanned air vehicle (UAV) systems. Our goal is to facilitate the exchange of ideas among a loosely connected international community united through common interests and inspired by innovation and creative thought.

The project is taking submissions from the general public until Jan. 20, whereupon voting will begin on who has the best designs, with a $100,000 prize awaiting the winner. This is, of course, a far cry from the good old days, when the Pentagon would simply give Lockheed Martin or Raytheon a couple billion dollars to do it.

Here’s a video of the sort of thing the project is looking for:

The bottom line is, designing tomorrow’s war machines isn’t just for mega-contractors anymore. Grab yourself some CAD software, play some Call of Duty and get cracking!

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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in DARPA, uav, video games


Eyes in the sky get creepier with robot birds

Nearly two years ago, I blogged about how DARPA - the Pentagon’s mad science division - was working on a robotic hummingbird, which would act as a super-small surveillance craft. Well, as Borat would say: Success!

Monrovia, Calif.-based AeroVironment has perfected the tiny unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which uses flapping wings rather than rotor blades or fans to keep aloft. The Nano Hummingbird is equipped with cameras and even outfitted to look like the actual bird.

Check out the newly released promo video, which features some suitably dramatic music:

The Nano Hummingbird isn’t the only robot designed to replicate a bird. Check out the amazing Smartbird from Germany’s Festo. Just about anyone would be hard-pressed to tell one of these from the real thing at a distance.

If you weren’t paranoid about being watched before, now might be a good time to start.

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Posted by on June 9, 2011 in DARPA, robots, uav


2021: Robots, robots, robots

In an opinion piece in Scientific American five years ago, Microsoft founder Bill Gates said the robotics market was currently at the same stage as personal computers were in the early 1980s. Given what we know about Moore’s Law and the law of accelerating returns, things are therefore about to get really interesting when it comes to robots.

Over the past decade, our notions of what a robot is have changed. We used to think of them as these humanoid automatons, like Star Trek’s Commander Data or Star Wars’ C3P0. But as robots have gone from science-fiction to reality, they’re showing up looking more like R2D2. That’s because humanoid robots are not necessarily practical - they were simply a form idealized by their egotistical makers, who thought their own shapes were utilitarian perfection.

Things really got moving in 2002 with iRobot’s introduction of the Roomba vacuum cleaner. It was the first robot affordable to the every-day consumer that actually performed a useful task. The Roomba proved to be a hit and now other, bigger companies - including LG - are trying to get in on the burgeoning home robot market.

Out on the roads, meanwhile, Google has gotten involved with DARPA’s robot cars. I rode in one of these things a few years back and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The technology to have driver-less cars is almost here, the only question is when will we allow them?

But the change in perception of what a robot is goes deeper. We used to think a robot had to be able to move to be considered as such, but today roboticists say it merely has to be able to act autonomously. One robot guru I spoke to a few months ago, Professor Juh-Ho Oh at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, says the latest cameras - which automatically shoot when they detect a smile - are effectively robots. Microsoft’s Kinect motion-gaming system, which has a camera that follows you around your living room as you have a video chat, is also somewhat robotic.

Our home appliances are becoming increasingly wired (or wireless, actually) and connected with each other. We will soon be able to control them remotely, while our homes will increasingly act autonomously - it will turn off lights and heat automatically when it detects that no one is home. During a recent conversation I had with Jim Watson, another roboticist at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, he wondered why there were so few robots overall on Star Trek. He corrected himself a second later, though, when he realized that “the whole ship was a robot.” Indeed - within the next 10 years, our entire home will be a robot that we’ll be living inside of.


Posted by on March 2, 2011 in DARPA, Google, robots


Jeopardy’s Watson computer still needs humans

If you didn’t tune in to Jeopardy last night to see IBM’s “Watson” supercomputer take on a pair of the show’s past human uber-champions, you have another chance tonight in part two of what is history in the making.

The first half of last night’s episode was incredible to watch - the computer literally kicked the crap out of human competitors Ken Jennings (who once had a 74-game winning streak) and Brad Rutter during the first half of the show, only to come back down to earth during the second half. After breezing through the easy questions, Watson actually fielded a number of wrong answers - gasp! Here’s a promo video explaining what it’s all about:

The cynic might think this whole computer-gimmick-on-Jeopardy thing is just a big commercial for IBM, and to some extent that’s correct. But there really is something far more important going on here. Just as Art Linkletter used the massive UNIVAC computer on his show in the 1950s to pair up men and women, so too is Watson intended to demonstrate just what is possible with today’s computing power. As the IBM engineers say in the video, Watson can ultimately be applied to all sorts of real-world applications, such as diagnosing patients. Indeed, the military is working on a similar program called the Personalized Assistant that Learns (PAL), which can interpret data and suggest courses of action to its human operators.

Watson and PAL are the products of Moore’s Law, where the processing power of computers doubles roughly every 18 months - a phenomenon that has essentially been true since the invention of the transistor back in the 1940s. As the Watson/Jeopardy hype built over the weekend, many people joked about the coming robot apocalypse - a time long foreseen in science-fiction when the computers become smarter than the humans and eventually take over the world.

The world domination part is unlikely to happen for a host of reasons, but computers surpassing us in intelligence is inevitable. Moore’s Law, or what futurist Ray Kurzweil calls the law of accelerating returns, essentially guarantees it.

Coincidentally, I happened to recently speak with Jim Osborn, the executive director of the Quality of Life Technology Center at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, a hotspot of robotics and artificial intelligence research. We chatted about a story on robots that I’ve been working on and, of course, the topic of robotic AI came up. He said that thanks to Moore’s Law and the law of accelerating returns, robotics problems - things like getting a robot to walk properly or grip an item correctly - are being solved with amazing frequency. However, despite that, the role of humans in determining the intelligence level of a robot is still extremely important because we’re the ones the give it the tools it needs to learn.

“It’s not just a matter of waiting for a faster computer to do the same algorithm just that much quicker, we still need fundamental improvements in the algorithms,” he said. “You don’t want to run a crummy algorithm on a better computer.”

In any event, if you want to see something amazing, tune in to see Watson in action on Jeopardy tonight.

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Posted by on February 15, 2011 in artificial intelligence, DARPA, robots


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