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Australian Miner Found Employing Driverless Trucks



In an all-time first, Australian mining giant Rio Tinto is using two fully automated driverless truck fleets at its massive iron ore mines. It has to be said that the trucks themselves are massive as well, besides operating without a driver!

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While Europe decides to regulate driverless trucks on roads with Mercedes-Benz providing a proof-of-concept on a real German highway, a mining company in Western Australia is already using driverless trucks to haul iron ore around its mining sites. These trucks are engaged and operated remotely, in an operations center in the city of Perth. 750 miles away.

RioTinto trucks

Rio Tinto’s Iron Ore chief executive, Andrew Harding has his reasons for employing driverless trucks instead of drivers.

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Our autonomous fleet outperforms the named fleet by an average of 12 per cent, primarily by eliminating required breaks, absenteeism and shift changes.

He adds that “innovation and technology is critical in our efforts to improve safety,” speaking to the Financial Times.

It’s a time to cut costs for iron ore mines after the slowing economy of China and a relentless oversupply of the rocks from which metallic iron is extracted.

Iron ore prices have crashed to $53 currently from a peak of $190, a little under four times the current value. Citing these factors, the world’s biggest miners are looking at technology to lower costs. A driverless truck running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year does not require four drivers operating between shifts. When the numbers add up, each truck saves over 500 work hours every year.

Riotinto truck

Rio Tinto is the first miner to actively use the driverless tech-driven trucks in its mining operations. The company has 69 automated trucks in total, a fifth of which are in the Pilbara in Western Australia where its iron ore mines are. Altogether, the trucks move 20 million tonnes of iron ore a month from the mines in the 122 degrees heat.

The driverless trucks are already driving costs down, according to the mining company’s CEO Sam Walsh, who notes that the iron ore cash cost of $16.2 a tonne in the first half of this year is already down 21 percent from the corresponding period last year.

RioTinto Train

The company is also trialing a new technology with driverless trains as well as autonomous drills in its mining operations.

Images Copyright © 2015 Rio Tinto

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Artificial Intelligence

Beware Uber Drivers! The Robot Cars Are Coming



Uber Self-Driving Car

Uber announced that that the world’s first self-driving Uber cars are on the road in Pittsburgh, the Steel City. The road ahead is still long, but the implications are staggering.

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Interview: The Makers of a Robotic Hand That Can ‘Feel’



Human engineering is often seen as the pinnacle for technological achievement, be it the wheel, the steam engine or the space rocket. Human-engineering has also come a long way, especially in recent times. While the reality of fiction such as RoboCop is still beyond this present time, significant strides are currently being made in the field of understanding biomechanics and developing robotic biomechanics.

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Research and innovation are key ingredients in innovative breakthroughs with key life-enriching applications that science and technology can bring to our lives. For instance, it was due to the endeavors of Gavriil Ilizarov, the Soviet doctor who developed the Illizarov fixator apparatus in the 1950s, that this writer’s leg could be saved from a destructive road accident. Such innovation can help improve or even save lives.

Hacked spoke to Vikram Pandit, a prosthetics research engineer and operations manager at Los Angeles-based SynTouch, a company at the forefront of sensory technology that empowers robots to literally replicate our sense of touchVikram is also a congenital amputee, born with a single hand and is deemed “instrumental in informing SynTouch’s prosthetics research strategy,” with the unique insight and perspective he offers.


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The company was recently awarded two federal research grants that total over $2.5 million over the next few years to develop advanced tactile sensing applications, or, as SynTouch calls it – Machine Touch®.

The company notes:

SynTouch’s products make it possible to do everything you’ve come to expect from your own sense of touch: they enable perception, improve dexterity, prevent damage, and provide awareness.

How does it feel to be your company’s prototype, Vikram?

Vikram: I enjoy being at the cutting edge of prosthetic research. Being patient zero where all of the technology is being tested is awesome and definitely makes me feel like I am using my amputation to help others in my place.

Do you see such innovation generally pushing forward at a faster rate for robotic applications, more-so than for humans?

Vikram: Absolutely. Humans are far more complex than robots. We are barely scratching the service of the human neurological system while we are making leaps in robotic advancement. While we like to think humans can do two things or more at once, we really are only capable of doing one thing and monitoring our second activity passively. A robot, with its onboard computer can be programmed to recognize and accomplish many tasks at once.



