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Actuator: Interoperability, the robotics investing climate and walking the balance beam.

There are about four duck boats lined up directly across the street from this coffee shop. Boston has a knack for reminding you where you are, should you get bonked on the head and suddenly forget what city you’re in. This is a far more truncated visit than the last time. Most likely as you’re reading this.

I carved out a bit of time on either side of the event to meet some of the folks I didn’t get to see last time. I’ve got a few universities, research institutes and startups on the list. I’ll jump at pretty much any excuse to get back to Boston and Pittsburgh these days (let me know if there’s a good one for the latter in the next few months).

Oh, and I’ve recently decided to swing by Detroit at the end of next month, so if there’s anything I definitely need to check out, let me know (accepting that our definitions of “definitely” may vary a good deal).

Heading over to MassRobotics shortly, after a recent Zoom call with Tom Ryden, the org’s executive director. I’d been wanting to talk interoperability since my recent trip to ProMat. It’s something I’ve regrettably not yet managed to highlight in any sort of meaningful way in Actuator, so we’ll be making up for that today.

As discussed the other week, along with autonomous mobile manipulation, cross-platform interoperability is a major holy grail for the industry. As companies increasingly push toward fully autonomous warehouses, the realization is no doubt quickly dawning that the goal can’t be achieved by relying on a single company.

Will the day come when robotics firms will offer true top-to-bottom solutions? Maybe? Getting there would take a long time and a hell of a lot of money — be it through in-house R&D or acquisition (likely both). From what I’ve seen, most ARM firms in the space are largely focusing on their current addressable market (which is admittedly massive), rather than rushing into additional segments of the market. Amazon’s certainly pushing for it, but economic belt-tightening aside, a fat lot of good that’s going to do all of the non-Amazon companies out there.

For the foreseeable future, increased automation means working with more robots from more companies. That presents the very real problem of interoperability. Put in the plainest language, you don’t want to suddenly find yourself tasked with running a warehouse of robots that don’t know how to work together.

There are a lot of companies working on fleet management software, which we’ve talked about in the past and will, no doubt, talk about again soon. This week, however, I’m interested in something I’ve written about a lot with my consumer electronics hat, but very seldomly with the robotics one (it’s shaped like R2-D2. Got it on discount after Halloween). So we’re going to be kicking things off with the Q&A, then some more VC survey results, job listings and then back to your regularly planned roundup.

Q&A with Tom Ryden
TC: Why did MassRobotics take this problem on?

TR: We took this on a couple of years ago, when we were talking to a lot of the manufacturers and customers of AMRs. It was clear that there isn’t going to be one solution. There isn’t going to be one AMR that does everything. We were starting to see things like AMRs and robotic floor cleaners get out there and we heard from major customers saying, “This is a problem. We have all of these platforms. We have to somehow manage them all in a better way. They’re all independent and they don’t speak to each other.”

So we looked around and didn’t see anything. [We asked if] we could help and create a very low lift, very simple standard. It’s really a data exchange standard. Here’s a common way to broadcast information from each AMR and then we can have other companies develop software packages that display all of the different platforms and give you statistics on the systems and how they’re performing.

We released that about a year and a half ago. It’s a pretty simple standard. We’re working now on the next vision. That will add complexity. What we didn’t do in the first one is task management or “tasking.” There was no ability for third-party software to go in and control any of the robots. Part of that is because none of the AMR vendors wanted that. They all have their own traffic management systems. They all believe their traffic management systems do the best for their systems and are optimized for their systems. I don’t disagree. Now we’re trying to work on a way that there will be some ability to manage different platforms without interfering with their set directions.

You’re creating both the standard and the software?

No. We are trying to provide software only as example. Sometimes it’s helpful to get example code for how you would implement this. Our standard is more guidelines. If you adopt the standard, you can interoperate with other systems that are operating in the same area that you are.

What does it mean for them to communicate? I assume it’s not robot to robot?

They’re not doing it robot to robot. They’re just sending a broadcast for anybody who wants to read it. We have a standard communications protocol, so anybody that has the ability to gather that data can.

So I’m running a warehouse and now have something that allows them all to appear on the same map.

Correct. And you can see how all of the different vendors are operating on one system. The people who are developing the third-party software are getting a lot of different information about the robot. They can show how things are performing in your warehouse and gather different things that are helpful for the warehouse operator to understand.

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Pope in Hungary meets with Ukrainian refugees, Russian envoy

Pope Francis plunged into both sides of Russia’s war with Ukraine on Saturday, greeting some of the 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees who have fled across the border to Hungary during a public prayer service and then meeting privately with an envoy of the Russian Orthodox Church that has strongly supported the war.

