Archive for the ‘commentary’ Category

Our first real peek at the Rocket Racer

October 2, 2007

As part of the story in today’s L.A. Times about Mojave, the paper published this photo of the still-in-development Rocket Racer, which will fly in the Rocket Racing League. 

I’ve got to say, for the first time I’m actually excited about the league.  For one, the vehicle looks like a cross between the Star Wars X-Wing fighter and the U.S.’s F-15.  Very cool. 

Although we’ve seen the concept photos and Mark-1 development vehicle, this is the first real glimpse of what the Xcor Aerospace racer will look like.   

This month, Xcor plans to test fly the vehicle for the first time, with the hopes of having an inaugural “NASCAR in the sky” race next year.  Here’s hoping the league gets off the ground.


Could robobugs work fruit farms in the near future?

April 13, 2007

Fruit and vegetable growers in North America could face lower yields this year due to the mysterious disappearance of pollinating bees.  The so-called colony collapse disorder could get even worse next season.

Although finding more bees is the simple answer, the real solution just may lie in a lab at the University of California, Berkeley.  New Scientist reports that engineer Ronald Fearing is using the flight model of a bee to create a 0.1-gram Micromechanical Flying Insect, below, that currently has enough lift to take off.

Fearing’s ultimate goal is create a 25 mm (wingtip-to-wingtip) device capable of sustained autonomous flight.

Another California entity seems even farther along in creating robobugs.  Aerovironment hopes to have a “rough demonstrator” of its 10-gram robotic insect by the middle of 2008.  The company is creating a robot for the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is developing four flying “robobugs” weighing up to 10 grams each and with wingspans of up to 7.5 centimeters.

 Although these sophisticated bugs are being designed to spy, an algorithm could be created that uses its mini-camera to locate a flower, land, and then look for another flower.  Equip the robobugs with sticky legs and you have a robotic bee.

Interesting to fathom.  But you would always have purists.  We’ll soon see “clone-free” labels on our meat, and in the future we may very well see this on our fruit packaging:  “No robots were used in the making of this product.”  

Will Robosapien V3 make his debut in new movie?

March 9, 2007

Many people who are interested in robots most likely have already heard that Arad Productions plans to bring Robosapien to the big screen in 2009.  My question  — which Robosapien are we talking about? 

Assuming that the movie has a summer release, we won’t be able to see the film for more than two years.  Is the reason for the longer-range move release date tied to the expected toy-store release of the Robosapien V3, the five-foot tall robot that creator Mark Tilden confirmed develop of late last year. 

Will Robosapien V3 be the star of the film, not V1 or V2?  Many believe the V3 will not be for sale at least until 2008, which puts the two dates fairly close together.

If the new movie were a vehicle  for the new Robosapien V3, it would be pure marketing genius.  Think of it — movie-goers fall in love with a lovable 5-foot-tall robot on screen, then realize the robot can be purchased later in the year, say, near Christmas.  Tilden has never disappointed when it comes to marketing his products, so this type of blockbuster unveiling is certainly not outside the realm of possibility.

Another point leading me to believe that V3 will become the matinee idol is that the V1 and V2 are just not that lovable.  The Robosapien V3 will have a larger vocabulary, be more autonomous and have better motion.  And a 5-foot-tall Robosapien that can actually interact with youngsters would be more believable, more magically, on screen.

If WowWee hasn’t already made the decision, it should cast Robosapien V3 for its movie. 

Oracle, we have a problem

January 29, 2007

Here’s an Associated Press article on Brian Emmett, who won a 2005 space trip sweepstakes through Oracle Corp. with much fanfare, but now has to bow out after realizing he could not pay the $25,000 in taxes that would be levied by the U.S. government for the trip.

Many people may remember Emmett because he gained celebrity status, gave multiple media interviews (with Oracle PR flacks probably close by), and appeared on stage at Oracle’s trade show.

The AP makes “Uncle Sam” out to be the bogeyman here, but my vote goes to Oracle for either not realzing Emmett would be saddled with thousands in taxes for the free trip, or for being too cheap to pony up the cash.  Oracle must have a whole legion of high-powered corporate lawyers who should understand basic tax law, so my bet is with the latter. 

They realized he would have to pay the taxes, but evidently thought it was his problem.

Microsoft’s ongoing marketing push for Vista includes a puzzle game with a space trip as first prize.  It’s a great prize that generates a lot of publicity.  But they’re smart enough, at least from a public relations standpoint, to include a $50,000 cash prize that could be used to pay for taxes.

Here’s a prediction.  If this story gets legs, Oracle’s whole legion of corporate PR professionals will smell an opportunity to “save the day,” and the company will courageously agree to pay for Emmett’s taxes.  

It’s the least they could do after milking the Emmett story for every ounce of publicity.  

Rosie the Robot and hack journalism

December 23, 2006

Newspaper reporters who toil in the technology field must be tired. 

