GE’s bringing good things, and massive robots, to life


Welcome to Time Machines, where we offer up a selection of mechanical oddities, milestone gadgets and unique inventions to test out your tech-history skills.

America was in the middle of a post-war economic boom during the ’50s and industries were in a rush to build the future, often with outlandish results. RCA-Whirlpool was busy whipping up the “miracle kitchen,” chock-full of mod-cons to make the Jetsons jealous, and Simplicity Mfg. Co.’s air-conditioned, bubble-domed lawnmowers arrived to ease the painful process of landscaping. General Electric (GE), a longtime hotbed of innovation and research, had various projects underway, including engineer Ralph Mosher’s Cybernetic Anthropomorphic Machine Systems (CAMS). Mosher was building man-amplifying tools that would allow users to control robotic appendages with natural human movement. Not to be left out, the US Army was plotting the future of rough- and remote-terrain vehicles, and it had its eye on GE and Mosher’s work.


Consulting engineer Ralph Mosher and GE’s VP of research and development Dr. Arthur Bueche

The CAMS project was dedicated to fine-tuning human-control systems, since autonomous robots were still a bit half-baked and would require more computing power than was available. Mosher built the controls so that machines could echo human movements with increased precision, while also augmenting the strength of its human user. In 1956, Mosher’s “Yes Man” project was highlighted in Lifemagazine, which touted it as a “chivalrous robot,” capable of such a delicate touch that it could assist a young lady with her coat and even take a selfie after picking up a camera (and not crushing it, essentially). An operator was able to control the robotic appendages because of Mosher’s “force feedback,” which helped mediate the level of pressure applied through its electromechanical claws. (Imagine a robot ripping off a doorknob as it attempts to simply open a door.) By sending back a portion of the sensory feedback from a remote manipulator to the operator, it helped the user gauge the appropriate level of pressure that should be applied.

In 1958, Mosher’s work had seen some iterative development and was now called “Handyman.” This time it was developed as a method for handling radioactive equipment, with an operator strapped into a harness that controlled a set of Doctor Octopus-like robotic arms from a safe distance. While there were definite military angles to the development, GE was also still building tools for the consumer market, and the benefits of applying this research to intuitively controlled industrial machines was apparent. By 1961, the Army decided to team up with GE in order to further the research on a “walking” vehicle concept, planning to incorporate Mosher’s CAM control as a way to drive its four “legs.” As the years went on, others agencies would get involved with GE and Mosher’s unique man-machine control interface, including ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency), the DoD and the Navy.

In 1966, the Army contracted GE to build a working prototype of its quadruped design, which could be likened to today’s BigDog robot by Boston Dynamics except that it was “driven” by a human pilot and stood about 11 feet high. The “walking truck” was powered by a 90-horsepower, gasoline-fueled engine, weighed in at about 3,000 pounds and had four jointed legs in order to move around. The on-board operator would control the legs of the vehicle using pedals and hand controls; e.g., the driver’s right arm and leg would control the vehicle’s right front and rear legs, respectively. This imbued the machine’s movement with human dexterity and decision making, while leveraging its ruggedness and strength. The machine was able to lift a 500-pound load with one foot and rescue a jeep that was stuck in a mud hole.

In 1965, Mosher and the GE team began work on a parallel project that also used CAM controls and was developed by both the Army and Navy. It was called the Hardiman I, and where the original Handyman project was controlled from a distance, this time the user would sit inside an exoskeleton framework. The goal was to directly augment the wearer’s lifting ability so that it could assist in remote and restricted areas where access to forklifts and other heavy-lifting equipment would be limited. The Hardiman I was built and tested in separate sections, beginning with a single arm and leg, before the entire exoskeleton was assembled. The single-arm tests were largely successful, enabling it to lift a 750-pound load. The leg tests were more problematic, with difficulties in perfecting the feedback mechanism and mobility. When fully assembled, the Hardiman I would stand six feet tall, weigh 1,500 pounds and use a combination of hydromechanical (hands) and electrohydraulic servos (arms and legs) for control and motion. After years of development, however, the government’s contract ran out before a fully successful model could be completed.

