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How Starship Delivery Robots know where they are going

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(plus how to make your very own 1:8 scale papercraft robot model)

by : Joan Lääne, Mapping Specialist, Starship Technologies

Every September when the new school year starts, many first-graders are a little afraid of the unknown. Not only about starting school and new people they will meet, but also about the journey they need to make each day. They must learn and remember how to navigate the world and the way to and from their classroom by themselves. This can be made easier by a parent who can accompany their child the first few trips back and forth to get them more familiar with the path, usually pointing out some interesting landmarks along the way such as, tall or bright buildings or signs on the pathway. Eventually it will be trivial for the child to go to school and remember the way. The child will have formed a mental map of the world and how to navigate it.

Starship Technologies provides a convenient last mile delivery service with fleets of sidewalk delivery robots navigating the world each day. Our robots have completed over 100,000 deliveries. To get from point A to point B the robots need to plan a route ahead which in turn requires some sort of a map. Even though there are already many publically available mapping systems such as Google Maps and OpenStreetMaps, they have the limitation that they are designed with car navigation in mind and mostly focus on mapping car roads. Since these delivery robots travel on sidewalks, they need an accurate map of where it is safe to travel on sidewalks and where to cross streets just like a child needs a mental map on how to get to school safely and on time every day. So how is this map generated?

The first step of creating a map for delivery robots is scouting the area of interest and generating a preliminary map (2D map) on top of satellite imagery in the form of simple interconnected lines representing sidewalks (green), crossings (red), and driveways (purple) as illustrated in the image below.

The system treats this map as a node graph and it can be used to generate a route from point A to point B. The system can identify the shortest and the safest path for the robot to take and also calculate the distance and time it would take to drive this route. The advantage of this process is that it all can be done remotely before any robots physically arrive on site.

The next step involves showing the robots what the world looks like. Similar to the parent-child analogy, the robots need a little bit of hand-holding the first time they explore an area. When the robot first drives, the cameras and a multitude of sensors on the robot collect data about the world around it. These include thousands of lines which come from detecting edges of different features, for example buildings, streetlight poles and rooftops. The server can then create offline a 3D world map from these lines which the robot can then use. Like the child, the robot now has a model of the world with guide posts and it can understand where it is at any given time.

Since our robots need to cover different areas at the same time to complete all their deliveries, to be efficient various maps need to be put together to create one unified 3D map of given area. The unified map is created piece by piece by processing the different pieces of the new area until eventually the map looks like a huge completed jigsaw puzzle. The server will put this map together based on the line data the robot collected earlier. For example, if the same rooftop was detected by two robots, then the software figures out how it connects with the rest of the map. Every colored line in the image below represents a single piece of a mapping trip added to the map.

The final step of the mapping process, before the robots can drive fully autonomously, is to calculate exactly where and how wide the sidewalk is. This is created by processing the camera images the robot recorded while exploring the area as a reference as well as incorporating the previously created 2D map based on the satellite imagery.

During this process more details are added to the map to accurately define the safe zones for where the robots can drive.

Of course, the world around us is not static. There are daily and seasonal changes in landscape, constructions and renovations, which change the way the world looks. How might this affect the mapped areas for the robots? Actually, the robot’s software handles small to medium changes in the mapped area quite well. The 3D models are robust enough and filled with such vast quantities of data, that a tree cut down here or one building torn down there typically does not pose a challenge to the robot’s ability to localize its position or use the map. And, additionally as the robot drives around each day it continues to gather more data that is used to update the 3D maps over time. But if an area is completely reshaped, or new sidewalks are built, then the solution is simple. The map must be updated using new data gathered by a robot. Then afterwards, other robots can drive autonomously again in the same area as if nothing happened. Keeping maps up to date is crucial to keep the robots driving safely and autonomously.

As you can no doubt tell by now, I really enjoy playing around with the concepts of 3 dimensional space. Ever since I played the first 3D first person shooter computer game (Wolfenstein 3D), the world of 3D in the digital domain became an interest of mine. I wanted to make my own 3D worlds for computer games, so I found ways to edit the existing game levels. Later, I also tried my hand with 3D computer modelling, which I found interesting. With the popularization and affordability of 3D printers, I started physically printing models too. But long before that, during school summer breaks, I loved to do papercraft models of different buildings and vehicles. It was an easy and cheap way to create something with my own hands, yet it was also interesting to see how a 2D layout on a piece of paper, with a little cutting, folding and gluing, can turn into a 3D model. Basically, creating the papercraft of a 3D object or “unfolding” is, in a sense, the reverse of mapping. It is creating the 2D layout of the surface of a 3D object.

Since I have a passion for papercraft I decided to create one for our Starship delivery robots. The goal of making this model is to enable others who might enjoy the same passions I do to create their own version of our delivery robots. Creating a paper model is a fun challenge, and once done it makes for a nice decorative item too. As with generating 3D maps for the robot, the making of a papercraft model requires precision, accuracy, and spatial thinking of how all the parts fit together. Also a good bit of patience.

