Raspberry Pi’s Build HAT helps students build LEGO robots

Raspberry Pi has launched a new product that would make it easier to build robots out of LEGO components. The Build HAT (or Hardware Attached on Top), as it is called, is an add-on device that plugs into the Pi's 40-pin GPIO header. It was specifically designed to make it easy to use Pi hardware to control up to four LEGO Technic motors and sensors from the the toy company's Education Spike kits. Those sets are meant as a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) learning tool for young students. The HAT also works with motors and sensors from the Mindstorms Robot Inventor kit.

In addition to the Build HAT itself, the company has created a Python library that can help students build prototypes using a Raspberry Pi and LEGO components. Plus, Raspberry Pi designed a $15 power supply for the HAT that can also power the motors and sensors attached to it. The Build HAT will set buyers back $25 each, and it works with all 40-pin GPIO Raspberry Pi boards, including the Raspberry Pi 4 and Raspberry Pi Zero. 

Those who want to make sure that their LEGO components will work with the HAT can also check out Raspberry Pi's handy list of compatible components. Finally, those who need a bit of help to get started can try follow one of Pi's project guides, which include a DIY game controller, a robot buggy that can be controlled via Bluetooth and a robotic face.

Ghost Robotics strapped a gun to its robot dog

Boston Dynamics, the company most commonly associated with robot dogs, prohibits the weaponization of its Spot devices. That's not the case for all robot dog manufacturers, however. One of them, Ghost Robotics, showed off a version of its Q-UGV device that many will have been dreading. It's a robot dog with a gun attached to it.

Ghost Robotics has made robot dogs for the military, and it displayed this deadly model at the Association of the United States Army’s 2021 annual conference in Washington DC this week. A company called Sword International built the "special purpose unmanned rifle" (or SPUR) module. According to The Verge, it has a thermal camera for nighttime operation, an effective range of 1.2km (just under three quarters of a mile) and a 30x optical zoom.

"Due to its highly capable sensors the SPUR can operate in a magnitude of conditions, both day and night," a blurb on Sword's website reads. "The Sword Defense Systems SPUR is the future of unmanned weapon systems, and that future is now."

It's unclear how autonomous a SPUR-equipped Q-UGV will be in the field, as Popular Science notes. It remains to be seen whether a human operator will guide the robot to an otherwise hard-to-reach position and manually aim and take shots (which seems more likely), or if the robot will handle entirely things by itself. Either way, it's an unsettling prospect, and that's before we get to the possibility of enemy hackers taking control of these machines.

As if a robot dog with a gun attached wasn't dystopian enough, Ghost Robotics tweeted about a Q-UGV with a different kind of payload: a Lockheed Martin drone and a Digital Force Technologies recon sensor. Sniper robot dogs. Flying robot spy dogs. The future's looking just peachy, isn't it?

Ghost Robotics strapped a gun to its robot dog

Boston Dynamics, the company most commonly associated with robot dogs, prohibits the weaponization of its Spot devices. That's not the case for all robot dog manufacturers, however. One of them, Ghost Robotics, showed off a version of its Q-UGV device that many will have been dreading. It's a robot dog with a gun attached to it.

Ghost Robotics has made robot dogs for the military, and it displayed this deadly model at the Association of the United States Army’s 2021 annual conference in Washington DC this week. A company called Sword International built the "special purpose unmanned rifle" (or SPUR) module. According to The Verge, it has a thermal camera for nighttime operation, an effective range of 1.2km (just under three quarters of a mile) and a 30x optical zoom.

"Due to its highly capable sensors the SPUR can operate in a magnitude of conditions, both day and night," a blurb on Sword's website reads. "The Sword Defense Systems SPUR is the future of unmanned weapon systems, and that future is now."

It's unclear how autonomous a SPUR-equipped Q-UGV will be in the field, as Popular Science notes. It remains to be seen whether a human operator will guide the robot to an otherwise hard-to-reach position and manually aim and take shots (which seems more likely), or if the robot will handle entirely things by itself. Either way, it's an unsettling prospect, and that's before we get to the possibility of enemy hackers taking control of these machines.

As if a robot dog with a gun attached wasn't dystopian enough, Ghost Robotics tweeted about a Q-UGV with a different kind of payload: a Lockheed Martin drone and a Digital Force Technologies recon sensor. Sniper robot dogs. Flying robot spy dogs. The future's looking just peachy, isn't it?

