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    Inspection drones buzz this airport (and the FAA is cool with it)

    Since September 2018, FedEx has been inspecting its aircraft at a busy international airport using drones that normally wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the facility. Strict regulations prohibit drones from sharing airspace with planes, but a novel FAA pilot that includes FedEx, as well as drone companies such as DJI and Asylon, could change that in the future.
    Drone inspection has long been a hot area for enterprise drones, including in unexpected spaces, but this program is a real watershed in the FAA’s evolving approach to drone regulation. I reached out to Joel Murdock, managing director at FedEx Express, for insights about the company’s airport drone operations and what it means for the future of enterprise drones in sensitive areas, and he’s optimistic.
    “We believe drones could help improve efficiencies around aircraft inspections and maintenance at our World Hub at Memphis International Airport,” says Murdock, “and other airports around the country.  We also believe drones can be used to supplement our existing airport perimeter surveillance and runway/taxiway FOD detection activities.”
    The program started in May of 2018 when the U.S. Dept. of Transportation launched the Unmanned Aircraft System Integrated Pilot Programs (UAS IPP), granting ten leading participants the opportunity to test ten different use cases for drones. Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, in collaboration with FedEx, was given the go-ahead to test drones for on-airport operations, and the findings from each UAS IPP will help inform future policymaking for drones operating in the United States. 
    The program’s first year was dedicated to developing flight procedures. FedEx began initial operations off-airport in areas of increasing operational complexity, including places such as the Memphis Riverfront Park, Memphis Redbird Ball Park and Liberty Bowl Coliseum. FedEx conducted small unmanned aircraft systems pilot and visual observer training during day and night-time operations and developed and evaluated small UAS flight performance on simulated missions before progressing to the Memphis International Airport to conduct UAS flight tests.
    To understand why this is so significant, it’s important to understand how strict the current regulatory environment is.
    “The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration currently restricts the use of drones within five miles of an airport,” explains Murdock. “Through the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority’s UAS IPP we are working with the FAA to safely test use cases for on-airport drone usage. Our findings will help inform future policymaking towards the use of drones at and around the perimeter of airports in the United States.”
    The drones in FedEx’s pilot are focused on day-to-day operations, including supporting aircraft general visual inspections using high resolution camera imagery on the top on the fuselage, wings and tail sections at World Hub at Memphis International Airport.  
    “These drones will identify areas requiring further analysis by inspection personnel to determine if a repair action is required,” says Murdock.
    If successful, the concept is likely to spread. “We are hopeful that we will be able to continue testing drone use at Memphis International Airport, and eventually other airports important to our operations in the future.” More

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    A 10-day race to develop three germ-blasting robots

    Stories have been emerging about epic, even life-saving development sprints in the days after COVID-19 took hold. Teams working in a variety of spaces, from data management and tele-health to robotics and IoT spotted adjacent opportunities to develop technologies to fight the pandemic during what may turn out to be one of the most fertile technology sprints in modern history.
    A new entry in the list is Weston Robot, a Singapore-based robot developer and supplier that, at the time of the first outbreaks, had designed a variety of robots for various markets, including compact surveillance robots with wheels designed for uneven terrain, as well as autonomous cars and even robotic exoskeletons. As the pressing demands of the pandemic began to sink in, the Weston team turned its focus on a critical problem: Using the mobile robots in its product well to aid in disinfecting.
    “We asked ourselves, ‘Can we add something to these robots, for example, a spray gun to spray chemical disinfectant?'” says Dr. Yanliang Zhang, managing director and chief scientist of Weston Robot.
    The team quickly decided that retrofitting its existing technology would be the best route forward, and that set off a development spring that will surely be enshrined in company lore for years to come.
    “The first day that COVID-19 was announced to be infectious in humans, my team came together and said ‘We design robots, is there something we can do to mitigate the spread of the virus?’ ” says Zhang. “Obviously, we could not totally design a new robot model at that time. Instead, we wanted to take advantage of what we have already: mobile robots.”
    Over the next 10 days, the team developed two mobile disinfecting robots — one for large open areas like airports and shopping malls, and one for smaller contained spaces — as well as a mobile temperature check station. Redesigning the hardware was only half the battle given that the team needed to figure out how to effectively communicate with and control the robots to ensure accuracy and safety in a variety of environments. 
    The outdoor disinfecting robot is essentially a mobile sprayer that caries enough disinfecting solution to cover four acres. The indoor unit utilizes UV lights and preprogrammed autonomous movement maps—similar to how a robot vacuum would move through a map of your living room to clean–to clean spaces non-invasively. Taking these rapidly developed robots from prototypes to a finished product took another month and was accomplished with the help of Agile X, a mobile robot manufacturing company in China.
    “In the final product, we do redevelop everything,” say Zhang. “Agile X is very good at manufacturing hardware, so they can quickly realize your idea and do product assembly testing there. During lockdown it is very difficult for us to get components from the supply chain, but they are very good at making the whole robot given our design specifications.”
    The robots are currently deployed around the world and Weston Robot is pursuing certifications to enter more markets. It’s a phenomenal example of a positive outcome of the last six months, as well as a sign that development timeframes are speeding up substantially thanks to a proliferation of task-agnostic platforms, rapid prototyping technologies, and innovative approaches to flexible manufacturing. More

