The promising thing about laundry-folding robots is that they target a job that everybody does frequently, and nobody really likes. But to be successful in robotics, especially in consumer robotics, you have to be both affordable and reliable, and robots are, still, generally awful at those things. Laundroid, a robotic system that could ingest wads of laundry and somehow spit out neatly folded clothes, put on a few demos at CES over the past few years, but the Japanese company behind it just announced bankruptcy--probably because the robot didn't work all the time, and would likely have been absurdly expensive. Laundroid may not have been a success, but does that mean that other laundry-folding robots, most notably Foldimate, are doomed as well? The original Laundroid concept was to combine washing clothes, drying clothes, ironing clothes, and folding clothes into one single (magical?)
Barely an hour ago, Recode broke the news that Anki, the consumer robotics company behind both Vector, Cozmo, and Overdrive, will be terminating several hundred employees and shutting down on Wednesday after it failed to secure a new round of financing at the end of last week. This is a significant blow to the consumer robotics industry: Anki, which came out of stealth during Apple's WWDC in 2013, had nearly US $100 million in revenue in 2017, and they seemed to have found a sweet spot with relatively sophisticated robotic toys that were still at least somewhat affordable. Despite having sold more than 1.5 million robots (hundreds of thousands of which were Cozmos) as of late last year, it wasn't enough "to support a hardware and software business and bridge to our long-term product roadmap," Anki said in a statement sent to press today. While the details of what happened at Anki are still developing, the company told Recode that "a significant financial deal at a late stage fell through with a strategic investor and we were not able to reach an agreement." This is despite additional reports that a variety of companies, including Microsoft, Amazon, and Comcast, were all potentially interested in acquiring Anki.
Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We'll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here's what we have so far (send us your events!): Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today's videos. Soft-bubble, "a highly compliant dense geometry tactile sensor for robot manipulation," is a sort of combined gripper and 3D camera that uses a soft membrane to grasp and image objects at the same time. HAPS Mobile, a SoftBank-backed company, is developing a high-altitude pseudo satellite: a massive, solar-powered, long endurance drone that acts like a much cheaper and more versatile satellite over a smaller area.
As the world races to deploy speedy 5G mobile networks on the ground, some companies remain focused on floating cell towers in the sky. During the final session of the sixth annual Brooklyn 5G Summit on Thursday, Silicon Valley and telecom leaders discussed whether aerial drones and balloons could finally begin providing commercial mobile phone and Internet service from the air. That same day, Alphabet subsidiary Loon, a balloon-focused graduate of the Google X research lab, unveiled a strategic partnership with Softbank's HAPSMobile to leverage both solar-powered balloons and drones to expand mobile Internet coverage and aid in deploying 5G networks. No high-altitude network connectivity services have taken off commercially so far, but some Brooklyn 5G Summit speakers were optimistic that it would happen soon. "The opportunity is in our hands in terms of truly leveraging 5G in conjunction with the massive paradigm shift when it comes to UAS--drones--and also satellites," said Volker Ziegler, CTO at Nokia Bell Labs.
A little over a year ago, we reported on the status of the Robonaut 2 on the International Space Station. Things had not gone all that well for R2 ever since an attempt had been made to install a pair of legs back in 2014, leading to an intermittent power problem that was very hard to diagnose. NASA brought Robonaut back to Earth last year for repairs, and a few weeks ago, we stopped by NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, to visit the Robonaut lab and get an update on what's been happening with R2. The Robonaut lab is in Building 9 at JSC, attached to the space vehicle mockup facility. JSC's Valkyrie lives in this massive high bay, and was busy practicing a bomb disposal task (!) when we peeked in.
Today, Zipline is officially opening the first of four distribution centers in Ghana, inaugurating a drone-delivery network that will eventually serve 2,000 hospitals and clinics covering 12 million people. Here's what Zipline says in a press release about the new operation: The revolutionary new service will use drones to make on-demand, emergency deliveries of 148 different vaccines, blood products, and life-saving medications. The service will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from 4 distribution centers--each equipped with 30 drones--and deliver to 2,000 health facilities serving 12 million people across the country. Together, all four distribution centers will make up to 600 on-demand delivery flights a day on behalf of the Government of Ghana. Each Zipline distribution center has the capacity to make up to 500 flights per day.
The history of AI is often told as the story of machines getting smarter over time. What's lost is the human element in the narrative, how intelligent machines are designed, trained, and powered by human minds and bodies. In this six-part series, we explore that human history of AI--how innovators, thinkers, workers, and sometimes hucksters have created algorithms that can replicate human thought and behavior (or at least appear to). While it can be exciting to be swept up by the idea of super-intelligent computers that have no need for human input, the true history of smart machines shows that our AI is only as good as we are. At the turn of millennium, Amazon began expanding its services beyond book selling.
The Paris Fire Brigade has seen its share of logistical challenges, but the massive conflagration that consumed parts of the Notre Dame cathedral on the night of 15 April required a fight of epic proportions. The cathedral is 856 years old and built in a style that makes it almost structurally impossible to contain a fire. The site doubles as both a wildly popular tourist attraction and a holy site for Christians. Defending this symbol of French heritage would require all the tactical and physical power the Brigade had at its disposal--human and otherwise. Soon after firefighters arrived at the scene, the cathedral's giant spire began to show signs of collapsing into the building.
Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We'll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here's what we have so far (send us your events!): Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today's videos. It only takes 10 Spotpower (SP) to haul a truck across the Boston Dynamics parking lot ( 1 degree uphill, truck in neutral). These Spot robots are coming off the production line now and will be available for a range of applications soon.
Robots offer an opportunity to enable people to live safely and comfortably in their homes as they grow older. In the near future (we're all hoping), robots will be able to help us by cooking, cleaning, doing chores, and generally taking care of us, but they're not yet at the point where they can do those sorts of things autonomously. Putting a human in the loop can help robots be useful more quickly, which is especially important for the people who would benefit the most from this technology--specifically, folks with disabilities that make them more reliant on care. Ideally, the people who need things done would be the people in the loop telling the robot what to do, but that can be particularly challenging for those with disabilities that limit how mobile they are. If you can't move your arms or hands, for example, how are you going to control a robot?