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WiBotic raises $5.7M for wireless charging systems

Robot and WiBotic charger
WiBotic’s system is designed to charge up robots wirelessly. (WiBotic Photo)

Seattle-based Wibotic says it’s secured $5.7 million in fresh investment to ramp up development of its wireless charging and power optimization systems, five years after being spun out from the University of Washington.

“We’re heading into our toddler phase here,” WiBotic CEO Ben Waters joked during an interview with GeekWire.

Investors in the Series A funding round include Junson Capital, SV Tech Ventures, Rolling Bay Ventures, Aves Capital, The W Fund and WRF. The latest round brings WiBotic’s total investment to nearly $9 million.

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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.

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

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DARPA lets robots take over nuclear plant

DARPA Subterranean Challenge
 CSIRO Data61’s Brett Wood, checks the team’s Titan robot and piggyback drone just before a robot run in the Urban Circuit of DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

SATSOP, Wash. — Amid the ruins of what was meant to be a nuclear power plant, a robot catches a whiff of carbon dioxide — and hundreds of feet away, its master perks up his ears.

“I think I’ve got gas sensing,” Fletcher Talbot, the designated human operator for Team CSIRO Data61 in DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge, told teammates who were bunkered with him in the bowels of the Satsop nuclear reactor site near Elma.

Moments after Talbot fed the coordinates into a computer, a point appeared on the video scoreboard mounted on a wall of the bunker. “Hey, nice,” one member of the team said, and the whole squad broke into a short burst of applause.

Then it was back to the hunt.

The robot’s discovery marked one small step in the Subterranean Challenge, a multimillion-dollar competition aimed at promoting the development of autonomous robots to seek out and identify victims amid the rubble of an urban disaster area, or hazards hidden in the alleys of a hostile cityscape.

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AI2 sets up robo-challenge in virtual and real rooms

RoboTHOR Challenge
The RoboTHOR 2020 Challenge will test how well computer models for visual identification and navigation translate into real-world robotic performance. (AI2 Illustration / Winson Han)

Computer vision and navigation have improved by leaps and bounds, thanks to artificial intelligence, but how well do the computer models work in the real world?

That’s the challenge that Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence is setting for AI researchers over the next few months, with geek fame and glory as the prize.

AI2’s RoboTHOR Challenge, which kicks off today, capitalizes on years of work that’s been done to train AI agents in synthetic environments.

Ani Kembhavi, a research scientist at AI2, says RoboTHOR focuses on the next step. “If you can train a deep-learning, computer vision model to do something in an embodied environment … how well would this model work when deployed in an actual robot?” he told GeekWire.

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Amazon patents ‘Doctor Who’ delivery robots

Storage compartment vehicle
A diagram from Amazon’s patent application shows a customer issuing a command to open up one of the doors on a storage compartment vehicle. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Amazon is already testing robots that deliver packages, but a newly issued patent covers a far more ambitious scheme, involving storage compartment vehicles that can roam the sidewalks to make multiple deliveries along their routes.

As described in the patent application published today, Amazon’s proposed SCVs could pick up items for return as well.

If the plan is fully implemented, it could address the “last mile” or “final 50 feet” challenge for delivery systems by having customers come out to the sidewalk, tap the required security code on their smartphones, and open up the right doors to grab the items they’ve ordered.

There’s no guarantee that we’ll see treaded SCVs roaming the street anytime soon. Amazon says its patent applications explore the full possibilities of new technologies — but those inventions don’t always get turned into new products and services as described in the applications. Sometimes the inventions never see the light of day. (Just ask Jeff Bezos about the airbag-cushioned smartphone he invented.)

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ANA Avatar XPRIZE teams go to the next level

Avatar at work
The ANA Avatar XPRIZE aims to encourage the development of devices that will allow travelers to experience remote locales virtually. (ANA Avatar XPRIZE via YouTube)

Seventy-seven teams from 19 countries around the globe have qualified to participate in the $10 million ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition, which aims to promote the development of robotic systems that let travelers connect with far-flung locales virtually.

The roster of competitors includes 27 teams from the United States, ranging from Boston University’s Robotics and Ambient Intelligence Labs to Virtual Vegas.

There are teams from international robotic hot spots such as Japan and South Korea as well as from emerging tech frontiers such as Brazil and Jordan.

