From Brick To Brain: How Modular Robotic Brains Are Taking Off

 

Intelligent Brick: The EV3 from Lego Mindstorms, a modular robotic “brain”

Computers were always supposed to be brains – however they have spent the majority of their lifetimes clogging up our server rooms, sitting on our desktops running screensavers and eventually moving into our pockets where they were too often used for the playing of games like Flappy Bird.

To be a brain means to be able to think and reason, to be able to sense and possess awareness, to learn from experience and ultimately possess consciousness – not just any calculator deserves this distinction – which is probably why Lego Mindstorms (a popular robotics kit) took a hard look at the capabilities of their computing unit and settled on the name “Intelligent Brick.”

We ain’t there yet.

However, with key advancements in heterogeneous computing (the stuffing of different complimentary CPUs and GPUs into a single space), size and power shrinkages urged by the needs of mobile computing, the addition of perceptive cameras capable of “Seeing” in 3D, we are now beginning to see steps towards much more capable general-purpose modular robotic brains.

These hardware advancements are being joined by key developments in software tools and operating systems such as ROS (Robot Operating Systems) and Dronecode, not to mention the cloud (as Amazon demonstrated last year with their Simple Drone Service).

In the next couple of years, we may very well see the introduction of what will one day be remembered as the “Ford Model-T” of robotic brains. 

Exhibit A: The DJI Manifold

manifold
Who you thinkin’ at?

Meet our first contender for the title of true robotic brain: It’s called “Manifold” by DJI. It looks like a box, its square like a box, it isn’t a box – it is actually a thinking unit for drones loaded with NVIDIA Tegra K1, 192 GPU CUDA cores and a Quad-core ARM Cortex-A15 processor.

You need all of that graphical processing horsepower to do a whole lot of computer vision, obstacle recognition and avoidance (As Intel demonstrated earlier in the year at CES with the RealSense-based Yuneec Typhoon H). Drone compute units like this are going to be very helpful over the next few years as more and more drones are deployed for commercial applications.

Exhibit B: The Erle-Brain 2

Dont_think
Don’t call it a brick, you might hurt it’s feelings

Next up we have the Erle Robotics Erle-Brain 2 – it comes loaded with Ubuntu and ROS (Robot Operating System) and even has a perceptive camera built directly into the top of the device.  You can snap the Erle-Brain 2 into a variety of different kits and contains sensors including a gyroscope, accelerometer, temperature, pressure and digital compass.

applications

General purpose robotics units such as this will have a vast array of applications and are going to be fun to watch, my expectations are high about the direction these are heading in. 

 

AWS NYC Pop-Up Loft Lightning Talk + Workshop

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I was invited by Amazon Web Services to give a talk at the NYC Loft to discuss some of the trends happening in Internet of Things over the last year and run a workshop focusing on Intel Edison over the course of two days.

Thanks to the excellent folks from Dash and Canary we had a great lineup of talks last Thursday, probably around 80-100 developers were in attendance and another 40 for the workshop the following day. Really enjoyed making the trip and seeing the new AWS space, looking forward to exploring many more potential areas of collaboration between Intel and AWS IoT ecosystems and partners.

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What Happens To Old Systems-On-A-Chip When No One Wants Them?

Quad-Core connected single-board computers with GPUs, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth got a bit cheaper last year.
(Graph loosely based on Kickstarters from the last two years)

Mobile phones are neat aren’t they? Tiny, thin, capable of driving touch-screens and your favorite app stores as fancy mobile operating systems. Today’s phones come packed with capabilities such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, GPRS, light-sensors, gyroscopes, audio, GPUs and accelerometers.

As a result of years of fierce competition, the average person now carries a super-computer in their pocket which also doubles as a cloud-connected sensor-hub.

Underneath all these whizzy sensors and features is an amazing core element: The System-On-A-Chip or SoC, a full computer composed of many different processors packed into the smallest space possible, the miracle of “Heterogeneous Computing.”