They are letting creativity wane and writing cookie-cutter technology articles that could have been composed by, umm, robots.  Case in point, I’ve noticed that whenever I read an article about consumer robots, and I have read many, there always seems to be a hackneyed reference to Rosie the Robot or the Jetson’s.

To make sure I wasn’t imagining things, I did a Google news search of  Rosie the Robot.  In the last month alone, more than 50 news articles about robots have included the tired reference. 

For example, from a Dec. 12 Associated Press article: “the promise of robots for scientists is represented by Rosie, the vacuuming robot of “The Jetsons” cartoon series.”  In the Seattle Times, the reporter gets in two tired references in one sentence: the robot “more resembles an Energizer bunny running low on juice than Rosie, the Jetsons’ domestic robot.” 

And in the San Jose Mercury News, the reporter throws away all pretense and proclaims in the lead, “Rosie the Robot, the friendly house-cleaning bot in the Jetsons TV comedy, is still a wistful dream for those who hate housecleaning.”

Enough.  I realize the tempatation to include easily flowing pop-culture references in articles must be great, especially when it gets close to deadline.  But the problem comes when readers invariably think that Rosie is the future of consumer robotics, which, by most accounts, it is not.  The future most-likely lies in individual robotic devices such as I-Robot’s Roomba or Scooba.  

It’s likely we will have little robots doing various tasks, not a maid to order Rosie that can do everything.  Bottom line, reporters are doing their readers a disservice because of downright laziness.

I call on reporters across the world to resist the urge to reference Rosie, the Jetson’s or any other fake robot when writing about this exciting field.  Not only is it tired journalism, it fails to convey the true nature, and future, of the consumer robotics field.

So, reporters, how about a fresh approach?  Think outside the box.  There’s a whole swath of information out there to investigate that will resonant with your readers.  Please ponder, as you lean back in your chair, hands folded behind your head.


NASA, moon bases and the new race for ‘pole’ position

December 6, 2006

            NASA’s belated but bold announcement this week to build a permanent base camp on one of the moon’s poles by 2024 is welcome news.  Space enthusiasts have wanted this for decades.  So with any luck, the moon, and most-likely its south pole, will be inhibited by humans on a permanent basis within 18 years. 

But will those humans be wearing NASA patches, or something else?  As we all know, a tiny percentage of those space enthusiasts who read Heinlein during the day then dreamed of one day reaching space have gotten extremely wealthy, and have big plans of their own for the moon.

With NASA now making their lunar intentions clear, have they unwittingly started a new space race?  A race for the ultimate “pole position,” in which the victor will plant their flag at the center of moon’s south pole.

If independent spacefarers reach the moon before NASA, they will have done so with the help of five main players: the Burt Rutan-Sir Richard Branson team at Virgin Galactic; Jeff Bezo at Blue Origin; Robert Bigelow at Bigelow Aerospace; and most importantly, Elon Musk at SpaceX.

Rutan-Branson both have publicly stated a desire to reach orbit and the moon. Virgin Galactic’s business plan emphatically states the desire to do so.  Rutan, who is 63, said this year he wanted to get on the moon in his lifetime.  Rutan always seems to have an eye on new challenges, even when his current projects have yet to get off the ground.  If anyone can build a relatively inexpensive orbital craft capable of a moon shot within 15 years, which is three years before NASA sets up permanent shop, it’s Rutan.

But if Rutan can’t fill the bill, Jeff Bezo is right behind him.  Although secretive,. Bezo has quickly become a key figure with equal passion for space and ultimately the moon.  He also wants to go beyond sub-orbital flights and maintain an ongoing presence in space.

Bigelow also could be a huge catalyst for a private moon base.  Although his $50 million Space Prize fizzled, that hasn’t stopped him from accelerating his efforts to build a space hotel by early next decade.  He’s attained great success with Genesis I, and looks to orbit another module by early next year.

Elon Musk at SpaceX could provide the engines to reach the moon.  Yes, his first rocket launch failed, but he has a tremendous passion for orbital travel.  And SpaceX recently won NASA’s commercial orbital transportation competition, which will help the company have flight demonstrations of Falcon 9 with the proposed Dragon spaceship in late 2008 and 2009.  If they can get an orbital craft by 2009, a craft and rockets that can reach the moon could soon follow.

It’s also interesting to point out that if private industry does beat NASA to the moon, they would partially have themselves to blame. In a nod to the X-Prize, NASA has also created Centennial Prizes to spur development of private lunar landers, astronaut gloves and other technologies that could make a moon base a quicker reality.  Armadillo Aerospace is busy with their lunar lander, and there’s nothing stopping them from selling it to a private group instead of NASA.

The independents are at a disadvantage.  The race to the moon is only new to private industry; NASA has already had plenty of training.  But the venerable spacy agency shouldn’t be too surprised if when they reach the moon’s south pole to set up camp, Jeff Bezo, Burt Rutan and the rest of the spacestormers have already called dibs.