Practice Makes Perfect for Path-Following Quadrotors

Quadrotors teach themselves to follow complex paths, even in wind, making their puny human programmers more or less completely redundant

2 min read
Practice Makes Perfect for Path-Following Quadrotors

It's starting to seem like programming a robot to do anything is old and busted, and the new hotness is to program a robot to learn instead. And it makes sense: why spend a bunch of time and effort programming a robot to solve a specific problem when (with perhaps a little more time and effort) you can create a generalist that can learn to do absolutely anything? 

Learning is essentially just the inherent ability to adapt to a new situation, and new situations crop up disturbingly frequently out there in what they call "real life." UAVs, for example, have to deal with annoyances like wind, which has a tendency to blow them off of whatever route they're supposed to be taking. While you could certainly program a UAV to follow a specific trajectory, and then program it to be able to account for wind of varying degrees of windishness, it's much easier just to program it to follow a trajectory adaptively, learning to deal with wind (or any other type of disturbance as it goes). Those crazy quadrotors from the Flying Machine Arena at ETH Zurich demonstrate the concept:

Just like humans, these robots start off being fairly terrible at a given task. Also like humans, they get better quickly, and quite unlike humans, robots never make the same mistake twice, never get tired or bored, can practice and practice until they perfectly master whatever task they've been assigned. Got a new variable to introduce? No problem! Just add in a few more practice sessions and the robot will figure it out

Eventually, the hope is that robots will be able to figure out new situations completely on their own, without even having to ask a human for help. And since networked robots can learn from the mistakes of other networked robots, all it takes is just a few adventurous non-souls to take the plunge on a given task, and robots everywhere can learn and benefit from whatever mayhem may or may not (but probably will) ensue.

[ ETH Zurich ]

Thanks Markus!

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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