I have created some instructions for you to create your own papercraft delivery robot and I’d love to see your efforts. Have fun and good luck making your own delivery robot paper model!

Please post a picture of your robot on Instagram and tag @StarshipRobots so I can find them!

Please find the Starship delivery robot papercraft model and instructions here

© Starship Technologies. The design of the Starship® delivery robot and aspect of the technologies described are proprietary and protected by copyright and other intellectual property laws


How Starship Delivery Robots know where they are going was originally published in Starship Technologies on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.



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Cellular Tracking Used During COVID-19 Pandemic

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As most in the technology community know, nation states have a suite of powerful tools that can be used to trace and monitor mobile phones. By and large, this comes up in discussions of privacy and legislation now and then, before fading out of the public eye once more. In the face of a global pandemic, however, governments are now using these tools in the way many have long feared – for social control. Here’s what’s happening on the ground.

The Current Situation

With COVID-19 sweeping the globe, its high level of contagiousness and rate of hospitalizations has left authorities scrambling to contain the spread. Unprecedented lockdowns have been put in place in an attempt to flatten the curve of new cases to give medical systems the capacity to respond. A key part of this effort is making sure that confirmed cases respect quarantine rules, and isolate themselves to avoid spreading the disease. Rules have also been put in place in several countries where all overseas arrivals must quarantine, regardless of symptoms or status.

“According to an epidemiological investigation you were near a corona patient on 06/03/20. You must immediately enter a home isolation by 20/03/20 to protect your relatives and the public. If you have fever, cough, etc. call A-101. Learn more at the link gov.il/corona” – An Israeli government text message. Source: @kann_news

In order to achieve this, Israel has begun to use the cellular devices to track suspected coronavirus cases. Using technology initially developed for counterterrorism purposes, it allows Israeli authorities to monitor the movements of individual citizens. If a citizen is detected as having spent 10 minutes or more within 2 meters of an infected person, they are sent a text message instructing them to self-isolate until a particular date. While a very effective method of tracing possible infection contacts, it also shows the incredible granularity of the data available to Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency. With this capability, it would also be trivial to track phone users for enforcement purposes, too.

South Korea has also been actively tracing citizen’s mobile phones. Public health organisations have sent out texts detailing the recent movements of infected people, revealing intimate details of their citizens private lives. In one ridiculous case, a woman who had supposedly sustained serious injuries in a recent car accident was noted to be travelling to weddings and restaurants, leading to a grilling by TV reporters after she was identified by internet users.

Iran tried a more obvious method, asking users to install an app that promised to help diagnose coronavirus symptoms. It secretly leaked user’s live location data, and once this was public knowledge, it was promptly removed from the Play Store for breaking Google’s Terms of Service. This method is quite transparent to even a moderately technical user, and stands out for this reason. Of course, this does not mean that Iran doesn’t have more serious capabilities behind the scenes for cellular tracking, but it does raise questions as to why such a blatantly obvious approach would be attempted.

A screenshot of a Chinese website used to determine whether individuals have travelled to disease hotspots.

China has dealt with COVID-19 longer than anyone, and is heavily experienced with domestic surveillance technologies. An independent source has confirmed this technology is being used for access control to buildings. At entry points, individuals scan a QR code which takes them to a phone provider’s website. Entering their details, the user is shown a record of their location in the last 14 days. If they have avoided disease hot zones, they’re granted admittance to the facility.

Justification?

The ideal democracy governs with the consent of the people. While people might object to the invasion of their privacy like this in normal circumstances, they may be willing to make this tradeoff in times of peril. It’s not clear that any of the above-mentioned countries attempted to obtain their citizens’ consent.

What stops governments from using these same domestic spying powers after the health crisis ends? Oftentimes, even if it’s not used in the mainstream, intelligence organisations that operate in the dark can get away with using such tools with impunity, even in violation of the country’s own laws. We know that many have been doing so for years. If anything, it serves as a useful reminder to the public that no mobile device can be considered secure from nosy government actors.

Looking Ahead

It’s important to remember that cellphone-based tracking systems come with a major caveat. Those who don’t wish to be tracked always have the option of simply not carrying a cellular device. There are currently no nation states that enforce the carrying of a mobile phone, and so the best way to dodge such tracking is to simply opt-out of the technology altogether. In this modern era, anyone making such a decision is giving up a lot, and it’s not one that can be made lightly. For some though, it’s no option at all – where phones are used for access control to buildings, it’s hard to avoid. In China, for instance, a corona-tracking function has been tied into Alipay, the most popular pay-by-phone app, and some cities require a green light on a cellphone to use public transportation.