SoCs have been produced by the train-load for the last several years…which raises a question: What happens to old SoCs after they get “put out to pasture.” What happens to older versions of these components six months later when “the next-next best thing” comes out?

According to market forces, their prices drop..

Quick Poll: Raise your hand if you want an Android phone built on processing components from two years ago. Anyone? Anyone? Didn’t think so.

Now raise your hand if you want a single-board computer, quad-core with a GPU capable of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for $9? I saw a couple more hands go up for that one.

These left-over SoCs live new lives, they get stuffed into single-board computers and repurposed on the hobby market, perhaps added to drones or robots. Maybe they form the core of new low-cost educational computers to teach kids in India to learn how to code. Who knows!

Now close your eyes and imagine a growing stockpile of hundreds of millions of these components:  The guts of this year’s stellar Android phones that don’t get sold gathering dust in boxes someplace in China with nowhere else to go but into the next Kickstarter.

How about a $3 quad-core GPU, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth computer?

How about $1?

Enjoy the future.

Intel Edison El Capitan Setup Process

El Capitan requires a different set of instructions to setup with Intel Edison. This guide walks you through the setup process.

Before you start:

  • BOTH Micro-USB from your Edison must be plugged into your Mac
  • These instructions will work specifically for El Capitan, not Yosemite
  • Download the latest Intel Edison image from software.intel.com (Scroll down, select the Yocto complete image download, skip the integrated installer)

Instructions:

First, open Spotlight (“Command + Space Bar”) and type “Disk Utility” to open the Disk Utility. If you have both your USB cables plugged in, you will see an EDISON listing.

disk_util_edison

Next, select your EDISON listing and click the “Erase” button at the top.

erase_edison

Under the “Erase” menu, click the “Format” button and select MS-DOS (FAT) as below.

fat32_edison

Now click “Erase.” After some time, your Edison will be partitioned and erased correctly. Now we need to flash the board.

Running flashall.sh

Download and unzip the Yocto complete image from software.intel.com (again, skip the integrated installer).

Open “Terminal” (Command + Space Bar and type “Terminal” to use Spotlight). Navigate via BASH to the folder where you unzipped the Yocto complete image.

If you don’t have HomeBrew on your machine, run this command. You may need to add “sudo” before these commands to make this work.

ruby -e "$(curl -fsSL https://raw.githubusercontent.com/Homebrew/install/master/install)"
brew install dfu-util coreutils gnu-getopt

You also need to install lsusb for OS X: LSUSB for Mac install instructions

Now run the flashall.sh script located in the Yocto image folder:

./flashall.sh

flashing

Now your Edison is flashed!

IBM Bluemix Commercial IoT Workshop #2

Last week I executed on the second (and final, as an evangelist) Industrial Internet of Things Workshop focusing on Wind River Linux, Helix Device Cloud, Intel Edison (IoTDevKit) and our Moon Island Gateways. 40 IIOT developers selected from a list of locals were in attendance. Our projection surface was a bed sheet but hey, sometimes you just have to roll with things.

Seeking Inflection Points: My new role at Intel

makers

Starting tomorrow I will be taking on the position of “Inventor Platform Manager, Strategic Partners” at Intel’s New Technology Group (focusing on Makers and Innovators). In this role, I will be working with a broad ecosystem of cloud partners (Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, Google etc), developers, makers and hardware accelerators to increase the usability and adoption of Intel’s maker products such as Intel Edison, Intel Curie, the Arduino 101 (and future devices).

Looking forward to meeting the next generation of makers, couldn’t be more excited to be in this role within Intel at this time.

Commercial IoT Workshop (with IBM Bluemix)

Spent the last two days hauling tons of laptops and gateways in a U-Haul truck, that was fun. 40 developers, 40 Moon Island Gateways, 40 Intel Edison and Sensor Kits and an IBM Bluemix workshop, fun times.