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How Squishy Robotics created a robot that can be safely dropped out of a helicopter – TechCrunch

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If you want to build a robot that can fall hundreds of feet and be no worse the wear, legs are pretty much out of the question. The obvious answer, then, is a complex web of cable-actuated rods. Obvious to Squishy Robotics, anyway, whose robots look delicate but are in fact among the most durable out there.

The startup has been operating more or less in stealth mode, emerging publicly today onstage at our Robotics + AI Sessions event in Berkeley, Calif. It began, co-founder and CEO Alice Agogino told me, as a project connected to NASA Ames a few years back.

“The original idea was to have a robot that could be dropped from a spacecraft and survive the fall,” said Agogino. “But I could tell this tech had earthly applications.”

Her reason for thinking so was learning that first responders were losing their lives due to poor situational awareness in areas they were being deployed. It’s hard to tell without actually being right there that a toxic gas is lying close to the ground, or that there is a downed electrical line hidden under a fallen tree, and so on.

Robots are well-suited to this type of reconnaissance, but it’s a bit of a Catch-22: You have to get close to deploy a robot, but you need the robot there to get close enough in the first place. Unless, of course, you can somehow deploy the robot from the air. This is already done, but it’s rather clumsy: picture a wheeled bot floating down under a parachute, missing its mark by a hundred feet due to high winds or getting tangled in its own cords.

“We interviewed a number of first responders,” said Agogino. “They told us they want us to deploy ground sensors before they get there, to know what they’re getting into; then when they get there they want something to walk in front of them.”

Squishy’s solution can’t quite be dropped from orbit, as the original plan was for exploring Saturn’s moon Titan, but they can fall from 600 feet, and likely much more than that, and function perfectly well afterwards. It’s all because of the unique “tensegrity structure,” which looks like a game of pick-up-sticks crossed with cat’s cradle. (Only use the freshest references for you, reader.)

If it looks familiar, you’re probably thinking of the structures famously studied by Buckminster Fuller, and they’re related but quite different. This one had to be engineered not just to withstand great force from dropping, but to shift in such a way that it can walk or crawl along the ground and even climb low obstacles. That’s a nontrivial shift away from the buckyball and other geodesic types.

“We looked at lots of different tensegrity structures — there are an infinite number,” Agogino said. “It has six compressive elements, which are the bars, and 24 other elements, which are the cables or wires. But they could be shot out of a cannon and still protect the payload. And they’re so compliant, you could throw them at children, basically.” (That’s not the mission, obviously. But there are in fact children’s toys with tensegrity-type designs.)

Inside the bars are wires that can be pulled or slackened to cause to move the various points of contact with the ground, changing the center of gravity and causing the robot to roll or spin in the desired direction. A big part of the engineering work was making the tiny motors to control the cables, and then essentially inventing a method of locomotion for this strange shape.

“On the one hand it’s a relatively simple structure, but it’s complicated to control,” said Agogino. “To get from A to B there are any number of solutions, so you can just play around — we even had kids do it. But to do it quickly and accurately, we used machine learning and AI techniques to come up with an optimum technique. First we just created lots of motions and observed them. And from those we found patterns, different gaits. For instance if it has to squeeze between rocks, it has to change its shape to be able to do that.”

The mobile version would be semi-autonomous, meaning it would be controlled more or less directly but figure out on its own the best way to accomplish “go forward” or “go around this wall.” The payload can be customized to have various sensors and cameras, depending on the needs of the client — one being deployed at a chemical spill needs a different loadout than one dropping into a radioactive area, for instance.

To be clear, these things aren’t going to win in an all-out race against a Spot or a wheeled robot on unbroken pavement. But for one thing, those are built specifically for certain environments and there’s room for more all-purpose, adaptable types. And for another, neither one of those can be dropped from a helicopter and survive. In fact, almost no robots at all can.

“No one can do what we do,” Agogino preened. At a recent industry demo day where robot makers showed off air-drop models, “we were the only vendor that was able to do a successful drop.”

And although the tests only went up to a few hundred feet, there’s no reason that Squishy’s bots shouldn’t be able to be dropped from 1,000, or for that matter 50,000 feet up. They hit terminal velocity after a relatively short distance, meaning they’re hitting the ground as hard as they ever will, and working just fine afterwards. That has plenty of parties interested in what Squishy is selling.

The company is still extremely small and has very little funding: mainly a $500,000 grant from NASA and $225,000 from the National Science Foundation’s SBIR fund. But they’re also working from UC Berkeley’s Skydeck accelerator, which has already put them in touch with a variety of resources and entrepreneurs, and the upcoming May 14 demo day will put their unique robotics in front of hundreds of VCs eager to back the latest academic spin-offs.

You can keep up with the latest from the company at its website, or of course this one.

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Still can’t buy a Raspberry Pi board? Things aren’t getting better anytime soon

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Raspberry Pi Foundation

Shortages for lots of tech components, including things like DDR5 and GPUs, have eased quite a bit since the beginning of 2022, and prices have managed to go down as availability improves. But that reprieve hasn’t come for hobbyists hoping to get a Raspberry Pi, which remains as hard to buy today as it was a year ago.

