Tiny Drones Can See The World Like Insects Do

calliphora_vomitoria_portraitTiny insect drones could be useful for disaster-area surveillance or delivering supplies to people in accessible places. But the technology is still new, and they run a high risk of running into each other in confined spaces. Now researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology have created an artificial eye and navigation system for these drones based on insects’ vision, according to a study published recently in The Royal Society Interface.

This isn’t the first attempt to put streamlined insect-inspired sensors into drones, but it’s the first time it’s been done for such tiny drones (others have tried to hook them up with bulky digital cameras). Insect-style vision works well for drones because it doesn’t have very high resolution, but it is highly sensitive to objects’ movement or changes in how light is reflected—perfect for maneuvering drones through small spaces with lots of obstacles.

The artificial eye the Swiss researchers designed weighs only two milligrams. It’s made of three photodetectors with a lens on top. With the combination of data from the photodetectors, which are arranged in a triangular configuration, the device can determine the speed and direction in its view, no matter if the room is poorly lit or in bright outdoor conditions. And it can do it all three times faster than real-life insects, the researchers told MIT Tech Review.

Since they have already developed the algorithms and design of the photosensor, the researchers plan to configure several artificial eyes on one drone to create a more sophisticated visual system, allowing it to take off, land, and stabilize its flying position while in the air. They also plan to develop a strip of artificial eyes into “vision tape,” a flexible patch that can be attached to any type of surface, such as other types of robots or even furniture or clothing.

What We Want From The New Apple TV

appletv_1Despite a rocky start, Apple will reportedly unveil their new iteration of the Apple TV this September, along with their annual line of iPhones. It’s about time; the last hardware update to the Apple TV was in 2012. That’s like 328 billion tweets ago. (~500 million tweets per day for 3 years.)

A lot has happened since 2012. We’ve seen a surge in competition for streaming boxes like the Roku 3 and Amazon’s Fire TV, as well as the emergence of streaming sticks, like the $35 dollar Chromecast.

There are some things that seem likely: an upgraded A8 processor, a new interface for home screen and an SDK to let developers make their own apps and games. But Apple is going to need a big win to make a splash in this market. Here are some things that we think would make the Apple TV a contender.

Fingerprint-based profiles

Early reports say that Apple is going to be including a Touch ID sensor in the new Apple TV remote. This could be an immediate home run, if it’s implemented correctly. If each user was able to make their own profile and home screen, unlocked based on their fingerprint, families wouldn’t have to worry about parental lock passcodes and roommates could each have their own unique account. Even better if you can add another Apple ID to a separate profile.

Siri, who knows TV

Apple touted Siri’s new knowledge of music during the Apple Music announcement in June. It lives up to the hype—Siri works really well with Apple’s robust library. If Apple were to integrate it with shows and movies available in their store, it could be a killer feature. Even better, if all that content were available in a subscription service like Apple Music, but for movies and television. “Siri, play me the best-rated episode of Seinfeld. Then ten more after that.”

4K Support

Apple is traditionally behind the curve on resolutions and pixel density, easily outmaneuvered and ever-reluctant to directly compete with the Android operating system’s carousel of hardware. (Example: the iPhone 6’s 750 x 1,334 screen vs the Samsung Galaxy S6’s 2,560 x 1,440 screen.) But in the streaming world, 4K support would be a nice surprise and make the design future-resistant, especially if it plans on waiting another 3 years for an update. The argument against 4K is that there isn’t a lot of 4K content out there right now. Netflix and YouTube are the biggest repositories of the ultra-high resolution video, and even they don’t seem to be pushing it on consumers.

Live TV

All the features listed above would be nice. People would like them once they own the Apple TV. But if we’re talking about driving people to buy a product, there’s no substitute for having available content. Amazon has learned that with the success of the Fire TV and Stick (the Fire TV had a 30 percent market share of streaming devices as of June). If Apple wants to make the new Apple TV a living room mainstay, it needs to make watching live TV easier and cheaper. It’s been reported that a TV service is coming, although won’t launch until later in the year, or even possibly next year.

