MicroRobots, the repetition is a robot affair

What if the long-forecasted robot threat won’t arrive from huge machine like the X-Men Sentinels or from an extremely rational AI like Skynet BUT from microrobots doing always the same task (and maybe evolving in doing it)?

SRI International is developing microrobots, magnetically steered ants aimed to assemble electronic components or build small structures. These dark one-centimeter robots can only move on specific pattern of previously-built electronic circuits and have only a small wire arm on the top but they have already proven themselves building a 30 cm-long structure made of carbon rods and LED (which has been used by the team as a lab’s Christmas tree.

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In order to build this simple structure, four commands were given to the microrobots. The first is to push a level in order to release a carbon rod, the second one is to pick up the toothpick, then another robot applies the glue to the structure and the fourth one presses the carbon rod, sticking it to the structure. What’s more the software moving the robots can also move the platform in which they are operating in order to repeat the action in another surface.

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What’s interesting in this project is that the microrobots can be reprogrammed to operate a new task, making them extremely efficient in the conventional mass production (not like big industrial robots that, once done their task, are done and must be replaced with new machineries.

At the moment, the technology is still at its embryonic stage but the fact that they are reprogrammable, their simplicity and that they can work in really big teams for sure will be the beginning of the real potential of the microrobotics.

…and no, they cannot evolve like a Gibson’s AI. For a while more the human race won’t be threatened by super-intelligent robots.

Planet Labs. Opensourcing Earth Images

Everyone loves to watch pictures of the Earth from Space. In particular, many small companies and associations would like to get these pictures for cheap prices but they cannot afford to allocate a budget for obtaining them. Planet Labs will make these dreams true from 2014 launching its own fleet of low-cost but high resolution imaging satellites. As the company points out, everyone from ecologists to citizen journalists will be able to track frequent changes to any place on the planet — a frequency and coverage greater than ever seen before. Thanks to this technology, it will be easier to monitor wildlife, desertification, glaciers retreat and many other natural phenomenon.

Nowadays, there are a good number of private and governmental satellites that are screening the Earth. The most precise ones are belonging to private companies and are especially used for defence or commercial purposes. The technology they use allows them to focus on special areas but the demand means that they take a lot of time before getting the pictures and the cost will be quite high. The governmental ones are taking pictures in regular bases but still not too often (once per month) and the resolution is really low, showing images dozens or hundreds metres far from the surface. So, at the moment, the situation is stuck. The first ones wouldn’t lend their images for non-commercial (or, worst, environmental) purposes, while the second ones are not provided in regular basis. That’s exactly the situation in which that Planet Labs could find its niche.

This Startup, founded in 2012 by 3 ex NASA scientists, has risen $13M from Venture Capitalists (DFJ, Capricorn, OATV, Founders Fund Angel, Innovation Endeavors, Data Collective and First Round Capital) in order to launch the World’s largest fleet of imaging satellites called Dove by Q1 2014.

The first two Doves (Dove 1 and Dove 2) have been launched in April and the demonstration has been effective. The data and images provided were good quality, the key technology has been validated and the resolution was as high as expected. The next images will be provided early next year, after the launch of the complete fleet.

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But Planet Labs is not the only company launching its own fleet of satellites for entering the Earth-screening market. Skybox Imaging will launch a fleet of at least 24 satellites. I believe this situation will be interesting and the competition will allow the creation of more and more precise satellites which, hopefully, will help to monitor our surface and our wildlife.

FLowboard: the presentations to the next level

Until last year there was desktop and laptop computer to create presentation. From this year on they’ll be created on tablets (at least, for the moment is just iPad). Before there was Powerpoint, then Prezi and Keynote, now there is Flowboard.

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Flowboard, which is recent but it has already released the 1.1 update, is trying to be the best tool for interactive storytelling. The founder, Brent Brookler has been recently interviewed by techcrunch and, thanks to a simple presentation, explains how simple is the approach to the app and how epurates and simple is the design of this free app.

What he did was simple: he chose a template available on the app, he imported some media and manipulated the uploaded object thanks to touchscreen. Then he showed that there is the possibility to, easily, zoom on a specific object in order to deepen the presentations making it more detailed and more focused. The result looks great on the tablet but it could be imported on desktop and mobile having it available at full compatibility on every device.

Brookler said that they are not trying to compete with power point since they don’t have charts or bullets because they are more focused on storytelling.