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    Contactless checkout: Why it's coming to the bodega before the chain store

    Autonomous checkout is a new reality, which doesn’t require any physical scanning of objects, is fast becoming a reality. What’s surprising is that the capability may be coming to the small corner stores before it hits major grocery chains. 
    COVID-19 has certainly hastened development and rollout of the technology. Where I live in Los Angeles, it’s striking how popular corner stores during the frenzied early days of the pandemic when lines at super markets sometimes stretched around the block. Since then, a new “touchless” reality has set in, and developers are keen to capitalize.
    I recently wrote about a company called Standard, which is bringing autonomous checkout to college campuses with an emphasis on retrofitting existing retail concepts. There have also been novel checkout technologies that utilize an AI-powered shopping cart to clock which items customers are nabbing. Caper, creators of one such cart, recently expanded its product line of autonomous retail technology with something called Caper Counter, a cashierless countertop designed for mini marts under ten thousand feet. The technology provides autonomous checkout to keep customers and employees safe and minimize human interaction while shopping, and, crucially, it’s completely plug-and-play, meaning it’s not difficult to deploy in existing spaces.
    “COVID accelerated the need for autonomous checkout, and the demand from retailers for technology solutions has increased exponentially. The Caper Counter builds on our momentum with the success of Caper Cart by providing the same AI technologies in a smaller format for mini markets and smaller-footprint retailers,” says Lindon Gao, CEO and co-founder of Caper. “The Caper Cart delivers a safer and more convenient checkout experience for shoppers without a major store renovation or costly infrastructure for store owners.”
    There’s no question that the coronavirus pandemic has completely upended consumer sentiments. While tech like cashierless checkout had been making steady strides in late 2019, the renewed emphasis on sanitation from the perspective of both consumers and workers has hastened development and adoption. Data from a consumer research firm called Shekel, for example, shows that 87% of consumers want touchless checkout options. 
    “Before COVID-19, consumers made it clear that convenience matters and the new normal has further accelerated this trend,” says Rob Harrold, Managing Director and Retail Stores Practice Leader at Deloitte Consulting LLP. “According to Deloitte’s InSightsIQ June report, more than 50% of consumers report spending more on convenience to get what they need, with “convenience” increasingly being defined by contactless shopping, on-demand fulfillment, and inventory availability.”
    Grocery apps, robotic delivery, touchless checkout: We’re certainly living in a moment of retail upheaval. Technology convergence is happening just as consumer sentiment is pivoting hard toward automation technologies. Among the many takeaways from the pandemic, it seems increasingly clear we’re about to enter a new phase of more convenient but (by design) less personal retail. More

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    Checkout free stores head to college (and soon to you)

