A Quick Peek into Njord!

As I was writing the Maranifesto article, I took a quick look at the history of Semisorted blog posts. There’s a huge gap, from about April/May through to now. I feel bad about that, but there has been something  that we’re been working on that hasn’t been ready to discuss. Technically, it still isn’t, we’re still playing (the most productive state of being in my opinion)… And as soon as you start talking about it externally, for some unbeknownst reason that stops. So, a quick article to explain where I vanished… and then to probably vanish again for a bit.

Last weekend, before the NYC marathon, I made a side trip to Cambridge. I was visiting a group of friends that I have been loosely collaborating/hobbying with for around 2 years (wow, has it really been that long?). These guys are some of the best engineers I know – introducing Dehann (whom I have known since University of Johannesburg days – a master of estimation [e.g. Kalman filters] and all associated topics), Pedro (a mechanical+control systems engineer doing really impressive magic with underwater scene reconstruction using acoustic sampling), and Nick (an electronics+embedded systems engineer specializing in multi-agent coordination, one of the guys from the RobotX win). Suffice it to say that when we meet, I try to keep up, barely do. But don’t tell them that 😛

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Last week, we had finally got to a point that we could do some in-depth field testing on a project that I have been itching to write about. This project is not a commercial endeavour, we’re just doing it because, well, it’s fun. That means that there are a lot of late night sessions working away in our respective spaces – for me at least that’s sometimes a desk in my apartment, a Starbucks nearby, or a hostel in San Diego. Not to go on a tangent, but sometimes I feel that stuff that I work on is completely decoupled from an actual physical device. It’s like – move some numbers here, shift a few bits, poke a couple electrons, add a line there – WHAMMO, unit test passed! High fives all around, let’s go get a beer. You easily forget that there is a jet engine, a rock-chomping ball mill, or even a wicked-smart submersible on the other side of the code… Well, after gaggles of Google hangouts, mashing bits of OpenCV/LCM/Python/etc., I finally got a chance to go see one, and it made my mind reel a bit. 

Now here’s the clincher: The guys had organized to try it out on RobotX. It’s not often that you get an opportunity to play with this kind of hardware/software (of which I am eternally thankful), but it’s even rarer that you hear: “Come down for a couple days, if we get it working by Friday, maybe we can ask to take it out on the vehicle the following week.” The almost rock-climber relaxedness that this group has belies the fact that they play with some of the world’s bleeding edge technologies on an everyday basis. Personally, when people talk about REAL vehicles, let alone REAL water, you can cue the heart palpitations, arrythmia… and I have to lie down for a few minutes.

Before I introduce the picture that’s worth a lot of effort, let me actually introduce Njord. Njord is a six degree-of-freedom, highly agile ball-shaped submersible. It is really cheap to make (a group of grad students made it, of course it is!), easy to produce, and has a bunch of really exciting features that I can’t go into details about. Because we’re still playing, okay, and that would totally jinx it. Although I really want to. But I can’t. But just writing about it is making my hands sweat. Aargh! 

Anyway – Introducing Njord, operating on the RobotX autonomous vehicle:

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There is also a ton of video – all of it palpitation-inducing, but to be honest, we don’t feel quite comfortable putting up too much material just yet. Maybe at some point in the future. However, here is a totally unofficial ‘parody’ video of how I’m pretty sure the official testing went. Yep, we’re driving it remotely – I’m sitting in my messy, shoebox-sized apartment in downtown Chicago, Dehann+Nick+Pedro and Njord are all in an office somewhere in Cambridge roughly a 1000 miles away. Yep, it’s real-time, and less lag than a normal Call of Duty game. Nope, it doesn’t really have torpedoes, but it really does feel like you are playing Doom 🙂

* In case you were wondering, yes, at the time I had no idea how far Chicago is from Cambridge

After that test, the otherwise innocuous Wednesday night just became a high-point for the whole year.

I do feel bad that I left a number of article threads unfinished. I plan on starting it all up again, as well as introducing a couple of new topics – some loosely related to work done here. Just a little longer playing with the UI on this project. Looking forward to writing again!

– Sam

P.S. Build your world.

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One thought on “A Quick Peek into Njord!

  1. Pingback: Clouds and Giggles: Introduction to the CloudGraphs Project | Semi-Sorted

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