“The incredible geographical diversity represented by the 77 teams moving forward will provide the unique perspectives necessary to develop transformative avatar technology capable of transcending physical limitations and expanding the capacity of humankind itself,” David Locke, prize director at the Los Angeles-based XPRIZE founation, said today in a news release.

With Japan’s All Nippon Airways as the title sponsor, the ANA Avatar XPRIZE will challenge teams to come up with physical, non-autonomous robotic avatar systems that enable a human operator to see, hear and interact with a remote environment in real time.

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Airbus acquires robotics firm in Boeing’s backyard

MTM Robotics machine
MTM Robotics’ light automated robotic systems are already in use in Airbus’ manufacturing facilities. (Airbus Photo)

Airbus says it has acquired MTM Robotics, a Seattle-area company that provides automated systems for aerospace manufacturing, for an undisclosed sum.

MTM’s headquarters are in Mukilteo, Wash., just a few miles from Boeing’s Everett factory. But MTM has had a close connection to Boeing’s European archrival: For more than a decade, the company has provided light automated robotics systems for Airbus’ manufacturing facilities.

As an subsidiary of Virginia-based Airbus Americas Inc., MTM will retain its current leadership and 40-employee staff at the 10,000-square-foot Mukilteo facility, Airbus said today in a news release.

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Olis will lend a hand with Maxar’s lunar robotic arm

Maxar robotic arm
An artist’s conception shows the SAMPLR robotic arm working on the moon. (Maxar Technologies Illustration)

Seattle-based Olis Robotics says it’s been selected by Maxar Technologies to provide software that will prepare operators on Earth to control a robotic arm on the moon.

The software will be used in connection with a robotic-arm experiment known as SAMPLR (Sample Acquisition, Morphology Filtering and Probing of Lunar Regolith).

SAMPLR is one of a dozen payloads chosen by NASA to fly on commercial lunar landers in support of the space agency’s Artemis program to send astronauts to the moon by 2024.

The robotic arm is a flight spare left over from NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Both of those rovers landed on the Red Planet back in 2004, and the mission was brought to a close this February.

SAMPLR will be attached to a lander to be named later, as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. It’ll be NASA’s first robotic  arm sent to the moon in more than 50 years.

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Tech titans face scrutiny over killer-robot tech

SpotMini and Marc Raibert
Boston Dynamics’ four-legged SpotMini robot may look scary as it shares the stage with company founder and CEO Marc Raibert at Amazon’s re:MARS conference in Las Vegas in June. But a report published this month praises Boston Dynamics’ owner, SoftBank, for confirming that it won’t develop technologies that could be used for military purposes. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Dutch activists are voicing concerns about technologies that could open the way for lethal autonomous weapons – such as AI software, facial recognition and swarming aerial systems – and are wondering where several tech titans including Amazon and Microsoft stand.

So are some AI researchers in the United States.

report issued by Pax, a Dutch group that’s part of an international initiative known as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, calls out Amazon, Microsoft and other companies for not responding to the group’s inquiries about their activities and policies in the context of lethal autonomous weapons.

“Why are companies like Microsoft and Amazon not denying that they’re currently developing these highly controversial weapons, which could decide to kill people without direct human involvement?” the report’s lead author, Frank Slijper, said this week in a news release. “Many experts warn that they would violate fundamental legal and ethical principles and would be a destabilizing threat to international peace and security.”

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Olis and Tethers Unlimited team up on space robots

Robot arm and Refabricator
An artist’s conception shows a Mantis robotic arm at work on Tethers Unlimited’s Refabricator 3-D printer and recycler. (Tethers Unlimited / Olis Robotics Illustration)

Two space tech companies that are headquartered in the Seattle area, Olis Robotics and Tethers Unlimited, are joining forces to create a new kind of remote-controlled robotic system that could be used on the International Space Station or other off-Earth outposts.

The companies say they’ve signed an agreement to explore further development of the system, in an arrangement that follows up on past collaborations.

Seattle-based Olis Robotics’ software platform allows robots to perform some tasks autonomously and reduce operator workload on other tasks. The platform makes it possible for robots in remote locations to execute their prescribed tasks safely even if their links with remote operators are subject to time delays or data dropouts.

That’s just the kind of resiliency that’s required for space operations, Olis CEO Don Pickering said. “Our variable autonomy software platform allows operators anywhere in the world to command new levels of precision, safety and efficiency in remotely operating robotics in space,” he explained in a news release.

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