    Philip Pavliger
    A couple years ago Amazon’s checkout-free Go store made worldwide headlines and ushered in a new shopping concept. Now, as was inevitable, there are signs that checkout-free technology is proliferating and will soon be a reality in a location near you.
    The latest example comes to us by way of the University of Houston, where an on-campus convenience store will become the first retrofitted, completely touchless and cashierless retail experience.
    The emphasis on the word retrofitted is important here. Amazon Go stores were build from the ground up to interact atop a touchless infrastructure. But for the concept to proliferate quickly, existing stores will need to be retrofitted with the same technologies without undergoing a major overhaul. Amazon is selling its Go technology to other retailers, but there are other companies competing in the same market. The company behind the University of Houston store, Standard, thinks that’s where it will carve out a major customer base for itself. 
    “Market Next is the first retail store in the world to be retrofitted for a 100 percent cashierless, checkout-free experience,” said Jordan Fisher, Co-Founder and CEO of Standard. “Our platform is the only system on the market proven to retrofit an entire retail experience. Innovative retailers like Chartwells use the AI-powered Standard platform to enable shoppers to grab any product they want and simply walk out, without waiting in line. We are excited to partner with Chartwells to deliver this groundbreaking technology to more locations around the country.”
    Standard was early out of the gate in the autonomous checkout space. It was the first to open a cashierless store in San Francisco and was named “One of The World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies” by Fast Company. The company has raised $86M in funding.
    The use of a college campus mirrors other early adopter campaigns in the automation space. Notably, autonomous delivery company Starship has used the contained incubator of college campuses to proof its technology, including at the University of Houston, which is proving itself an eager adopter of new tech. To complete the convenience store retrofit, Standard teamed up with dining services provider Chartwells Higher Education.
    “Students’ tastes change constantly, and we’re well equipped to handle that. But their shopping preferences evolve too, and we want to continue providing new and unique shopping experiences that are unexpected on a college campus,” said David Riddle, Vice President of Operations for Chartwells Higher Ed, District Manager for UH Systems Dining. “This is the future of shopping, and with autonomous checkout through Standard, we’ve made it as easy, safe and convenient as possible for students to come in, get what they need, and go.” 
    It’s a safe bet both robot delivery and cashierless checkout will migrate beyond campuses to become part of everyday life before long. More

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    Robot reapers and AI: Just another day on the farm