The most recent update on the situation comes from Raspberry Pi founder Eben Upton via YouTuber Jeff Geerling—Upton told Geerling that Pi boards are subject to the same supply constraints since the last time he wrote a post about the situation in April. Around 400,000 Pi boards are still produced per month, and some of these are being earmarked to be sent out to consumer retail sites. But Upton says that most of these are still being reserved for and sold to commercial customers who rely on Pi boards to run their businesses.

In short, the update is that there is no update. Upton said in April (and nearly a year ago, when the company raised the price for a Pi board for the first time) that the Broadcom processors at the heart of older Pi boards have been particularly difficult to source, but that high demand had been just as big an issue. Demand for Pi boards increased during the pandemic, and there was no more manufacturing capacity available to meet this demand. Upton said a year ago that there were “early signs that the supply chain situation is starting to ease,” but backed-up demand could still explain the short supply even if the Pi’s components have gotten easier to buy.

If you’re trying to buy a Raspberry Pi in the US or other regions, the rpilocator spreadsheet can be a valuable resource, letting you know when various models are in stock for ordering at most common Pi retailers. According to the tracker, few Pi 4 boards of any stripe were available to buy through September, though, and if you’re looking for a specific RAM capacity, you will be stuck waiting even longer. Businesses that want to inquire about buying Pis are still encouraged to contact the business@raspberrypi.com email address to make their case.

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Google prototypes, open sources an extra-long keyboard with one row of keys

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Enlarge / Google Japan jokes that you can increase productivity by having two people type on the keyboard simultaneously.

Google Japan has a history of joke keyboard concepts that challenge common notions of computing input. The latest concept, the Gboard Stick Version, places every key in the same row, so hunting and pecking can take a more linear approach.

As shown in Google Japan’s YouTube video below, it appears Google Japan actually prototyped the lengthy keyboard. Google will not be mass-producing or selling it, but there are GitHub files available with open source firmware, circuit diagrams, and design drawings to build the keyboard yourself. The GitHub page is careful to note that “this is not an officially supported Google product.” Google Japan’s blog post from Saturday said you could make the Gboard Stick Version with a 3D printer.

Google Japan’s video for the Gboard Stick Version.

As designed, the keyboard is an extraordinary 5.25 feet (1,600 mm) longIf you think that’s lengthy, the company said the original prototype was 7.87 feet (2,400 mm) long. The keyboard uses 17 boards total, including 16 for mounting the keys and a control board.

Google Japan jestingly argues that this design is more convenient for cluttered desks, storage, and finding the right keys when typing. Google Japan’s video shows the keyboard with an alphabetical layout, as a user initiates touch typing by memorizing the distance of individual keys from the left border. Alternatively, it’s ‘easy’ to find P, for example, knowing that it’s the 17th key in from the left (the first key from the left is a search button, not A). Surely, this is all simpler than hunting and pecking up, down, left, and right on a traditional keyboard layout.

Google Japan’s page for the keyboard also suggests you can use it with a QWERTY or ASCII code layout.

Google Japan also pointed to the keyboard's single row simplifying cleaning.
Enlarge / Google Japan also pointed to the keyboard’s single row simplifying cleaning.

Many detailed use cases for this one-row keyboard are clearly jokes, from using it to measure your kid’s height and get items dropped behind the couch, to using it as a walking stick, or the “bug-fixing module,” aka net, that turns the keyboard into a bug catcher in case you encounter bugs when coding (get it?).

But one purported benefit we could actually get behind is how much personal space the keyboard naturally enforces in the office and beyond:

The keyboard looks to be a natural safe-distance buffer for those who have to return to the office.
Enlarge / The keyboard looks to be a natural safe-distance buffer for those who have to return to the office.

Google Japan’s outlandish keyboard concepts have been going on for years as a way to promote Google’s Gboard keyboard app. Past iterations have included the Gboard Teacup Version and Gboard Spoon Bending Version.

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The Pixel 6a for $350 ($100 off) makes for an incredible deal

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The Pixel 7 might be arriving this week, but if you’re not interested in any of that newfangled flagship stuff, have we got a deal for you! The Pixel 6a, Google’s cheaper, simpler smartphone, is on sale at Amazon and Best Buy for $100 off. That makes for a pretty incredible $349 price tag instead of the normal $449. If you don’t count bundling deals that require signing up for a new phone line, this is the lowest price we’ve seen the phone at.

The Pixel 6a is a dead simple 6.1-inch phone that covers all the basics. It has a 6.1-inch 1080p, 60 Hz display, 6GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, and a 4410 mAh battery. The phone has nearly every feature you could want, including an in-screen fingerprint reader, IP67 dust and water resistance, NFC, and Wi-Fi 6e compatibility. The biggest downside is that there’s no wireless charging. The headline feature is the flagship-class SoC, the same Google Tensor chip you get in the Pixel 6, but for a low (and now even lower) price. The Tensor won’t win any benchmark wars, but at this price, the only other comparable device is the iPhone SE.

As for why you might hold out a bit and get the Pixel 7 instead, you’d be getting a major screen upgrade if you buy the (probably $900) Pixel 7 Pro, which will pack a 6.7-inch 120 Hz display. You’d also be doubling the RAM (12GB) and upgrading the camera setup from the ancient IMX 363 sensor that powers the Pixel 6a. That would be more than double the price of this phone. though. Like we said in our review, if you’re not a phone snob (guilty), the Pixel 6a is the perfect phone for normal people.

Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

Listing image by Ron Amadeo

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