Honda announces plans to build electric VTOLs and telepresence robots

Honda builds much more than cars and trucks — power equipment, solar cells, industrial robotics, alternative fuel engines and even aircraft are all part of the company's production capacity. On Thursday, Honda announced that it is working to further expand its manufacturing portfolio to include Avatar-style remote telepresence robots and electric VTOLs for inter- and intracity commutes before turning its ambitions to building a fuel-cell driven power generation system for the lunar surface. 

For its eVTOL, Honda plans to leverage not only the lithium battery technology it's developed for its EV and PHEV vehicles but also a gas turbine hybrid power unit to give the future aircraft enough range to handle regional inter-city flights as well. Honda foresees air taxis as a ubiquitous part of tomorrow's transportation landscape, seamlessly integrating with both autonomous ground vehicles and traditional airliners (though they could soon be flown by robots as well). Obviously, the program is still very much in the early research phase and will likely remain so until at least the second half of this decade. The company anticipates having prototype units available for testing and certification by the 2030s and a full commercial rollout sometime around 2040. 

Honda will have plenty of competition if and when it does get its eVTOLs off the ground. Cadillac showed off its single-seater aircar earlier this year, while Joby (in partnership with NASA) already has full-scale mockups flying. In June, Slovakian transportation startup, Klein Vision, flew from Nitra and to the Bratislava airport in its inaugural inter-city flight — and then drove home after the event. But building a fleet of flying taxis is no easy feat — just ask Bell helicopters — and we're sure to see more companies drop out of the sector before eVTOLs become commonplace.

Honda Motor's Asimo robot puts on a demonstration for the media at the Jacob Javits Convention Center during the New York International Auto Show in New York April 17, 2014.  REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (UNITED STATES - Tags: TRANSPORT BUSINESS)
Carlo Allegri / reuters

Honda reps also discussed the company's future robotics aspirations during a media briefing on Wednesday. The company envisions a future where people are unencumbered by space and time, where telepresence robots have visual and tactile acuity rivalling that of humans. Rather than hopping on a plane to inspect remote factory floors or attend product demonstrations in person, tomorrow's workers may simply don VR headsets and step into the body of an on-site humanoid robot. 

The company announced that it wants its Avatar Robot — a newly refined iteration of the Asimo (above) — put into practical use in the 2030s and will conduct technology demonstration testing by the end of Q1, 2024 in order to meet that goal. But before that happens Honda reps noted that the company has work to do downsizing the robot's hand hardware and improving its grasping dexterity.

Honda's circulative renewable energy system
JAXA/Honda

Honda also has big plans for its space ventures including working on ways to adapt its existing fuel cell and high differential pressure water electrolysis technologies to work on the lunar surface as part of a circulative renewable energy system.

This system would use electricity gathered from renewable energy sources (like solar) to break the molecular bonds of liquid water, resulting hydrogen and oxygen. Those two elements would then be run through Honda's fuel cell to generate both electricity and supply the lunar habitats with oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for rocket fuel. 

The company also hopes to utilize the more-nimble Avatar hands its developing as manipulators on a fleet of remote controlled lunar rovers which will perform tasks on the lunar surface rather than subject astronauts to the moon's many dangers. Honda has partnered with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and began joint research into both of these systems in June.

Hyundai puts Boston Dynamic’s Spot robot to work as a factory safety inspector

Boston Dynamics’ Spot has found itself a new job, and thankfully this time it doesn’t involve a potential battlefield role. Hyundai has started testing the robot at a Kia manufacturing plant in South Korea where it will be one of the tools the company uses to ensure the facility is safe for workers. The pilot represents the first public collaboration between the two companies since Hyundai acquired a majority stake in Boston Dynamics this past June.

You’ll notice the Spot featured in the video Hyundai released looks different from the robot we’ve seen in past clips. That’s because the automaker’s Robotics Lab outfitted it with what is essentially a backpack that features a host of enhancements, including a thermal camera, LiDAR and more powerful computing resources for handling additional AI tasks. The “AI Processing Service Unit” allows Spot to detect people, monitor temperatures and check for fire hazards. Additionally, a secure webpage allows factory personnel to monitor the robot remotely, and take over control if they want to inspect an area of the facility more closely.

