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Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here's what we have so far (send us your events!):

IROS 2020 – October 25-25, 2020 – [Online] Bay Area Robotics Symposium – November 20, 2020 – [Online] ACRA 2020 – December 8-10, 2020 – [Online]

Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today's videos.

Sixteen teams chose their roster of virtual robots and sensor payloads, some based on real-life subterranean robots, and submitted autonomy and mapping algorithms that SubT Challenge officials then tested across eight cave courses in the cloud-based SubT Simulator. Their robots traversed the cave environments autonomously, without any input or adjustments from human operators. The Cave Circuit Virtual Competition teams earned points by correctly finding, identifying, and localizing up to 20 artifacts hidden in the cave courses within five-meter accuracy.

[ SubT ]

This year, the KUKA Innovation Award’s international jury of experts received a total of more than 40 ideas. The five finalist teams had time until November to implement their ideas. A KUKA LBR Med lightweight robot – the first robotic component to be certified for integration into a medical device – has been made available to them for this purpose. Beyond this, the teams have received a training for the hardware and coaching from KUKA experts throughout the competition. At virtual.MEDICA from 16-19.11.2020, the finalists presented their concepts to an international audience of experts and to the Innovation Award jury. 

The winner of the KUKA Innovation Award 2020, worth 20,000 euros, is Team HIFUSK from the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna in Italy.

KUKA Innovation Award ]

Like everything else the in-person Cybathlon event was cancelled, but the competition itself took place, just a little more distributed than it would have been otherwise.

[ Cybathlon ]

Matternet, developer of the world's leading urban drone logistics platform, today announced the launch of operations at Labor Berlin Charité Vivantes in Germany. The program kicked-off November 17, 2020 with permanent operations expected to take flight next year, creating the first urban BVLOS [Beyond Visual Line of Sight] medical drone delivery network in the European Union. The drone network expects to significantly improve the timeliness and efficiency of Labor Berlin’s diagnostics services by providing an option to avoid roadway delays, which will improve patient experience with potentially life-saving benefits and lower costs.

Routine BVLOS over an urban area? Impressive.

[ Matternet ]

Robots playing diabolo!

Thanks Thilo!

[ OMRON Sinic X]

Anki's tech has been repackaged into this robot that serves butter:

[ Butter Robot ]

Berkshire Grey just announced our Picking With Purpose Program in which we’ve partnered our robotic automation solutions with food rescue organizations City Harvest and The Greater Boston Food Bank to pick, pack, and distribute food to families in need in time for Thanksgiving. Berkshire Grey donated about 40,000 pounds of food, used one of our robotic automation systems to pick and pack that food into meal boxes for families in need, and our team members volunteered to run the system. City Harvest and The Greater Boston Food Bank are distributing the 4,000 meal boxes we produced. This is just the beginning. We are building a sponsorship program to make Picking With Purpose an ongoing initiative.

[ Berkshire Grey ]

Thanks Peter!

We posted a video previously of Cassie learning to skip, but here's a much more detailed look (accompanying an ICRA submission) that includes some very impressive stair descending.

[ DRL ]

From garage inventors to university students and entrepreneurs, NASA is looking for ideas on how to excavate the Moon’s icy regolith, or dirt, and deliver it to a hypothetical processing plant at the lunar South Pole. The NASA Break the Ice Lunar Challenge, a NASA Centennial Challenge, is now open for registration. The competition will take place over two phases and will reward new ideas and approaches for a system architecture capable of excavating and moving icy regolith and water on the lunar surface.

[ NASA ]

Adaptation to various scene configurations and object properties, stability and dexterity in robotic grasping manipulation is far from explored. This work presents an origami-based shape morphing fingertip design to actively tackle the grasping stability and dexterity problems. The proposed fingertip utilizes origami as its skeleton providing degrees of freedom at desired positions and motor-driven four-bar-linkages as its transmission components to achieve a compact size of the fingertip.

[ Paper ]

"If Roboy crashes... you die."

[ Roboy ]

Traditionally lunar landers, as well as other large space exploration vehicles, are powered by solar arrays or small nuclear reactors. Rovers and small robots, however, are not big enough to carry their own dedicated power supplies and must be tethered to their larger counterparts via electrical cables. Tethering severely restricts mobility, and cables are prone to failure due to lunar dust (regolith) interfering with electrical contact points. Additionally, as robots become smaller and more complex, they are fitted with additional sensors that require more power, further exacerbating the problem. Lastly, solar arrays are not viable for charging during the lunar night. WiBotic is developing rapid charging systems and energy monitoring base stations for lunar robots, including the CubeRover – a shoebox-sized robot designed by Astrobotic – that will operate autonomously and charge wirelessly on the Moon.

[ WiBotic ]

Watching pick and place robots is my therapy.

[ Soft Robotics ]

It's really, really hard to beat liquid fuel for energy storage, as Quaternium demonstrates with their hybrid drone.

[ Quaternium ]

Thanks Gregorio!

State-of-the-art quadrotor simulators have a rigid and highly-specialized structure: either are they really fast, physically accurate, or photo-realistic. In this work, we propose a novel quadrotor simulator: Flightmare.

[ Flightmare ]

Drones that chuck fire-fighting balls into burning buildings, sure!


If you missed ROS World, that's okay, because all of the talks are now online. Here's the opening keynote from Vivian Chu and Diligent robotics, along with a couple fun lightning talks.

[ ROS World 2020 ]

This week's CMU RI Seminar is by Chelsea Finn from Stanford University, on Data Scalability for Robot Learning.

Recent progress in robot learning has demonstrated how robots can acquire complex manipulation skills from perceptual inputs through trial and error, particularly with the use of deep neural networks. Despite these successes, the generalization and versatility of robots across environment conditions, tasks, and objects remains a major challenge. And, unfortunately, our existing algorithms and training set-ups are not prepared to tackle such challenges, which demand large and diverse sets of tasks and experiences. In this talk, I will discuss two central challenges that pertain to data scalability: first, acquiring large datasets of diverse and useful interactions with the world, and second, developing algorithms that can learn from such datasets. Then, I will describe multiple approaches that we might take to rethink our algorithms and data pipelines to serve these goals. This will include algorithms that allow a real robot to explore its environment in a targeted manner with minimal supervision, approaches that can perform robot reinforcement learning with videos of human trial-and-error experience, and visual model-based RL approaches that are not bottlenecked by their capacity to model everything about the world.

[ CMU RI ]

DARPA held the Virtual Cave Circuit event of the Subterranean Challenge on Tuesday in the form of a several hour-long livestream. We got to watch (along with all of the competing teams) as virtual robots explored virtual caves fully autonomously, dodging rockfalls, spotting artifacts, scoring points, and sometimes running into stuff and falling over.

Expert commentary was provided by DARPA, and we were able to watch multiple teams running at once, skipping from highlight to highlight. It was really very well done (you can watch an archive of the entire stream here), but they made us wait until the very end to learn who won: First place went to Coordinated Robotics, with BARCS taking second, and third place going to newcomer Team Dynamo.

Huge congratulations to Coordinated Robotics! It’s worth pointing out that the top three teams were separated by an incredibly small handful of points, and on a slightly different day, with slightly different artifact positions, any of them could have come out on top. This doesn’t diminish Coordinated Robotics’ victory in the least—it means that the competition was fierce, and that the problem of autonomous cave exploration with robots has been solved (virtually, at least) in several different but effective ways.

We know Coordinated Robotics pretty well at this point, but here’s an introduction video:

You heard that right—Coordinated Robotics is just Kevin Knoedler, all by himself. This would be astonishing, if we weren’t already familiar with Kevin’s abilities: He won NASA’s virtual Space Robotics Challenge by himself in 2017, and Coordinated Robotics placed first in the DARPA SubT Virtual Tunnel Circuit and second in the Virtual Urban Circuit. We asked Kevin how he managed to do so spectacularly well (again), and here’s what he told us:

IEEE Spectrum: Can you describe what it was like to watch your team of robots on the live stream, and to see them score the most points?

Kevin Knoedler: It was exciting and stressful watching the live stream. It was exciting as the top few scores were quite close for the cave circuit. It was stressful because I started out behind and worked my way up, but did not do well on the final world. Luckily, not doing well on the first and last worlds was offset by better scores on many of the runs in between. DARPA did a very nice job with their live stream of the cave circuit results.

How did you decide on the makeup of your team, and on what sensors to use?

To decide on the makeup of the team I experimented with quite a few different vehicles. I had a lot of trouble with the X2 and other small ground vehicles flipping over. Based on that I looked at the larger ground vehicles that also had a sensor capable of identifying drop-offs. The vehicles that met those criteria for me were the Marble HD2, Marble Husky, Ozbot ATR, and the Absolem. Of those ground vehicles I went with the Marble HD2. It had a downward looking depth camera that I could use to detect drop-offs and was much more stable on the varied terrain than the X2. I had used the X3 aerial vehicle before and so that was my first choice for an aerial platform. 

What were some things that you learned in Tunnel and Urban that you were able to incorporate into your strategy for Cave?

In the Tunnel circuit I had learned a strategy to use ground vehicles and in the Urban circuit I had learned a strategy to use aerial vehicles. At a high level that was the biggest thing I learned from the previous circuits that I was able to apply to the Cave circuit. At a lower level I was able to apply many of the development and testing strategies from the previous circuits to the Cave circuit.

What aspect of the cave environment was most challenging for your robots?

I would say it wasn't just one aspect of the cave environment that was challenging for the robots. There were quite a few challenging aspects of the cave environment. For the ground vehicles there were frequently paths that looked good as the robot started on the path, but turned into drop-offs or difficult boulder crawls. While it was fun to see the robot plan well enough to slowly execute paths over the boulders, I was wishing that the robot was smart enough to try a different path rather than wasting so much time crawling over the large boulders. For the aerial vehicles the combination of tight paths along with large vertical spaces was the biggest challenge in the environment. The large open vertical areas were particularly challenging for my aerial robots. They could easily lose track of their position without enough nearby features to track and it was challenging to find the correct path in and out of such large vertical areas.

How will you be preparing for the SubT Final?

To prepare for the SubT Final the vehicles will be getting a lot smarter. The ground vehicles will be better at navigation and communicating with one another. The aerial vehicles will be better able to handle large vertical areas both from a positioning and a planning point of view. Finally, all of the vehicles will do a better job coordinating what areas have been explored and what areas have good leads for further exploration.

Image: DARPA The final score for the DARPA SubT Cave Circuit virtual competition.

We also had a chance to ask SubT program manager Tim Chung a few questions at yesterday’s post-event press conference, about the course itself and what he thinks teams should have learned from the competition:

IEEE Spectrum: Having looked through some real caves, can you give some examples of some of the most significant differences between this simulation and real caves? And with the enormous variety of caves out there, how generalizable are the solutions that teams came up with?

Tim Chung: Many of the caves that I’ve had to crawl through and gotten bumps and scrapes from had a couple of different features that I’ll highlight. The first is the variations in moisture— a lot of these caves were naturally formed with streams and such, so many of the caves we went to had significant mud, flowing water, and such. And so one of the things we're not capturing in the SubT simulator is explicitly anything that would submerge the robots, or otherwise short any of their systems. So from that perspective, that's one difference that's certainly notable. 

And then the other difference I think is the granularity of the terrain, whether it's rubble, sand, or just raw dirt, friction coefficients are all across the board,  and I think that's one of the things that any terrestrial simulator will both struggle with and potentially benefit from— that is, terramechanics simulation abilities. Given the emphasis on mobility in the SubT simulation, we’re capturing just a sliver of the complexity of terramechanics, but I think that's probably another take away that you'll certainly see—  where there’s that distinction between physical and virtual technologies. 

To answer your second question about generalizability— that’s the multi-million dollar question! It’s definitely at the crux of why we have eight diverse worlds, both in size verticality, dimensions, constraint passageways, etc. But this is eight out of countless variations, and the goal of course is to be able to investigate what those key dependencies are. What I'll say is that the out of the seventy three different virtual cave tiles, which are the building blocks that make up these virtual worlds, quite a number of them were not only inspired by real world caves, but were specifically designed so that we can essentially use these tiles as unit tests going forward. So, if I want to simulate vertical inclines, here are the tiles that are the vertical vertical unit tests for robots, and that’s how we’re trying to to think through how to tease out that generalizability factor. 

What are some observations from this event that you think systems track teams should pay attention to as they prepare for the final event?

One of the key things about the virtual competition is that you submit your software, and that's it. So you have to design everything from state management to failure mode triage, really thinking about what could go wrong and then building out your autonomous capabilities either to react to some of those conditions, or to anticipate them. And to be honest I think that the humans in the loop that we have in the systems competition really are key enablers of their capability, but also could someday (if not already) be a crutch that we might not be able to develop. 

Thinking through some of the failure modes in a fully autonomous software deployed setting are going to be incredibly valuable for the systems competitors, so that for example the human supervisor doesn't have to worry about those failure modes as much, or can respond in a more supervisory way rather than trying to joystick the robot around. I think that's going to be one of the greatest impacts,  thinking through what it means to send these robots off to autonomously get you the information you need and complete the mission

This isn’t to say that the humans aren't going to be useful and continue to play a role of course, but I think this shifting of the role of the human supervisor from being a state manager to being more of a tactical commander will dramatically highlight the impact of the virtual side on the systems side. 

What, if anything, should we take away from one person teams being able to do so consistently well in the virtual circuit? 

It’s a really interesting question. I think part of it has to do with systems integration versus software integration. There's something to be said for the richness of the technologies that can be developed, and how many people it requires to be able to develop some of those technologies. With the systems competitors, having one person try to build, manage, deploy, service, and operate all of those robots is still functionally quite challenging, whereas in the virtual competition, it really is a software deployment more than anything else. And so I think the commonality of single person teams may just be a virtue of the virtual competition not having some of those person-intensive requirements.

