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autonomous cars, Education, Emerging-Technologies, flying car, google, online education, open educational resources, Robotics, sebastian thrun, TC, technology, Transportation, udacity, waymo

Udacity opens applications for its Flying Car Nanodegree program


If you want to learn how to build flying cars, then your options in terms of getting an education are kind of limited. Enter Udacity, the online education platform founded by Google self-driving car pioneer Sebastian Thrun. It’s now accepting applications for its Flying Car Nanodegree program, which it announced last year along with a new Introduction to Self-Driving engineering course.

The Flying Car Nanodegree is partly exactly what it sounds like, but in an interview Thrun admitted that the name is designed to ignite the pop culture imagination in addition to describing what you’ll get out of the program. For one, the ‘car’ designation for most flying vehicles isn’t entirely accurate, Thrun said in an interview – but the term does make sense in terms of explaining the opportunity represented by personal aerial transportation craft.

“While most people don’t see this as a reality yet, that your pizza gets flown in by drone, it would be a complete game-changer if your local store, your local Target, your local Walmart, would be able to deliver groceries to you via drones,” Thrun said. “The same is true for people transportation, and I really believe that we’re going to have a future at some point where everybody will fly every day[…] that realization, I predict will happen in the next few years.”

Course instructors for the Flying Car Nanodegree program include Thrun himself, who also has a startup dedicated to making personal aerial vehicles a reality (Kitty Hawk); as well as University of Toronto aerial robotics Professor Angela Schoellig; Kiva Systems founder and ETH Zurich Professor Raffaello D’Andrea; and MIT Professor and Google Project Wing founder Nicholas Roy.

  1. Angela Teaching

    University of Toronto Professor Angela Schoellig.

  2. NicholasRoy-10

    Nicholas Roy, MIT Professor and Google Project Wing Founder.

  3. RaffaelloD_Andrea3

    Raffaello D’Andrea quadcopter demo at TEDGlobal 2013 in Edinburgh, Scotland. June 12-15, 2013. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

  4. Udacity Founder Sebastian Thrun

    Udacity Founder Sebastian Thrun.

Thrun explained that while students can get component skills for building future autonomous aerial transportation vehicles, it’s currently very difficult to put together all the pieces into something comprehensive and specific to the field. It ends up being tremendously cross-disciplinary, and that’s where Udacity’s strengths at identifying very specific needs and building appropriate educational courses.

And even if in the immediate term, it doesn’t look like any kind of flying car deployment will be a significantly meaningful part of anyone’s revenue picture, Thrun says we shouldn’t underestimate its potential impact, and its immediate importance to companies that are taking it seriously, including Amazon, Google and others. In fact, the Udacity CEO even believes that autonomous aerial vehicles will one day eclipse self-driving cars in terms of their importance in daily urban transportation.

“The most revolutionary vision of a self-driving car would be the ride sharing perspective, the one that Google and Uber has been working on, where an empty car comes to you,” Thrun said. “You’d probably cut the transportation costs of the American household in half with this ride sharing mobility service – but it only works without a driver inside. SO Uber costs about $1.10 per mile, and if you drive a car yourself you spend about $0.60 per mile. You can, without too much work, get this down to about $0.30 per mile if the car comes to you unmanned. With a slight leap, if it comes to you and lifts you up in the air and drops you off somewhere else, you can reach the same economics – but without the [traffic] congestion.”

Udacity’s application process closes on February 7, and Self-Driving Car Engineers and Robotics Software Engineer Nanodegree program students, as well as graduates of Udacity’s Intro to Self-Driving Cars, will be guaranteed admission and the chance to enrol. Thrun says that Udacity learned early on in its existence to responsibly gate admission so that students don’t encounter material beyond their competence level, and the skills developed in those programs should equip applicants well to succeed here, too.

Udacity is making access to the nanodegree’s curriculum and two of its full courses available to prospective students, and the full program will occupy two 12-week terms with $1,200 in tuition due for each. During the first term, students will work on Udacity’s customers flight similuator on flight planning and control, and then in the second, they’ll focus on coordinating flight among various autonomous systems and eventually build a virtual “flying city” to put all the pieces together.

