New BeetleCam Adds Video, Gyros for More Death-Defying Animal Spying

Reason number 2,048 that we have robots: up close photography of wild animals

2 min read
New BeetleCam Adds Video, Gyros for More Death-Defying Animal Spying
Photo: William Burrard-Lucas

Robots that tackle the third "D" of things that robots are good at (that would be, Dangerous, as opposed to Dull or Dirty) are best known for dealing with things like bombs. Or radiation. In other words, they're sent after things that a human would ordinarily have to deal with if we didn't have robots. There is a separate category of dangerous, though, that consists of things that humans don't have to deal with, and don't want to deal with, because they're absolutely nuts. Like, getting within a few feet of a wild leopard or a lion with a camera and saying "meat!"

William Burrard-Lucas, a U.K. wildlife photographer, started working on a lion-pestering robot called BeetleCam four or five years ago. Essentially, it's a remote-controlled DSLR on wheels, and we've posted about some of the spectacular images that he's been able to capture. There's a new generation of BeetleBot that now includes a video camera, and a forthcoming upgrade that mounts the entire setup on a gyro-stabilised camera gimbal. The results are breathtaking, although the lions don't seem particularly impressed. Admittedly, I have no idea what an impressed lion looks like, so I could be wrong. But watch anyway:

BeetleCam may have started off as a sort of DIY project, but it's commercially available now, armored lion-proof (mostly) carapace included. It's got four-wheel drive, can be controlled out to 500 meters, includes a battery that should last for a day of shooting, and can be rigged up for a remote control camera feed. The cost is $2,700 and up.

For a little more versatility, you could instead go with a cam-toting 'copter, but I'd hold off on that for a bit: Burrard-Lucas is working on an "innovative new, super-quiet" hexacopter that'll be "perfectly suited for filming wildlife" without, we assume, causing a butterfly-effect stampede. So, you'll be able to get footage like this, but even better:

[ Camtraptions ]

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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