In terms of their strong performance, I give credit to all of these really talented folks who are taking upon themselves to jump into the competitor pool and see how well they do, and I think that just goes to show you that whether you're one person or ten people people or a hundred people on a team, a good idea translated and executed well really goes a long way.

Looking ahead, teams have a year to prepare for the final event, which is still scheduled to be held sometime in fall 2021. And even though there was no cave event for systems track teams, the fact that the final event will be a combination of tunnel, urban, and cave circuits means that systems track teams have been figuring out how to get their robots to work in caves anyway, and we’ll be bringing you some of their stories over the next few weeks.

[ DARPA SubT ]

In 2017, a team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., was in the process of prototyping some small autonomous robots capable of exploring caves and subsurface voids on the Moon, Mars, and Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Our goal was the development of new technologies to help us solve one of humanity’s most significant questions: is there or has there been life beyond Earth?

The more we study the surfaces of planetary bodies in our solar system, the more we are compelled to voyage underground to seek answers to this question. Planetary subsurface voids are not only one of the most likely places to find both signs of life, past and present, but thanks to the shelter they provide, are also one of the main candidates for future human habitation. While we were working on various technologies for cave exploration at JPL, DARPA launched the latest in its series of Grand Challenges, the Subterranean Challenge, or SubT. Compared to earlier events that focused on on-road driving and humanoid robots in pre-defined disaster relief scenarios, the focus of SubT is the exploration of unknown and extreme underground environments. Even though SubT is about exploring such environments on Earth, we can use the competition as an analog to help us learn how to explore unknown environments on other planetary bodies. 

From the beginning, the JPL team forged partnerships with four other institutions offering complementary capabilities to collectively address a daunting list of technical challenges across multiple domains in this competition. In addition to JPL’s experience in deploying robust and resilient autonomous systems in extreme and uncertain environments, the team also included Caltech, with its specialization in mobility, MIT, with its expertise in large-scale mapping, and KAIST (South Korea) and LTU (Sweden), experts in fast drones in underground environments. The more far-flung partnerships were the result of existing research collaborations, a typical pattern in robotics research. We also partnered with a range of companies who supported us with robot platforms and sensors. The shared philosophy of building Collaborative SubTerranean Autonomous Robots led to the birth of Team CoSTAR.

Our approach to the SubT Challenge

The SubT Challenge is designed to encourage progress in four distinct robotics domains: mobility (how to get around), perception (how to make sense of the world), networking (how to get the data back to the server by the end of the mission), and autonomy (how to make decisions). The competition rules and structure reflect meaningful real-world scenarios in underground environments including tunnels, urban areas, and caves. 

To be successful in the SubT Challenge requires a holistic solution that balances coverage of each domain and a recognition of how each is intertwined with the others. For example, the robots need to be small enough to travel through narrow passages, but large enough to carry the sensors and computers necessary to make autonomous decisions and while navigating in perceptually-degraded parts of the course, meaning dark, dusty or smoke-filled. There’s also the challenge of power and energy: The robots need to be quick and energy-efficient to meet the endurance requirements and traverse multiple kilometers per hour in extreme environments. At the same time, autonomous onboard decision making and large-scale mapping is the single biggest power demand. Such challenges are amplified on flying vehicles and require more dramatic trade-offs between flying time, size, and the autonomous capabilities.

Our answer to this call for versatility is to present a team of AI-powered robots, comprising multiple heterogeneous platforms, to handle the various challenges of each course. To enable modularity, all our robots are equipped with the same modular autonomy software, called NeBula (Networked Belief-aware Perceptual Autonomy). NeBula is specifically designed to address stochasticity and uncertainty in various elements of the mission, including sensing, environment, motion, system health, and communication, among others. With a mix of wheeled, legged, tracked, and flying vehicles, our team relies on a decision-making process that translates mission specifications, risk, and time into strategies that adaptively prescribe which robot should be dispatched to which part of the course and when.

Image: Team CoSTAR A team of robots with heterogeneous capabilities handles various challenges of an unknown extreme environment. Let the exploration begin!

The hallmark of Team CoSTAR’s first year leading up to the SubT Tunnel Circuit was a series of fast iterations through potential robot configurations. Every few weeks, we would make a major adjustment to our overall solution architecture based on what we learned in the previous iteration. These changes could potentially be as major as changing our overall concept of operations, e.g., how many robots in what formation should be part of the solution. This required high-levels of adaptivity and agility in our solution development process and team culture.

Testing in representative environments offered us a crucial advantage in the competition. Our “local” test site (a four-hour drive from home) was an abandoned gold mine open to tourists called Eagle Mine. Its narrow passageways and dusty interior compelled us to invest in techniques for precise motion planning, dust mitigation, and flying in perceptually-degraded environments. For smaller-scale integration testing, we used what resources we had on the JPL campus. That meant setting up a series of inflatable tunnels in the Mars Yard, a dusty, rocky field used for rehearsing mobility sequences for Mars rovers. By joining multiple tunnels together, we could make test courses of varying lengths and widths, allowing us to make rapid progress, especially on our drones’ performance in dusty environments.

Photos: Team CoSTAR Team CoSTAR created a series of inflatable tunnels in the JPL Mars Yard to test certain specific autonomy capabilities without needing to travel to mines or caves.

Hybrid aerial-ground vehicles, platforms that roll or fly depending on obstacles in the local vicinity, were a major focus in the lead-up to our first test-run, the Systems Test and Integration eXercise (STIX), held by DARPA in Idaho Springs, Colorado, in April 2019. The robot that we developed, called Rollocopter, offers the potential for greater coverage of a given area, as it only flies when it needs to, such as to hop over a rubble pile. On flatter terrain, Rollocopter can travel in an energy-efficient ground-rolling mode. Rollocopter made its debut alongside a wheeled Husky robot, from Clearpath Robotics, at the STIX event, flying and driving in a sensing-degraded environment with high levels of dust.

Photos: Team CoSTAR The Rollocopter and Husky on their debut outing at the DARPA competition dry-run event called STIX.

Three months before the first scored SubT event, the Tunnel Circuit, DARPA revealed that the competition was to be held at a research coal mine in Pittsburgh, Pa. This mine appeared to have less dust, fewer obstacles, and wider passages than our test environments, but it was also more demanding due to its wet and muddy terrain and large, complex layout. This was a big surprise for the team, and we had to shift all kinds of things around as fast as we could. Fortunately, the muscle memory from our rapid development cycles prepared us to make a dramatic adjustment to our approach. Given the level of mud in a typical coal mine and challenges it imposes on rolling, we decided (with heavy hearts) to shelve the Rollocopters and focus on wheeled platforms and traditional quadcopters. Even though our robots are just machines, we do build up a sort of relationship with them, coming to know their quirks as we coax them to life. In light of this, the emotional pain of shelving a project can be quite acute. Nevertheless, we recognize that decisions like this are in service of the team’s broader goals, and our hope is that we’ll be able to bring these hybrid aerial-ground vehicles back in a different environment.

We not only had to rework our robot fleet before the SubT Tunnel Circuit, but also had to reassess our test plan: With no coal mines on the West Coast, we instead began scouting for coal mines in West Virginia, which lies in the same geological tract as the competition site. On the advice of one of our interns studying at West Virginia University, we contacted a small tourist mine in Beckley, W.V., called the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine. We cold-called the mine, explaining (through mild disbelief) that we were from NASA and wanted to cross the country to test our robots in their mine. To our surprise, the town had a longstanding association with NASA. During our reconnaissance visit, the manager of the mine told us the story of local figure Homer Hickham, whose book about becoming a NASA engineer from this humble coal mining town went on to inspire the film October Sky. We were heartily welcomed.

In the month before the Tunnel event, we shipped all our robots to Beckley, where we kept a bruising cadence of day and night testing. By day, we went to locations such as Arch Mine, an active coal mine whose tunnels were 900 feet underground, and the Mine Safety and Health Authority (MSHA) facility, which had indoor mock-ups of mine environments complete with smoke simulators to train rescue personnel. By night, we ran tests in the Beckley tourist mine after the day’s tours were complete. We were working long hours, which demanded both mental and physical endurance: Every excursion involved a ritualistic loading and unloading of dozens of equipment boxes and robots, allowing us to set up shop anywhere with a power outlet. The discipline of practicing our pit crew roles in these settings paid off as the Tunnel Circuit began.

Photos: Team CoSTAR Team CoSTAR and our coal miner partners 900 feet underground at Arch Mine, an active coal mine in West Virginia. The team was testing robots in representative extreme environments to what we expected to find in the Tunnel Circuit event.

As the Tunnel Circuit event began, we noticed on the DARPA live stream that Team Explorer (a partnership between Carnegie Mellon and Oregon State University) was using some kind of device on a tripod at the mine entrance. Googling it, we learned that this was called a total station, a precision instrument normally used for surveying. Impressed at this team’s innovative application of such a tool to an unusual task, we decided to entertain even the most outlandish proposals for improving our performance and began trying to find a total station of our own before our next scored run, which was only two days away. This was a great idea to maximize the localization accuracies along the first ~80 meters of featureless mine entry tunnels, while the robot is still visible from starting location. There were no total station units to be found with a fast enough shipping time online, so we worked the phones to see if there was one we could borrow. Within the next two days, we managed to borrow a device, watch lots of YouTube videos to teach ourselves how to use it, and write and test code to integrate it into our operations workflow and localization algorithms. This was one of the fastest, most fun, and most last-minute efforts in our team during the last two years. Our performance at the Tunnel Circuit led to a second-place finish among some of the best robotics teams in the world.

Preparing for the Urban Circuit Photo: Team CoSTAR CoSTAR member and total station operator, Ed Terry, in a candid moment on the DARPA live stream at the first outing of the total station, following two intense days of on-the-fly integration of this system.

The Tunnel Circuit had shown us how important it was to test in realistic environments, and fortunately, finding test locations for the Urban Circuit-like environments was much easier. With a fully-integrated system and team structure in place, we entered the second year of the SubT Challenge with momentum, which was essential with only five months to adapt to yet another type of environment. We framed our preparation around monthly capability milestone demonstrations, a gated process which allowed us to triage the technologies we should focus on. We took the opportunity to improve the rigor of our techniques for Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) and planning under uncertainty, and to upgrade our computing power.

One of the major additions for the Urban Circuit was the introduction of multi-level courses, where the ability to traverse stairways was a prerequisite for accessing large portions of the course. To handle this, we added tracked robots to our fleet. Thanks to the modularity of the NeBula software framework and highly transferable hardware, we were able to go up and down stairs with our tracked robot in four months.

A mere eight weeks before the competition, we struck a partnership with Boston Dynamics to use their Spot legged robot, which arrived at our lab just before Christmas. It seemed too daunting a task to integrate Spot into our team in such a short time. However, for the team members who volunteered to work on it over the Christmas break, the chance to be given the keys to such an advanced robot was a sort of Christmas present! To become part of the robot family, we needed proof that Spot could first integrate with the rest of our concept of operations, NeBula autonomy software, and NeBula autonomy hardware payload. Verifying these in the first two weeks, we were convinced that it was fit for the task. The team systematically added NeBula’s autonomy, perception, and communications modules over a matter of weeks. Boasting a payload capacity of up to 12 kg, we were able to equip Spot with the high levels of autonomy and situational awareness that allowed us to fully add it to our robot fleet only two weeks prior the competition.

Photos: Team CoSTAR Spots equipped with the NeBula autonomy and perception payload.

As we pushed Spot to traverse extreme terrains, we attached it to an elaborate rope system devised to save our precious robot when it fell. This was a precautionary measure to help us learn Spot’s limits with its unique payload configuration. After several weeks of refining our procedures for reliable stair climbing and building up confidence in the robot’s autonomy performance, we did away with the tether just one week before the competition.

Photo: Team CoSTAR A tethered Spot preparing for stair climbing trials. Our robots go to school

Shortly after the Urban Circuit competition location was revealed to be in the small town of Elma, Washington, we emailed Elma High School asking if they were open to NASA testing its robots in their buildings. In a follow-up phone call, a teacher reported that they thought this original email was a scam! After providing some more context for our request, they enthusiastically agreed to host us. In this way, we were able to not only test multi-level autonomy in complex building layouts but also to give the high-school students an inside look at a NASA JPL test campaign.
Each evening, after the students had left, we shifted our equipment and robots from our base in a hotel conference center to the school, and set up our command post in the cafeteria. The warm, clean, and well-lit school was a luxury compared to earlier field test settings in mines deep underground. Each night, we sought to cover more of the school’s complex layout: hallways, classrooms, and multiple sets of stairs. These mock runs taught us as much about the behavior of the robot team as it did about the human team, especially as everyone found ways of dealing with sustained fatigue. We typically kept practicing in the school until well after midnight, thanks to the flexibility and generosity of the staff. At one stage, we were concerned that tethering our legged robots up to the stairs would chip their paintwork but they said, “Don't worry about it, we need to repaint it sometime anyway!" We would periodically have visitors from the school, our hotel, and even local restaurants, whose encouragement kept our spirits high despite the long hours.

Photo: Team CoSTAR A birthday of one of CoSTAR team members during the competition week at our testing site.

Our first SubT Urban Circuit run was scheduled for the second day of the competition, which gave us a chance to watch the first day of the DARPA live stream. We noticed a down staircase right next to the starting gate of the Alpha course. One team member mentioned offhandedly that evening that we should try throwing a communications node into the staircase as a low-risk way of expanding our communications range. Minutes later, we started making phone calls to our hosts at Elma High School. The following morning at 7 a.m., one of the Elma school teachers arrived with a box full of basketballs and volleyballs. With these raw materials, we set about making a protective shield for the communications node to help it survive bouncing down several flights of stairs. One group started chipping away at the foam volleyballs while another set about taping together basketballs into a tetrahedron.

