Video Friday: Robotics After Hours

Your weekly selection of awesome robot videos

4 min read
Two humans along with several Spot quadruped and Atlas humanoid robots dance in the testing area of Boston Dynamics' offices

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. 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!):

ICRA 2022: 23–27 May 2022, Philadelphia
ERF 2022: 28–30 June 2022, Rotterdam, the Netherlands
CLAWAR 2022: 12–14 September 2022, Açores, Portugal

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

Boston Dynamics put together a behind-the-scenes video of sorts about the Super Bowl commercial they did in collaboration with some beer company or other.

One thing that low-key bugged me about this is how in the behind-the-footage scenes, it's obvious how much separation exists between the actors and the Atlas robots, while in the actual commercial, it looks like the humans and robots spend a lot of time right next to each other.

[ Boston Dynamics ]

Power-line perching could be an easy way for urban drones to keep their batteries topped up, but landing on power lines can be tricky. Watch this video until the end to see a drone fly a trajectory to end up in a perching pose underneath a demo line and upside-down!

[ GRVC ]

This finger motion pleases me.

The two chambers of the soft, pneumatic finger are actuated manually, using two large syringes filled with air. Flicking not a result of fast actuation but of the natural compliance and springiness of the actuator. The compliance inherent to the finger effectively compensates for the inaccuracies in human actuation, leading to robust behavior.

[ TU Berlin ]

Happy Valentine's Day from RightHand Robotics!

[ RightHand Robotics ]

Once upon a time two Spots embarked on a mission to find true love. After valiantly overcoming many obstacles, they finally met each other. Sparks were bound to fly in this meeting of the purest hearts. Legend has it that they lived happily ever after.

Sparks flying would be bad, no?

[ Energy Robotics ]

The "new" ASIMO was announced in November of 2011. For a decade-old platform, this performance is still pretty good.

[ YouTube ]

The Apellix Opus X8 Softwash (SW) system cleaning the University of Florida Shands Hospital building in Jacksonville, Florida. The portion of the hospital shown in the video is inaccessible by lifts, impractical to scaffold, and rope access would have been expensive and time-consuming.

[ Apellix ]

NeuroVis is a neural dynamic visualizer that connects to the Robot Operating System (ROS). It acts as a ROS node named “NeuroVis” that receives six topics as inputs: neuron name, connection, updated weight, neuron activity, normalization gain, and bias. In addition, the program can be employed along with a simulation and operates in parallel to the real robot.

[ Brain Lab ]

Thanks, Poramate!

We present the design of a robotic leg that can seamlessly switch between a spring-suspended and unsuspended configuration. Switching is realized by a lightweight mechanism that exploits the alternative configuration of the two-link leg. This allows us to embed additional functionality in the leg to increase the performance in relation to the locomotion task.

[ Paper ] via [ ETH RSL ]

Aerial robots can enhance their safe and agile navigation in complex and cluttered environments by efficiently exploiting the information collected during a given task. In this paper, we address the learning model predictive control problem for quadrotors. We show the effectiveness of the proposed approach in learning a minimum time control task, respecting dynamics, actuators, and environment constraints.

[ ARPL ]

Meet the team that may be least likely to achieve the fastest time at the Self Racing Cars competition at Thunderhill Raceway.

I'm a fan anyway, though!

[ Monarch ] via [ Self Racing Cars ]

AeroVironment’s team of innovative engineers discuss our collaboration with NASA/JPL to design and develop the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter.

[ AeroVironment ]

We are excited to announce the availability of Skydio 2+, our newest drone, which adds important battery-, range-, controller-, and autonomy-software improvements. Ready for Skydio 3D Scan and Skydio Cloud, Skydio 2+ provides the smartest and most efficient solution for accurate asset inspections, small-area mapping, and accident-scene reconstruction.

[ Skydio ]

A large dust storm on Mars, nearly twice the size of the United States, covered the southern hemisphere of the Red Planet in early January 2022, leading to some of NASA’s explorers on the surface hitting pause on their normal activities. NASA’s Insight lander put itself in a "safe mode" to conserve battery power after dust prevented sunlight from reaching the solar panels. NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter also had to postpone flights until conditions improved.

[ NASA ]

This GRASP on Robotics talk is by Ankur Mehta at the University of California, on "Towards $1 Robots."

Robots are pretty great—they can make some hard tasks easy, some dangerous tasks safe, or some unthinkable tasks possible. And they’re just plain fun to boot. But how many robots have you interacted with recently? And where do you think that puts you compared to the rest of the world’s people? In contrast to computation, automating physical interactions continues to be limited in scope and breadth. I’d like to change that. But in particular, I’d like to do so in a way that’s accessible to everyone, everywhere. In our lab, we work to lower barriers to robotics design, creation, and operation through material and mechanism design, computational tools, and mathematical analysis. We hope that with our efforts, everyone will be soon able to enjoy the benefits of robotics to work, to learn, and to play.

[ UPenn ]

This week's CMU RI Seminar is by Jessica Burgner-Kahrs from University of Toronto, Mississauga, on continuum robots.

[ CMU RI ]

The Conversation (1)
Joannot Fampionona19 Feb, 2022

Hi there, I avidly watch these compilation each and every week, thank you for all these interesting new (and old [asimo]) things. I have a request (which would be totally fine if not met) could it be possible to enable full screen on the embedded videos please? thanks again for the great work.

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.