What I believe is that, nowadays, storytelling is replacing charts (which are useful in attachments and in internal communication but not anymore in clent and external presentations). Of course we could use power point, prezi or Keynote, which have always revealed to be a perfect tool, but if we really want to amaze the attenders we want to have our presentation made with flowboard.

Here you can find the presentation on Techcrunch.

Mars One. Colonize Mars thanks to a reality show

Some months ago the dutch engineer Bas Lansdorp announced the creation of Mars One, a project that plans to launch six groups of people (at the moment they announced that the crews will be composed by 4 people each). These groups will land every two years in order to be the first colonizers of the red planet. Suicide or vangardist mission? Just the time will tell us.

This project, opposed by the national space agencies will cost $6 billions (just 2 and a half times more than the Curiosity Rover project) and will be sponsored by a reality show which will permit the funding and the formation of the astronauts.

NASA, some years ago, planned a round-trip around Mars with the possibility to return to the Green Planet. Instead, Mars One offers a one-way-ticket to Mars. Yes, that’s it. The selected astronauts will stay permanently in the Red Planet without any possibility to go back to their mother planet. This possibility opens the possibility to study how the human mind reacts to the idea of never going back home (so the possibility to know if they’ll kill everyone and then suicide themselves or if they will be able to have a social behaviour that contradicts every other sociological study). Some scientists explains that this journey is comparable to Cristoforo Colombo’s one (the original name of the venetian whom discovered the Americas, after the Vikings) but I totally disagree. I believe that the Spanish or Portugueses that left for the American continent were moved from the desire to discover gold and silver with the recondite hope to go back to their households rich and wealthy. At the contrary, the crew travelling to Mars won’t come back and their just reason to leave eath is the discovery and the exploration of a new planet (with the future possibility to take possession of the entire planet and to divide the territories in feuds with martial slaves. Booyaka!).

The mission is structured in 4 steps. In 2016 they will launch supplies and a communication satellite. Then, in 2018, after the satellite scouts for a suitable site, settlements components will be launched. The further step will be the cast of additional supplies and two rovers which will prepare the settlement for the landing of the first human in 2023 (the fourth and “final” step).

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But how Mars One will be able to pay for all this. There are two ways for financing the mission. Firstly they will get financements from corporate sponsorships but the big news is that they will organize a Big Brother-like reality show in order to select the astronauts. This reality show will have two main puroposes. The first one, clear at everyon’s eyes is to obtain funding. The second one will be to test the future voyagers to a life under the cameras (yes, they will be guinea pigs in socialogical terms). This mission will be a space Edtv organized in a way that won’t allow the protagonists to leave the main stage.

The expectations are big and the endorsers are science-starts (the theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Gerard ‘t Hooft is extremely enthusiast about it). The big question is:  will this dream become reality and the people able to create a real facility like the one created by Paul Verhoven in Total Recall or Mars One will result a complete failure in which the astronauts will abandon their rationality leaving the place to desesperation and madness?

Asteroid Mining. Sci-fi or Reality?

In these days I noticed that this infographic regarding asteroid mining was buzzing in every website and, completely ignorant on the argument, I decided to gather data. What I found out is that this business has a huge potential in terms of revenues and technological improvements.

Firstly, why is it so interesting in terms of business? Asteroids, classified  in three types (Carbonaceous, Silaceous, Metallic), contain a huge quantity of resources, including precious and rare metals such as platinum, gold, iron and silver. There are more than 10.000 asteroids travelling in orbits close to the Earth. What’s more, being much smaller than the moon, they have a much lower gravitational force and the resources are much more concentrated.

Then, which asteroids can be “easily” exploited? The majority of the asteroids can be found between Mars and Jupiter in a particular zone called Asteroid Belt. They are sized from 600m to 1000 km in diameter, so if we put together all the known asteroids together, their mass is less than the 5% of the moon. But they are not all eligible for the exploitation. Thanks to the gravitational influence of Jupiter some of them have orbits which allow them to pass close to the Earth and are called Near Earth Asteroids. These are the ones that we need to hive off.