By 9 a.m., we had produced a hollowed-out foam volleyball with a communications node embedded in it, wrapped with a rope tether. For the first (and last) time in our team’s history, we assigned a job based on athletic ability. We chose well, and our node-in-a-ball thrower stood outside of the course and launched the node cleanly over the stairway bannister, allowing us to then gently lower it down on the tether. In the end, we didn’t need the extra range provided by the node-in-a-ball as our robots were able to come back into the communication range at the bottom of the staircase without any help. 

Image: Team CoSTAR Our node-in-a-ball in action: To expand our robot’s communications range, we threw a communications node embedded in a hollowed-out foam volleyball down a staircase.

Over a 60-minute scored run, only one human supervisor stationed outside the course can see information from within the course, and only if and when a communication link is established. In addition, a pit crew of up to nine people may assist in running checklists and deploying robots prior to the start of the mission. As soon as the robots enter the course itself, the team must trust that the hardware and autonomy software is sound while remaining ready to respond to inevitable anomalies. In this respect, the group starts to resemble an elite sports team, running a to-the-minute routine.

With holes in the floor, rubble piles, and water slicks, the Urban course put our robots through their paces. As the robots moved deeper into the course and out of communications range with the human supervisor, all we could do was rely on the robots’ autonomy. On the first day, the team was startled by repeated banging and crashing noises from within the course. With an unknown number of staircases, we feared the worst: That a wheeled rover had driven itself over the edge. To our relief, the sound was just from small wooden obstacles that the robot was casually driving over. 

Our days were structured around preparing for either test runs or scored runs, followed by a post-run debrief and then many hours poring over gigabytes of collected data and making bug fixes. We cycled through the pizza-subs-burgers trifecta multiple times, which spanned the culinary options available in Elma. Before beginning a run, we ran a “smoke test” of each robot in which we drove it 2 meters autonomously to verify that every part of the pipeline was still functional. We had checklists for everything, including a checklist item to pack the checklist itself and even to make sure the base station supervisor was in the car with us. These strict procedures helped guard against mistakes, which became more likely the longer we worked.

Every run revealed unexpected edge cases for mobility and autonomy that we had to rapidly address each night back at the hotel. We split the hotel conference center into a development zone and a testing zone. In the latter, we installed a test course configuration that would rotate on a daily basis, depending on what was the most pressing issue to solve. The terrain on the real course was extremely challenging, even for legged robots. In each of the first two scored runs, we lost one of our Spot robots to various negative obstacles such as holes in the ground. In a matter of hours after each run, the hardware team built reconfigurable barriers and a wooden stage with variable-size negative obstacles to test the resiliency of obstacle detection and avoidance strategies. After implementing these fixes, we transported the robots to the hotel to organize and prepare our fleet, which stoked the curiosity of fellow guests.

And the winner is…

Going into the final day of the competition, we were tied with Team Explorer. All of the parameter tuning, debugging, and exploration strategy refinements came together in time for the last round. Capping off a 1.5-year effort, we sent our robots into the SubT Urban Course for the final time. The wheeled Huskies led the way to build a communications backbone and explore the ground floor, with the legged Spots following behind to take the stairs to other levels. 

To score even a single point, a chain of events needs to happen flawlessly. Firstly, a robot needs to have covered enough space, traversing mobility-stressing and perceptually-degraded course elements, to reach an area that has an artifact. Multiple camera video streams as well as non-visual sensors are analyzed by the NeBula machine learning framework running on the robot to detect these artifacts. Once detected, an artifact’s location must be estimated to within 5 meters of the true location defined by DARPA with respect to a calibration target at the course entrance. Finally, the robot needs to bring itself back into communication range to report the artifact location within the 60-minute window of mission duration. A critical part of accomplishing the mission in this scenario is a decision-making module that can take into account the remaining mission time, predictive mission risk, as well as chances of losing an asset, re-establishing communication, and retrieving the data. It’s a delicate balance between spending time exploring to find as many artifacts as possible, and making sure that artifact locations can be returned to base before time runs out.

With only 40 report submissions allowed for 20 placed artifacts, our strategy was to collect as much information as possible before submitting artifact reports. This approach of maximizing the autonomous coverage of the space meant that a substantial amount of time could go by without hearing from a robot that may be out of communications range. This made for a tense dynamic as the clock ticked down. With only 15 minutes to go in the last run, we had scored just 2 points, which would have been our lowest score of the entire competition. It didn’t make sense: We had covered more ground than in all prior runs, but without the points to show for it. We were praying that the robots would prevail and come back into communication range before the clock ran out. Within the final 15 minutes, the robots started to show up one by one, delivering their locations of the artifacts they’d found. Submitting these incoming reports, our score increased rapidly to 9, turning the mood from despairing to jubilant, as we posted our best score yet.

Image: Team CoSTAR Only 15 minutes to the end of the mission, our autonomous robots returned to our communication range to deliver the scored artifacts, turning the mood from despairing to jubilant.

As the pit crew emerged from the course to meet the above-ground team, there was a flurry of breathless communication and in the confusion it did allow for one small prank. One of the pit crew members took our team lead aside and successfully convinced him and the above-ground team, for a minute or two prior to the formal announcement, that we had only scored two points! At the same time, we were being ushered over to a pop-up TV studio where we gathered before the camera for the final scores to be revealed. The scores flashed up on the screen showing us scoring 9 points and in first place. The surprised face of our pranked team members was priceless! For the entire team, the exhaustion, frustration, and dedication that we had given to the task dissolved in a moment of elation.

Image: Team CoSTAR The team reacts to the final scores being revealed.

While there is a healthy spirit of competition among the teams, we recognize that this challenge remains an unsolved problem and that we as a robotics community are collectively redefining the state of the art. In addition to the scored runs, we appreciated the opportunity to learn from the extraordinary variety of solutions on display from other teams. Both the formal knowledge exchange and the common experience of taking on the SubT Urban course enhanced the feeling of shared advancement.

Photos: Team CoSTAR Left: CoSTAR T-Rex, played by our field test lead, John Mayo, meets the team right after the final scored run; right: DARPA award ceremony. Post-competition and COVID-19

After the Urban competition, the COVID-19 pandemic set in and JPL shifted part of its focus and resources towards pandemic-related research, producing the VITAL respirator in 37 days. As our robot fleet served us faithfully during this competition, they earned some time to recuperate (with proper PPE), but they will soon be pressed into service once more. We are in the process of equipping them with UV lights to sterilize hospitals and the JPL campus, which reinforces the growing role robots are playing in applications where no human should venture.

Photo: Team CoSTAR CoSTAR robots recuperating with proper PPEs.

While the DARPA Cave Circuit in-person competition is another victim of COVID-19 restrictions, the team is continuing to prepare for this new environment. Supported by NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) the team focuses on searching for biological signs and resources in Martian-analog Lava tubes in Northern California. On a parallel track, our team is leveraging these capabilities to form mission concepts and autonomy solutions for lunar exploration to support the vision of NASA’s Artemis program. This will in turn help refine our traversability, navigation, and autonomy solutions for the tough environments to be found in the final round of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge in late 2021.

Image: Team CoSTAR Picture of robot in Martian-analog extreme terrains and lava tubes. Tests conducted in Lava Bed National Monument, Tulelake, Calif.

Edward Terry is a robotics engineer and CoSTAR team member. He studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Sydney and completed the master of science in robotic systems development at Carnegie Mellon University. In Team CoSTAR, his focus is on object detection and localization under perceptually-degraded conditions.

Fadhil Ginting is a robotics visiting student researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He completed his master’s in robotics, system, and control at ETH Zurich. In Team CoSTAR, his focus is on learning and decision making for autonomous multi-robot systems.

Ali Agha is a principle investigator and research technologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His research centers on autonomy for robotic systems and spacecrafts, with a dual focus on planetary exploration and terrestrial applications. At JPL, he leads TEAM CoSTAR. Previously, he was with Qualcomm Research, leading the perception efforts for autonomous drones and robots. Prior to that, Dr. Agha was a postdoctoral researcher at MIT. Dr. Agha was named NASA NIAC fellow in 2018.

While we’re super bummed that COVID forced the cancellation of the Systems Track event of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge Cave Circuit, the good news is that the Virtual Track (being virtual) is 100 percent coronavirus-free, and the final event is taking place tomorrow, November 17, right on schedule. And honestly, it’s about time the Virtual Track gets the attention that it deserves—we’re as guilty as anyone of focusing more heavily on the Systems Track, being full of real robots that alternate between amazingly talented and amazingly klutzy, but the Virtual Track is just as compelling, in a very different way.

DARPA has scheduled the Cave Circuit Virtual Track live event for Tuesday starting at 2 p.m. ET, and we’ve got all the details.

If you’ve been mostly following the Systems Track up until this point, you should definitely check out the article that the Urban Circuit Virtual Track winning team, Michigan Tech’s Team BARCS, wrote for us last week. It’s a great way of getting up to speed on what makes the virtual SubT competition so important, and so exciting.

All the Virtual Track teams that submitted their code have absolutely no idea how well their virtual robots did, and they’ll be watching their runs at the same time as we are.

The really amazing thing about the Virtual Track is that unlike the Systems Track, where a human in the loop can send commands to any robot in communications range, the virtual teams of robots operate fully autonomously. In fact, Virtual Track teams sent their code in weeks ago, and DARPA has been running the competition itself in secret, but on Tuesday, everyone will find out how they did. Here’s the announcement:

On Tuesday, November 17 at 2PM EST, the Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will webcast its Subterranean (SubT) Challenge Cave Circuit Virtual Competition. Viewers can follow virtual versions of real autonomous robots, driven by software and algorithms created by 16 competitors, as they search a variety of virtual cave environments for target artifacts. The SubT Challenge is helping DARPA develop new tools for time-sensitive combat operations or disaster response scenarios. The winners of this virtual showcase will be announced at the end of the webcast, and $500,000 worth of prizes is at stake.

What we’re really looking forward to on Tuesday is the expert commentary. During past Systems Track events, live streaming video was available of the runs, but both the teams and the DARPA folks were far too busy running the actual competition to devote much time to commentating. Since the virtual competition itself has already been completed, we’ll be getting a sort of highlights show on Tuesday, with commentary from DARPA program manager Tim Chung, virtual competition lead Angela Maio, along with Camryn Irwin, who did a fantastic job hosting the Urban Circuit livestream earlier this year. We’ll be seeing competition run-throughs from a variety of teams, although not every run and not in real-time of course, since the event is only a couple hours long. But there will be a lot more detail than we’ve ever had before on technology and strategy directly from DARPA.

All the Virtual Track teams that submitted their code have absolutely no idea how well their virtual robots did, and they’ll be watching their runs at the same time as we are. I’ll be on Twitter for the entire event (@BotJunkie) to provide some vaguely informed and hopefully amusing commentary, and we’re hoping that some of the competing teams will be on Twitter as well to let us know how happy (or sad) they are with how their robots are performing. If you have questions, let me know, and we’ll do our best to get in touch with the teams directly, or go through DARPA during a post-event press briefing scheduled for Wednesday.

[ DARPA SubT Virtual Cave Circuit Livestream ]

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here's what we have so far (send us your events!):

IROS 2020 – October 25-25, 2020 – [Online] ICSR 2020 – November 14-16, 2020 – Golden, Colo., USA Bay Area Robotics Symposium – November 20, 2020 – [Online] ACRA 2020 – December 8-10, 2020 – [Online]

Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today's videos.

To prepare the Perseverance rover for its date with Mars, NASA’s Mars 2020 mission team conducted a wide array of tests to help ensure a successful entry, descent and landing at the Red Planet. From parachute verification in the world’s largest wind tunnel, to hazard avoidance practice in Death Valley, California, to wheel drop testing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and much more, every system was put through its paces to get ready for the big day. The Perseverance rover is scheduled to land on Mars on February 18, 2021.

[ JPL ]

Awesome to see Aquanaut—the “underwater transformer” we wrote about last year—take to the ocean!

Also their new website has SHARKS on it.

[ HMI ]

Nature has inspired engineers at UNSW Sydney to develop a soft fabric robotic gripper which behaves like an elephant's trunk to grasp, pick up and release objects without breaking them.


Collaborative robots offer increased interaction capabilities at relatively low cost but, in contrast to their industrial counterparts, they inevitably lack precision. We address this problem by relying on a dual-arm system with laser-based sensing to measure relative poses between objects of interest and compensate for pose errors coming from robot proprioception.

[ Paper ]

Developed by NAVER LABS, with Korea University of Technology & Education (Koreatech), the robot arm now features an added waist, extending the available workspace, as well as a sensor head that can perceive objects. It has also been equipped with a robot hand “BLT Gripper” that can change to various grasping methods.

[ NAVER Labs ]

In case you were still wondering why SoftBank acquired Aldebaran and Boston Dynamics:

[ RobotStart ]

DJI's new Mini 2 drone is here with a commercial so hip it makes my teeth scream.

[ DJI ]

Using simple materials, such as plastic struts and cardboard rolls, the first prototype of the RBO Hand 3 is already capable of grasping a large range of different objects thanks to its opposable thumb.

The RBO Hand 3 performs an edge grasp before handing-over the object to a person. The hand actively exploits constraints in the environment (the tabletop) for grasping the object. Thanks to its compliance, this interaction is safe and robust.

[ TU Berlin ]

Flyability's Elios 2 helped researchers inspect Reactor Five at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site in order to determine whether any uranium was present. Prior to this mission, Reactor Five had not been investigated since the disaster in April of 1986.

[ Flyability ]

Thanks Zacc!

SOTO 2 is here! Together with our development partners from the industry, we have greatly enhanced the SOTO prototype over the last two years. With the new version of the robot, Industry 4.0 will become a great deal more real: SOTO brings materials to the assembly line, just-in-time and completely autonomously.