    The agriculture industry has hit a turning point. Faced with a massive labor crunch and environmental instability, aggressive technology deployments are no longer an option for outliers in the sector, but a necessary and critical element in the success of the farm. 
    Enabling the transformation are a host of new developers, but also legacy companies with deep roots in agriculture. Smart technology from companies like John Deere, for example, is helping farmers to produce more with less and create more successful crops, all while having a smaller impact on the land and environment. In contrast to prevailing wisdom that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, John Deere is employing AI and machine learning in its equipment to identify and enable needed actions at a scope and speed beyond human capacity, automating farming actions through smart robotics to enable consistent and precise actions at large scale, and providing precise, geospatial intelligence generated with machine technology and coupled with cloud-stored data to enable sustainable farming. 
    In other words, it’s like farming with technologies that might be more commonly associated with NASA than a tractor company. I caught up with Dr. Cristian Dima, Lead of Advanced Algorithms, John Deere Intelligent Solutions Group, to discuss the changes underway in the farming sector and what we can expect going forward.
    GN: Can you chart the trajectory of robotics and AI on the farm? Where were the first utilizations and how has that grown?
    Dr. Dima: Most industries are either trying to figure out how to implement AI or have just started to do it – but the agriculture industry is the minority. Few realize that farming has long been one of the most high-tech spaces, and one that can shed light on how tech will look in other industries in the future. Advanced automation systems have been on farms for decades, helping farmers operate with a level of precision and consistency that couldn’t be achieved alone. 
    As we’ve ushered in the digital era, the agriculture industry continues to be pushed to figure out how to help farmers feed a growing population on less land and with a shrinking labor pool. This is why advanced technologies like robotics and AI are so critical. They enable farmers to automate tasks that require extreme precision and consistency, in the face of rapidly-changing variables, such as weather conditions. The technology is truly an extension to the farmer’s own senses, enabling them to make better decisions by detecting and responding to conditions in the field that farmers may not have spotted themselves. 
    Our recently released X9 combine series is a great example of how this advanced technology is making a difference for farmers today. This combine is highly automated and uses multiple state-of-the-art AI-based systems to help farmers harvest crops more efficiently as it drives through the field.
    GN: What kinds of efficiencies can robotics bring to agricultural operations? Is it just about saving manpower, or are there greater efficiencies at stake?
    Dr. Dima: The agriculture industry is experiencing a shortage of skilled labor. Statistics show that 58 million fewer people were employed in agriculture in 2019 when compared to 2005 – that’s an 11 percent decrease. Advanced technology equipped in machines makes it easier for less skilled operators to handle the tasks at hand.  
    Agriculture is one of the most unpredictable industries, but technology helps mitigate the challenges brought on by that to deliver greater consistency at scale for farmers.  
    In the past, agriculture practices were typically handled at the field level: entire fields were planted, treated and harvested in the exact same way, despite the fact that conditions can vary between different sections of the field. Technology is now enabling farmers to manage each section of the farm based on its unique conditions and needs. 
    A good example of this in action is the spraying of herbicides, which had traditionally been done at the same rate across the whole field. Thanks to a combination of computer vision, machine learning and robotics technology, spraying no longer has to be a one-size-fits all task. Our See and Spray technology, which we’re testing today, possesses precise robotics capabilities that ensures herbicide is only applied to areas where weeds are present. This decreases the amount of herbicides used, resulting in lower costs and increased sustainability since they are only used where necessary.

    GN: What scale of agriculture are robots and AI the best fit for? Are we ready for family farms powered by robots, or is that some way off?
    Dr. Dima: At Deere, we have customers with farms of all sizes and because needs vary greatly, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to incorporating robotics technology. 
    Robotics technology on large scale farms helps to solve many challenges, as illustrated in my previous answers. However, while not as common, we’re starting to see more and more cases of high-tech solutions moving towards smaller family farms. The dairy industry is a good example for how robotic technology can be successfully deployed – in 2016, the global milking robot market size was estimated to be close to $1 billion. Now, that market is projected to grow even more – by over $460 million by 2024. 
    The common thread across all of this is that no matter the size of the farm or crop/output, technology isn’t going to be adopted just for the sake of it; it has to bring value to customers. We do see opportunities for farms of all sizes to adopt technology if it’s economically feasible and provides great value. 
    GN: Are we seeing migration of industrial agricultural automation technology to consumer products? How will that change going forward?
    Dr. Dima: As agriculture automation becomes commonplace, we will see scaled-down solutions make their way into smaller scale operations, such as gardening or even regular lawn maintenance. We’re seeing that interest today in the form of prototypes of robotic lawn mowers that can even help with weed control. 
    GN: What does the future of farming look like with respect to robots and AI?
    Dr. Dima: In the future, more and more tasks will continue to be automated. Equipment will continue to become smarter to help farmers tend to the needs of every square foot of the ground. More autonomy in each job means that farms of the future will be more economical and environmentally sustainable, which will help farmers produce the best possible results year after year.  More

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    Flippy the burger-flipping robot goes on sale

