How Microsoft’s affordable Kinect video game system is changing the world of advanced robotics
A sudden gust of wind blew a six-bladed, remote-controlled helicopter over a white bus half buried in bricks and busted slabs of concrete. Jimmy Tran, a Ryerson University doctoral candidate, scrambled at the multi-levered controls as the device shot toward the horizon. “I had to land it as fast as possible,” he says. “ I didn’t want to hit power lines or cars.”
Despite his efforts, the hexarotor, now a mess of shattered blades and smashed chip boards, sits among the piles of electronics at Ryerson’s Network-Centric Applied Research Team’s (N-CART) lab. “That’s 5,000 bucks, another 1,000 for the parts to repair, plus man hours,” says Alex Ferworn, who oversees N-CART. But it could have been much worse—if not for one piece of hardware cradled under the helicopter. Ferworn’s group uses robots and computers to help search and rescue, bomb disposal and crime scene investigation teams. The day the chopper crashed they were testing a new technique to map rubble using a 3-D scanner that generates images to help rescuers.
And that scanner did not cost tens of thousand of dollars, like the scanners on most unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). It cost $150, and it came from a Microsoft Kinect video game.
It’s the crumpled piece of hardware that was left hanging under the chopper at the crash site, and it saved the project simply because it is so cheap to replace. “Something that costs 150 bucks, we’ll laugh about it. It’s change,” says Ferworn. Now, he says, the only lasting result of the gust of wind, aside from a few costly repairs, is that everyone is calling Jimmy, the pilot, “Crash.”
As with so many yo-yo dieters, the weight of a kilogram is constantly in flux—at least at an atomic level. But Ottawa researchers are hoping to get the kilo’s waistline permanently in check by changing how it’s measured.
The kilogram is currently defined by the International Prototype Kilogram, a golf-ball-sized cylindrical weight made out of platinum alloy. Because a kilogram is a physical object, it constantly releases and collects atomic particles, meaning its mass—and the mass of all kilograms—is always changing. ““If [the IPK] moves up or down the others have to follow,” says Barry Wood of the National Research Council in Ottawa. “It’s totally artificial.”
Wood and his team are heading up a movement to measure kilograms against the charge of an electron, a natural constant, using a type of specialized motor called the watt balance. “You can lift mass with a motor,” he says. “If I know how much current I’m putting into the motor, that tells me details about how much I’ve lifted.” Since the NRC purchased the watt balance (pictured below) from the British government two years ago, Wood has been using the room-sized metal machine to determine exactly how much current is needed to lift a kilogram. The data, which has so far cost $2.5 million to collect, is compared to two other watt balances in the U.S. and Switzerland, and used to calibrate the devices to make their results consistent.
Wood estimates this will take about four years, and then the International Bureau of Weights and Measures will redefine the kilogram using the electric standard. It won’t mean much for dieters, but will have a big impact on the scientific community. “This new process will stay the same for the next thousand, million years,” says Wood. “That’s a characteristic we value.”