[ Magazino ]

A drone that can fly sustainably for long distances over land and water, and can land almost anywhere, will be able to serve a wide range of applications. There are already drones that fly using ‘green’ hydrogen, but they either fly very slowly or cannot land vertically. That’s why researchers at TU Delft, together with the Royal Netherlands Navy and the Netherlands Coastguard, developed a hydrogen-powered drone that is capable of vertical take-off and landing whilst also being able to fly horizontally efficiently for several hours, much like regular aircraft. The drone uses a combination of hydrogen and batteries as its power source.

[ MAVLab ]

The National Nuclear User Facility for Hot Robotics (NNUF-HR) is an EPSRC funded facility to support UK academia and industry to deliver ground-breaking, impactful research in robotics and artificial intelligence for application in extreme and challenging nuclear environments.

[ NNUF ]

At the Karolinska University Laboratory in Sweden, an innovation project based around an ABB collaborative robot has increased efficiency and created a better working environment for lab staff.

[ ABB ]

What I find interesting about DJI's enormous new agricultural drone is that it's got a spinning obstacle detecting sensor that's a radar, not a lidar.

Also worth noting is that it seems to detect the telephone pole, but not the support wire that you can see in the video feed, although the visualization does make it seem like it can spot the power lines above.

[ DJI ]

Josh Pieper has spend the last year building his own quadruped, and you can see what he's been up to in just 12 minutes.

[ mjbots ]

Thanks Josh!

Dr. Ryan Eustice, TRI Senior Vice President of Automated Driving, delivers a keynote speech -- "The Road to Vehicle Automation, a Toyota Guardian Approach" -- to SPIE's Future Sensing Technologies 2020. During the presentation, Eustice provides his perspective on the current state of automated driving, summarizes TRI's Guardian approach -- which amplifies human drivers, rather than replacing them -- and summarizes TRI's recent developments in core AD capabilities.

[ TRI ]

Two excellent talks this week from UPenn GRASP Lab, from Ruzena Bajcsy and Vijay Kumar.

A panel discussion on the future of robotics and societal challenges with Dr. Ruzena Bajcsy as a Roboticist and Founder of the GRASP Lab.

In this talk I will describe the role of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in supporting science and technology research and education, and the lessons I learned while serving in the office. I will also identify a few opportunities at the intersection of technology and policy and broad societal challenges.

[ UPenn ]

The IROS 2020 “Perception, Learning, and Control for Autonomous Agile Vehicles” workshop is all online—here's the intro, but you can click through for a playlist that includes videos of the entire program, and slides are available as well.

[ NYU ]

This is a guest post. The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent positions of IEEE or its organizational units.​

“Do you smell smoke?” It was three days before the qualification deadline for the Virtual Tunnel Circuit of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge Virtual Track, and our team was barrelling through last-minute updates to our robot controllers in a small conference room at the Michigan Tech Research Institute (MTRI) offices in Ann Arbor, Mich. That’s when we noticed the smell. We’d assumed that one of the benefits of entering a virtual disaster competition was that we wouldn’t be exposed to any actual disasters, but equipment in the basement of the building MTRI shares had started to smoke. We evacuated. The fire department showed up. And as soon as we could, the team went back into the building, hunkered down, and tried to make up for the unexpected loss of several critical hours.

Team BARCS joins the SubT Virtual Track

The smoke incident happened more than a year after we first learned of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge. DARPA announced SubT early in 2018, and at that time, we were interested in building internal collaborations on multi-agent autonomy problems, and SubT seemed like the perfect opportunity. Though a few of us had backgrounds in robotics, the majority of our team was new to the field. We knew that submitting a proposal as a largely non-traditional robotics team from an organization not known for research in robotics was a risk. However, the Virtual Track gave us the opportunity to focus on autonomy and multi-agent teaming strategies, areas requiring skill in asynchronous computing and sensor data processing that are strengths of our Institute. The prevalence of open source code, small inexpensive platforms, and customizable sensors has provided the opportunity for experts in fields other than robotics to apply novel approaches to robotics problems. This is precisely what makes the Virtual Track of SubT appealing to us, and since starting SubT, autonomy has developed into a significant research thrust for our Institute. Plus, robots are fun!

After many hours of research, discussion, and collaboration, we submitted our proposal early in 2018. And several months later, we found out that we had won a contract and became a funded team (Team BARCS) in the SubT Virtual Track. Now we needed to actually make our strategy work for the first SubT Tunnel Circuit competition, taking place in August of 2019.

Building a team of virtual robots

A natural approach to robotics competitions like SubT is to start with the question of “what can X-type robot do” and then build a team and strategy around individual capabilities. A particular challenge for the SubT Virtual Track is that we can’t design our own systems; instead, we have to choose from a predefined set of simulated robots and sensors that DARPA provides, based on the real robots used by Systems Track teams. Our approach is to look at what a team of robots can do together, determining experimentally what the best team configuration is for each environment. By the final competition, ideally we will be demonstrating the value of combining platforms across multiple Systems Track teams into a single Virtual Track team. Each of the robot configurations in the competition has an associated cost, and team size is constrained by a total cost. This provides another impetus for limiting dependence on complex sensor packages, though our ranging preference is 3D lidar, which is the most expensive sensor!

Image: Michigan Tech Research Institute The teams can rely on realistic physics and sensors but they start off with no maps of any kind, so the focus is on developing autonomous exploratory behavior, navigation methods, and object recognition for their simulated robots.

One of the frequent questions we receive about the Virtual Track is if it’s like a video game. While it may look similar on the surface, everything under the hood in a video game is designed to service the game narrative and play experience, not require novel research in AI and autonomy. The purpose of simulations, on the other hand, is to include full physics and sensor models (including noise and errors) to provide a testbed for prototyping and developing solutions to those real-world challenges. We are starting with realistic physics and sensors but no maps of any kind, so the focus is on developing autonomous exploratory behavior, navigation methods, and object recognition for our simulated robots.

Though the simulation is more like real life than a video game, it is not real life. Due to occasional software bugs, there are still non-physical events, like the robots falling through an invisible hole in the world or driving through a rock instead of over it or flipping head over heels when driving over a tiny lip between world tiles. These glitches, while sometimes frustrating, still allow the SubT Virtual platform to be realistic enough to support rapid prototyping of controller modules that will transition straightforwardly onto hardware, closing the loop between simulation and real-world robots.

Full autonomy for DARPA-hard scenarios

The Virtual Track requirement that the robotic agents be fully autonomous, rather than have a human supervisor, is a significant distinction between the Systems and Virtual Tracks of SubT. Our solutions must be hardened against software faults caused by things like missing and bad data since our robots can’t turn to us for help. In order for a team of robots to complete this objective reliably with no human-in-the-loop, all of the internal systems, from perception to navigation to control to actuation to communications, must be able to autonomously identify and manage faults and failures anywhere in the control chain. 

The communications limitations in subterranean environments (both real and virtual) mean that we need to keep the amount of information shared between robots low, while making the usability of that information for joint decision-making high. This goal has guided much of our design for autonomous navigation and joint search strategy for our team. For example, instead of sharing the full SLAM map of the environment, our agents only share a simplified graphical representation of the space, along with data about frontiers it has not yet explored, and are able to merge its information with the graphs generated by other agents. The merged graph can then be used for planning and navigation without having full knowledge of the detailed 3D map.

The Virtual Track requires that the robotic agents be fully autonomous. With no human-in-the-loop, all of the internal systems, from perception to navigation to control to actuation to communications, must be able to identify and manage faults and failures anywhere in the control chain. 

Since the objective of the SubT program is to advance the state-of-the-art in rapid autonomous exploration and mapping of subterranean environments by robots, our first software design choices focused on the mapping task. The SubT virtual environments are sufficiently rich as to provide interesting problems in building so-called costmaps that accurately separate obstructions that are traversable (like ramps) from legitimately impassible obstructions. An extra complication we discovered in the first course, which took place in mining tunnels, was that the angle of the lowest beam of the lidar was parallel to the down ramps in the tunnel environment, so they could not “see” the ground (or sometimes even obstructions on the ramp) until they got close enough to the lip of the ramp to receive lidar reflections off the bottom of the ramp. In this case, we had to not only change the costmap to convince the robot that there was safe ground to reach over the lip of the ramp, but also had to change the path planner to get the robot to proceed with caution onto the top of the ramp in case there were previously unseen obstructions on the ramp. 

In addition to navigation in the costmaps, the robot must be able to generate its own goals to navigate to. This is what produces exploratory behavior when there is no map to start with. SLAM is used to generate a detailed map of the environment explored by a single robot—the space it has probed with its sensors. From the sensor data, we are able to extract information about the interior space of the environment while looking for holes in the data, to determine things like whether the current tunnel continues or ends, or how many tunnels meet at an intersection. Once we have some understanding of the interior space, we can place navigation goals in that space. These goals naturally update as the robot traverses the tunnel, allowing the entire space to be explored.

Sending our robots into the virtual unknown

The solutions for the Virtual Track competitions are tested by DARPA in multiple sequestered runs across many environments for each Circuit in the month prior to the Systems Track competition. We must wait until the joint award ceremony at the conclusion of the Systems Track to find out the results, and we are completely in the dark about placings before the awards are announced. It’s nerve-wracking! The challenges of the worlds used in the Circuit events are also hand-designed, so features of the worlds we use for development could be combined in ways we have not anticipated—it’s always interesting to see what features were prioritized after the event. We test everything in our controllers well enough to feel confident that we at least are submitting something reasonably stable and broadly capable, and once the solution is in, we can’t really do anything other than “let go” and get back to work on the next phase of development. Maybe it’s somewhat like sending your kid to college: “we did our best to prepare you for this world, little bots. Go do good.” 

Image: Michigan Tech Research Institute  The first SubT competition was the Tunnel Circuit, featuring a labyrinthine environment that simulated human-engineered tunnels, including hazards such as vertical shafts and rubble. 

The first competition was the Tunnel Circuit, in October 2019. This environment models human-engineered tunnels. Two substantial challenges in this environment were vertical shafts and rubble. Our team accrued 21 points over 15 competition runs in five separate tunnel environments for a second place finish, behind Team Coordinated Robotics.

The next phase of the SubT virtual competition was the Urban Circuit. Much of the difference between our Tunnel and Urban Circuit results came down to thorough testing to identify failure modes and implementations of checks and data filtering for fault tolerance. For example, in the SLAM nodes run by a single robot, the coordinates of the most recent sensor data are changed multiple times during processing and integration into the current global 3D map of the “visited” environment stored by that robot. If there is lag in IMU or clock data, the observation may be temporarily registered at a default location that is very far from the actual position. Since most of our decision processes for exploration are downstream from SLAM, this can cause faulty or impossible goals to be generated, and the robots then spend inordinate amounts of time trying to drive through walls. We updated our method to add a check to see if the new map position has jumped a far distance from the prior map position, and if so, we threw that data out. 

Image: Michigan Tech Research Institute In open spaces like the rooms in the Urban circuit, we adjusted our approach to exploration through graph generation to allow the robots to accurately identify viable routes while helping to prevent forays off platform edges.

Our approach to exploration through graph generation based on identification of interior spaces allowed us to thoroughly explore the centers of rooms, although we did have to make some changes from the Tunnel circuit to achieve that. In the Tunnel circuit, we used a simplified graph of the environment based on landmarks like intersections. The advantage of this approach is that it is straightforward for two robots to compare how the graphs of the space they explored individually overlap. In open spaces like the rooms in the Urban circuit, we chose to instead use a more complex, less directly comparable graph structure based on the individual robot’s trajectory. This allowed the robots to accurately identify viable routes between features like subway station platforms and subway tracks, as well as to build up the navigation space for room interiors, while helping to prevent forays off the platform edges. Frontier information is also integrated into the graph, providing a uniform data structure for both goal selection and route planning.

The results are in!

The award ceremony for the Urban Circuit was held concurrently with the Systems Track competition awards this past February in Washington State. We sent a team representative to participate in the Technical Interchange Meeting and present the approach for our team, and the rest of us followed along from our office space on the DARPAtv live stream. While we were confident in our solution, we had also been tracking the online leaderboard and knew our competitors were going to be submitting strong solutions. Since the competition environments are hand-designed, there are always novel challenges that could be presented in these environments as well. We knew we would put up a good fight, but it was very exciting to see BARCS appear in first place! 

Any time we implement a new module in our control system, there is a lot of parameter tuning that has to happen to produce reliably good autonomous behavior. In the Urban Circuit, we did not sufficiently test some parameter values in our exploration modules. The effect of this was that the robots only chose to go down small hallways after they explored everything else in their environment, which meant very often they ran out of time and missed a lot of small rooms. This may be the biggest source of lost points for us in the Urban Circuit. One of our major plans going forward from the Urban Circuit is to integrate more sophisticated node selection methods, which can help our robots more intelligently prioritize which frontier nodes to visit. By going through all three Circuit challenges, we will learn how to appropriately add weights to the frontiers based on features of the individual environments. For the Final Challenge, when all three Circuit environments will be combined into large systems, we plan to implement adaptive controllers that will identify their environments and use the appropriate optimized parameters for that environment. In this way, we expect our agents to be able to (for example) prioritize hallways and other small spaces in Urban environments, and perhaps prioritize large openings over small in the Cave environments, if the small openings end up being treacherous overall.

Next for our team: Cave Circuit

Coming up next for Team BARCS is the Virtual Cave Circuit. We are in the middle of testing our hypothesis that our controller will transition from UGVs to UAVs and developing strategies for refining our solution to handle Cave Circuit environmental hazards. The UAVs have a shorter battery life than the UGVs, so executing a joint exploration strategy will also be a high priority for this event, as will completing our work on graph sharing and merging, which will give our robot teams more sophisticated options for navigation and teamwork. We’re reaching a threshold in development where we can start increasing the “smarts” of the robots, which we anticipate will be critical for the final competition, where all of the challenges of SubT will be combined to push the limits of innovation. The Cave Circuit will also have new environmental challenges to tackle: dynamic features such as rock falls have been added, which will block previously accessible passages in the cave environment. We think our controllers are well-poised to handle this new challenge, and we’re eager to find out if that’s the case.