World governments have shown their hand, making it clear to the public that they have an immensely powerful and threatening technology at their disposal, and that they’re willing to use it without consent. While it is currently being employed in service of public health, the potential ramifications are plain to see. It may prove difficult for citizens to win back civil liberties that have been suspended in the current quarantine. Time will tell.



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New iPad Pro security feature cuts the mic when you close the case

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  • Apple introduced a new security feature on the 2020 iPad Pro that disconnects the microphone at a hardware level when an MFi case compliant case is attached and closed.
  • This iPad Pro feature keeps microphone data from being collected by any software on the tablet.
  • The hardware disconnect was first introduced on MacBook models in 2018.
  • Visit BGR’s homepage for more stories.

Two weeks ago, Apple revealed a brand new iPad Pro model via a press release on its website. The iPad’s unveiling likely would have been part of Apple’s spring event, had it happened, but the coronavirus pandemic made sure to put a stop to that. All in all, the 2020 iPad Pro isn’t a massive departure from its predecessor — internally, everything has been upgraded, but the design is mostly the same, save for refreshed camera array on the back.

But it turns out that not every feature of the new iPad was disclosed in the original press release. This week, 9to5Mac spotted an update to the Apple Platform Security guide which reveals that new iPads, including the latest model, have a hardware feature that ensures the microphone disconnects when the case is closed.

Here’s the full update from Apple’s website explaining the hardware security feature in detail:

All Mac portables with the Apple T2 Security Chip feature a hardware disconnect that ensures the microphone is disabled whenever the lid is closed. On the 13-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Air computers with the T2 chip, and on the 15-inch MacBook Pro portables from 2019 or later, this disconnect is implemented in hardware alone. The disconnect prevents any software—even with root or kernel privileges in macOS, and even the software on the T2 chip—from engaging the microphone when the lid is closed. (The camera is not disconnected in hardware, because its field of view is completely obstructed with the lid closed.)

iPad models beginning in 2020 also feature the hardware microphone disconnect. When an MFI compliant case (including those sold by Apple) is attached to the iPad and closed, the microphone is disconnected in hardware, preventing microphone audio data being made available to any software—even with root or kernel privileges in iPadOS or in case the firmware is compromised.

As 9to5Mac notes, this feature was first introduced on MacBook models with the T2 security chip in 2018. This is the first instance of Apple porting the feature to its line of tablets. It’s also incredibly timely, as many of us are using every electronic device with a camera or a microphone in our homes right now for hours on end every day to communicate with coworkers, friends, and family members. Knowing that the microphone will be automatically disconnected as soon as the case has been shut (providing you have a compliant case) should ease some anxiety.

While this feature can only be found on the 2020 iPad Pro and future iPad models, there were a few notable security improvements in the iOS 13.4 and iPadOS 13.4 releases last week, such as Data Vaults that protect data stored in third-party apps and temporary sessions for iPad users that vanish when the user logs off.



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Potential coronavirus vaccine shows hope in mouse study

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A researcher at the University of Pittsburgh works on a COVID-19 vaccine candidate (Reuters)

Initial tests in mice of a potential COVID-19 vaccine delivered via a fingertip-sized patch have shown it can induce an immune response against the new coronavirus at levels that might prevent infection, U.S. scientists said on Thursday.

Researchers around the world are working to develop potential treatments or vaccines against the respiratory disease that has killed nearly 47,000 people and infected almost a million in just a few months.

A team at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in the United States said they were able to move quickly in developing a potential COVID-19 vaccine after working on other coronaviruses that cause Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

‘These two viruses, which are closely related to SARS-CoV-2 (the new coronavirus causing the COVID-19 pandemic), teach us that a particular protein, called a spike protein, is important for inducing immunity against the virus,’ said Andrea Gambotto, an associate professor at Pittsburgh.

‘We knew exactly where to fight this new virus.’

When tested in mice, the prototype vaccine – which the researchers have called PittCoVacc – generated what they described as ‘a surge of antibodies’ against the new coronavirus within two weeks.

The Pittsburgh researchers cautioned that because the animals have not been tracked for very long as yet, it is too early to say whether and for how long the immune response against COVID-19 lasts.

But they said that in comparable tests in mice with their MERS experimental vaccine, a sufficient level of antibodies was produced to neutralize the virus for at least a year.

Researchers have tested a prototype of the vaccine on mice (Getty Images)

Researchers have tested a prototype of the vaccine on mice (Getty Images)

So far, the antibody levels of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccinated animals seem to be following the same trend, they said in peer-reviewed study in the journal EBioMedicine.

The team said they hope to start testing the vaccine candidate on people in clinical trials in the next few months.

The potential vaccine uses a needle patch design, called a microneedle array, to increase its potential potency.

This array is a fingertip-sized patch of 400 tiny needles made out of sugar and the spike protein, Gambotto explained. It is designed to deliver the spike protein pieces into the skin, where the immune reaction is strongest.



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