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from the L.A. Times

Category: Robots

Solar-powered drone stays aloft for two weeks, breaking endurance records

A lightweight, solar-powered drone with a massive 73-foot wingspan flew above the clouds for 14 days straight, shattering long-standing aviation endurance records, according to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

The international governing body for aeronautics confirmed last week that the solar-powered robotic plane, dubbed Zephyr, soared above the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona from July 9 to July 23.

Built by British defense contractor QinetiQ, the drone’s 336 hour, 22 minute flight crushed the previous endurance record for a robotic plane, which was held by Northrop Grumman Corp.’s Global Hawk drone. That unmanned flight, which took place in March 2001, lasted 30 hours and 24 minutes.

The Zephyr’s flight also marked the longest time an airplane flew without refueling. The previous mark was set in December 1986 by the Rutan Aircraft Factory’s Voyager and its milestone of 216 hours and three minutes. The Voyager, which had a pilot in the cockpit, was the first plane to travel around the world without stopping or refueling.

The Zephyr, which resembles an oversized version of those balsa wood gliders you threw at classmates in grammar school, was remotely piloted and carried British military communications equipment.  Zephyr 2010 launch

With the help of five people, it was hand-launched from the Yuma test range and climbed to an altitude of more than 70,000 feet using solar panels on the plane’s wing.

QinetiQ is hoping that the flight will help it land  a large order for the spy plane, which it touts as  being capable of "tracking pirates in the Gulf of Aden, detecting bush fires in Australia, and improving battlefield communications and surveillance in Afghanistan."

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-- W.J. Hennigan

Photo: Zephyr in midflight. Credit: QinetiQ

Robots taking over retail jobs?

Kiosk

California lost 12,900 jobs in the retail industry in November, but consumers spent 6% more than they did a year ago.

So why did the state lose retail jobs when it typically adds them to deal with the increased consumer demand?

Blame it on the robots.

Our colleagues over at Money & Co. say it's possible that retailers have replaced cashiers with machines and store attendants with robots.

As the Times reported in October, automation has been a steady progression since the Industrial Revolution. But with the advances in technology and the rising costs of manual labor, many employers are turning to robots to get work done, replacing administrative assistants with software, cashiers with self-service kiosks and laborers with machines.

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Luxury shoppers are making a comeback

Retail sales jump 6% in November

-- W.J. Hennigan

Photo: A customer service video-assist kiosk is seen at a Citibank in New York. Credit: Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

IBM computer to compete on 'Jeopardy!' with two of game show's best contestants

Jeopardy In what is sure to be a romantic Valentine’s Day date, two of the best "Jeopardy!" players in history are set to match wits with an IBM supercomputer named –- what else -– Watson.

Named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson -– not the Sherlock Holmes' sidekick -– the English-only computer will attempt to decipher and answer questions without being connected to the Internet.

Watson will battle Ken Jennings, who won 74 games in a row –- the most consecutive victories ever -– and Brad Rutter, who scored the most money with more than $3 million.

But this competition, to be aired Feb. 14, won’t be quite the same as the one in 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue computer (and its ability to calculate 200 moves per second) beat chess grandmaster and world champion Garry Kasparov.

Watson will have to attempt to pick up the subtle meanings and riddles often woven into Jeopardy questions, which will be fed to the machine through typed entries while host Alex Trebek reads them to the human contestants.

The computer will then sift through a database compiled by more than 20 IBM scientists that includes information about history, literature, pop culture, science and more from a range of sources.

In more than three years of testing, Watson had some trouble recognizing double meanings and sometimes confused fiction as fact.

Broadcast from IBM’s New York laboratory, the show will last three days and the winner will nab $1 million. If Watson comes out on top, IBM will donate the prize to charity. Jennings and Rutter will give away half if they win.

Here's a video from IBM and "Jeopardy!":   

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Japanese robot can pick strawberries based on color

-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Jennings, left, and Rutter. Credit: Charles William Bush / "Jeopardy!"

Japanese robot can pick strawberries based on color

The Beatles would have a field day with this one: A Japanese robot can harvest ripe strawberries.

The bot, created by the country’s Agricultural and Food Research Organization, uses a pair of cameras to figure out the fruit’s position and judge its color. Only berries that meet an 80% redness standard are selected.

