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Cosmic Space

Mars helicopter blazes trail for future flights

For the first time ever, a robotic flier made a controlled takeoff and landing on the surface of another planet – and NASA says space exploration will never be the same.

“This really is a Wright Brothers moment,” NASA’s acting administrator, Steve Jurczyk, said hours after today’s first Red Planet flight by the Ingenuity helicopter.

The 4-pound, solar-powered helicopter arrived on Mars in February as a piggyback payload on NASA’s Perseverance rover. After weeks of preparation, which included a software fix downloaded from a distance of 178 million miles, Ingenuity spun up its twin rotors and lifted off for a 39.1-second, 10-foot-high hop.

It was the first of five planned flights that serve as a technology demonstration for future aerial missions that could flit through Mars’ ultra-thin carbon dioxide atmosphere.

Project manager MiMi Aung of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said the feat was equivalent to sending an earthly rotorcraft flying at an altitude three times the height of the Himalayas.

“Unforgettable day,” she said.

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Robot charging system wins Europe’s seal of approval

Two of the wireless charging systems made by Seattle-based WiBotic have won safety approvals in Europe, marking what the startup’s CEO calls a major milestone.

The chargers and transmitters now have CE Mark approval, which means they meet the safety, health and environmental protection requirements for the European Economic Area. What’s more, the systems have been found to comply with the International Electrotechnical Commission’s directives for the European Union and Canada’s CSA Group standards organization.

“We also recently completed FCC approval in the U.S., so our systems are compliant with reputable regulatory agencies within many countries around the world,” WiBotic CEO Ben Waters said today in a news release. “This, in turn, opens several exciting partnership and deployment opportunities for us across Europe, Canada and beyond.”

WiBotic, which was spun out from the University of Washington in 2015, has developed battery charging systems that can power up autonomous drones as well as robots on land or sea wirelessly, without human intervention. The company’s power management software, known as Commander, can work with the hardware to optimize battery use for an entire fleet of robots.

There’s even a project aimed at charging up future robots on the moon.

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This software takes charge of charging up robots

It’s hard enough to remember to keep your smartphone charged up, so can you imagine how much harder it’d be to track the charging status of dozens of drones or robots? Now WiBotic has an app for that: a software platform that manages the battery-charging routines for mobile devices that use its wireless charging system.

Today the seven-year-old Seattle startup unveiled its first software product, an energy management package called Commander.

“Commander was developed mostly through listening and learning from our customers who were building robots, and then deploying robots, and then deploying fleets,” said Ben Waters, the company’s CEO and co-founder.

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FAA rules could smooth the way for drone deliveries

After months of feedback and fine-tuning, the Federal Aviation Administration today issued its final versions of safety rules for drones that fly over people and at night — including the drones that Amazon is developing to make package deliveries.

“The new rules make way for the further integration of drones into our airspace by addressing safety and security concerns,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in a news release. “They get us closer to the day when we will more routinely see drone operations such as the delivery of packages.”

Draft versions of the rules were issued a year ago, kicking off a review period during which the FAA received about 53,000 comments. The final rules take effect in about two months.

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Anduril expands to Seattle for defense tech

Anduril HQ
One of Anduril’s sentry towers stands tall at the company’s HQ in California’s Orange County. (Anduril Photo)

Irvine, Calif.-based Anduril Industries says it’s opening a new office in Seattle and will be hiring engineers to work on defense technologies.

“We are building bigger and better systems for our military as quickly as we can,” Palmer Luckey, the venture’s founder, said in a news release. “The incredible pool of talent in the Seattle area helps us accelerate that.”

Founded in 2017, Anduril develops hardware and software centered around Lattice, an AI backbone allowing for real-time information analysis across the company’s range of products. Those products include a surveillance drone called the Ghost, an interceptor drone called the Anvil, medical transport drones and a border monitoring system that relies on sensor-equipped sentry towers.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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How Amazon robotics team is tackling virus

Amazon drone
Amazon’s robotics group is developing Prime Air drones that can deliver packages, but it’s also working on projects aimed at coping with the coronavirus outbreak. (Amazon Photo / Jordan Stead)

For years, Amazon Prime Air has been working on drones that can deliver packages to customers, but now it’s also working on projects to help Amazon itself deal with the coronavirus outbreak.

Brad Porter, vice president of robotics at Amazon, hinted Prime Air’s role this week in a LinkedIn posting he wrote in response to the resignation of fellow VP Tim Bray.

Bray said he quit to protest the firings of whistleblowers sounding the alarm about COVID-19 risks. (The controversy is continuing, with nine U.S. senators asking Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for more information about the firings.)

In his LinkedIn posting, Porter insisted that worker safety was a high priority at Amazon, and mentioned the efforts that his group has been making.

“We are working hard to develop and deploy additional processes and technology for a range of measures – from social distancing to contact tracing,” Porter wrote. “We are developing mobile ultraviolet sanitation. My Prime Air drones and robotics group has become an R&D lab for COVID innovation that I can’t wait to share with you. Today I reviewed a list of 72 new ideas for improvements we can make.”

We’re hearing that further information about those ideas will be coming out soon. In the meantime, Business Insider is reporting that one of Prime Air’s projects is using lab space and equipment to produce protective plastic face shields for its warehouse workers and local hospitals.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Update: ’60 Minutes’ shows Amazon’s virus-killing robot

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Amazon and T-Mobile to help with Remote ID

Remote ID system
The Remote ID system would require drones to broadcast an identification code as well as location data. (DJI Photoillustration)

Amazon and T-Mobile are among eight companies selected to help the Federal Aviation Administration establish technical requirements for Remote ID, a protocol that drones will be required to follow for broadcasting identification and location data while in flight.

The other companies include Airbus, AirMap, Intel, OneSky, Skyward and Alphabet’s drone subsidiary, Wing.

“The FAA will be able to advance the safe integration of drones into our nation’s airspace from these technology companies’ knowledge and expertise on remote identification,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said today in a news release.

Today’s announcement comes months after the FAA put out a set of draft regulations and a request for information relating to Remote ID.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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Boeing rolls out first ‘Loyal Wingman’ AI drone

A Boeing-led team has presented the Royal Australian Air Force with its first “Loyal Wingman” aircraft, an AI-equipped drone that’s designed to fly in coordination with crewed military airplanes.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.

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CVS and UPS team up for drone deliveries

UPS drone
A UPS drone made by Matternet carries a package with a CVS pharmacy in the background. (UPS Photo)

UPS’ drone subsidiary and the CVS pharmacy chain say they’ll start delivering prescription medicines to the nation’s largest retirement community next month, using Matternet’s M2 drone delivery system.

The service, approved by the Federal Aviation Administration under Part 107 rules, will be available for The Villages, a community in central Florida that’s home to more than 135,000 residents. UPS Flight Forward and CVS will be authorized to operate through the coronavirus pandemic and explore continuing needs as they arise once the pandemic fades.

Physical distancing and restrictions on retail business, enacted in response to the pandemic, are bringing more attention to the potential for drone deliveries.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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Boeing and Navy turn Growler jets into drones

Growler jets
The Boeing-built EA-18G Growler is a variant of the F/A-18F Super Hornet that is specialized for tactical jamming and electronic protection. (Boeing Photo)

The era of remote-controlled combat jets has come a little closer in the wake of a demonstration staged by Boeing and the Navy to fly two autonomously controlled EA-18G Growlers as uncrewed air systems.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.