As of now, the biggest worries for us are time and team composition. The Cave Circuit deadline has been postponed to October 15 due to COVID-19 delays, with the award ceremony in mid-November, but there have also been several very compelling additions to the testbed that we would like to experiment with before submission, including droppable networking ‘breadcrumbs’ and new simulated platforms. There are design trade-offs when balancing general versus specialist approaches to the controllers for these robots—since we are adding UAVs to our team for the first time, there are new decisions that will have to be made. For example, the UAVs can ascend into vertical spaces, but only have a battery life of 20 minutes. The UGVs by contrast have 90 minute battery life. One of our strategies is to do an early return to base with one or more agents to buy down risk on making any artifact reports at all for the run, hedging against our other robots not making it back in time, a lesson learned from the Tunnel Circuit. Should  a UAV take on this role, or is it better to have them explore deeper into the environment and instead report their artifacts to a UGV or network node, which comes with its own risks? Testing and experimentation to determine the best options takes time, which is always a worry when preparing for a competition! We also anticipate new competitors and stiffer competition all around.

Image: Michigan Tech Research Institute Team BARCS has now a year to prepare for the final DARPA SubT Challenge event, expected to take place in late 2021. 

Going forward from the Cave Circuit, we will have a year to prepare for the final DARPA SubT Challenge event, expected to take place in late 2021. What we are most excited about is increasing the level of intelligence of the agents in their teamwork and joint exploration of the environment. Since we will have (hopefully) built up robust approaches to handling each of the specific types of environments in the Tunnel, Urban, and Cave circuits, we will be aiming to push the limits on collaboration and efficiency among the agents in our team. We view this as a central research contribution of the Virtual Track to the Subterranean Challenge because intelligent, adaptive, multi-robot collaboration is an upcoming stage of development for integration of robots into our lives. 

The Subterranean Challenge Virtual Track gives us a bridge for transitioning our more abstract research ideas and algorithms relevant to this degree of autonomy and collaboration onto physical systems, and exploring the tangible outcomes of implementing our work in the real world. And the next time there’s an incident in the basement of our building, the robots (and humans) of Team BARCS will be ready to respond. 

Richard Chase, Ph.D., P.E., is a research scientist at Michigan Tech Research Institute (MTRI) and has 20 years of experience developing robotics and cyber physical systems in areas from remote sensing to autonomous vehicles. At MTRI, he works on a variety of topics such as swarm autonomy, human-swarm teaming, and autonomous vehicles. His research interests are the intersection of design, robotics, and embedded systems.

Sarah Kitchen is a Ph.D. mathematician working as a research scientist and an AI/Robotics focus area leader at MTRI. Her research interests include intelligent autonomous agents and multi-agent collaborative teams, as well as applications of autonomous robots to sensing systems. 

This material is based upon work supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under Contract No. HR001118C0124 and is released under Distribution Statement (Approved for Public Release, Distribution Unlimited). Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of DARPA.

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here's what we have so far (send us your events!):

IROS 2020 – October 25-25, 2020 – [Online] Robotica 2020 – November 10-14, 2020 – [Online] ROS World 2020 – November 12, 2020 – [Online] CYBATHLON 2020 – November 13-14, 2020 – [Online] ICSR 2020 – November 14-16, 2020 – Golden, Colo., USA Bay Area Robotics Symposium – November 20, 2020 – [Online]

Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today's videos.

Snugglebot is what we all need right now.

[ Snugglebot ]

In his video message on his prayer intention for November, Pope Francis emphasizes that progress in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) be oriented “towards respecting the dignity of the person and of Creation”.

[ Vatican News ]


Apparently it's supposed to do that—the disruptor flies off backwards to reduce recoil on the robot, and has its own parachute to keep it from going too far.

[ Ghost Robotics ]

Animals have many muscles, receptors, and neurons which compose feedback loops. In this study, we designed artificial muscles, receptors, and neurons without any microprocessors, or software-based controllers. We imitate the reflexive rule observed in walking experiments of cats, as a result, the Pneumatic Brainless Robot II emerged running motion (a leg trajectory and a gait pattern) through the interaction between the body, the ground, and the artificial reflexes. We envision that the simple reflex circuit we discovered will be a candidate for a minimal model for describing the principles of animal locomotion.

Find the paper, "Brainless Running: A Quasi-quadruped Robot with Decentralized Spinal Reflexes by Solely Mechanical Devices," on IROS On-Demand.

[ IROS ]

Thanks Yoichi!

I have no idea what these guys are saying, but they're talking about robots that serve chocolate!

The world of experience of the Zotter Schokoladen Manufaktur of managing director Josef Zotter counts more than 270,000 visitors annually. Since March 2019, this world of chocolate in Bergl near Riegersburg in Austria has been enriched by a new attraction: the world's first chocolate and praline robot from KUKA delights young and old alike and serves up chocolate and pralines to guests according to their personal taste.

[ Zotter ]

This paper proposes a systematic solution that uses an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to aggressively and safely track an agile target. The solution properly handles the challenging situations where the intent of the target and the dense environments are unknown to the UAV. The proposed solution is integrated into an onboard quadrotor system. We fully test the system in challenging real-world tracking missions. Moreover, benchmark comparisons validate that the proposed method surpasses the cutting-edge methods on time efficiency and tracking effectiveness.

[ FAST Lab ]

Southwest Research Institute developed a cable management system for collaborative robotics, or “cobots.” Dress packs used on cobots can create problems when cables are too tight (e-stops) or loose (tangling). SwRI developed ADDRESS, or the Adaptive DRESing System, to provide smarter cobot dress packs that address e-stops and tangling.

[ SWRI ]

A quick demonstration of the acoustic contact sensor in the RBO Hand 2. An embedded microphone records the sound inside of the pneumatic finger. Depending on which part of the finger makes contact, the sound is a little bit different. We create a sensor that recognizes these small changes and predicts the contact location from the sound. The visualization on the left shows the recorded sound (top) and which of the nine contact classes the sensor is currently predicting (bottom).

[ TU Berlin ]

The MAVLab won the prize for the “most innovative design” in the IMAV 2018 indoor competition, in which drones had to fly through windows, gates, and follow a predetermined flight path. The prize was awarded for the demonstration of a fully autonomous version of the “DelFly Nimble”, a tailless flapping wing drone.

In order to fly by itself, the DelFly Nimble was equipped with a single, small camera and a small processor allowing onboard vision processing and control. The jury of international experts in the field praised the agility and autonomous flight capabilities of the DelFly Nimble.

[ MAVLab ]

A reactive walking controller for the Open Dynamic Robot Initiative's skinny quadruped.

[ ODRI ]

Mobile service robots are already able to recognize people and objects while navigating autonomously through their operating environments. But what is the ideal position of the robot to interact with a user? To solve this problem, Fraunhofer IPA developed an approach that connects navigation, 3D environment modeling, and person detection to find the optimal goal pose for HRI.

[ Fraunhofer ]

Yaskawa has been in robotics for a very, very long time.

[ Yaskawa ]

Black in Robotics IROS launch event, featuring Carlotta Berry.

[ Black in Robotics ]

What is AI? I have no idea! But these folks have some opinions.

[ MIT ]

Aerial-based Observations of Volcanic Emissions (ABOVE) is an international collaborative project that is changing the way we sample volcanic gas emissions. Harnessing recent advances in drone technology, unoccupied aerial systems (UAS) in the ABOVE fleet are able to acquire aerial measurements of volcanic gases directly from within previously inaccessible volcanic plumes. In May 2019, a team of 30 researchers undertook an ambitious field deployment to two volcanoes – Tavurvur (Rabaul) and Manam in Papua New Guinea – both amongst the most prodigious emitters of sulphur dioxide on Earth, and yet lacking any measurements of how much carbon they emit to the atmosphere.


A talk from IHMC's Robert Griffin for ICCAS 2020, including a few updates on their Nadia humanoid.

[ IHMC ]

Reaching for a nearby object seems like a mindless task, but the action requires a sophisticated neural network that took humans millions of years to evolve. Now, robots are acquiring that same ability using artificial neural networks. In a recent study, a robotic hand “learns” to pick up objects of different shapes and hardness using three different grasping motions.  

The key to this development is something called a spiking neuron. Like real neurons in the brain, artificial neurons in a spiking neural network (SNN) fire together to encode and process temporal information. Researchers study SNNs because this approach may yield insights into how biological neural networks function, including our own. 

“The programming of humanoid or bio-inspired robots is complex,” says Juan Camilo Vasquez Tieck, a research scientist at FZI Forschungszentrum Informatik in Karlsruhe, Germany. “And classical robotics programming methods are not always suitable to take advantage of their capabilities.”

Conventional robotic systems must perform extensive calculations, Tieck says, to track trajectories and grasp objects. But a robotic system like Tieck’s, which relies on a SNN, first trains its neural net to better model system and object motions. After which it grasps items more autonomously—by adapting to the motion in real-time. 

The new robotic system by Tieck and his colleagues uses an existing robotic hand, called a Schunk SVH 5-finger hand, which has the same number of fingers and joints as a human hand.

The researchers incorporated a SNN into their system, which is divided into several sub-networks. One sub-network controls each finger individually, either flexing or extending the finger. Another concerns each type of grasping movement, for example whether the robotic hand will need to do a pinching, spherical or cylindrical movement.

For each finger, a neural circuit detects contact with an object using the currents of the motors and the velocity of the joints. When contact with an object is detected, a controller is activated to regulate how much force the finger exerts.

“This way, the movements of generic grasping motions are adapted to objects with different shapes, stiffness and sizes,” says Tieck. The system can also adapt its grasping motion quickly if the object moves or deforms.

The robotic grasping system is described in a study published October 24 in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters. The researchers’ robotic hand used its three different grasping motions on objects without knowing their properties. Target objects included a plastic bottle, a soft ball, a tennis ball, a sponge, a rubber duck, different balloons, a pen, and a tissue pack. The researchers found, for one, that pinching motions required more precision than cylindrical or spherical grasping motions.

“For this approach, the next step is to incorporate visual information from event-based cameras and integrate arm motion with SNNs,” says Tieck. “Additionally, we would like to extend the hand with haptic sensors.”

The long-term goal, he says, is to develop “a system that can perform grasping similar to humans, without intensive planning for contact points or intense stability analysis, and [that is] able to adapt to different objects using visual and haptic feedback.”

Digital Nature Group at the University of Tsukuba in Japan is working towards a “post ubiquitous computing era consisting of seamless combination of computational resources and non-computational resources.” By “non-computational resources,” they mean leveraging the natural world, which for better or worse includes insects

At small scales, the capabilities of insects far exceed the capabilities of robots. I get that. And I get that turning cockroaches into an army of insect cyborgs could be useful in a variety of ways. But what makes me fundamentally uncomfortable is the idea that “in the future, they’ll appear out of nowhere without us recognizing it, fulfilling their tasks and then hiding.” In other words, you’ll have cyborg cockroaches hiding all over your house, all the time.

Warning: This article contains video of cockroaches being modified with cybernetic implants that some people may find upsetting.

Remote controlling cockroaches isn’t a new idea, and it’s a fairly simple one. By stimulating the left or right antenna nerves of the cockroach, you can make it think that it’s running into something, and get it to turn in the opposite direction. Add wireless connectivity, some fiducial markers, an overhead camera system, and a bunch of cyborg cockroaches, and you have a resilient swarm that can collaborate on tasks. The researchers suggest that the swarm could be used as a display (by making each cockroach into a pixel), to transport objects, or to draw things. There’s also some mention of “input or haptic interfaces or an audio device,” which frankly sounds horrible.

The reason to use cockroaches is that you can take advantage of their impressive ruggedness, efficiency, high power to weight ratio, and mobility. They can also feed themselves, meaning that whenever you don’t need the swarm to perform some task for you, you can deactivate the control system and let them scurry off to find crumbs in dark places. 

There are many other swarm robotic platforms that can perform what you’re seeing these cyborg roaches do, but according to the researchers, the reason to use cockroaches is that you can take advantage of their impressive ruggedness, efficiency, high power to weight ratio, and mobility. They’re a lot messier (yay biology!), but they can also feed themselves, meaning that whenever you don’t need the swarm to perform some task for you, you can deactivate the control system and let them scurry off to find crumbs in dark places. And when you need them again, turn the control system on and experience the nightmare of your cyborg cockroach swarm reassembling itself from all over your house. 

While we’re on the subject of cockroach hacking, we would be doing you a disservice if we didn’t share some of project leader Yuga Tsukuda’s other projects. Here’s a cockroach-powered clock, about which the researchers note that “it is difficult to control the cockroaches when trying to control them by electrical stimulation because they move spontaneously. However, by cutting off the head and removing the brain, they do not move spontaneously and the control by the computer becomes easy.” So, zombie cockroaches. Good then.

And if that’s not enough for you, how about this:

The researchers describe this project as an “attempt to use cockroaches for makeup by sticking them on the face.” They stick electrodes into the cockroaches to make them wiggle their legs when electrical stimulation is applied. And the peacock feathers? They “make the cockroach movement bigger, and create a cosmic mystery.”

While it’s not totally clear to what extent human-like robots are better than conventional robots for most applications, one area I’m personally comfortable with them is entertainment. The folks over at Disney Research, who are all about entertainment, have been working on this sort of thing for a very long time, and some of their animatronic attractions are actually quite impressive.

The next step for Disney is to make its animatronic figures, which currently feature scripted behaviors, to perform in an interactive manner with visitors. The challenge is that this is where you start to get into potential Uncanny Valley territory, which is what happens when you try to create “the illusion of life,” which is what Disney (they explicitly say) is trying to do.