Then the robot very carefully cuts the strawberry off the stem at the rate of one berry every nine seconds. That’s 300 hours of harvesting for 1,000 square meters of strawberries, or just 60% of the 500 hours it takes human pickers on average.

Perhaps the machine will eventually compete against similar strawberry-pickers from Robotic Harvesting and Agrobot. It’s already in field testing and may be tweaked for other crops, such as tomatoes, according to DigInfo TV.

How’s that for intelligent farming? RELATED:

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Robot trained to care for the elderly at University of Connecticut

-- Tiffany Hsu

X-37B space plane returns to earth after seven months in orbit

X37

The X-37B robotic spacecraft, which resembles a miniature version of the space shuttle, touched down at Vandenberg Air Force Base early Friday morning, marking the first time an American unmanned vehicle returned from orbit to land on its own.

Until now, the space shuttle was the only reusable space plane capable of returning to earth.

"This marks a new era in space exploration," Paul Rusnock, the X-37’s program director for Boeing Co., which made the spacecraft, said in a statement.

The mysterious X-37B was launched April 22 from Cape Canaveral, Fla. That means it spent more than seven months orbiting the Earth.

Doing what? The government won’t exactly say.

The Air Force, which has been developing the pilotless space plane, has deflected questions about using the X-37B for military missions, saying that it is simply a way to test new technologies, such as satellite sensors and components.

Experts have questioned whether the Pentagon would be willing to spend possibly hundreds of millions of dollars for an orbiting laboratory at a time when the government is tightening its budget belt. They have speculated that the military might one day want to use it as a orbiting spycraft, cargo plane or bomber.

What we do know is that the X-37B was built by Boeing's advanced research lab, Phantom Works, in Huntington Beach.

It is the latest version of a spacecraft that initially began more than a decade ago as a NASA program to test new technologies for the space shuttle. When President George W. Bush decided to retire the space shuttle, the Pentagon took over the program and shrouded its development in secrecy.

The X-37B is about 29 feet long, about the size of a small school bus, with stubby wings that stretch out about 15 feet. It is one-fifth the size of the space shuttle and can draw on the sun for electricity using unfolding solar panels.

Air Force officials said Friday that the government planned to launch a second X-37 in next spring.

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-- W.J. Hennigan

Photo: The X-37, perched atop an Atlas V rocket, awaits launch in a special encapsulation cell at Cape Canaveral, Fla., in April Credit: U.S. Air Force

Robotic mini space shuttle expected to land at Vandenberg

X37

The X-37, an unmanned spacecraft that resembles a miniature version of the space shuttle, is set to land at Vandenberg Air Force Base as early as this week -- more than seven months after it was launched into orbit.

The Air Force, which has been developing the X-37 pilotless space plane, has kept the ultimate purpose of the program hush-hush. It was launched April 22 from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The covert nature of the program -- coupled with the fact it was funded by the Pentagon -- fueled speculation it was being used for military purposes, such as an "orbital bomber."

What we do know is that the X-37 was built by Boeing Co.'s advanced research lab, Phantom Works, in Huntington Beach. It's about 29 feet long, or about the size of a small school bus, with stubby wings that stretch out about 15 feet. It is one-fifth the size of the space shuttle and can draw on the sun for electricity using unfolding solar panels.

Officials at Vandenberg said in a statement Tuesday that preparations were underway for the X-37 to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and land on the base's 15,000-foot landing strip.

“The exact landing date and time will depend on technical and weather considerations," the statement said, adding that it was expected to occur sometime from Friday to Monday.  

RELATED:

Small unmanned spacecraft is set for launch

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X-37 space plane launches successfully

-- W.J. Hennigan

Photo: The X-37 sits in its encapsulation cell before it was launched at Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas V rocket on April 22. Credit: U.S. Air Force

Robot trained to care for the elderly at University of Connecticut

Robot1_lg-300x198At the University of Connecticut, a robot named Nao is learning how to take care of elderly patients.

The toddler-sized machine is being programmed to determine how often it should remind its charges to take their medication, when to notify an overseer and when to just let the patients enjoy some autonomy.

The married researchers behind the project –- philosopher Susan Anderson of the University of Connecticut and her husband, computer scientist Michael Anderson of the University of Hartford -– say they’re trying to create an “ethical robot.”