Could you explain how the fingertips detect what they feel?

Vikram: The BioTac has three sensing modalities: force, vibration, and temperature. The sensor is a flexible circuit molded in epoxy with 19 sensing electrodes surrounded by a silicone skin and inflated with a fluid. Force is calculated from the electrodes, which use impedance in the conductive fluid to measure the distance between the skin and the electrode – as the BioTac is pushed on a table, the distance between the skin and the electrodes is smaller.

A pressure sensor embedded in the epoxy core picks up vibrations in the skin transmitted through the fluid. The fingerprints on the outside the skin actually amplify these vibration signals enormously. Temperature is sensed through a thermistor placed at the tip of the BioTac.


Are there sensors externally located on a residual limb that will help control the prosthesis? If so, does that relay then tell you that you’re holding a super hot cup of coffee?

Vikram: Myoelectric hands universally function off of sensing electrodes located on the residual limb. Their location is based on what muscles on the residual limb produce the strongest signals. The sensors are located on top of the skin, and pick up the electrical activity in a muscle when it flexes. Almost all myoelectric users have two of these sensors, one for opening the terminal device, and the other closing.

At SynTouch we have performed experiments where the sensations from the BioTac were relayed to me through a number of devices we call tactors. The three tactors were placed on my upper arm or bicep and each was correlated with a specific modality of the BioTac. An air pressure cuff similar to a sphygmomanometer was used to squeeze my arm to mirror a force applied to the BioTac. A small cellphone vibrator buzzed on my skin to emulate the sensor picking up vibration, while a small peltier chip relayed temperatures to me. I was able to distinguish hot soup vs cold soup among other things but I didn’t find these tactors useful.

As a unilateral amputee, my sound hand is better and faster than anything available with current technology in sending sensations to my brain, and the foreign signals were more distracting than helpful. Please review the following paper to find out more. Link [PDF].

Is it overwhelming and distracting when with the feedback from the prosthesis? How would you compare it with your other arm?

Vikram: See above. The current methods of relaying sensation as crude and I can only describe them as being annoying.

Is there a means to use the prosthesis on its own, i.e. let it compute and operate on its own without having to let you know what it feels?

Vikram: After coming to the conclusion that the tactors worked, but were distracting and actually took away from the experience of using a prosthetic hand, we moved in a new direction. I found through the experiments that I liked contact detection for fragile grasping. We then developed a new sensor that distilled down the features of the BioTac, called the NumaTac. An air filled open celled foam, the sensor can detect changes in pressure signaling a contact event.

Three of these sensors have been customized into the fingers of a prosthetic hand and can signal the hand that an object has been grabbed. This allows the hand to move quickly and responsively while empty, but slow down the fingers once an object has been grasped to enable low contact forces. This allows a prosthetic user to consistently pick delicate objects like eggs, consistently and reliably.

(It is at this point that Matthew Borzage P.hd., a founding partner SynTouch and operations manager weighed in to add to the answer.)

Matt: The idea that the hand has some local intelligence guiding its interactions may seem odd, but keep in mind that your hands do thousands of adjustments every second you perform tasks with them, all without you consciously thinking about each movement. It takes humans years to learn to do tasks seamlessly, but once we do the mechanics of pouring a glass of water, using a fork and knife, playing an instrument, typing, and, picking up eggs, all become reflexive, and possible to do using the sense of touch alone.

The information the sense of touch acquires is used in reflexive and automatic ways, that the brain expects to be present. Most prosthetic hands remove these reflexes, and require that amputees use their full attention to perform these simple tasks, which is frustrating! The simplified sensor and the reflex Vikram mentions allows users to do these tasks without requiring as much attention, just like you expect to be able to do.


If BioTac was presumably developed for robotic applications, how far away is BioTac from being integrated with an amputee’s prosthesis?

Vikram: Our sensors are 4 years away from becoming commercially available. We are working with the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration to integrate our technology into prosthetic devices.

In order to truly feel and sense touch, are we decades away from having the technology and tools to have it merge with the human body’s nervous system?

