Jul 202015

Defense Systems – July 20th 2015


darpa arm


Having funded the development of the first prosthetic arm that can function in a way close to the real thing, military researchers are now getting behind efforts to help it reach a wide number of users.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded a contract worth just less than $7 million to the robotic arm’s developer, DEKA Innovative Solutions Corp., that ultimately aims to improve the DEKA Arm System’s functions and ensure that the “system can accommodate the broadest user community possible,” according to the contract award announcement.



darpa arm

DEKA—which is led by Segway inventor Dean Kamen—developed the arm over about eight years with $40 million in funding from DARPA, which started its Revolutionizing Prosthetics program in 2006 to assist service members who had lost limbs, particularly in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The arm responds to muscle contractions and its wrist and fingers can perform six types of grips; the arm itself can perform 10 different movements. It’s been shown to be able to handle everything from a grape to a power tool.

darpa armThe Food and Drug Administration in May 2014 approved the arm—nicknamed Luke after Luke Skywalker—after its own tests showed that it allowed user to perform tasks they couldn’t with their current prosthetics, such as handling keys or preparing food. FDA also said the arm’s software and other components proved to be durable in various environmental conditions and capably protected against unintended movements.

Under the new contract, DEKA and DARPA will work on improving the feel of the arm. The company will train personnel in two DARPA programs—Hand Proprioception & Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX) and Revolutionizing Prosthetics Follow-on Studies (RPFS)—on setting up, using, maintaining and repairing the system. The HAPTIX program also will work on developing new technology for this “dexterous mechatronic prosthesis” to give amputees “the feel and function of natural limbs,” according to the award announcement.


darpa armAdding a sense of touch to prosthetics has been a focus of the HAPTIX program. In February, DARPA awarded contracts for Phase 1 of the program, to research ideas for how existing and new technologies could be applied. HAPTIX will now seek to incorporate those technologies into the DEKA arm under the contract, which covers work over the next 57 months.

Meanwhile, the RPFS program will give the FDA an approved variant of the arm system for further studies, which will including validating the criteria for prescribing the arm to patients, and to inform product and reimbursement code submissions to the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services.

Jul 202015

machine vision

Canon U.S.A., Inc., a leader in digital imaging solutions, today announced the entry into the growing machine vision market in the U.S., with the launch of 3-D Machine Vision Systems, models RV300, RV500 and RV1100. Designed for use with industrial robots, these systems are capable of high-speed, high-accuracy three-dimensional recognition of objects. The systems in combination with a robotic arm can help increase production efficiencies in factories by facilitating the automatic high-speed supply of parts to production lines.

Enabling a robotic arm to accurately and successively recognize and pickup individual items from a randomly assembled pile of parts requires a system capable of the three-dimensional recognition of the shapes of the parts. All three models of Canon’s Machine Vision system feature a 3-D machine vision head, which encompasses the system sensor and 3-D machine vision recognition software for recognition processing. The highest level of performance in speed and accuracy for three-dimensional object recognition capabilities of the Canon’s Machine Vision system were made possible by applying innovative image-recognition and information-processing technologies cultivated through Canon’s research and development of cameras and business machines.

Canon’s 3-D Machine Vision systems can accurately recognize a diverse range of objects, including parts with curved features, parts with few distinguishing characteristics and intricately structured parts. The RV300, RV500, RV1100 enable the 3-D recognition of randomly piled parts as small as approximately 10 mm2, 20 mm2, and 45 mm2, respectivelyi.

Contributing to improved production-line efficiency, all three models deliver high-speed performance, taking only approximately 1.8 seconds to recognize randomly arranged small-scale parts in 3-D. This data is then sent to a robotic controller unit attached to the robotic arm.

The new systems feature high-performance 3-D recognition with a high level of accuracy; the RV300, RV500, and RV1100 achieve exceedingly small error tolerances of less than 0.1 mm2, 0.15 mm2, 0.5mm2, respectively.

Users can easily register data for parts to be picked up by inputting CAD data and by capturing images of the parts randomly assembled in a pile. The 3-D machine vision systems can use computer-generated images to automatically learn how to visually identify the parts. Since no complicated programming is necessary, users can easily re-register parts in accordance with changes in type and shape of parts to be supplied in production.

The Canon 3-D Machine Vision System is capable of instantaneously measuring the location and orientation of designated parts in three dimensions and helps eliminate the need for separate 2-D vision sensors to determine the positioning of parts or a table on which to temporarily place parts during the parts-supply process. Accordingly, the system allows the construction of production lines to be simplified for parts provision while achieving higher efficiency in feeding parts to the production line.