In a paper presented at IROS this month, a team from Disney Research, Caltech, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Walt Disney Imagineering is trying to nail that illusion of life with a single, and perhaps most important, social cue: eye gaze.

Before you watch this video, keep in mind that you’re watching a specific character, as Disney describes: 

The robot character plays an elderly man reading a book, perhaps in a library or on a park bench. He has difficulty hearing and his eyesight is in decline. Even so, he is constantly distracted from reading by people passing by or coming up to greet him. Most times, he glances at people moving quickly in the distance, but as people encroach into his personal space, he will stare with disapproval for the interruption, or provide those that are familiar to him with friendly acknowledgment.

What, exactly, does “lifelike” mean in the context of robotic gaze? The paper abstract describes the goal as “[seeking] to create an interaction which demonstrates the illusion of life.” I suppose you could think of it like a sort of old-fashioned Turing test focused on gaze: If the gaze of this robot cannot be distinguished from the gaze of a human, then victory, that’s lifelike. And critically, we’re talking about mutual gaze here—not just a robot gazing off into the distance, but you looking deep into the eyes of this robot and it looking right back at you just like a human would. Or, just like some humans would.

The approach that Disney is using is more animation-y than biology-y or psychology-y. In other words, they’re not trying to figure out what’s going on in our brains to make our eyes move the way that they do when we’re looking at other people and basing their control system on that, but instead, Disney just wants it to look right. This “visual appeal” approach is totally fine, and there’s been an enormous amount of human-robot interaction (HRI) research behind it already, albeit usually with less explicitly human-like platforms. And speaking of human-like platforms, the hardware is a “custom Walt Disney Imagineering Audio-Animatronics bust,” which has DoFs that include neck, eyes, eyelids, and eyebrows. 

In order to decide on gaze motions, the system first identifies a person to target with its attention using an RGB-D camera. If more than one person is visible, the system calculates a curiosity score for each, currently simplified to be based on how much motion it sees. Depending on which person that the robot can see has the highest curiosity score, the system will choose from a variety of high level gaze behavior states, including:

Read: The Read state can be considered the “default” state of the character. When not executing another state, the robot character will return to the Read state. Here, the character will appear to read a book located at torso level.

Glance: A transition to the Glance state from the Read or Engage states occurs when the attention engine indicates that there is a stimuli with a curiosity score […] above a certain threshold.

Engage: The Engage state occurs when the attention engine indicates that there is a stimuli [...] to meet a threshold and can be triggered from both Read and Glance states. This state causes the robot to gaze at the person-of-interest with both the eyes and head.

Acknowledge: The Acknowledge state is triggered from either Engage or Glance states when the person-of-interest is deemed to be familiar to the robot.

Running underneath these higher level behavior states are lower level motion behaviors like breathing, small head movements, eye blinking, and saccades (the quick eye movements that occur when people, or robots, look between two different focal points). The term for this hierarchical behavioral state layering is a subsumption architecture, which goes all the way back to Rodney Brooks’ work on robots like Genghis in the 1980s and Cog and Kismet in the ’90s, and it provides a way for more complex behaviors to emerge from a set of simple, decentralized low-level behaviors.

“25 years on Disney is using my subsumption architecture for humanoid eye control, better and smoother now than our 1995 implementations on Cog and Kismet.” —Rodney Brooks, MIT emeritus professor

Brooks, an emeritus professor at MIT and, most recently, cofounder and CTO of Robust.aitweeted about the Disney project, saying: “People underestimate how long it takes to get from academic paper to real world robotics. 25 years on Disney is using my subsumption architecture for humanoid eye control, better and smoother now than our 1995 implementations on Cog and Kismet.” 

From the paper:

Although originally intended for control of mobile robots, we find that the subsumption architecture, as presented in [17], lends itself as a framework for organizing animatronic behaviors. This is due to the analogous use of subsumption in human behavior: human psychomotor behavior can be intuitively modeled as layered behaviors with incoming sensory inputs, where higher behavioral levels are able to subsume lower behaviors. At the lowest level, we have involuntary movements such as heartbeats, breathing and blinking. However, higher behavioral responses can take over and control lower level behaviors, e.g., fight-or-flight response can induce faster heart rate and breathing. As our robot character is modeled after human morphology, mimicking biological behaviors through the use of a bottom-up approach is straightforward.

The result, as the video shows, appears to be quite good, although it’s hard to tell how it would all come together if the robot had more of, you know, a face. But it seems like you don’t necessarily need to have a lifelike humanoid robot to take advantage of this architecture in an HRI context—any robot that wants to make a gaze-based connection with a human could benefit from doing it in a more human-like way.

“Realistic and Interactive Robot Gaze,” by Matthew K.X.J. Pan, Sungjoon Choi, James Kennedy, Kyna McIntosh, Daniel Campos Zamora, Gunter Niemeyer, Joohyung Kim, Alexis Wieland, and David Christensen from Disney Research, California Institute of Technology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Walt Disney Imagineering, was presented at IROS 2020. You can find the full paper, along with a 13-minute video presentation, on the IROS on-demand conference website.

Back to IEEE Journal Watch

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

IROS 2020 – October 25-25, 2020 – [Online] ROS World 2020 – November 12, 2020 – [Online] CYBATHLON 2020 – November 13-14, 2020 – [Online] ICSR 2020 – November 14-16, 2020 – Golden, Colo., USA

Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

Happy Halloween from HEBI Robotics!

Thanks Hardik!

[ HEBI Robotics ]

Happy Halloween from Berkshire Grey!

[ Berkshire Grey ]

These are some preliminary results of our lab’s new work on using reinforcement learning to train neural networks to imitate common bipedal gait behaviors, without using any motion capture data or reference trajectories. Our method is described in an upcoming submission to ICRA 2021. Work by Jonah Siekmann and Yesh Godse.


The northern goshawk is a fast, powerful raptor that flies effortlessly through forests. This bird was the design inspiration for the next-generation drone developed by scientifics of the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems of EPFL led by Dario Floreano. They carefully studied the shape of the bird’s wings and tail and its flight behavior, and used that information to develop a drone with similar characteristics.

The engineers already designed a bird-inspired drone with morphing wing back in 2016. In a step forward, their new model can adjust the shape of its wing and tail thanks to its artificial feathers. Flying this new type of drone isn’t easy, due to the large number of wing and tail configurations possible. To take full advantage of the drone’s flight capabilities, Floreano’s team plans to incorporate artificial intelligence into the drone’s flight system so that it can fly semi-automatically. The team’s research has been published in Science Robotics.

[ EPFL ]


[ Roborace ]

We’ve covered MIT’s Roboats in the past, but now they’re big enough to keep a couple of people afloat.

Self-driving boats have been able to transport small items for years, but adding human passengers has felt somewhat intangible due to the current size of the vessels. Roboat II is the “half-scale” boat in the growing body of work, and joins the previously developed quarter-scale Roboat, which is 1 meter long. The third installment, which is under construction in Amsterdam and is considered to be “full scale,” is 4 meters long and aims to carry anywhere from four to six passengers.

[ MIT ]

With a training technique commonly used to teach dogs to sit and stay, Johns Hopkins University computer scientists showed a robot how to teach itself several new tricks, including stacking blocks. With the method, the robot, named Spot, was able to learn in days what typically takes a month.

[ JHU ]

Exyn, a pioneer in autonomous aerial robot systems for complex, GPS-denied industrial environments, today announced the first dog, Kody, to successfully fly a drone at Number 9 Coal Mine, in Lansford, PA. Selected to carry out this mission was the new autonomous aerial robot, the ExynAero.

Yes, this is obviously a publicity stunt, and Kody is only flying the drone in the sense that he’s pushing the launch button and then taking a nap. But that’s also the point— drone autonomy doesn’t get much fuller than this, despite the challenge of the environment.

[ Exyn ]

In this video object instance segmentation and shape completion are combined with classical regrasp planning to perform pick-place of novel objects. It is demonstrated with a UR5, Robotiq 85 parallel-jaw gripper, and Structure depth sensor with three rearrangement tasks: bin packing (minimize the height of the packing), placing bottles onto coasters, and arrange blocks from tallest to shortest (according to the longest edge). The system also accounts for uncertainty in the segmentation/completion by avoiding grasping or placing on parts of the object where perceptual uncertainty is predicted to be high.

[ Paper ] via [ Northeastern ]

Thanks Marcus!

U can’t touch this!

[ University of Tokyo ]

We introduce a way to enable more natural interaction between humans and robots through Mixed Reality, by using a shared coordinate system. Azure Spatial Anchors, which already supports colocalizing multiple HoloLens and smartphone devices in the same space, has now been extended to support robots equipped with cameras. This allows humans and robots sharing the same space to interact naturally: humans can see the plan and intention of the robot, while the robot can interpret commands given from the person’s perspective. We hope that this can be a building block in the future of humans and robots being collaborators and coworkers.

[ Microsoft ]

Some very high jumps from the skinniest quadruped ever.

[ ODRI ]

In this video we present recent efforts to make our humanoid robot LOLA ready for multi-contact locomotion, i.e. additional hand-environment support for extra stabilization during walking.

[ TUM ]

Classic bike moves from Dr. Guero.

[ Dr. Guero ]

For a robotics company, iRobot is OLD.

[ iRobot ]

The Canadian Space Agency presents Juno, a preliminary version of a rover that could one day be sent to the Moon or Mars. Juno can navigate autonomously or be operated remotely. The Lunar Exploration Analogue Deployment (LEAD) consisted in replicating scenarios of a lunar sample return mission.

[ CSA ]

How exactly does the Waymo Driver handle a cat cutting across its driving path? Jonathan N., a Product Manager on our Perception team, breaks it all down for us.

Now do kangaroos.

[ Waymo ]

Jibo is hard at work at MIT playing games with kids.

Children’s creativity plummets as they enter elementary school. Social interactions with peers and playful environments have been shown to foster creativity in children. Digital pedagogical tools often lack the creativity benefits of co-located social interaction with peers. In this work, we leverage a social embodied robot as a playful peer and designed Escape!Bot, a game involving child-robot co-play, where the robot is a social agent that scaffolds for creativity during gameplay.

[ Paper ]

It’s nice when convenience stores are convenient even for the folks who have to do the restocking.

Who’s moving the crates around, though?

[ Telexistence ]

Hi, fans ! Join the ROS World 2020, opening November 12th , and see the footage of ROBOTIS’ ROS platform robots :)

[ ROS World 2020 ]

ML/RL methods are often viewed as a magical black box, and while that’s not true, learned policies are nonetheless a valuable tool that can work in conjunction with the underlying physics of the robot. In this video, Agility CTO Jonathan Hurst - wearing his professor hat at Oregon State University - presents some recent student work on using learned policies as a control method for highly dynamic legged robots.

[ Agility Robotics ]

Here’s an ICRA Legged Robots workshop talk from Marco Hutter at ETH Zürich, on Autonomy for ANYmal.

Recent advances in legged robots and their locomotion skills has led to systems that are skilled and mature enough for real-world deployment. In particular, quadrupedal robots have reached a level of mobility to navigate complex environments, which enables them to take over inspection or surveillance jobs in place like offshore industrial plants, in underground areas, or on construction sites. In this talk, I will present our research work with the quadruped ANYmal and explain some of the underlying technologies for locomotion control, environment perception, and mission autonomy. I will show how these robots can learn and plan complex maneuvers, how they can navigate through unknown environments, and how they are able to conduct surveillance, inspection, or exploration scenarios.

[ RSL ]

Swarms of modular, self-reconfigurable robots have a lot going for them, at least in theory— they’re resilient and easy to scale, since big robots can be made on demand from lots of little robots. One of the trickiest bits about modular robots is figuring out a simple and reliable way of getting them to connect to each other, without having to rely on some kind of dedicated connectivity system.

This week at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots (IROS), a research team at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, led by Tin Lun Lam is presenting a new kind of modular robot that solves this problem by using little robotic vehicles inside of iron spheres that can stick together wherever you need them to.

Typically, modular robots are relatively complicated and finicky things, because the connections between them have to combine power, communications, and physical support, leading to robot-to-robot interfaces that are relatively complicated. And we usually see modular robots that emphasize reconfigurability as opposed to any kind of inherent single-module capability. Swarm robots, on the other hand, do emphasize single robot capability, although the single robots are intended to be most useful as part of a large swarm.

Photo: Chinese University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen The internal mechanism that FreeBOT uses to move includes a motor and a magnet.

FreeBOT is a sort of hybrid between these two robotic concepts. Each FreeBOT module consists of an iron sphere, inside of which is a little vehicle of sorts with two motorized wheels and a permanent magnet. The magnet keeps the vehicle stuck to the inside of the sphere, and when the wheels spin, it causes the shell to roll forward or backward. Driving the wheels independently turns the shell. If this looks familiar, it could be because the popular Sphero robots have the same basic design. A single module can do a fair amount on its own, with good mobility and some neat tricks around ferromagnetic surfaces. 

Photo: Chinese University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen

How two FreeBOTs connect to one another and separate from each other.

Since each robot has a ferromagnetic shell plus an internal permanent magnet, attaching one robot to another robot is relatively simple. Two robots can touch each other without connecting, since the iron shells are not permanent magnets. To make the attachment, the permanent magnet on the bottom of the little internal vehicle has to get close to the point at which the two spheres are touching, and when it does, the permanent magnet excites a magnetic field in the shells of both robots, causing them to stick together. The exact alignment is very forgiving, and the connection can happen absolutely anywhere on each robot, which is far more versatile than just about any other modular robotic system. Disconnecting simply involves moving the internal vehicle away from the connection point, which removes the magnetic field. Combining multiple FreeBOTs is where things get interesting, since it’s possible to create blobs of robots or chains of robots or use a small pile of robots to help one module overcome obstacles. Ferromagnetic surfaces can be leveraged even more by a swarm than by a single module.

