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robotics

Watch an army of Spot and Pepper robots cheerlead a baseball game in an empty stadium

NPB games are known for engaging antics that extend well beyond the play on the field. But what’s to be done in the era of COVID-19 when baseball is played in front of an empty stadium? For many — including Korea’s KBO League and the upcoming shortened MLB season — cardboard cutouts are an attempt to bring something familiar to the otherwise surreal experience.

Japan, on the other hand, is leaning into the surreality. The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks are getting some cheerleading help from a couple of familiar robots. Softbank’s own Pepper and Spot (of the Softbank-owned Boston Dynamics) formed the cheering section at a game this week, as the NPB team took on the Rakuten Eagles. The celebration is the first of many, running through the end of the month.

It is, as Softbank Notes, “the first time that Spot has performed a dance at a sports event.” Boston Dynamics’ robot has taken on a number of jobs of late, as the company has offered the quadruped up for sale — a first in its 25+ year history. Construction and security are among the key uses for the ‘bot, though Softbank is obviously equally interested in putting on a show. Pepper, the product of Softbank’s 2015 acquisition of  Aldebaran Robotics, meanwhile, has become a familiar sight in the hospitality industry.

When the shortened MLB season kicks off in States later this month, many teams will be filling stands with cardboard cutouts. The Oakland A’s, notably, announced a plan to charge fans to have their likeness appear on the life-size cardboard facades.

High Earth Orbit Robotics uses imaging satellites to provide on-demand check-ups for other satellites

Maintaining satellites on orbit and ensuring they make full use of their operational lifespan has never been more important, given concerns around sustainable operations in an increasingly crowded orbital environment. As companies tighten their belts financially to deal with the ongoing economic impact of COVID-19, too, it’s more important than ever for in-space assets to live up to their max potential. A startup called High Earth Orbit (HEO) Robotics has a very clever solution that makes use of existing satellites to provide monitoring services for others, generating revenue from unused Earth imaging satellite time and providing a valuable maintenance service all at the same time.

HEO’s model employs cameras already on orbit mounted on Earth observation satellites operated by partner companies, and tasks them with collecting images of the satellites of its customers, who are looking to ensure their spacecraft are in good working order, oriented in the correct way, and with all their payloads properly deployed. Onboard instrumentation can provide satellite operators with a lot of diagnostic information, but sometimes there are problems only external photography can properly identify, or that require confirmation or further detail to resolve.

The beauty of HEO’s model is that it’s truly a win for all involved; Earth observation satellites generally aren’t in use at all times – they have considerable down time in particular when they’re over open water, for instance, HEO’s founder and CEO William Crowe tells me.

“We try to use the satellites at otherwise low-value times, like when they are over the ocean (which of course is most of the time),” Crowe said via email. “We also task our partners just like we would as a regular Earth-imaging business, specifying an area on Earth’s surface to image, the exception being that there is always a spacecraft in the field-of-view.”

The company is early on in its trajectory, but it has just released a proof-of-concept capture of the International Space Station, as seen in the slides provided by HEO below. The image was captured by a satellite owned by the Korean Aerospace Research Institute, which is operated by commercial satellite operator SI Imaging Services. HEO’s software compensated for the relative velocity of the satellite to the ISS, which was a very fast 10 km/s (around 6.2 miles per second). The company says it’s working towards getting even higher-resolution images.

The beauty of HEO’s model is that it actually requires no capital expenditure to work, in terms of the satellites used: Crowe explained that they currently pay-per-use, which means they only spend when they have a client request, so that the revenue covers the cost of tasking the partner satellite. HEO does plan to launch its own satellites in the “medium-term,” however, Crowe said, in order to cover the gaps that currently exist in coverage and in anticipation of an explosion in the low Earth orbit satellite population, which is expected to expand from the existing 2,000 or so spacecraft to as many as 100,000 or more over roughly the next decade.

HEO could ultimately provide imaging of not only other satellites, but also space debris to help with removal efforts, and even asteroids that could prove potential targets for mining and resource gathering. It’s a remarkably well-considered idea that stands to benefit from the explosion of growth in the orbital satellite industry, and also stands out among space startups because it has a near-term path to revenue that doesn’t require a massive outlay of capital up front.

Festo’s latest biomimetic robots are a flying feathered bird and ball-bottomed helper arm

You could be excused for thinking that German robotics company Festo does nothing but put together fabulous prototype robots built to resemble kangaroos, jellyfish, and other living things. They do in fact actually make real industrial robots, but it’s hard not to marvel at their biomimetic experiments; Case in point, the feathered BionicSwift and absurd BionicMobileAssistant motile arm.

Festo already has a flying bird robot — I wrote about it almost 10 years ago. They even made a flying bat as a follow-up. But the BionicSwift is more impressive than both because, in an effort to more closely resemble its avian inspiration, it flies using artificial feathers.

Image Credits: Festo

“The individual lamellae [i.e. feathers] are made of an ultralight, flexible but very robust foam and lie on top of each other like shingles. Connected to a carbon quill, they are attached to the actual hand and arm wings as in the natural model,” Festo writes in its description of the robot.

The articulating lamellae allow the wing to work like a bird’s, forming a powerful scoop on the downstroke to push against the air, but separating on the upstroke to produce less resistance. Everything is controlled on-board, including the indoor positioning system that the bird was ostensibly built to demonstrate. Flocks of BionicSwifts can fly in close quarters and avoid each other using an ultra wideband setup.

Festo’s BionicMobileAssistant seems like it would be more practical, and in a way it is, but not by much. The robot is basically an arm emerging from a wheeled base — or rather a balled one. The spherical bottom is driven by three “omniwheels,” letting it move easily in any direction while minimizing its footprint.

The hand is a showcase of modern robotic gripper design, with all kinds of state of the art tech packed in there — but the result is less than the sum of its parts. What makes a robotic hand good these days is less that it has a hundred sensors in the palm and fingers and huge motility for its thumb, but rather intelligence about what it is gripping. An unadorned pincer may be a better “hand” than one that looks like the real thing because of the software that backs it up.

Not to mention the spherical movement strategy makes for something of an unstable base. It’s telling that the robot is transporting scarves and not plates of food or parts.

Of course, it’s silly to criticize such a machine, which is aspirational rather than practical. But it’s important to understand that these fascinating creations from Festo are hints at a possible future more than anything.