In 2014, global sales of 2-D and 3-D machine vision systems for use with industrial robots totaled approximately $22 millionii. The market for 3-D machine vision systems is expected to grow significantly in the future, driven by strong demand for the further automation of production lines used by manufacturers in a variety of industries, including automotive and automotive component manufacturers.

The Canon 3-D Machine Vision Systems, models RV300, RV500, and RV1100 are expected to be available on Oct 1, 2015.

Jul 162015

MIT Tech Review – July 16th, 2015


exoskeleton panasonic


Even if you lack the resources of Tony Stark, you can obtain a high-tech suit to enhance your natural abilities, or at least help you avoid a backache. Mechanical outfits, known as exoskeletons, are gaining a foothold in the real world.

The Japanese company Panasonic announced recently that it will start selling an exoskeleton designed to help workers lift and carry objects more easily and with less risk of injury. The suit was developed in collaboration with a subsidiary company called ActiveLink. It weighs just over 13 pounds and attaches to the back, thighs, and feet, enabling the wearer to carry 33 pounds of extra load. The device has been tested by warehouse handlers in Osaka, Japan, and is currently in trials with forestry workers in the region.

Panasonic’s device is among a small but growing number of exoskeletons available commercially—less fantastic and more cumbersome versions of a technology that’s been a staple of science fiction for some time. Though they have mainly been tested in medical and military settings, the technology is starting to move beyond these use niches, and it could make a difference for many manual laborers, especially as the workforce ages.


exoskeleton panasonic“We expect that exoskeletons, or power-assist suits, will be widely used in people’s lives in 15 years,” says Panasonic spokesperson Mio Yamanaka, who is based in Osaka, Japan. “We expect that they will be used for tasks that require physical strength, such as moving things and making deliveries, public works, construction, agriculture, and forestry.”

The Panasonic suit includes a lightweight carbon-fiber motor; sensors activate the motor when the wearer is lifting or carrying an object. With ActiveLink, the company is testing another, much larger suit designed to help carry loads as heavy as 220 pounds.

Some other companies are showing an interest in technology that can assist workers and help prevent injury. In collaboration with ergonomics researchers at the Technical University of Munich, the German carmaker BMW has given workers a custom-made, 3-D-printed orthotic device that fits over the thumb and helps them perform repetitive tasks. Another German carmaker, Audi, is testing a wearable device from a company called Noonee, which provides back support for workers who need to perform repetitive crouching motions.

Another Japanese company, Cyberdyne, already sells exoskeletons for medical and industrial use. The company’s technology, which was spun out of the University of Tsukuba, uses nerve signals to detect a wearer’s intention to move before applying assistive force. Earlier this year, Cyberdyne signed an agreement with the Japanese automation company Omron to develop assistive technology for use in factories.

panasonic inflatable exoskeletonEsko Bionics, a company cofounded by Homayoon Kazerooni, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is also working to commercialize two exoskeletons—one for rehabilitation, which is currently being tested in Italy, and another for industrial use. These are designed to be very lightweight and conform well to a person’s normal motion. Kazerooni says the industrial model, which he demonstrated at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute last month, will be significantly lighter, cheaper, and more flexible. “The key is not just what the exoskeleton does in terms of lessening the load,” he says. “It’s also about preventing maneuvers the user could do without the device.”

Exoskeletons have found commercial traction for rehabilitation and as walking aids. Earlier this week, a company called ReWalk, based in Marlborough, Massachusetts, announced the latest version of its device for people with spinal-cord injuries. The system enables people who normally require a wheelchair to walk with the aid of crutches (see “Personal Exoskeletons for Paraplegics”). Powerful exoskeletons have also been tested by the U.S. military for some time.

Progress in the underlying technology could help make exoskeletons more common. Conor Walsh and Robert Wood, two professors at Harvard University, are developing exoskeletons using novel materials and methods of assisting a wearer’s motion, making them much lighter and more comfortable (see “Motorized Pants to Help Soldiers and Stroke Victims”). If this type of technology can be commercialized, it could make exoskeletons more appealing to workers and employers.


panasonic inflatable exoskeleton

Jul 152015

MIT Tech Review – July 15th, 2015

biodegradeable circuit

Biodegradable, wood-based computer chips can perform just as well as chips commonly used for wireless communication, according to new research.

The inventors argue that the new chips could help address the global problem of rapidly accumulating electronic waste, some of which contains potentially toxic materials. The results also show that a transparent, wood-derived material called nanocellulose paper is an attractive alternative to plastic as a surface for flexible electronics.