There are some constraints to the current generation of FreeBOTs; most significantly, they’re remote controlled, without much in the way of onboard sensors (or any obvious way of adding them). Recharging the batteries also seems like it might be difficult. The researchers are working on ways of making the swarm of FreeBOTs at least somewhat autonomous, though, and they say that they plan to make a whole bunch more of them “to fully demonstrate the enormous potential of FreeBOT.” Here’s a peek of what a bunch of FreeBOTs can do:

“FreeBOT: A Freeform Modular Self-reconfigurable Robot with Arbitrary Connection Point - Design and Implementation,” by Guanqi Liang, Haobo Luo, Ming Li, Huihuan Qian, and Tin Lun Lam from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, will be presented at IROS 2020.

We all know how robots are great at going to places where you can’t (or shouldn’t) send a human. We also know how robots are great at doing repetitive tasks. These characteristics have the potential to make robots ideal for setting up wireless sensor networks in hazardous environments—that is, they could deploy a whole bunch of self-contained sensor nodes that create a network that can monitor a very large area for a very long time.

When it comes to using drones to set up sensor networks, you’ve generally got two options: A drone that just drops sensors on the ground (easy but inaccurate and limited locations), or using a drone with some sort of manipulator on it to stick sensors in specific places (complicated and risky). A third option, under development by researchers at Imperial College London’s Aerial Robotics Lab, provides the accuracy of direct contact with the safety and ease of use of passive dropping by instead using the drone as a launching platform for laser-aimed, sensor-equipped darts. 

These darts (which the researchers refer to as aerodynamically stabilized, spine-equipped sensor pods) can embed themselves in relatively soft targets from up to 4 meters away with an accuracy of about 10 centimeters after being fired from a spring-loaded launcher. They’re not quite as accurate as a drone with a manipulator, but it’s pretty good, and the drone can maintain a safe distance from the surface that it’s trying to add a sensor to. Obviously, the spine is only going to work on things like wood, but the researchers point out that there are plenty of attachment mechanisms that could be used, including magnets, adhesives, chemical bonding, or microspines.

Indoor tests using magnets showed the system to be quite reliable, but at close range (within a meter of the target) the darts sometimes bounced off rather than sticking. From between 1 and 4 meters away, the darts stuck between 90 and 100 percent of the time. Initial outdoor tests were also successful, although the system was under manual control. The researchers say that “regular and safe operations should be carried out autonomously,” which, yeah, you’d just have to deal with all of the extra sensing and hardware required to autonomously fly beneath the canopy of a forest. That’s happening next, as the researchers plan to add “vision state estimation and positioning, as well as a depth sensor” to avoid some trees and fire sensors into others.

And if all of that goes well, they’ll consider trying to get each drone to carry multiple darts. Look out, trees: You’re about to be pierced for science.

“Unmanned Aerial Sensor Placement for Cluttered Environments,” by André Farinha, Raphael Zufferey, Peter Zheng, Sophie F. Armanini, and Mirko Kovac from Imperial College London, was published in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters.

Back to IEEE Journal Watch

The 2020 International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) was originally going to be held in Las Vegas this week. Like ICRA last spring, IROS has transitioned to a completely online conference, which is wonderful news: Now everyone everywhere can participate in IROS without having to spend a dime on travel.

IROS officially opened yesterday, and the best news is that registration is entirely free! We’ll take a quick look at what IROS has on offer this year, which includes some stuff that’s brand news to IROS.

Registration for IROS is super easy, and did we mention that it’s free? To register, just go here and fill out a quick and easy form. You don’t even have to be an IEEE Member or anything like that, although in our unbiased opinion, an IEEE membership is well worth it. Once you get the confirmation email, go to, put in the email address you used to register, and that’s it, you’ve got IROS!

Here are some highlights:

Plenaries and Keynotes

Without the normal space and time constraints, you won’t have to pick and choose between any of the three plenaries or 10 keynotes. Some of them are fancier than others, but we’re used to that sort of thing by now. It’s worth noting that all three plenaries (and three of the 10 keynotes) are given by extraordinarily talented women, which is excellent to see.

Technical Tracks

There are over 1,400 technical talks, divided up into 12 categories of 20 sessions each. Note that each of the 12 categories that you see on the main page can be scrolled through to show all 20 of the sessions; if there’s a bright red arrow pointing left or right you can scroll, and if the arrow is transparent, you’ve reached the end.

On the session page, you’ll see an autoplaying advertisement (that you can mute but not stop), below which each talk has a preview slide, a link to a ~15 minute presentation video, and another link to a PDF of the paper. No supplementary videos are available, which is a bit disappointing. While you can leave a comment on the video, there’s no way of interacting with the author(s) directly through the IROS site, so you’ll have to check the paper for an email address if you want to ask a question.

Award Finalists

IROS has thoughtfully grouped all of the paper award finalists together into nine sessions. These are some truly outstanding papers, and it’s worth watching these sessions even if you’re not interested in specific subject matter.

Workshops and Tutorials

This stuff is a little more impacted by asynchronicity and on-demandedness, and some of the workshops and tutorials have already taken place. But IROS has done a good job at collecting videos of everything and making them easy to access, and the dedicated websites for the workshops and tutorials themselves sometimes have more detailed info. If you’re having trouble finding where the workshops and tutorial section is, try the “Entrance” drop-down menu up at the top.

IROS Original Series

In place of social events and lab tours, IROS this year has come up with the “IROS Original Series,” which “hosts unique content that would be difficult to see at in-person events.” Right now, there are some interviews with a diverse group of interesting roboticists, and hopefully more will show up later on.


Everything on the IROS On-Demand site should be available for at least the next month, so there’s no need to try and watch a thousand presentations over three days (which is what we normally have to do). So, relax, and enjoy yourself a bit by browsing all the options. And additional content will be made available over the next several weeks, so make sure to check back often to see what’s new.

[ IROS 2020 ]

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here's what we have so far (send us your events!):

IROS 2020 – October 25-29, 2020 – [Online] ROS World 2020 – November 12, 2020 – [Online] CYBATHLON 2020 – November 13-14, 2020 – [Online] ICSR 2020 – November 14-16, 2020 – Golden, Colo., USA

Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today's videos.

NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft unfurled its robotic arm Oct. 20, 2020, and in a first for the agency, briefly touched an asteroid to collect dust and pebbles from the surface for delivery to Earth in 2023.

[ NASA ]

New from David Zarrouk’s lab at BGU is AmphiSTAR, which Zarrouk describes as “a kind of a ground-water drone inspired by the cockroaches (sprawling) and by the Basilisk lizard (running over water). The robot hovers due to the collision of its propellers with the water (hydrodynamics not aerodynamics). The robot can crawl and swim at high and low speeds and smoothly transition between the two. It can reach 3.5 m/s on ground and 1.5m/s in water.”

AmphiSTAR will be presented at IROS, starting next week!

[ BGU ]

This is unfortunately not a great video of a video that was taken at a SoftBank Hawks baseball game in Japan last week, but it’s showing an Atlas robot doing an honestly kind of impressive dance routine to support the team.

ホークスビジョンの映像をお楽しみ下さい♪#sbhawks #Pepper #spot

— 福岡ソフトバンクホークス(公式) (@HAWKS_official) October 16, 2020

Editor’s Note: The tweet embed above is not working for some reason—see the video here.

[ SoftBank Hawks ]

Thanks Thomas!

Sarcos is working on a new robot, which looks to be the torso of their powered exoskeleton with the human relocated somewhere else.

[ Sarcos ]

The biggest holiday of the year, International Sloth Day, was on Tuesday! To celebrate, here’s Slothbot!

[ NSF ]

This is one of those simple-seeming tasks that are really difficult for robots.

I love self-resetting training environments.


The Chiel lab collaborates with engineers at the Center for Biologically Inspired Robotics Research at Case Western Reserve University to design novel worm-like robots that have potential applications in search-and-rescue missions, endoscopic medicine, or other scenarios requiring navigation through narrow spaces.

[ Case Western ]

ANYbotics partnered with Losinger Marazzi to explore ANYmal’s potential of patrolling construction sites to identify and report safety issues. With such a complex environment, only a robot designed to navigate difficult terrain is able to bring digitalization to such a physically demanding industry.

[ ANYbotics ]

Happy 2018 Halloween from Clearpath Robotics!

[ Clearpath ]

Overcoming illumination variance is a critical factor in vision-based navigation. Existing methods tackled this radical illumination variance issue by proposing camera control or high dynamic range (HDR) image fusion. Despite these efforts, we have found that the vision-based approaches still suffer from overcoming darkness. This paper presents real-time image synthesizing from carefully controlled seed low dynamic range (LDR) image, to enable visual simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) in an extremely dark environment (less than 10 lux).


What can MoveIt do? Who knows! Let's find out!

[ MoveIt ]

Thanks Dave!

Here we pick a cube from a starting point, manipulate it within the hand, and then put it back. To explore the capabilities of the hand, no sensors were used in this demonstration. The RBO Hand 3 uses soft pneumatic actuators made of silicone. The softness imparts considerable robustness against variations in object pose and size. This lets us design manipulation funnels that work reliably without needing sensor feedback. We take advantage of this reliability to chain these funnels into more complex multi-step manipulation plans.

[ TU Berlin ]

If this was a real solar array, King Louie would have totally cleaned it. Mostly.

[ BYU ]

Autonomous exploration is a fundamental problem for various applications of unmanned aerial vehicles(UAVs). Existing methods, however, were demonstrated to have low efficiency, due to the lack of optimality consideration, conservative motion plans and low decision frequencies. In this paper, we propose FUEL, a hierarchical framework that can support Fast UAV ExpLoration in complex unknown environments.


Countless precise repetitions? This is the perfect task for a robot, thought researchers at the University of Liverpool in the Department of Chemistry, and without further ado they developed an automation solution that can carry out and monitor research tasks, making autonomous decisions about what to do next.

[ Kuka ]

This video shows a demonstration of central results of the SecondHands project. In the context of maintenance and repair tasks, in warehouse environments, the collaborative humanoid robot ARMAR-6 demonstrates a number of cognitive and sensorimotor abilities such as 1) recognition of the need of help based on speech, force, haptics and visual scene and action interpretation, 2) collaborative bimanual manipulation of large objects, 3) compliant mobile manipulation, 4) grasping known and unknown objects and tools, 5) human-robot interaction (object and tool handover) 6) natural dialog and 7) force predictive control.

[ SecondHands ]

In celebration of Ada Lovelace Day, Silicon Valley Robotics hosted a panel of Women in Robotics.

[ Robohub ]

As part of the upcoming virtual IROS conference, HEBI robotics is putting together a tutorial on robotics actuation. While I’m sure HEBI would like you to take a long look at their own actuators, we’ve been assured that no matter what kind of actuators you use, this tutorial will still be informative and useful.

[ YouTube ] via [ HEBI Robotics ]

Thanks Dave!

This week’s UMD Lockheed Martin Robotics Seminar comes from Julie Shah at MIT, on “Enhancing Human Capability with Intelligent Machine Teammates.”

Every team has top performers- people who excel at working in a team to find the right solutions in complex, difficult situations. These top performers include nurses who run hospital floors, emergency response teams, air traffic controllers, and factory line supervisors. While they may outperform the most sophisticated optimization and scheduling algorithms, they cannot often tell us how they do it. Similarly, even when a machine can do the job better than most of us, it can’t explain how. In this talk I share recent work investigating effective ways to blend the unique decision-making strengths of humans and machines. I discuss the development of computational models that enable machines to efficiently infer the mental state of human teammates and thereby collaborate with people in richer, more flexible ways.

[ UMD ]

Matthew Piccoli gives a talk to the UPenn GRASP Lab on “Trading Complexities: Smart Motors and Dumb Vehicles.”

We will discuss my research journey through Penn making the world's smallest, simplest flying vehicles, and in parallel making the most complex brushless motors. What do they have in common? We'll touch on why the quadrotor went from an obscure type of helicopter to the current ubiquitous drone. Finally, we'll get into my life after Penn and what tools I'm creating to further drone and robot designs of the future.

[ UPenn ]

Robots operating in the real world are starting to find themselves constrained by the amount of computing power they have available. Computers are certainly getting faster and more efficient, but they’re not keeping up with the potential of robotic systems, which have access to better sensors and more data, which in turn makes decision making more complex. A relatively new kind of computing device called a memristor could potentially help robotics smash through this barrier, through a combination of lower complexity, lower cost, and higher speed.

In a paper published today in Science Robotics, a team of researchers from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and the Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, N.Y., demonstrate a simple self-balancing robot that uses memristors to form a highly effective analog control system, inspired by the functional structure of the human brain.

First, we should go over just what the heck a memristor is. As the name suggests, it’s a type of memory that is resistance-based. That is, the resistance of a memristor can be programmed, and the memristor remembers that resistance even after it’s powered off (the resistance depends on the magnitude of the voltage applied to the memristor’s two terminals and the length of time that voltage has been applied). Memristors are potentially the ideal hybrid between RAM and flash memory, offering high speed, high density, non-volatile storage. So that’s cool, but what we’re most interested in as far as robot control systems go is that memristors store resistance, making them analog devices rather than digital ones.

By adding a memristor to an analog circuit with inputs from a gyroscope and an accelerometer, the researchers created a completely analog Kalman filter, which coupled to a second memristor functioned as a PD controller.

Nowadays, the word “analog” sounds like a bad thing, but robots are stuck in an analog world, and any physical interactions they have with the world (mediated through sensors) are fundamentally analog in nature. The challenge is that an analog signal is often “messy”—full of noise and non-linearities—and as such, the usual approach now is to get it converted to a digital signal and then processed to get anything useful out of it. This is fine, but it’s also not particularly fast or efficient. Where memristors come in is that they’re inherently analog, and in addition to storing data, they can also act as tiny analog computers, which is pretty wild.

