Why the Mars Probe went off course

Far more was at fault with the Mars Climate Orbiter than a simple mixup in converting metric and British units

19 min read
Why the Mars Probe went off course

Aircraft accident investigators have a special term for a particularly insidious type of accident--CFIT, or controlled flight into terrain. It occurs when human error in the cockpit, in the traffic control tower, or in the flight planning process in effect flies a perfectly good airplane right into the ground.

In the past 40 years, space flight has encountered all sorts of failure modes. Propulsion systems have leaked and exploded. Power systems have short-circuited. Observation instruments have failed to work or have been pointed in wrong directions. But until this year no CFIT had occurred in outer space.

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Apptronik Developing General-Purpose Humanoid Robot

Apollo will be a practical bipedal platform that can do useful tasks

6 min read
A photo of a sliver and black humanoid robot

Apptronik’s Quick Development Humanoid (QDH) is the prototype for its general-purpose humanoid robot, Apollo.

There’s a handful of robotics companies currently working on what could be called general-purpose humanoid robots. That is, human-size, human-shaped robots with legs for mobility and arms for manipulation that can (or, may one day be able to) perform useful tasks in environments designed primarily for humans. The value proposition is obvious—drop-in replacement of humans for dull, dirty, or dangerous tasks. This sounds a little ominous, but the fact is that people don’t want to be doing the jobs that these robots are intended to do in the short term, and there just aren’t enough people to do these jobs as it is.

We tend to look at claims of commercializable general-purpose humanoid robots with some skepticism, because humanoids are really, really hard. They’re still really hard in a research context, which is usually where things have to get easier before anyone starts thinking about commercialization. There are certainly companies out there doing some amazing work toward practical legged systems, but at this point, “practical” is more about not falling over than it is about performance or cost effectiveness. The overall approach toward solving humanoids in this way tends to be to build something complex and expensive that does what you want, with the goal of cost reduction over time to get it to a point where it’s affordable enough to be a practical solution to a real problem.

Apptronik, based in Austin, Texas, is the latest company to attempt to figure out how to make a practical general-purpose robot. Its approach is to focus on things like cost and reliability from the start, developing (for example) its own actuators from scratch in a way that it can be sure will be cost effective and supply-chain friendly. Apptronik’s goal is to develop a platform that costs well under US $100,000 of which it hopes to be able to deliver a million by 2030, although the plan is to demonstrate a prototype early this year. Based on what we’ve seen of commercial humanoid robots recently, this seems like a huge challenge. And in part two of this story (to be posted tomorrow), we will be talking in depth to Apptronik’s cofounders to learn more about how they’re going to make general-purpose humanoids happen.

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Fine-Tuning the Factory: Simulation App Helps Optimize Additive Manufacturing Facility

Additive manufacturing processes can provide rapid and customizable production of high-quality components

7 min read
Fine-Tuning the Factory: Simulation App Helps Optimize Additive Manufacturing Facility

An example of a part produced through the metal powder bed fusion process.

This sponsored article is brought to you by COMSOL.

History teaches that the Industrial Revolution began in England in the mid-18th century. While that era of sooty foundries and mills is long past, manufacturing remains essential — and challenging. One promising way to meet modern industrial challenges is by using additive manufacturing (AM) processes, such as powder bed fusion and other emerging techniques. To fulfill its promise of rapid, precise, and customizable production, AM demands more than just a retooling of factory equipment; it also calls for new approaches to factory operation and management.

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