According to Hyundai, the pilot will help it assess the effectiveness of Spot as a late-night security patrol robot before it goes on to deploy it at additional industrial sites. Automation, manufacturing and construction applications align with what the automaker said was its grand plan for Boston Dynamics when it bought the company.

Hyundai puts Boston Dynamic’s Spot robot to work as a factory safety inspector

Boston Dynamics’ Spot has found itself a new job, and thankfully this time it doesn’t involve a potential battlefield role. Hyundai has started testing the robot at a Kia manufacturing plant in South Korea where it will be one of the tools the company uses to ensure the facility is safe for workers. The pilot represents the first public collaboration between the two companies since Hyundai acquired a majority stake in Boston Dynamics this past June.

You’ll notice the Spot featured in the video Hyundai released looks different from the robot we’ve seen in past clips. That’s because the automaker’s Robotics Lab outfitted it with what is essentially a backpack that features a host of enhancements, including a thermal camera, LiDAR and more powerful computing resources for handling additional AI tasks. The “AI Processing Service Unit” allows Spot to detect people, monitor temperatures and check for fire hazards. Additionally, a secure webpage allows factory personnel to monitor the robot remotely, and take over control if they want to inspect an area of the facility more closely.

According to Hyundai, the pilot will help it assess the effectiveness of Spot as a late-night security patrol robot before it goes on to deploy it at additional industrial sites. Automation, manufacturing and construction applications align with what the automaker said was its grand plan for Boston Dynamics when it bought the company.

Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot has learned to replan its routes

Boston Dynamics' Spot dog is learning some new behaviors that will help the robot adapt to the real world. The company has delivered a Release 3.0 update that helps Spot do its jobs without human intervention. Most notably, it can dynamically replan routes — the robot's inspection will go smoothly even if someone inadvertently left a forklift in the way.

The upgraded Spot can also handle human-free scheduled missions, and it's smart enough to automatically plan routes when you choose the actions you want to perform. The robot will help you notice when something's amiss, too. It uses scene recognition to capture photos at the same angle every time, and human inspectors can conduct live reviews of changes Spot notices with computer vision, such as gauge readings and heat changes.

These updates won't mean much if you don't have the $74,500-plus to spend on a Spot of your own. They do show how Boston Dynamics' signature canine is evolving, though, and illustrate just how robots like this can help in real life — they're increasingly useful for tasks where it would be impractical (or just a hassle) for humans to step in.

iRobot’s latest Roomba can detect pet poop (and if it fails, you’ll get a new one)

Over the past two decades, iRobot has steadily evolved its Roombas from being fairly dumb robotic dirt suckers to devices that are smart enough to unload their own bins. Now with the $849 Roomba j7+, the company is ready to take on its greatest challenge yet: Pet poop. It's iRobot's first vacuum that can recognize and avoid obstacles, like cables or a pile of clothes, in real-time. And for pet owners, that could finally be reason to adopt a robot vacuum.

After all, you can't exactly trust your bot to clean up while you're away if they could run into surprises from your furry friends. That's a disaster that could lead to poop being spread around your home, not to mention gumming up your expensive bot. To alleviate that concern, iRobot is making a Pet Owner Official Promise (yes, P.O.O.P.): If your j7+ runs into poop within your first year of ownership, the company will replace your vacuum. That should go a long way towards making pet parents feel more comfortable with a Roomba. (It would be nice to see that offer extended beyond just one year, though.)

While the j7+ is technically the smartest Roomba yet, it's not the company's most powerful cleaner. That honor still belongs to the $1,299 s9+. This new model is basically the Roomba i7+ with a more powerful camera, better sensors and far more processing power. It can also automatically empty its bin into a redesigned Clean Base, which is shorter and sleeker than the previous models we've seen. Now you should be able tuck it into an inobtrusive corner, or under a table, instead of dedicating floorspace to a tall iRobot monolith.

With its "PrecisionVision Navigation" — iRobot's marketing term for AI-driven computer vision — the j7+ can detect specific objects, as well as alert you to obstalces in the iRobot app after a cleaning job. You can label them as permanent or temporary obstructions, which helps the vacuum learn how to deal with similar issues in the future. If there's a pile of cords that will always be in one corner, the j7+ will just stop cleaning around that area for good. But if it's just a headphone cord that you've dropped onto the floor, the robot can give that area another go on future jobs. And since it can actually see and interpret your rooms, the j7+ will also be able to clean more gently along walls and furniture.