We may not have seen the GE Hardiman I come to fruition, and the quadruped vehicle never seemed to catch on, but Mosher’s work definitely made an impact on future researchers. Marc Raibert, founder of the robotics company Boston Dynamics, said, “The GE walking truck was one of those inspirational projects some of us remember from when we were kids, just getting interested in technology.” Although Raibert’s projects, like BigDog, are not built around human controls, there is some crossover with Mosher’s research at GE. “Ralph’s designs had captured the key ingredient of force feedback; in his machines, the forces were fed back to the human operator to give him or her a sense of the environmental interaction of the limbs under control. In our designs, force feedback is still important, but the control algorithms running on the computer [are] the target of the feedback: same principle with a different implementation.” The concept of massive, heavy-lifting exoskeletons seems to have fallen out of favor as well, in lieu of smaller supportive devices. Companies like Ekso Bionics have employed the technology as a rehabilitation tool and assistive device, while military developers, such as Lockheed Martin and its HULC exoskeleton, have opted to work on flexible field units for subtly amplifying load capacity and endurance. There doesn’t appear to be a single, unified path of development for man-amplifying and robotic technology; instead, researchers seem to be sampling from “a kind of technical stew,” as Raibert puts it.

[Images courtesy of the Museum of Innovation and Science]

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Tesla’s toy boat: A drone before its time


Welcome to Time Machines, where we offer up a selection of mechanical oddities, milestone gadgets and unique inventions to test out your tech-history skills.

The military complex has certainly embraced the concept of telerobotics, especially in the use of drones, but luckily the technology has also led to other, more peaceful applications. Drones have been used to entertain, take on laborious tasks and even deliver packages (and burritos!). As we pursue the development of remotely controlled and autonomous craft, we must tread carefully or suffer the same fate as the fabled Icarus. Nikola Tesla saw both the terrible as well as the beneficial consequences for this technology when he debuted the “remote control” and the jury is still out as to whether we’ll succumb to a dystopianTerminator-style future or reach a peaceful stasis, where we harness the usefulness of robots and autonomous devices, and avoid the worst-case scenarios. Head past the break for more of the story.


Tesla once said, “The world moves slowly, and new truths are difficult to see.” It was his way of responding to the crowd’s stunned disbelief upon viewing his scientific wizardry at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1898. Using a small, radio-transmitting control box, he was able to maneuver a tiny ship about a pool of water and even flash its running lights on and off, all without any visible connection between the boat and controller. Indeed few people at the time were aware that radio waves even existed and Tesla, an inventor often known to electrify the crowd with his creations, was pushing the boundaries yet again, with his remote-controlled vessel.

Tesla’s presentation, which was part of an Electrical Exhibition, was decried as magic by some, but it’s unsurprising that others would focus on its potential as a weapon. It wouldn’t be the first time that well-known inventors had made a foray into war devices. Thomas Edison had been involved in the Sims-Edison Electrical Torpedo Company and in 1892 demonstrated the merits of its wire-guided torpedo. This 31-foot-long device was powered and controlled through a hardwired tether and manipulated by a remote on-shore operator, with the goal of harbor defense by delivering an explosive payload into invading vessels. A few months prior to Tesla’s radio-controlled presentation, W.J. Clarke, general manager of the US Electrical Supply Company, made use of radio waves for yet another warlike implementation. He proceeded to blow up toy ships by wirelessly detonating floating mines with radio waves, cribbing the basic design for his machine from Italian inventor Gueglielmo Marconi.