Apple TV’s current lineup is fine. You can watch Netflix, the exclusive HBO deal was great for Game of Thrones fans, and even live sports are available through different packages. The broadcast new outlets are there, but it’s often pared-down clips of segments, and no live coverage means it’s not the place for breaking news. (That’s still the domain of the internet and broadcast.) The current services are stale now, and cord-cutters are looking towards live services like Sling TV, which grew by 150 percent from April to June 2015 (although that’s only from 100,000 to 250,000 subscribers). CBS CEO Les Moonves indicated that CBS would “probably” make a deal with Apple for their programming, according to Re/code, and has been in talks with Apple’s Eddy Cue.

The Apple idea behind this live TV seems to be a total replacement of network to premium television: from local programming to HBO. Apple has already shown that they want to get into the market of distributing content. Early reports say that Apple Music has 10 million subscribers, and Apple threw a considerable amount of marketing behind the product. Now it just needs to make a similar strategy play out with video to make the Apple TV a real success.

Robotic Whiskers Could Help Robots Navigate Through Dark and Murky Environments

Many mammals such as cats, rats, and seals use their whiskers as a major sensory system to detect objects in dark environments or even to identify changes in currents in murky waters. In a study published today in Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, researchers took inspiration from the physiology and function of animals’ whiskers to create robotic whiskers that could help vehicles or robots to navigate areas that are difficult to manage. The whiskers are designed to produce tomographic maps by measuring air flow and, theoretically, could help underwater vehicles find their way through cloudy water or even help guide a catheter to the right position in a patient’s heart.

The device, dubbed the Whisker Array, is made out of super-elastic Nitinol wires covered with plastic straws. The 15-centimeter long whiskers were attached to a carpenter’s level using LEGO plastic bricks and gears. A servomotor, a device used in robotics to control motion, was used to allow the whiskers to rotate to airflow. The team then used a Conair hair dryer that had a cooling system and two different speed options to test airflow pointed at the Whisker Array.

The Engineered Whisker Array.

Bioinspiration & Biomimetics

Even though the hair-dryer proved to have a weak signal strength as an air-flow source, the Whisker Array was able to capture airflow patterns with high accuracy.

Bioinspiration & Biomimetics

Images of the air-flow pattern generated by the Whisker Array

These robo-whiskers could work well in environments where radar or sonar has difficulty mapping. For example, underwater vehicles could use these tactile sensing mechanisms to more efficiently navigate around objects in muddy or clouded waters. These sensors may also have biomedical applications such as being attached to a catheter to help navigate through a vein without injuring the tissue.

“There’s no proof that animals do a similar ‘tomographic reconstruction’ in their brains,” said the lead author of the study, Cagdas Tuna in a press release. Regardless, he thinks this mechanism could be put to use. “This shows great potential to be a useful, if unconventional, sensing system.”

New Japanese Glasses Block Facial Recognition

privacyvisorComputers are really, really good at recognizing faces. Refined through work on millions of uploaded and tagged faces at sites like Facebook and elsewhere, algorithms that identify faces can place people in locations based just on a photograph. Sometimes that’s helpful, like figuring out who that obscured groomsmen is in the back of a wedding picture. For people who don’t want to be found, or just enjoy the previously unquestioned ability to travel without being tracked, facial recognition poses a risk. As a solution, Japan’s National Institute of Informatics (NIII) created glasses that make faces unreadable to machines.

First question: will fashion accomodate the technology? It’s hard to conceal a face when it requires a style of glasses that no one else is wearing. Two previous prototype made by NIII used either near-infrared light or reflectors to fool the cameras into not seeing a face, but they looked super dorky.

The new glasses seem to no longer have that problem, resembling the kind of wrap-around sunglasses favored by everyone from security contractors to extreme sporting enthusiasts. Instead of the electrically powered near-infrared lights of the earlier visors, these glasses use an unspecified novel material to absorb and reflect light, as well as angles and patterns on its lenses. Tests with smartphone cameras showed that the glasses fooled facial recognition 90 percent of the time.

Previous attempts to hide faces from computers have resorted to eye-catching makeup or dangling lights from baseball caps. While previous concepts have made for fashion-forward face concealers, NIII’s PrivacyVisor is getting ready for mass production. If all goes as planned, they’ll be on sale next June at a price of around $240.