Atlanta, Automation, Automotive, autonomous cars, california, Emerging-Technologies, google, Robotics, san francisco bay area, TC, transport, Transportation, waymo, X

Waymo heads to Atlanta to test its self-driving cars


Waymo continues to expand the pool of locations where it’s testing its autonomous vehicle tech, and the latest destination is metro Atlanta. The former Google self-driving car company revealed the news on Twitter, noting that it’s expanding considerably its geographic testing footprint now that it’s got fully driverless test vehicles on the road in Phoenix.

Its test cars in cities outside of Arizona still have safety drivers at the wheel, but the more places it can get its Pacificas with autonomous tech on roads, the better for building an autonomous driving ‘brain’ that can handle anything it encounters. Atlanta has some specific challenges, including bad traffic (commute and traffic issues are ranked among the worst locations in the U.S.) and one of the more dense greater metro areas in the U.S., and temperatures that regularly reach a humid 80+ degrees Fahrenheit.

Metro Atlanta marks Waymo’s 25th test city in total, including its recent return to San Francisco. Its testing so far has consisted of mapping the city with manually driven Waymo vehicles ahead of launching its testing program in full.

A Waymo spokesperson provided the following statement to TechCrunch regarding the expansion:

Now that we have the world’s first fleet of fully self-driving cars on public roads, we’re focused on taking our technology to a wide variety of cities and environments. We’re looking forward to our testing in Metro Atlanta, and the opportunity to bring this lifesaving technology to more people in more places.

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal also provided the statement below:

With our talented workforce and legacy of innovation, Georgia is at the forefront of the most dynamic, cutting edge industries like autonomous vehicles. We are thrilled to welcome Waymo to our state because fully self-driving vehicle technology holds tremendous potential to improve road safety, and we are proud Georgia is paving the way for the future of transportation.

Personnel, Robotics, Sphero, Startups

Sphero lays off dozens as it shifts focus to education


Sphero was ready to conquer the world last year. The company quintupled its product release schedule, flying high with the help of a Disney licensing deal that gave the world several Star Wars droids and talking Spider-Man and Lightning McQueen robots.

But following a holiday season that failed to live up to expectations, the company recently laid off 45 staff members globally, TechCrunch has learned, a move it says has impacted departments company-wide.

The majority of the layoffs were centered in the company’s Colorado headquarters, but staff cuts also affected its global offices in the U.K. and Hong Kong. 

“We restructured our team on Friday to better align with our product needs,” a spokesperson for the company told TechCrunch. “As we look to our product development schedule for 2018 and beyond, we weren’t going to go that deep, so we had to make some changes for how the teams were structured.”

The move is a step back for the company and a bit of a surprise for those who have been following its trajectory from afar. After participating in Disney’s accelerator back in 2014, the hardware startup got a small investment from the entertainment goliath and began production on a BB-8 toy released alongside 2015’s blockbuster Star Wars return, The Force Awakens.

In 2017 alone, the company released new toys based on R2D2, The Last Jedi‘s BB-9E, Spider-Man and Pixar’s Cars franchise, along with Sphero Mini, a smaller, sub-$50 version of the smartphone controlled ball that started it all. 

The startup had bolstered its headcount to meet the demands of its much accelerated output.

It’s telling, of course, that the layoffs come so soon after the holidays. While not disastrous, the finally tally pointed to the need for a rethink in strategy going forward. “[Sales weren’t] exactly what we had expected,” the spokesperson said. “We still consider ourselves a young startup. It’s the right time to pivot.”

The decrease comes as it shifts toward a product roadmap more in line with the pre-2017 days — putting it at closer to one to two products per year. “That might be our sweet spot,” the spokesperson added. “We’re still pretty young, but the one part of our business that continues to shine is what we’re doing in education. This allows our company to focus on that vision.”

This restructuring finds Sphero investing much more of its existing resources into the education side of its business. The company has been operating in the category for some time, leveraging its hardware creations in an offering designed to target schools, but that side has largely taken a backseat to Sphero’s more commercial offerings until now. 

Educational robotics — STEM/STEAM specifically — is an extremely competitive space, as well. CES last week was overloaded with companies big and small pushing into the category with a variety of different platforms, and from the looks of things, next month’s Toy Fair in New York won’t be much different. 

Sphero Spider-Man

But Sphero has the marked advantage of building on top of its own popular robotics platform. In fact, it ran popular pilot programs in its native Colorado that garnered coverage in places like Wired and The New Yorker last year and in 2016.

The company’s SPRK+ Education offers educators and parents a platform for teaching coding and robotics. Sphero’s package lets kids program its connected toys through coding, offering a real world robotics platform on the cheap.