    A burger-flipping robot named Flippy, which is designed to hang upside down from a cook station in fast food kitchens, is now available globally for commercial customers, the bot’s maker announced today. Miso Robotics is hoping its Robot-on-a-Rail (ROAR) system will transform fast food, particularly with food prep challenges related to COVID-19 an ongoing problem.
    The robot has undergone field trials in existing restaurants, including at select White Castle locations.
    “We’re are incredibly excited to announce global commercial availability of Flippy ROAR,” said Mike Bell, CEO of Miso Robotics. “After we shared a sneak peek of the prototype in January, we’ve seen demand through the roof from operators, especially in light of COVID-19. Miso Robotics is confident that this demand will set us up for success and provide the automation the industry needs to not only recover but accelerate growth.”
    Miso debuted its updated Flippy ROAR earlier this year to respond to a difficult challenge for those hoping to bring automation into existing kitchens. Namely, there isn’t much space around the stove or griddle, and human coworkers tend to need whatever space there is to maneuver. Miso’s engineers figured out a space-saving solution via an upside down rail installed under a standard kitchen hood. The design allows Flippy to move laterally across a work area while keeping all the equipment out of the way of human coworkers.
    Fast food has been in the crosshairs of automation developers for the past few years, with the quick serve pizza sector taking a lead thanks to cooking and delivery innovations. Companies like McDonald’s have embraced automated kiosk-based ordering, and it’s a sure bet that automated food prep is close behind. The recent pandemic has only increased the likelihood of adoption as the restaurant industry looks to reopen and regrow. Miso Robotics is hoping to lure struggling businesses with attractive financing through TimePayments.
    VIEW GALLERY: 11 Jobs teens are about to lose to robots
    Naturally Flippy’s hardware is just the tip of the spear. The real magic happens on the backend in ChefUI, Miso Robotics’ proprietary software, which assists kitchen workers with operational interactions and workflows via a 15.6″ touchscreen. ROAR automatically identifies food temperatures and predicts time remaining, which means radical workflow optimization without compromising food quality.
    In addition to powerful image processing and depth perception from Intel RealSense technology, Flippy ROAR utilizes machine learning to optimize cooking strategies for 19 foods. Keeping with the times, those include the Impossible Burger.
    Of note during the pandemic, the robot comes with NSF International (NSF) certification, ensuring health and cleanliness standards are incorporated into new product designs.  
    “Certification to NSF/ANSI food equipment standards mean Flippy ROAR meets rigorous requirements for material safety, hygienic design and performance,” said Sara Risley, associate managing director of food equipment at NSF International. “The NSF mark signifies Miso Robotics’ commitment to health and safety – providing reassurance that the product can be easily cleaned to prevent foodborne illness and won’t leach harmful chemicals into food.” More

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    Back-saving underwear and the magic of assistive fabric

    The word “exosuit” conjures images of Tony Stark or any of a growing number of powered exoskeleton products from companies like Ekso Bionics and Sarcos. I’m bullish on the future of such devices in applications like construction, but it’s another kind of exosuit, one that doesn’t rely on power, that’s likelier to enter the market in a significant way. 
    These exosuits are unpowered and low-profile, relying on elastics and biomechanics to ease to strain in lightweight, low-cost assistive devices that (unlike the copper-infused garbage peddled on infomercials) actually work. 
    A new article in the Nature journal Scientific Reports describes one such device designed to be worn under the clothes and promising reduced fatigue in lower back muscles on the order of 29-47 percent. The article, “Low-Profile Elastic Exosuit Reduces Back Muscle Fatigue,” comes from researchers at Vanderbilt University. Led by Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Karl Zelik and recent Ph.D. graduate and primary author Erik Lamers, the researchers employed surface electromyography to measure changes in low back muscle fatigue in male and female participants to arrive at their findings.
    “These findings show how exosuits could provide valuable back relief to frontline and essential workers who have been taking a physical toll and supporting all of us throughout this pandemic. What we learned has the potential to shape the biomechanical and industrial standards of future wearable technologies,” said Zelik, who holds secondary appointments in biomedical engineering and in physical medicine and rehabilitation.
    The low-profile exosuit employs elastic to provide assistive forces in coordination with the extensor muscles of the lower back, which are subject to strain and pain during repetitive use. The device also relieves strain on the spine, greatly reducing the risk of inury. In one finding, a the act of holding a 35-pound weight (about the size of my increasingly-hard-to-hoist son) was made less tiring than holding a 24-pound weight (coincidentally, about the size of my much more packable daughter). 
    “Wearables are going to change the way we work and live, and we want to improve safety, health and well-being for everyone. One of the critical challenges moving forward will be to ensure that all wearable technology is developed to serve and protect both women and men. We are thrilled that this research helped lead to the first commercial exosuit or exoskeleton designed with both male- and female-fits,” said, himself a former long jump and triple jump athlete.