In conventional chip manufacturing, electronic components like transistors are made on the surface of a rigid wafer made of a semiconducting material such as silicon. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, led by Zhenqiang (Jack) Ma, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, made the electronic components in a similar way but then used a rubber stamp to lift them from the wafer and transfer them to a new surface made of nanocellulose. This reduced the amount of semiconducting material used by a factor of up to 5,000, without sacrificing performance.

In two recent demonstrations, Ma and his colleagues showed they can use nanocellulose as the support layer for radio frequency circuits that perform comparably to those commonly used in smartphones and tablets. They also showed that these chips can be broken down by a common fungus.

water soluble circuitry

water soluble circuitry

The vast majority of the semiconducting material in today’s chips makes up the support layer, and the active electronic components represent only a very tiny fraction. This is an expensive waste, says Ma, and in the case of some materials it can lead to dangerous pollution when a device is thrown out.

In recent years, researchers have demonstrated that nanocellulose, which is made by breaking wood fibers down to the nanoscale, can be a viable support material for a variety of electronic devices, including solar cells. However, the recent demonstrations are the first to reveal properties that make the material promising for use in efficient, high-performing radio frequency circuits, says Ma.

Ma says chips like those his group made are ready for commercialization. But he thinks it’s likely to take heightened environmental pressure, or a spike in the price of rare semiconductor materials like gallium, for the mainstream electronics industry to change its current practices and consider making chips from wood.

water soluble circuitryTechniques for manufacturing devices like those Ma and his colleagues have made are becoming more established in the electronics industry, says John Rogers, a professor of materials science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Rogers originally developed the method Ma’s group used to transfer small amounts of semiconducting material from a large wafer to the nanocellulose surface.

The military is very interested in “transient electronics” that would degrade in some way to prevent sensitive electronics from falling into the hands of adversaries, says Rogers. But perhaps the most important aspect of Ma’s recent demonstrations is the potential environmental benefit, he says. Devices of all shapes and sizes that can communicate wirelessly are proliferating quickly, and this trend shows no signs of slowing. People upgrade their devices often, and outdated devices are commonly thrown out. “What’s happening to all those waste streams? I think that’s a pretty legitimate question to ask,” he says.

Jul 092015

PBS – Nova 0 July 7th, 2015



Brain linked monkeyNeuroscientists have successfully linked three monkeys’ brains using implanted electrodes and coaxed them to cooperatively control a robotic arm. Oh, and they also performed a similar experiment that directly linked the brains of four rats to test their capacity for synchronicity. (I, for one, welcome our new hive-minded, mammalian overlords.) That monkeys can coordinate using nothing but brain-waves isn’t particularly new. This new work builds on earlier experiments that linked animals’ brains, both one at a time and in tandem, to prosthetic limbs, but it is far more sophisticated. No one has ever yoked more than two brains in such a way to accomplish a task. What’s more, the trio of mind-melded monkeys frequently did a better job at controlling the robotic arm than one monkey working alone.

Miguel Nicolelis, director of the Center for Neuroengineering at Duke University and principle investigator for the study, calls the merged minds “brainets.” Nicolelis and his colleagues started with four electrode-implanted rats, linking them both in parallel and in series, to test whether brains could coordinate signals. For the parallel experiment, they sent two types of signals to the four linked rats. When one signal was sent, the rats were rewarded for synchronizing. When they received the other, they were rewarded for not coordinating their brain waves. Quickly, they were able to react appropriately a majority of the time. Then the neuroscientists linked the rats in series, training the first rat on the signals. Once that rat had properly learned them, they hooked up a second to learn from the first, and so on up to four. Again, the rats quickly passed the test.

Brain linked monkeyThen came the monkeys. First, the team tested two monkeys each linked to a computer. The computer then translated their signals to control a robotic arm. The monkeys were rewarded when they successfully moved a ball. In a second experiment, they had each monkey specialize in a different freedom of movement—one vertical, the other horizontal. In a final test, they hooked up three monkeys to the computer that controlled the arm and let them loose. Needless to say, other scientists are impressed. Here’s Jessica Hamzelou, reporting for New Scientist:

“This is incredible,” says Andrea Stocco at the University of Washington in Seattle, who was not involved in the project. “We are sampling different neurons from different animals and putting them together to create a superorganism.”

Neuroscientists are still many, many years away from linking human brains, but the research points to some tantalizing possibilities. First, such research requires sophisticated brain-computer interfaces, which, once perfected, could allow people to deftly control advanced prosthetic limbs. Further in the future, it could also allow a group to coordinate on a difficult task without using language and its inherent barriers. By that point, we may not even need implanted electrodes to tap into a massive brainet—we may only have to slip on a simple headset to contribute our mind’s computing power.


Brain linked monkey