Francis maintained the Vatican’s tradition of diplomatic neutrality during his second day in Budapest, where he’s on a weekend visit to minister to Hungary’s Catholic faithful.

Starting the day, he thanked Hungarians for welcoming Ukrainian refugees and urged them to help anyone in need. He called for a culture of charity in a country where the prime minister has justified firm anti-immigration policies with fears that migration threatens Europe’s Christian culture.

Speaking in the white-brick St. Elizabeth’s church, named for a princess who renounced her wealth to care for the poor, Francis recalled that the Gospel instructs Christians to show love and compassion to all, especially those experiencing poverty and “even those who are not believers.”

“The love that Jesus gives us and commands us to practice can help to uproot the evils of indifference and selfishness from society, from our cities and the places where we live — indifference is a plague —- and to rekindle hope for a new, more just and fraternal world, where all can feel at home,” he said.

Hungary’s nationalist government has implemented firm anti-immigration policies and refused to accept many asylum-seekers trying to enter the country through its southern border, leading to prolonged legal disputes with the European Union.

The conservative populist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has said that migration threatens to replace Europe’s Christian culture. Orbán, who has held office since 2010, has hinged multiple election campaigns on the threats he alleges that migrants and refugees pose to Hungarians.

While Orbán’s government has consistently rejected asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Africa, around 2.5 million Ukrainians fleeing war in their country found open doors. Around 35,000 of the refugees remain in Hungary and have registered for temporary protection there, according to the U.N.

One who has chosen to stay was Olesia Misiats, a nurse who worked in a Kyiv COVID-19 hospital when she fled with her mother and two daughters on Feb. 24, 2022 — the day Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

First she went to the Netherlands, but high costs compelled her to move to Hungary, where she said she has found an apartment and given birth to her third daughter, Mila, who was in the pews Saturday with her mother and sister.

“Here it’s safe,” Misiats said of her new life. She said that she hopes to return to Kyiv one day, but for now she and her children are adapting. “I want to go back home. There it’s my life — it was my life,” she said. “But the war changed my life.”

Immediately after greeting and encouraging the refugees, Francis visited the Greek Catholic church next door, which has been providing aid to refugees. And then he met with the Russian Orthodox Church’s representative in Hungary, Metropolitan Hilarion, who developed close relations with the Vatican during his years as the Russian church’s foreign minister. The Vatican said the 20-minute meeting at the Holy See’s embassy in Budapest was “cordial.”

The Russian church’s strong support for the Kremlin’s war has rankled the Vatican and prevented a second papal meeting with Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Francis and Kirill had a 2016 encounter in Cuba that marked the first between a pope and the head of the Russian church. They had planned a second one in June, but the meeting has been indefinitely postponed over Kirill’s support for the war.

In a statement, Hilarion’s office said that he briefed Francis on the social and educational activities of the Russian church in Hungary and its relations with the Catholic Church here. He said that he gave the pope an Italian translation of a six-volume opus on the life of Christ.

Francis’ visit to Hungary, his second in as many years, is bringing him as close as he’s come to the front lines of the war. Upon arriving in Budapest on Friday, he denounced the “adolescent belligerence” that had brought war back to European soil and demanded the EU recover its values of peaceful unity to end

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As battle for Sudan continues, civilian deaths top 400

– Gunfire and heavy artillery fire persisted Saturday in parts of Sudan’s capital Khartoum, residents said, despite the extension of a cease-fire between the country’s two top generals, whose battle for power has killed hundreds and sent thousands fleeing for their lives.

With ordinary Sudanese caught in the crossfire, the civilian death toll jumped Saturday to 411 people, according to the Sudan Doctors’ Syndicate, which monitors casualties. In some areas in and around the capital, residents reported that shops were reopening and normalcy gradually returning as the scale of fighting dwindled after the shaky truce. But in other areas, terrified residents reported explosions thundering around them and fighters ransacking houses.

Now in its third week, the fighting has wounded 2,023 civilians, the syndicate added, although the true toll is expected to be much higher. The Sudanese Health Ministry put the overall death toll, including fighters, at 528, with 4,500 wounded. In the city of Genena, the provincial capital of war-ravaged West Darfur, intensified violence has killed 89 people, the Doctors’ Syndicate said.

Khartoum, a city of some 5 million people, has been transformed into a front line in the grinding conflict between Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, the commander of Sudan’s military, and Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, who leads the powerful paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces. The outbreak of violence has dashed once-euphoric hopes for a democratic transition in Sudan after a popular uprising helped oust former dictator Omar al-Bashir.

