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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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US declares Xiaomi a “Communist Chinese military company,” bans investments

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Enlarge / The Xiaomi Mi 11.

Xiaomi

The latest shot in the US Government’s war on leading Chinese smartphone vendors is directed at Xiaomi, which today has landed on the US government’s list of “Communist Chinese Military Companies” via a new executive order. The declaration makes it illegal for US citizens to own Xiaomi stock.

The US and China have been trading blows for a year and a half now over Huawei, which was added to the “entity list” by the US Department of Commerce. While on the entity list, American companies can’t collaborate with Huawei or export products to it. It becomes illegal for Huawei to import any product of “US-Origin.” US Origin doesn’t just mean products made in the US by US companies; there’s also a “viral” component to the law, where any product made internationally with some US-origin components also counts as a US-origin product.

While Huawei got an all-encompassing ban, it doesn’t look like Xiaomi is in the same boat right now. Huawei landed on the Department of Commerce’s entity list, while Xiaomi is now on the Department of Defense’s list of “Communist Chinese Military Companies” (Huawei is also on this list). The DOD designation seems to only ban US investment in Xiaomi, and any American stakeholders need to divest their holdings by November 11, 2021. (Xiaomi is a public company and had an IPO back in 2018.) The suffocating supply chain restrictions that apply to Huawei don’t (yet?) apply to Xiaomi.

The DOD says the list is meant to “highlight and counter the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) Military-Civil Fusion development strategy,” which the government says is a plan to funnel advanced technology to the Chinese Military through “PRC companies, universities, and research programs that appear to be civilian entities.”

Xiaomi has issued a response on Twitter, saying it “is not owned, controlled, or affiliated with the Chinese military, and is not a “Communist Chinese Military Company” as defined by the NDAA” (the NDAA is the National Defense Authorization Act that gives the DOD the power to make this list).

The IDC has Xiaomi as the number 3 smartphone manufacturer worldwide, behind Samsung and Huawei, and a spot ahead of Apple. Xiaomi regularly pumps out high-spec, low-cost Android phones to compete in the cutthroat Chinese and Indian markets. It started life as an Apple clone maker, but today Xiaomi is one of the fastest movers in the industry and regularly beats bigger companies in shipping new technologies and components to the market. It shipped the world’s first Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 phone, the Xiaomi Mi 11, and it’s leading the charge in under-display cameras. Being Chinese is a market advantage for Xiaomi. A company like Apple has to have US designers communicate to Chinese manufacturing across a 12-hour time zone difference and a language barrier, while Xiaomi’s Chinese designers and Chinese manufacturers can communicate more easily and quickly, allowing the company to develop products faster.

As Xiaomi may be the number 3 smartphone manufacturer worldwide, any kind of ban on the company in the US isn’t going to do much. Years ago, Xiaomi gave hints about entering the US smartphone market, but it never had the stomach to go through with it and instead only launched the US version of Mi.com as a seller of small accessories. In the US, you can buy a Xiaomi Android TV box, headphones, security cameras, and battery packs, along with stranger things like air purifiers, light bulbs, and toy robots.

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Report: MagSafe will return in new Apple Silicon MacBook Pro models

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Enlarge / This is the 16-inch MacBook Pro as it’s being sold now. According to today’s report, the new one will generally look quite similar.

According to a report in Bloomberg, Apple plans to launch new versions of its MacBook Pro laptops “around the middle of the year,” and these machines will feature speed and display enhancements, as well as a return of the MagSafe charging design seen in MacBook computers several generations ago.

Citing “a person with knowledge of the plans,” the Bloomberg story claims that Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Pro will get a 14-inch successor, just as the 15-inch MacBook Pro became a 16-inch model when the screen bezel was reduced to allow more screen real estate in a similarly sized chassis.

Both the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro are slated for the middle of the year and will incorporate Apple’s custom silicon. The company first introduced its own silicon with the M1 chip included in November refreshes of the low-end 13-inch MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, and Mac mini. The new machines described today would have a successor to Apple’s M1 chip with more CPU cores and “enhanced graphics.”

While the overall design of the laptops is not expected to be significantly different from current models (beyond the screen size in the smaller MacBook Pro), there is one major design change that may please fans of Macs prior to the Touch Bar and USB-C redesign introduced a few years ago: the return of the MagSafe charger.

Mac laptops once had charging cables that slotted easily into their ports, thanks to magnets, and were intended to gracefully disconnect without tugging on the laptop if someone pulled the cord or tripped on it. Over the past few years, the company purged this feature from its lineup, but it introduced a related tech using the same name in its iPhone 12 lineup last year.

According to the report, the MagSafe connector in the new MacBook Pro models will have a similar shape to that of MagSafe connectors in Macs of old. It will also allow the laptops to charge faster than before. The report does note that the computers will still have multiple USB-C ports as well, though.

The new MacBook Pros are also said to have brighter displays with better contrast. This report doesn’t explain how Apple will achieve this exactly, but recent supply-chain rumors and analysts have been predicting that Apple will incorporate Mini LED displays in its upcoming machines, which would likely produce that result.

Bloomberg’s source also says that Apple has been testing versions of the laptops without the Touch Bar, which was introduced to the lineup a few years back. The Touch Bar is a strip-shaped touch screen at the top of the keyboard that replaces the function keys with either virtual versions of those keys or other, app-specific functions.

While many apps support the Touch Bar, some power users have complained that they are not always as convenient as physical keys.

Finally, the report ends with a footnote that Apple plans to also update the MacBook Air with a new design but that it won’t arrive as soon as the MacBook Pro updates. It doesn’t outline any details about the MacBook Air redesign.

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AMD claims new Ryzen 5000 mobile CPUs best Intel for gaming, content creation

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As expected, AMD took to the CES stage this week to announce new laptop CPUs. Most of the new Ryzen 5000 mobile family of chips share similarities with the desktop CPUs the company announced a few months ago, and they’ll start shipping with laptops from some of the bigger computer-makers in February.

The new chips are divided into two sub-families, both at least in part based on 7nm Zen 3 tech: there’s the H-series, which is meant for high-end, performance-oriented gaming and content creation notebooks, and the U-series, which takes aim at Intel’s dominance in the ultraportable space with a greater focus on power efficiency.

The lineup’s biggest lifters are the Ryzen 9 5980HX and 5980HS. The former is a gaming-oriented chip that will be unlocked for overclocking in some machines. The latter, meanwhile, is tuned more for laptops made for creatives. Both of these (and all but two of the chips in the Ryzen 5000 mobile family) sport eight CPU cores and 16 threads at up to 4.8Hz.

Here’s a chart including specs for all the chips announced, from AMD’s website:

The AMD Ryzen 5000 mobile lineup.
Enlarge / The AMD Ryzen 5000 mobile lineup.

The U-series lineup also includes 8-core chips, but as you can see, a couple 6-core ones are in there, too. While AMD has been making rival Intel’s life difficult in performance-oriented machines of late, Intel still dominates the ultraportable space (for now), so AMD is surely hoping to achieve some growth there. To that point, AMD claims that the 5800U can deliver almost 18 hours of battery life for normal use cases and up to 21 for video playback. (Intel announced its own laptop chips this week, too.)

On the gaming side, AMD says the 5900HX beats Intel’s Core i9-10980HK by more than 20 percent in 3DMark, which certainly seems plausible given what we saw on the desktop side—though it would of course be wise to wait and see benchmarks from someone other than AMD.

OEMs have already started announcing laptops with these chips, so we expect to see those illuminating benchmarks as early as next month.

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