Vikram: Yes. The nervous system is massively complex and a considerable amount of research must occur before “cyborg” technology is viable. We are decades away from a prosthesis being seamlessly integrated into a human’s nervous system.


How frequently do you use the prosthesis and when do you put away the hook-arm for good?

Vikram: I only have one myoelectric arm right now. Unfortunately at the office and on a hot day I do not wear my prosthesis. Hot days make the socket uncomfortable and sweaty. At the office, I type on a computer and using my prosthesis would be clunky and slow.

What other innovations are SynTouch working on? Are there ideas and concepts in the drawing board that you can reveal?

Vikram: Yes definitely. SynTouch’s most interesting technology up and coming technology is our texture characterization technology. The BioTac was designed with the human finger in mind and can feel everything it can sense (except pain for obvious reason.) SynTouch has built a device integrating the BioTac that can quantify texture. Since the BioTac is designed to feel like a human, it is perfect for this application. Take a look at our client list as an example of who we have worked with.You can liken it to color matching at Home Depot to a degree. Consumer Goods companies are very interested in this technology, as the feel of a product is important to a consumer.

An example is in R&D. Company X wants cloth of a certain texture. Company X produces a number of cloth samples with different formulations in an attempt to achieve the desired texture. Our machine can actually quantify each sample’s texture and the company can use this information to make an informed decision on their cloth production.

Editor’s Note: Hacked thanks Vikram and Matthew for their time and answers.
Images from SynTouch.

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Artificial Intelligence

Consumer Drones Outfitted With Geofences Around Restricted Air Space



A project called Airmap has made life easier for two of the major consumer drone producers, DJI and 3D Robotics. The purpose of Airmap is to provide real-time, reliable access to no-fly-zone data. In the case of consumer drones, this can mean a lot more than simply military bases and airport areas.

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A football arena can be off-limits because it is full of patrons, for instance, or potentially could be off-limits to drones all the time anyhow. Residential areas could eventually make use of the technology to politely tell drone operators to keep out, in another example.

In Airmap’s own words:

AirMap makes it easy to operate your drone safely, legally, and hassle-free.

Drone operators using custom-built rigs or brands other than DJI and 3D Robotics can still make use of Airmap, if they choose. The software has a mobile-friendly web interface that tells the user
what locations in their area of operation are off-limits.

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No drone zoneFor many involved in the expensive hobby, Airmap can help mitigate the risk of losing their property to overzealous security forces or otherwise unpredictable elements. Events such as California firefighters complaining of interfering drones could be a thing of the past if Airmap and technologies like it become commonly used by drone enthusiasts.

While homebrew drone operators will always have the final decision as to whether or not they should use Airmap or something like it, technologies like this have a way of making the government think about regulation. For if the operator has the ability to know he is not supposed to be operating in a certain location but is doing so anyway, perhaps there’s an element of criminality afoot (goes the thinking of the regulator).

For their part, commercial drone manufacturers aren’t willing to risk it. By default, several models of DJI’s geofencing program, dubbed GEO or Geospatial Environment Online, which utilizes Airmap’s API, will prevent operators from flying into no-fly-zones. In many locations, users will still have the ability to override the block, but one of the places expressly forbidden is Washington, DC.

One would presume that military bases might also be on such a list. Further, the no-fly-zone list includes places that one might not ordinarily think of, such as prisons and hospitals. The override will require the user to enter sensitive information about themselves, such as a credit card number, in order to increase accountability in the event of incident.

3D Robotics CEO Chris Anderson is on record as saying how important it is to end the “mass jackassery” of drone operators, referring to the reckless flights that some have engaged in. In September, Anderson said:

If we don’t do something about it, no one’s been killed yet, but someone’s going to do something really stupid.

Anderson’s company believes that the ease of drone use which has come over time, with lots of technological innovation along the way, has helped to this end. He told Robotics Trends “we want to make flying as safe as it is easy.”

The move by the companies to implement Airmap technology is no coincidence, in that the Federal Government via Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration are FAAcurrently looking into successfully mandating drone registration.

Like all new technologies, consumer drones are subject to scrutiny not experienced by more traditional hobbies, and to mitigate the inevitable regulations, companies within the industry must act responsibly to appease regulators ahead of time.

Images from Shutterstock and Wikimedia.

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