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.