As it's relying on computer vision, iRobot had to train new models to help the j7+ recognize objects from floor level (there aren't too many other devices with a camera down there). At this point, CEO Colin Angle tells us that it can recognize and a pair of corded headphones on the ground, but eventually it'll handle shoes and socks as well. When it comes to recognizing pet poop, the company captured photos using playdough models, as well as images from employees, to build what's surely one of the most unique machine learning models around.

iRobot plans to bring the j7+'s sensors to future models, Angle says, but it wanted to introduce them in something more people could buy. As much as I like the pricey s9+, it's not a wise purchase when there are cheaper self-cleaning Roombas around.

iRobot Roomba j7+
iRobot

The j7+ is powered by iRobot's new Genius 3.0 software, which will also roll out to the rest of the company's connected vacuums. That builds on the features introduced last year — which includes a better mobile app, smarter scheduling and routine triggers — by adding cleaning time estimates, as well as the ability to automatically clean while you're away. The new OS smarts will also let Roombas automatically suggest room labels as they map out your home. And if you send you intrepid bot to clean one room, it'll be able to move throughout your home quietly until it reaches the work zone.

While I haven't tried out the j7+ yet, it's clear that iRobot is targeting a persistent issue with robot vacuums: trust. Early Roombas required plenty of babysitting, otherwise they could easily get stuck or jammed. These days, I habitually clear out my floors before I start a vacuum run, because even newer models can get into trouble. If iRobot can actually develop a vacuum bot that can deal with obstacles on its own, it may finally have the ideal device for people who hate cleaning. At the very least, it'd be nice to have something I can trust to avoid my cat's poop.

A Chinese EV startup wants to build a ridable robot unicorn for kids

Never mind buying a robot dog for your kids — you might just get them a mythical creature instead. Chinese EV maker Xpeng has teased a robot unicorn meant for children to ride. As SCMPnotes, the quadruped will take advantage of Xpeng's experiences with autonomous driving and other AI tasks to navigate multiple terrain types, recognize objects and provide "emotional interaction."

The company is shy on most other details, although the design looks and trots like a cuter, more kid-friendly version of Boston Robotics' Spot. It's appropriately about as tall as a child. Sorry, folks, you won't prance your way to work.

This robot unicorn is just about as mythical as the 'real' thing, too. Xpeng hasn't revealed when it expects to deliver its robotic horse-with-a-horn, let alone pricing or availability. It might not cost as much as a $75,000 Spot, but we'd expect something this sophisticated to cost more than the $2,900 Aibo from 2019.

To some extent, profit is beside the point. Xpeng chief He Xiaopeng said the unicorn was part of a broader move into the robotics space by taking advantage of the company's existing technology. Think of this as a first step. What Xpeng learns from its unicorn could lead to more sophisticated (and hopefully adult-oriented) robots you're more likely to buy.

A Chinese EV startup wants to build a ridable robot unicorn for kids

Never mind buying a robot dog for your kids — you might just get them a mythical creature instead. Chinese EV maker Xpeng has teased a robot unicorn meant for children to ride. As SCMPnotes, the quadruped will take advantage of Xpeng's experiences with autonomous driving and other AI tasks to navigate multiple terrain types, recognize objects and provide "emotional interaction."

The company is shy on most other details, although the design looks and trots like a cuter, more kid-friendly version of Boston Robotics' Spot. It's appropriately about as tall as a child. Sorry, folks, you won't prance your way to work.

This robot unicorn is just about as mythical as the 'real' thing, too. Xpeng hasn't revealed when it expects to deliver its robotic horse-with-a-horn, let alone pricing or availability. It might not cost as much as a $75,000 Spot, but we'd expect something this sophisticated to cost more than the $2,900 Aibo from 2019.

To some extent, profit is beside the point. Xpeng chief He Xiaopeng said the unicorn was part of a broader move into the robotics space by taking advantage of the company's existing technology. Think of this as a first step. What Xpeng learns from its unicorn could lead to more sophisticated (and hopefully adult-oriented) robots you're more likely to buy.