When Tesla unveiled his own invention at the 1898 exhibition, the display consisted of an indoor pool, a 4-foot-long miniature ship and a control box equipped with various levers. The deck of the ship was studded with antennae for receiving signals, with the tallest located in the center and two others topped with small light bulbs. The lights would help an operator gauge the position and direction of the vessel in the cover of darkness. Its motion was driven by a screw propeller, with a keel and rudder situated in the standard positions for a nautical vessel. Inside the boat’s hull, there was an electric motor driving both the propeller and rudder, a storage battery and a mechanism for receiving the radio signals sent from the control box. Without the limits of a wired connection between the controls and the remote device, Tesla’s invention would allow operators to effect changes in speed and direction, and control on-board gadgets (such as lights or moving parts), even from a moving vehicle.

Although newspaper headlines chose to focus on the use of Tesla’s device as a wirelessly controlled torpedo, his plans for the invention were not wholly aimed at warfare. In a 1900 article from Century magazine, Tesla described a moment of self-realization, seeing his own mind and body as an automaton, reacting to external stimuli and situations. He stated that contemporary automatons were simply using a “borrowed mind,” and responded to orders from a distant and intelligent operator. Tesla believed that one day we may be able to endow a machine with its “own mind,” where it, too, can act on environmental stimuli of its own accord. According to Margaret Cheney’s Tesla: A Man Out of Time, when asked about the boat’s potential as an explosive-delivery system, Tesla retorted, “You do not see there a wireless torpedo; you see there the first of a race of robots, mechanical men which will do the laborious work of the human race.”

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Deutsche Post shows off its Paketkopter drone delivery service in Germany

BY EDGAR ALVAREZ  3 hours ago

Well, it looks as if Amazon really started a trend since taking the wraps off of itsPrime Air service. Not long after UPS said it, too, was experimenting with a delivery method lead by drones, Deutsche Post DHL, which is deemed to be the world’s largest carrier, has begun to test its very own service in the German city of Bonn. Earlier today, the company used what it is calling the Paketkopter to transport and deliver a box of medicines across the Rhine river, with the entire trip totaling about 0.6 mile and taking the drone around two minutes to complete it.

Although this particular Paketkopter model was being controlled by humans, Deutsche Post did say there is an option for its drones to be flown without any assistance and have them rely solely on GPS. However, the parcel carrier isn’t actually planning to launch a drone delivery service anytime soon, noting that this stage is only “the beginning of the research project.” We’d suggest paying the DWlink below a visit, where you’ll find a video of the Paketkopter’s first successful mini trek.

VIA: The Verge


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UPS researching delivery drones that could compete with Amazon’s Prime Air

Flying parcel-carriers are the next logical frontier for delivery companies

By Ben Popper on December 3, 2013 08:29 am

Amazon made headlines Sunday night when it announced it was working on small drones that could someday deliver customers packages in half an hour or less. But the e-commerce giant isn’t the only company researching how to harness the potential of small unmanned aircraft: The Verge has learned that the world’s largest parcel service, UPS, has been experimenting with its own version of flying parcel carriers.


Sources familiar with the company’s plans say it has been testing and evaluating different approaches to drone delivery. Asked for a comment, a company spokesman said that, “The commercial use of drones is an interesting technology and we’ll continue to evaluate it. UPS invests more in technology than any other company in the delivery business, and we’re always planning for the future.”

In some ways, say industry experts, this is no surprise. “I would be shocked if a company like UPS wasn’t considering this,” says Ryan Calo, a law professor specializing in drones and robotics. “If you want to compete in logistics and delivery, drones and unmanned robots have to be part of the conversation about where things are headed.”


So far UPS has kept quiet about its plans, perhaps because any drone delivery project is years away from being legal and operational. For Jeff Bezos, on the other hand — who admitted that his drone fleet probably won’t be available for some time— the news was perfectly timed to hit on Cyber Monday, driving tons of free publicity to Amazon on the biggest online shopping day of the year.