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But this project won’t admit any fail and will be carried on in three main stages. The first one is the creation and the launch of the “Arkid Series 100” mostly knows as “Leo Space Telescope”. It has to be launched within 2 years and will determine the position of minable asteroids. Leo, thanks to spectroscopy and radar technologies will be used to define the chemical composition, metal concentration, position and orbit of the asteroids. The second stage will be the creation of an interceptor called Arkid Series 200 and a prospector called Arkid Series 300. These satellite will analyse asteroids closer and provide high-resolution data in the most efficient way. The final stage will be carried on by governmental and private companies which will create asteoid mining droid (the technology to build these droids doesn’t exist but, considering the evolution of space technologies, they will probably be developed if the business model is considered remunerative).

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If we look back in history, we can easily notice that the human kind always looked far for resources (considering the evolution of transportations). This new challenge, carried on by the company Planetary Resources Inc. is just another step in this quest and, within some years, it will be considered as important as solar energy for the developpement of humanity.

MEV. The space-cleaner droids.

When communication satellites or other orbiting spacecrafts run out of fuel, their destiny is marked. They are either de-orbited to destruct in the atmosphere, or they are positioned in a parking orbits, or, the worst fate, they are left in the outer space as dangerous space junk. The most of the times, they are still functioning.

This means a huge loss for the companies which sent them in orbit and the need for a real solution to this waste represents a huge commercial opportunity. For this reason Vivisat, a young spacecraft company, in partnership with ATK (an historical company that built solid rocket motors for NASA), is building a droid that will serve as repair droid and orbital gas station for vehicles which need to be fixed or refueled.

This droid will be called MEV (Mission Extension Vehicle) and, as the name suggests, its job will be to dock with commercial satelites to extend their life spawn. Its support could extend the operativity of the vehicles up to 10 years with an average of 3 to 5 years. With future improvements, the droid could also reposition spacecraft in new orbits.

I actually believe that this system is extremely forward-thinking and economically sustainable. Not only it permits to create a new space business which will bring future improvements but also help out resolving the problem of space debris (including all the rocket stages and the dead satellites which risk to collide with working ones). Furthermore, It will allow the deployment of more funds in research (not thinking about commercial satellites) and an important improvement in the space industry.

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The company hasn’t announced yet the launch of its fleet (initially composed of 2 MEV, with other 8 planned in the further future) but the chief operating office Brian McGuirk, during SATCON 2012 Satellite & Content Delivery Conference & Expo, said that they are having a lot of conversations with potential customers.

We just wait and see if this business will work, hoping that it will also start a more important conversation about space junk and a motivation to create vehicles with long lasting lives.

Bionic protheses touch the Chicago’s sky

“Bionic mind-controlled prothesis could be commercialized within a decade”. That’s what has been reported by Associated Press after the ascension of the Chicago Willis tower by Zac Vawter.

On November 4, 2012 this 31 year-old man made a world record mounting 103 flights of stairs during the world’s tallest indoor stair climb event. Why is this guy so particular? Because he climbed it with the first working mind-controlled robotic leg taking advantage of the targeted muscle reinnervation. This technique allows the connection between nerves and robotic implants meaning the transformation of nervous stimulis to control signals, moving the prothesis as a normal, fleshy leg. Everytime the owner puts weight on the prothesis, the electric impulses understand immediately the weight exerted and the two engines respond giving the amount of power needed to execute the desired action.

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Thought-controlled arms have been available since many years thanks to the work of RIC (rehabilitation Institute of Chicago) but now this Institute focuses more and more on bionic legs since, as they say: “If a bionic hand fails, a person drops a glass of water. If a bionic leg fails, a person falls down stairs”. A lot of work and experimentation has been conducted and this new success opens the way to the activation of new federal fundings.

What I personally hope is that these limbs will be available to the commercialization within one or two decades (maybe with lighter components) although we know, and all the sci-fi movies agree, that they will be extremely expensive and available just for wealthy people. And maybe within a century we will seriously consider of modifying our limbs with bionic ones in order to have better prestation. Cyberpunk 2020 here we are.

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[SCI-FI UPDATE 8th November 2012] Just today, in Google+ and Reddit, I was surprised by a massive number of people talking about another prothesis that has been called “the terminator”. It is manufactured by Bebionic Industries and tested on Nigel Ackland, a worker who lost his arm and hand in an accident 5 years ago. This arm and hand, made of carbon fibre and aluminium, have been programmed with 14 different grips that approximate human behavior, from a one-fingered point to a flexed fist that allows the owner to carry heavy objects.
What’s more, you have many optional feature and you can cover them with a synthetic coating of your favourite  color (Bebionic suggests a color that is similar to the one of your skin). Waiting to see the war optionals!!!