I don’t know about you but I tend to reflect a lot around this time of the year, and in terms of my newsletter’s work, there is no better way to go around this than but cover the most interesting and inspiring projects that we’ve featured. Most of the features are from 2021 with some exceptions that we only found out about this year but we could not resist sharing. As is usually the case in this newsletter, the list will be very subjective and quite long. Enjoy!
Open Source Projects
MuJoCo goes open Source
DeepMind purchased MuJoCo, a physics simulator that is quite popular among robotics researchers. The project was then offered for free and according to the project page, DeepMind is working hard to open source it later this year.
Fast indoor 2D localization using ceiling lights
A crazy-fast approach for visual indoor localization on an R/C car running on Raspberry Pi 3 using ceiling lights. The project boasts a precision of a few centimetres and a 1ms update rate of the filter. All the work is available in the project repository.
Acorn - an open source precision farming rover
Acorn is an open-source rover being developed by the TwistedFields community. The current version of the robot uses eight 100 watts solar panels. Each of the wheel assemblies has built-in steering. For each of the wheels, an ODrive motor controller is used for control of the steering and wheel motion.
Strangest Upside-Down 3D Printer Fits In A Filament Box
I was awestruck by this project: boasting a volume of 175 mm x 176 mm x 125 mm, while fitting in a filament box and still being able to print quality items is great. The fact that the whole thing is open-source and the builds are high quality make it even more interesting.
Punyo soft gripper
Punyo is a ‘soft bubble’ gripper developed by Toyota Research Institute. The project instructions are distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 licence. The inner surface of the gripper has painted dots that are used with a camera for shear estimation and even item classification.
I was so excited watching Perseverance landing live that I decided to dedicate a full newsletter’s issue to this project. To me, the biggest surprise of the mission was Ingenuity, a coaxial helicopter built with many off-the-shelf components. The helicopter surpassed expectations, with eighteen flights performed so far compared to four that were initially planned.
Inside the Eye of the Storm: Saildrone Collects Live Video of Category 4 Hurricane
In September, a Saildrone was in the centre of hurricane Sam surviving waves as high as 15 meters (50 feet), not only surviving but bringing invaluable research data and bringing in scary footage. On a very related note, Hackaday had an interesting post on how the Saildrone managed to stream the video in record time.
Why hasn’t anyone heard of cuspidal robots?
I found Achille’s blog post on cuspidal robots mind-blowing the first time I’ve come across it. Then in June, Achille was kind enough to share his thoughts on cuspidal robots in one of the meetups that we’ve organized.
How SpaceX lands Starship (sort of)
Thomas Godden had published this article in May, describing how SpaceX performs trajectory optimization. The article is rich with pictures, animation and references to a colab notebook allowing you to run the code yourself.
Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design
A very good set of ‘laws’ that I think are useful for anyone doing any kind of engineering. When researching the topic I also came across this presentation that extends every law with some examples.
Robotics Age at Internet Archive
In September, I came across this archive of Robotics Age, a robotics magazine that was published between 1979 and 1986. Most articles I’ve read were still relevant, even though the technology might be quite different today. I’m sure everyone can learn something from every issue.
Where Are The Robotic Bricklayers?
Brian Potter, from the Construction Physics newsletter (highly recommended!), covers a history of automation in masonry wall construction. As Brian will explain, bricklaying is not as simple as it might seem to everyone outside the construction industry.
DARPA Subterranean Challenge
DARPA Subterranean Challenge had wrapped up this year with team Cerberus winning the grand prize. The event, requiring teams to develop autonomous robots for various types of missions in GPS-denied environments, was first announced in 2018. IEEE Spectrum had many interesting articles showing the ins and outs of the challenge. During the challenge, some multirotors were abused by a plastic bag, and others by fellow robotic team mates.
The Animatronic Robot Designs of Mark Setrakian!
In this online episode Tested visits Mark Setrakian to check out some of his animatronics. The hand rotating objects in place is especially cool. Another thing I liked about this feature is Mark’s control software allowing for the composition of robot control.
Dual-sided dieless forming
This feature is actually from 2019, but I only came across it last year. Nissan is using two Kuka industrial arms for ‘dual-sided dieless forming’, allowing them to work without dies that you would traditionally need and thanks to that enabling development of spare parts for cars that have not been in production for years.
Six Degrees Of Freedom Omnicopter With Ardupilot
An incredible build from Peter Hall: a multirotor build with six tetrahedrons at various angles that supports flight in any orientation. The software was developed on Ardupilot, adding a new attitude control mode.