UPS has a number of different ways it might utilize drones. It could offer something similar to Amazon’s Prime Air, or it might use them to help move packages around its own warehouses. Calo was skeptical of the video offered up by Amazon, where a drone drops off a package in a family’s suburban driveway. “I think from both a tech and a policy perspective, delivering to consumers in residential areas is going to be tough thing to accomplish any time soon,” says Calo. “But a company like UPS could use drones to bring packages quickly and cheaply from a major airport or city to pick-up centers in more remote locations, speeding up delivery for a lot of customers.”


Others in the industry are more bullish on how quickly a drone delivery service could be up and running. According to Colin Guinn, the North American CEO for the drone manufacturer DJI, “A company like Amazon or UPS could have a safe, operational fleet in 18-24 months,” he tellsThe Verge. “What we need in terms of tech is improved object detection and avoidance, because GPS coordinates alone won’t cut it if you got a car or some kids in the driveway.”

FedEx founder Fred Smith has spoken repeatedly about his desire to move to a fleet of unmanned aircraft, something he believes could generate major cost savings. The impediment so far has been regulators. “We have all this stuff working in the lab right now, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” remarks Guinn. “We need a set of rules from the FAA. It’s just a matter of getting the laws in place so companies can begin building to those specifications and doing some real field testing.”

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Bill Gates Calls Amazon’s Delivery Drones ‘Overly Optimistic’

by   DEC. 3, 2013, 12:26 PM

The tech world is in a tizzy this week over Amazon’s announcement that it’s experimenting with autonomous drones that can deliver products to people within 30 minutes.

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates doesn’t seem to think Amazon’s drones are that likely to work. In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, which we first saw on NeoWin, Gates says Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is being a bit too optimistic when it comes to announcing the Prime Air drone delivery service years before it even exists.

“I’d say he’s probably on the optimistic or perhaps overly optimistic end of that,” Gates said. He went on to explain that drones could be used for humanitarian efforts in the future, like dropping off medical supplies to areas in need.

Here’s the video. Gates starts talking about drones three minutes in.

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Internet erupts in parody to Amazon’s proposed delivery drones

By Aaron Souppouris on December 2, 2013 10:30 am



Depending on execution, parody can be one of the best or worst ways to get a message across. Today, we’ve seen examples of both lambasting Amazon Prime Air, the company’s new plan to use drones to deliver packages to your door. Twitter reacted with the usual mix of humor, disdain, and nitpicking, while one of Amazon’s regional rivals has created a parody video.

Waterstones is one of the UK’s largest booksellers, and has unsurprisingly been affected by Amazon’s international success. This morning the retailer posted a press release and video informing the world that owls would now be delivering its books thanks to “OWLS.”, the “Ornithological Waterstones Landing Service.”

The video isn’t especially biting — especially when compared to Amazon’s recent parody of an iPad ad — and appears to have been put together in good faith. It’s also remarkably self-aware; it doesn’t attempt to parody the style of Amazon’s videos in any way, and the narrator also notes that OWLS. will take years to set up as Waterstones “only thought of it this morning.” It’s a cute spot, but the basic premise of Waterstones’ parody, that Harry Potter-esque owls could deliver items instead of drones, has been around since minutes after the initial announcement.

A number of tweets have commented on shooting down and capturing Amazon’s drones, but Leon Zandman took that concept and turned it into a reimagining of the classic NES game Duck Hunt. In Zandman’s game, the ducks are all replaced by — you guessed it — Amazon Prime Air drones. It’s totally janky and quite dumb, but that’s why it works so well.

It’s almost impossible to mention drones, robots, or anything electronic on the internet without someone making a joke about robot sentience. At least one Twitter user went to all the trouble of creating a fake delivery note for this admittedly clever tweet:


As amusing (or unamusing, depending on your tastes) as this first round of reactions may be, they highlight problems that people may have with Amazon’s ambitious plan. What happens if someone attacks a drone, or steals its package? What will privacy activists have to say about an army of corporate drones fitted with cameras roaming above our streets? These concerns are often raised in a knee jerk way, but they’re concerns that Amazon will nonetheless have to address in time.

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