“[Education] is something we can actually own,” the company’s spokesperson says hopefully. “Where we do well are those experiences we can 100-percent own, from inception to go-to-market.”

Sphero co-founder and CTO Ian Bernstein also recently left the company to spin out out a new startup, Misty Robotics. It isn’t designed to be a direct competitor, focusing instead on home assistant robotics, but former staffers did join Bernstein at the new company. Misty will also have its own programmable robot, though its offering, the Misty I, is focused primarily on adult developers.

Biotech, Gadgets, Robotics, Science, TC

These high-speed ‘nano-cranes’ could form molecular assembly lines


Things aren’t going well down at the ol’ nano-factory. They’re having trouble getting all those tiny workers to synchronize and move quickly together. But leave it to the Germans to get things running smoothly! All it took was a careful application of that newfangled technology “electricity.”

Tiny nano-scale machines formed from DNA could be the future of manufacturing things at small scale but great volume: drugs, tiny chip components, and of course more nanomachines. But moving simple, reusable machines like a little arm half a micrometer long is more difficult than at human scale. Wires for signals aren’t possible at that scale, and if you want to move it with a second arm, how do you move that arm?

For a while chemical signals have been used; wash a certain solution over a nanobot and it changes its orientation, closes its grasping tip, or what have you. But that’s slow and inexact.

Researchers at the Technical University of Munich were looking at ways to improve this situation of controlling machines at the molecular scale. They were working with “nano-cranes,” which are essentially a custom 400-nanometer strand of DNA sticking up out of a substrate, with a flexible base (literally — it’s made of unpaired bases) that lets it rotate in any direction. It’s more like a tiny robotic finger, but let’s not split hairs (or base pairs).

What Friedrich Simmel and his team found, or rather realized the potential of, was that DNA molecules and therefore these nano-cranes have a negative charge. So theoretically, they should move in response to electric fields. And that’s just what they did.

They attached tiny fluorescent pigment molecules to the tips of the cranes so they could see what they were doing in real time, then observed the cranes as the electric field surrounding them was carefully changed.

To their great delight, the cranes moved exactly as planned, switching from side to side, spinning in a circle, and so on. These movements are accomplished, the researchers say, at a hundred thousand times the speed they would have been using chemicals.

A microscopic image of the nano-crane’s range of motion, with the blue and red indicating selected stop points.

“We came up with the idea of dropping biochemical nanomachine switching completely in favor of the interactions between DNA structures and electric fields,” said Simmel in a TUM news release. “The experiment demonstrated that molecular machines can be moved, and thus also driven electrically… We can now initiate movements on a millisecond time scale and are thus 100,000 times faster than with previously used biochemical approaches.”

And because the field provides the energy, this movement can be used to push other molecules around — though that hasn’t been demonstrated just yet.

But it’s not hard to imagine millions of these little machines working in vast (to them) fields, pushing component molecules towards or away from each other in complex processes or rolling products along, “not unlike an assembly line,” as Simmel put it.

The team’s work, which like most great research seems obvious in retrospect, earned them the coveted cover story in Science.

Featured Image: TUM

Robotics, TC, Transportation

Drone comes to the rescue of two swimmers in Australia


One day, they may yet turn against us, but for now, they’re still our allies: A drone rescued two teenage swimmers in distress off the course of New South Wales in Australia, according to a new report. The drone spotted two teenagers in trouble around a half-a-mile out from shore, and then dropped a flotation device it carries for the purpose to give them something to hang on to (via Verge).

This drone was actually not supposed to be saving anyone just yet – it was engaged in a pilot project to test its viability. But the Sydney Morning Herald reports that when a call came through about the swimmers in trouble, the drone happened to be in the Ari and nearby, positioned well to respond.

The drone’s pilot, a decorated veteran lifeguard for New South Wales, was able to Gert out to the swimmers’ position, and drop the pod in a minute or two, which is at least a few minutes less than it would’ve taken to respond directly with actual flesh and blood lifeguards.

This training exercise was designed to get lifeguard staff familiar with the so-called “Little Ripper” drone, which is part of a government plan to help mitigate the risk of shark attacks. Its ability to save the swimmers was an accident, but a lucky accident that definitely helps prove its viability as part of the $16 million government program.

Also, it’s a reminder that sometimes, drones are actually good.

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