Robot Arm Achieves Amazing Accuracy With Just Servos
As it turns out, if you were to add some encoders and take into account velocity and torque, you can have very precise control of a robot arm using just hobby servos.
Third Thumb Project
In May I came across the third thumb project, an extra thumb that was controlled by moving your toes. You can see the device in action in this video.
A Twitter thread on developing a handwriting robot
Here is an interesting Twitter thread from September about making a robot that would imitate handwriting, including random variations in each letter to make it appear close to what a human would produce.
How Disney Imagineering Crammed a Humanoid Robot Into a Groot Suit
Project Kiwi by Disney Imagineering is developing 0.75m tall bipedal robots that will be used for interacting with Disney parks guests. According to the article, the batteries allow the prototype to last 45 minutes on a single charge.
Autonomous Ekranoplans: The Next Evolution (The Flying Ship Company G.E.V.)
Something is mesmerizing about flying in the ground effect, which this Ekranoplan can do well. The build is using a LiDAR to hold the desired height above the lake surface and everything is controlled by ArduPilot.
Canoe milling with Kuka robot
Here is yet another project from the past that was featured this year. In this one, the authors used a Kuka KR210 to mill a five-meter long MDF mould for a canoe.
Grain Bin Robot | Grain Weevil
Apparently, grain bins are very dangerous and the stored material can entrap and even suffocate farmers. The folks behind Grain Weevil, designed this robot so that the farmers never have to walk into these bins.
“Voxgraph is a globally consistent volumetric mapping framework. It represents the world as a collection of Signed Distance Function submaps, which it aligns through pose graph optimization”. You can see the library in action in this YouTube video.
LIO-SAM is a real-time lidar-inertial odometry package (video) that works with ROS. The package’s readme references multiple datasets that you can test LIO-SAM with.
EVO: Event based Visual Odometry
This year EVO, a package for visual odometry with an event camera was made open source. It will probably take a while until event cameras are mainstream but you can test the package with some of the datasets featured in the readme file. You will find the video showing this package in action on YouTube.
Open Source Allan Variance Tool for rosbags
If you want to know everything about your IMU noise parameters then this package by russel_robot will probably be of interest to you. I highly recommend checking the discussion in the linked thread as it provides some good learning resources.
FSD beta roll-out for some Teslas
This year, some owners of Tesla cars were able to use FSD (Full Self-Driving) beta on their cars. Over the month’s lots of issues surfaced such as going over the lines when overtaking while there is oncoming traffic, not being able to take over control, not stopping for pedestrians, having near-misses with cars, wanting to drive into a fence, not detecting static objects. I found AI Addict videos to be the best documentation of the current performance of the FSD.
MSCHF’s latest drop lets you control a Boston Dynamics robot with a paintball gun on its back
MSCHF art collective allowed people to control Boston Dynamic’s Spot equipped with a paintball gun in February to raise awareness about killer robots. You will find some videos on how the robot did on YouTube. The empty cardboard boxes were quite a challenge for the yellow quadruped, as it tripped on them multiple times throughout the ‘event’.
Ghost Robotics putting an actual gun on their quadruped
Eight months after the MSCHF’s drop, Ghost Robotics went ahead and installed a gun on their platform and got a fair bit of backlash from the robotics community. In an interview with IEEE Spectrum, Jiren Parikh, the CEO of the company said that this design was just a proof of concept for a ‘walking gun tripod’.
Intel RealSense Communication Debacle
In August some robotics companies scrambled, searching for clean pants as some sources reported that Intel was shutting RealSense business unit and shifting focus to chips. It was later clarified that only tracking cameras and the LiDAR were being discontinued and that Intel will keep making stereo cameras.
Machine Learning for Beginners - A Curriculum
This year Microsoft had released a curriculum for Machine Learning with 26 lessons and 52 quizzes that are designed to take 12 weeks. Most of the lessons are targeting Python but some can be taken with R.
Tartan SLAM Series
CMU’s AirLab had organized a series of talks and tutorials on SLAM with many experts in the field sharing their expertise. In Autumn the second series was launched, featuring even more speakers.
Weekly Robotics Meetups
Finally, a shameless plug: in 2021 we started organizing meetups and hosted 15 talks with experts in various aspects of robotics. In June I did a summary of all talks we had up to date. Huge thanks to all the presenters and everyone that tuned in. I’ve learned a tonne in these meetups and I’m looking forward to resuming them later this month.