Nao, a sleek creature with glowing eyes, represents a combination of basic ethical principles, machine learning techniques, and artificial intelligence science. It looks partly cute and partly creepy, walking in lolling steps and speaking in its mechanical voice: "It is time to take your medication."

The Andersons’ work, still in its early stages, was featured in Scientific American in October. Check out Nao in action here: RELATED:

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Drones that can see, hear and ... smell?

Globalhawk Drones have been called the most hotly sought-after weapon system in a generation, but the robotic planes' primary role is to gather intelligence for the military.

The high-powered cameras that are slung underneath the planes allow soldiers on the ground to know what's over a hill or what's happening miles down the road: Spotting ambushes before they happen, noticing bombs along the side of the road, and observing bands of insurgents dug in along the mountainside.

But new sensors are being developed to enable flying drones to "listen in" on cellphone conversations and pinpoint the location of the caller on the ground. Some can even "smell" the air and sniff out chemical plumes emanating from a potential underground nuclear laboratory.

A story in today's Times examines the industry of building the cameras and sensors for the pilotless spy plane, many of which are built in the Southland.

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-- W.J. Hennigan

Photo: An Air Force Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle lands at Beale Air Force Base near Marysville, Calif. Credit: Associated Press / John Schwab/U.S. Air Force

Robonaut to be launched on the Discovery space shuttle

When space shuttle Discovery blasts into space next week, there will be an unusual passenger onboard.

A 300-pound humanoid robot named Robonaut 2, or R2, will hitch a ride along with the six astronauts who are making their way to the International Space Station. 

With its gold helmet and shiny metallic visor, R2 looks a little like a toned-down Metroid from the popular Nintendo video game, but it’s solely made up of a torso, two arms and two five-fingered hands.

The idea is that R2 will be an astronaut’s assistant, helping out with routine tasks such as holding tools and vacuuming air filters. Robo

“Initially, R2 will be deployed on a fixed pedestal inside” the space station, NASA said. “Next steps include a leg for climbing through the corridors of the space station.”

Once fully built, NASA envisions R2 assisting astronauts during space walks, lending a hand with mechanical fixes to the outside of the space station.

R2 was jointly developed and built by NASA and General Motors engineers at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. But some of engineering know-how and robotic innards came out of California locations, such as Malibu’s HRL Laboratories, Woodland’s JR3 Inc. and Santa Clara’s Cirexx International Inc.

If you’re interested, the folks out at NASA have established a Twitter account for R2, where it ruminates about all things space.

-- W.J. Hennigan

Photo: Robonaut2 –- or R2 for short -– is the next-generation dexterous robot, developed through a Space Act Agreement by NASA and General Motors. Credit: NASA.

[Corrected: An earlier version of this post quoted a NASA spokeswoman saying that R2 might enable NASA to eliminate the astronaut’s space walks altogether. That was an error and NASA said it has no plans to end astronaut's space walks.]

Geek alert: Watch the Mars rover getting assembled

JPL

Ever wonder what it’s like assembling the high-tech robots that trawl other planets?

Well, the folks over at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge are giving you the chance to find out.

The space agency has set up the "Curiosity Cam" that streams live video of the next Mars rover being built. Watch technicians assemble and test the robot, dubbed Curiosity, before it is sent off to the Red Planet next year.

The automobile-sized rover will investigate whether Mars' environment is suitable for supporting microbial life and for preserving evidence about whether life ever existed there.

"Curiosity is engineered to drive longer distances over rougher terrain than previous rovers," NASA said. It will also be carrying 10 times the weight in scientific instruments to test the atmosphere and soil.

When you tune in, you’ll notice technicians look like white ninjas. They’re wearing white smocks, booties and face masks. Known as "bunny suits," they are designed to prevent any contaminants from reaching the rover.

Work in the clean room begins at 8 a.m. Pacific time Monday through Friday, NASA said.

From time to time, the camera may be turned off for maintenance. But when it’s off, NASA will have a slide show of Mars and rover images.

NASA is planning to ship Curiosity to Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., next spring. The launch is scheduled between Nov. 25 and Dec. 18, 2011. It would land on Mars sometime in August 2012.

-- W.J. Hennigan

Photo: The Curiosity Cam live video feed allows the public to watch technicians assemble and test NASA's next Mars rover in a clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech.

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