Foreign countries continued to evacuate their citizens while hundreds of thousands of Sudanese fled across borders. The first convoy organized by the United States to evacuate hundreds of American citizens from the conflict reached the coastal city of Port Sudan Saturday after a dangerous overland journey escorted by armed drones.

Britain meanwhile was ending its evacuation flights Saturday, after demand for spots on the planes declined. The United Arab Emirates announced Saturday it had started evacuating its own citizens along with nationals of 16 other countries.

Over 50,000 Sudanese refugees — mostly women and children — have crossed over to Chad, Egypt, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, the United Nations said, raising fears of regional instability. Ethnic fighting and turmoil has scarred South Sudan and the Central African Republic for years while a 2021 coup has derailed Chad’s own democratic transition.

Those who escape the fighting in Khartoum face more dangers on their way to safety. The route to Port Sudan, where ships evacuate people via the Red Sea, has proven long, exhausting and risky. Hatim el-Madani, a former journalist, said that paramilitary fighters were stopping refugees at roadblocks outside Khartoum, demanding they hand over their phones and valuables.

“There’s an outlaw, bandit-like nature to the RSF,” he said, referring to Dagalo’s Rapid Support Forces. “They don’t have a supply line in place. That could get worse in the coming days.”

Airlifts from the country amid the chaotic fighting also posed challenges, with a Turkish evacuation plane even hit by gunfire outside Khartoum on Friday.

On Saturday — despite a cease-fire extended under heavy international pressure early Friday — clashes continued around the presidential palace, headquarters of the state broadcaster and a military base in Khartoum, residents said. The battles sent thick columns of black smoke billowing over the city skyline.

But in other areas, residents reported signs that the cease-fire had taken hold.

“We are not hearing the bombs as we did before, so we’re hoping that this means they will go back to a political process,” said Osman Mirgany, a columnist and editor of the daily al-Tayar, who assessed it was safe enough on Friday to return home to Khartoum after seeking refuge in a far-flung village.

But Khartoum residents are forced to live side by side with armed fighters. Many RSF militants have moved into civilian homes and taken over stores and hospitals in the capital. The paramilitary group even transformed Mirgany’s newsroom into a makeshift base, he said. Residents also must cope without sufficient electricity and running water, among other basic supplies.

“For the past 14 days we’ve suffered from a lack of everything,” Mirgany said.

Residents in the city of Omdurman, west of Khartoum, have been waiting at least three days to get fuel — complicating their escape plans.

The U.N. relief coordinator, Martin Griffiths, said that U.N. offices in Khartoum, as well as the cities of Genena and Nyala in Darfur had been attacked and looted. Genena’s main hospital was also leveled in the fighting, Sudan’s health ministry said.

“This is unacceptable — and prohibited under international law,” Griffiths said.

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Will you marry me?’ Bulgarian woman contacts News 6 to expose international romance scheme

A 52-year-old Bulgarian woman currently working in Ireland is the latest target of international imposters who use stolen photos of a handsome Carnival Cruise Line officer in an online dating scheme that steals victims’ money.

Alessandro Cinquini, 29, who is known on dating sites as “Alex the Officer,” first contacted News 6 in March 2022 when he discovered his photographs were being used to fool women from Florida to India.

Vanya Dimova contacted News 6 after seeing our reports about Cinquini on the web.

She said an Alex imposter sent her photos and videos of lavish gifts that included a shimmering engagement ring.

Alessandro Cinquini has gone public to warn women across the globe that imposters have stolen his photographs from social media platforms to create “catfish” style profiles that offer love but target money.

News 6 sent 15 questions to her in advance so Dimova could translate and prepare responses during a Zoom interview.

She said she met the Alex imposter on Instagram back on March 26. According to Dimova, the conversation went from casual to romantic very quickly.

“After two days, he told me he was in love with me,” Danya told News 6. “Every day, he tell me he want to buy a house in Bulgaria and live together.”

Cinquini told News 6 the imposters have never stopped using his photos and he assured us he never contacted Dimova.

They have my old pictures from my old life,” Cinquini said. “Most of those pictures aren’t on my Instagram anymore. I canceled them years ago.”

He told News 6 he currently works as a fleet operation center watch officer for Carnival Cruise Line.

Danya sent News 6 a voice message from a man claiming to be Alex.

“I love you, I love you,” the man said.

The voice sounded nothing like Cinquini

Danya said that voice recording was the only evidence she has. She never met the imposter face-to-face or spoke to him on FaceTime or Zoom.

Danya said she became suspicious when the imposter asked her to pay the shipping charges for her gifts. He sent her a Bank of America receipt to prove his account had been frozen.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, romance scams in the U.S alone netted an estimated $1.3 billion last year, impacting 70,000 men and women.

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