    The fascinating takeaway here is that the suit relies not on sophisticated sensing equipment and actuated joints, but a simple elastic band and a deeper understanding of how muscles like the lats, which manipulate the shoulder joint, are called on to take some of the strain when the main back extensor muscles tire. The suit’s elastic band kicks in during lifting in the same way.
    “The lats act sort of like an exosuit. When a person’s low back muscles become over-strained and fatigued, they summon extra assistance from their lats to relieve this back strain and fatigue. The elastic bands in our exosuit work the same way to help sustain endurance and strength,” said Lamers, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow who worked in Vanderbilt’s Center for Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology.
    Zelik, a former collegiate athlete who competed in the long jump and triple jump, knows firsthand how intensive physical activity can fatigue the body. He also understands the importance of ensuring that the exosuit and its utility are built with inclusive design practices. “Wearables are going to change the way we work and live, and we want to improve safety, health and well-being for everyone. One of the critical challenges moving forward will be to ensure that all wearable technology is developed to serve and protect both women and men. We are thrilled that this research helped lead to the first commercial exosuit or exoskeleton designed with both male- and female-fits,” Zelik said.
    The research, which may yield a pair of back-saving underwear in the future, was supported by Lamers’ NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and a Vanderbilt University Discovery Grant. Researchers Aaron Yang, an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and two Vanderbilt undergraduates, Juliana Soltys and Keaton Scherpereel, collaborated on this study. More

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    Landmark waiver lets drones fly into fire

    A landmark emergency waiver granted by the FAA has allowed Verizon to deploy industrial drones to inspect their critical infrastructure during the US wildfires, ensuring first responders have reliable communications for disaster response. The drones are made by a company called Percepto, which are currently operating beyond-line-of-sight for this emergency deployment.
    The FAA granted Skyward, A Verizon company, a temporary waiver that allows company pilots to fly the Percepto Sparrow drone from their homes to inspect critical communications infrastructure near the Big Hollow wildfire in Washington. The waiver permits operations 24 hours a day, with less than 3 miles of visibility and no pilot or observer on site. This is the first time a Beyond the Visual Line Of Sight waiver has been granted that allows pilots to control the drone from home. 
    The Sparrow drone platform is already able to land in high winds and in snow. Percepto recently incorporated a first-of-its-kind integral parachute into the Sparrow.
    “At a moment when we are facing dangerous consequences of climate change and coping with a global pandemic, maintaining the Verizon Network has never been more important,” said Rima Qureshi, Chief Strategy Officer, Verizon. “Innovations in airborne technology have enhanced our ability to inspect our sites without putting engineers in harm’s way, and provide our first responders with reliable communications. We appreciate the FAA’s swift action in granting the waiver, which allows us to deploy a network-connected drone and provide critical services, safely and effectively.”
    Desperate circumstances require desperate measures. Since September 9, the Big Hollow Fire in Washington has burned tens of thousands of acres and caused mandatory evacuation orders in the area. As the air quality was unsafe for humans, it was vital to ensure communication for first responders without putting staff in harm’s way.
    Percepto, which we’ve followed at ZDNet, is a leading provider of autonomous drone-in-a-box solutions for monitoring and securing critical infrastructure and industrial sites. It specializes in rugged hardware and AI-based software that provides real-time insights for assessing risk in industrial inspection applications. The company claims the most deployed drone-in-a-box solution in the market.
    During a season of apparent doom, with multiple natural disasters occurring throughout the United States, the ability to safely inspect sites that support critical communications for first responders has never been more important or necessary. The waiver was granted through the FAA’s expedited Special Governmental Interest process and applies to drone support operations for critical infrastructure that maintain communications for emergency responders. More