Video Friday: Constant Gardener

Your weekly selection of awesome robot videos

4 min read
Industrial robots drawing lines in sand

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here's what we have so far (send us your events!):

DARPA SubT Finals – September 21-23, 2021 – Louisville, KY, USA
WeRobot 2021 – September 23-25, 2021 – [Online Event]
IROS 2021 – September 27-1, 2021 – [Online Event]
ROSCon 2021 – October 20-21, 2021 – [Online Event]

Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today's videos.

It's been a hectic couple of days, so here are some retired industrial robots quietly drawing lines in sand.

[ Constant Gardener ] via [ RobotStart ]

Engineers at MIT and Shanghai Jiao Tong University have designed a soft, lightweight, and potentially low-cost neuroprosthetic hand. Amputees who tested the artificial limb performed daily activities such as zipping a suitcase, pouring a carton of juice, and petting a cat, just as well, and in some cases better than, more rigid neuroprosthetics.

[ MIT ]

To perceive the world around it, the Waymo Driver uses a single, integrated system comprised of lidars, cameras, and radars that enable it to see 360 degrees in every direction, day or night, and as far as three football fields away. This powerful sensing suite makes it easy for The Waymo Driver to navigate the complex scenarios it comes across multiple times a day while driving in San Francisco, like safely maneuvering around three, large double-parked vehicles on a narrow street.

[ Waymo ]

"Robot, stand up" - Oscar Constanza, 16, gives the order and slowly but surely a large frame strapped to his body lifts him up and he starts walking. Fastened to his shoulders, chest, waist, knees and feet, the exoskeleton allows Oscar - who has a genetic neurological condition that means his nerves do not send enough signals to his legs - to walk across the room and turn around.

[ Wandercraft ] via [ Reuters ]

Thanks Antonio!

Nothing super crazy in this video of Spot, but it's always interesting to pay close attention to some of the mobility challenges that the robot effortlessly manages, like the ladder, or that wobbly board.

[ Boston Dynamics ]

This video shows the evolution of a dynamic quadruped robot Panther. During my Ph.D. study, one of the most rewarding experiences is to improve upon the Panther robot. However, publication videos only show success, and the process of advancement (including failures and lessons) is rarely shared among the robotics community. This video, therefore, serves as complementary material showcasing the inglorious yet authentic aspect of research.


[ Yanran Ding ]

Thanks Fan!

This paper proposes the design of a robotic gripper motivated by the bin-picking problem, where a variety of objects need to be picked from cluttered bins. The presented gripper design focuses on an enveloping cage-like approach, which surrounds the object with three hooked fingers, and then presses into the object with a movable palm. The fingers are flexible and imbue grasps with some elasticity, helping to conform to objects and, crucially, adding friction to cases where an object cannot be caged.

[ Paper ]

Tin Lun Lam writes, "Recently, we have upgraded FreeBOT (a kind of Freeform Modular Self-reconfigurable Robot) such that they can detect the connection configuration dynamically without using any external sensing system. It is a very important milestone for our ongoing work to make FreeBOT fully autonomous."

[ CUHK ]

Thanks Tin Lun!

Dusty Robotics develops robot-powered tools for the modern construction workforce. Our FieldPrinter automated layout robot turns BIM models into fully constructible layouts. This digital layout process shortens schedules, eliminates rework, and enables projects to finish faster at lower cost.

[ Dusty Robotics ]

NASA's Curiosity rover explores Mount Sharp, a 5-mile-tall (8-kilometer-tall) mountain within the basin of Gale Crater on Mars. Curiosity's Deputy Project Scientist, Abigail Fraeman of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, gives viewers a descriptive tour of Curiosity's location. The panorama was captured by the rover's Mast Camera, or Mastcam, on July 3, 2021, the 3,167th Martian day, or sol, of its mission.

[ JPL ]

Robot arm manages to not kill plants. Or people!

[ HydroCobotics ]

Thanks Fan!

One Step Closer to Mapping Icy Moons Like Europa, Enceladus - Astrobotic tested AstroNav in Alaska to demonstrate precision landing and hazard detection on icy moons in the outer solar system.

[ Astrobotic ]

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory developed a robotic disassembly system for used electric vehicle batteries to make the process safer, more efficient, and less costly, while supporting recycling of critical materials and reducing waste.

[ ORNL ]

In a partnership with ANYbotics, Vale highlights its commitment to becoming one of the safest and most reliable mining companies in the world. The results showed that ANYmal helps reduce exposure to hazardous conditions and integrates seamlessly into Vale's team to autonomously perform routine inspections and deliver improved reporting during operations and periods of downtime.

[ ANYbotics ]

Thanks Cheila!

Adapted to the Spirit as an optional payload module, Exyn's industry-leading autonomous software, ExynAI, provides unprecedented 3D LIDAR mapping in GPS-denied environments. Now with Level 4 Autonomy and advanced data collection software, this payload enables volumetric autonomous navigation, superior security encryption, and increased speed and agility.


[ Ascent ]

At the Karolinska University Laboratory in Sweden, an innovation project based around an ABB collaborative robot has increased efficiency and created a better working environment for lab staff.

[ ABB ]

Alex from Berich Masonry shares his experience as a new member of the masonry community, and his positive experience with Construction Robotic's MULE, a lift-assist solution that can keep Alex stay safer and healthier throughout his career.

[ Construction Robotics ]

Older adults sharing what it's like to live with ElliQ, a personal care companion, for the past two years.

[ ElliQ ]

The Conversation (0)

The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.