By adding a memristor to an analog circuit with inputs from a gyroscope and an accelerometer, the researchers, led by Wei Wu, an associate professor of electrical engineering at USC, created a completely analog and completely physical Kalman filter to remove noise from the sensor signal. In addition, they used a second memristor can be used to turn that sensor data into a proportional-derivative (PD) controller. Next they put those two components together to build an analogy system that can do a bunch of the work required to keep an inverted pendulum robot upright far more efficiently than a traditional system. The difference in performance is readily apparent:

The shaking you see in the traditionally-controlled robot on the bottom comes from the non-linearity of the dynamic system, which changes faster than the on-board controller can keep up with. The memristors substantially reduce the cycle time, so the robot can balance much more smoothly. Specifically, cycle time is reduced from 3,034 microseconds to just 6 microseconds. 

Of course, there’s more going on here, like motor drivers and a digital computer to talk to them, so this robot is really a hybrid system. But guess what? As the researchers point out, so are we!

The human brain consists of the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the brainstem. The cerebrum is a major part of the brain in charge of vision, hearing, and thinking, whereas the cerebellum plays an important role in motion control. Through this cooperation of the cerebrum and the cerebellum, the human brain can conduct multiple tasks simultaneously with extremely low power consumption. Inspired by this, we developed a hybrid analog-digital computation platform, in which the digital component runs the high-level algorithm, whereas the analog component is responsible for sensor fusion and motion control.

By offloading a bunch of computation onto the memristors, the higher brain functions of the robot have more breathing room. Overall, you reduce power, space, and cost, while substantially improving performance. This has only become possible relatively recently due to memristor advances and availability, and the researchers expect that memristor-based hybrid computing will soon be able to “improve the robustness and the performance of mobile robotic systems with higher” degrees of freedom.

A memristor-based hybrid analog-digital computing platform for mobile robotics,” by Buyun Chen, Hao Yang, Boxiang Song, Deming Meng, Xiaodong Yan, Yuanrui Li, Yunxiang Wang, Pan Hu, Tse-Hsien Ou, Mark Barnell, Qing Wu, Han Wang, and Wei Wu, from USC Viterbi and AFRL, was published in Science Robotics.

Throwable or droppable robots seem like a great idea for a bunch of applications, including exploration and search and rescue. But such robots do come with some constraints—namely, if you’re going to throw or drop a robot, you should be prepared for that robot to not land the way you want it to land. While we’ve seen some creative approaches to this problem, or more straightforward self-righting devices, usually you’re in for significant trade-offs in complexity, mobility, and mass. 

What would be ideal is a robot that can be relied upon to just always land the right way up. A robotic cat, of sorts. And while we’ve seen this with a tail, for wheeled vehicles, it turns out that a tail isn’t necessary: All it takes is some wheel spin.

The reason that AGRO (Agile Ground RObot), developed at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, can do this is because each of its wheels is both independently driven and steerable. The wheels are essentially reaction wheels, which are a pretty common way to generate forces on all kinds of different robots, but typically you see such reaction wheels kludged onto these robots as sort of an afterthought—using the existing wheels of a wheeled robot is a more elegant way to do it.

Four steerable wheels with in-hub motors provide control in all three axes (yaw, pitch, and roll). You’ll notice that when the robot is tossed, the wheels all toe inwards (or outwards, I guess) by 45 degrees, positioning them orthogonal to the body of the robot. The front left and rear right wheels are spun together, as are the front right and rear left wheels. When one pair of wheels spins in the same direction, the body of the robot twists in the opposite way along an axis between those wheels, in a combination of pitch and roll. By combining different twisting torques from both pairs of wheels, pitch and roll along each axis can be adjusted independently. When the same pair of wheels spin in directions opposite to each other, the robot yaws, although yaw can also be derived by adjusting the ratio between pitch authority and roll authority. And lastly, if you want to sacrifice pitch control for more roll control (or vice versa) the wheel toe-in angle can be changed. Put all this together, and you get an enormous amount of mid-air control over your robot.

Image: Robotics Research Center/West Point The AGRO robot features four steerable wheels with in-hub motors, which provide control in all three axes (yaw, pitch, and roll).

According to a paper that the West Point group will present at the 2020 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), the overall objective here is for the robot to reach a state of zero pitch or roll by the time the robot impacts with the ground, to distribute the impact as much as possible. AGRO doesn’t yet have a suspension to make falling actually safe, so in the short term, it lands on a foam pad, but the mid-air adjustments it’s currently able to make result in a 20 percent reduction of impact force and a 100 percent reduction in being sideways or upside-down. 

The toss that you see in the video isn’t the most aggressive, but lead author Daniel J. Gonzalez tells us that AGRO can do much better, theoretically stabilizing from an initial condition of 22.5 degrees pitch and 22.5 degrees roll in a mere 250 milliseconds, with room for improvement beyond that through optimizing the angles of individual wheels in real time. The limiting factor is really the amount of time that AGRO has between the point at which it’s released and the point at which it hits the ground, since more time in the air gives the robot more time to change its orientation.

Given enough height, the current generation of AGRO can recover from any initial orientation as long as it’s spinning at 66 rpm or less. And the only reason this is a limitation at all is because of the maximum rotation speed of the in-wheel hub motors, which can be boosted by increasing the battery voltage, as Gonzalez and his colleagues, Mark C. Lesak, Andres H. Rodriguez, Joseph A. Cymerman, and Christopher M. Korpela from the Robotics Research Center at West Point, describe in the IROS paper, “Dynamics and Aerial Attitude Control for Rapid Emergency Deployment of the Agile Ground Robot AGRO.”

Image: Robotics Research Center/West Point AGRO 2 will include a new hybrid wheel-leg and non-pneumatic tire design that will allow it to hop up stairs and curbs.

While these particular experiments focus on a robot that’s being thrown, the concept is potentially effective (and useful) on any wheeled robot that’s likely to find itself in mid-air. You can imagine it improving the performance of robots doing all sorts of stunts, from driving off ramps or ledges to being dropped out of aircraft. And as it turns out, being able to self-stabilize during an airdrop is an important skill that some Humvees could use to keep themselves from getting tangled in their own parachute lines and avoid mishaps.

Before they move on to Humvees, though, the researchers are working on the next version of AGRO named AGRO 2. AGRO 2 will include a new hybrid wheel-leg and non-pneumatic tire design that will allow it to hop up stairs and curbs, which sounds like a lot of fun to us.

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

IROS 2020 – October 25-29, 2020 – [Online] ROS World 2020 – November 12, 2020 – [Online] CYBATHLON 2020 – November 13-14, 2020 – [Online] ICSR 2020 – November 14-16, 2020 – Golden, Colo., USA

Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

Digit is now in full commercial production and we’re excited to announce a $20M funding rounding round co-led by DCVC and Playground Global!

Digits for everyone!

Agility Robotics ]

A flexible rover that has both ability to travel long distances and rappel down hard-to-reach areas of scientific interest has undergone a field test in the Mojave Desert in California to showcase its versatility. Composed of two Axel robots, DuAxel is designed to explore crater walls, pits, scarps, vents and other extreme terrain on the moon, Mars and beyond.

This technology demonstration developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California showcases the robot’s ability to split in two and send one of its halves -- a two-wheeled Axle robot -- over an otherwise inaccessible slope, using a tether as support and to supply power.

The rappelling Axel can then autonomously seek out areas to study, safely overcome slopes and rocky obstacles, and then return to dock with its other half before driving to another destination. Although the rover doesn’t yet have a mission, key technologies are being developed that might, one day, help us explore the rocky planets and moons throughout the solar system.

[ JPL ]

A rectangular robot as tiny as a few human hairs can travel throughout a colon by doing back flips, Purdue University engineers have demonstrated in live animal models. Why the back flips? Because the goal is to use these robots to transport drugs in humans, whose colons and other organs have rough terrain. Side flips work, too. Why a back-flipping robot to transport drugs? Getting a drug directly to its target site could remove side effects, such as hair loss or stomach bleeding, that the drug may otherwise cause by interacting with other organs along the way.

[ Purdue ]

This video shows the latest results in the whole-body locomotion control of the humanoid robot iCub achieved by the Dynamic Interaction Control line at IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Genova (Italy). In particular, the iCub now keeps the balance while walking and receiving pushes from an external user. The implemented control algorithms also ensure the robot to remain compliant during locomotion and human-robot interaction, a fundamental property to lower the possibility to harm humans that share the robot surrounding environment.

This is super impressive, considering that iCub was only able to crawl and was still tethered not too long ago. Also, it seems to be blinking properly now, so it doesn’t look like it’s always sleepy.

[ IIT ]

This video shows a set of new tests we performed on Bolt. We conducted tests on 5 different scenarios, 1) walking forward/backward 2) uneven surface 3) soft surface 4) push recovery 5) slippage recovery. Thanks to our feedback control based on Model Predictive Control, the robot can perform walking in the presence of all these uncertainties. We will open-source all the codes in a near future.

[ ODRI ]

The title of this video is “Can you throw your robot into a lake?” The title of this video should be, “Can you throw your robot into a lake and drive it out again?”

[ Norlab ]

AeroVironment Successfully Completes Sunglider Solar HAPS Stratospheric Test Flight, Surpassing 60,000 Feet Altitude and Demonstrating Broadband Mobile Connectivity.

[ AeroVironment ]

We present CoVR, a novel robotic interface providing strong kinesthetic feedback (100 N) in a room-scale VR arena. It consists of a physical column mounted on a 2D Cartesian ceiling robot (XY displacements) with the capacity of (1) resisting to body-scaled users actions such as pushing or leaning; (2) acting on the users by pulling or transporting them as well as (3) carrying multiple potentially heavy objects (up to 80kg) that users can freely manipulate or make interact with each other.

[ DeepAI ]

In a new video, personnel from Swiss energy supply company Kraftwerke Oberhasli AG (KWO) explain how they were able to keep employees out of harm’s way by using Flyability’s Elios 2 to collect visual data while building a new dam.

[ Flyability ]

Enjoy our Ascento robot fail compilation! With every failure we experience, we learn more and we can improve our robot for its next iteration, which will come soon... Stay tuned for more!

FYI posting a robot fails video will pretty much guarantee you a spot in Video Friday!

[ Ascento ]

Humans are remarkably good at using chopsticks. The Guinness World Record witnessed a person using chopsticks to pick up 65 M&Ms in just a minute. We aim to collect demonstrations from humans and to teach robot to use chopsticks.

[ UW Personal Robotics Lab ]

A surprising amount of personality from these Yaskawa assembly robots.

[ Yaskawa ]

This paper presents the system design, modeling, and control of the Aerial Robotic Chain Manipulator. This new robot design offers the potential to exert strong forces and moments to the environment, carry and lift significant payloads, and simultaneously navigate through narrow corridors. The presented experimental studies include a valve rotation task, a pick-and-release task, and the verification of load oscillation suppression to demonstrate the stability and performance of the system.

[ ARL ]

Whether animals or plants, whether in the water, on land or in the air, nature provides the model for many technical innovations and inventions. This is summed up in the term bionics, which is a combination of the words ‘biology‘ and ‘electronics’. At Festo, learning from nature has a long history, as our Bionic Learning Network is based on using nature as the source for future technologies like robots, assistance systems or drive solutions.

[ Festo ]

Dogs! Selfies! Thousands of LEGO bricks! This video has it all.

[ LEGO ]

An IROS workshop talk on “Cassie and Mini Cheetah Autonomy” by Maani Ghaffari and Jessy Grizzle from the University of Michigan.

[ Michigan Robotics ]

David Schaefer’s Cozmo robots are back with this mind-blowing dance-off!

What you just saw represents hundreds of hours of work, David tells us: “I wrote over 10,000 lines of code to create the dance performance as I had to translate the beats per minute of the song into motor rotations in order to get the right precision needed to make the moves look sharp. The most challenging move was the SpongeBob SquareDance as any misstep would send the Cozmos crashing into each other. LOL! Fortunately for me, Cozmo robots are pretty resilient.”

Life with Cozmo ]

Thanks David!

This week’s GRASP on Robotics seminar is by Sangbae Kim from MIT, on “Robots with Physical Intelligence.”

While industrial robots are effective in repetitive, precise kinematic tasks in factories, the design and control of these robots are not suited for physically interactive performance that humans do easily. These tasks require ‘physical intelligence’ through complex dynamic interactions with environments whereas conventional robots are designed primarily for position control. In order to develop a robot with ‘physical intelligence’, we first need a new type of machines that allow dynamic interactions. This talk will discuss how the new design paradigm allows dynamic interactive tasks. As an embodiment of such a robot design paradigm, the latest version of the MIT Cheetah robots and force-feedback teleoperation arms will be presented.


This week’s CMU Ri Seminar is by Kevin Lynch from Northwestern, on “Robotics and Biosystems.”

Research at the Center for Robotics and Biosystems at Northwestern University encompasses bio-inspiration, neuromechanics, human-machine systems, and swarm robotics, among other topics. In this talk I will give an overview of some of our recent work on in-hand manipulation, robot locomotion on yielding ground, and human-robot systems.

[ CMU RI ]

You could make a pretty persuasive argument that the smartphone represents the single fastest area of technological progress we’re going to experience for the foreseeable future. Every six months or so, there’s something with better sensors, more computing power, and faster connectivity. Many different areas of robotics are benefiting from this on a component level, but over at Intel Labs, they’re taking a more direct approach with a project called OpenBot that turns US $50 worth of hardware and your phone into a mobile robot that can support “advanced robotics workloads such as person following and real-time autonomous navigation in unstructured environments.” 

This work aims to address two key challenges in robotics: accessibility and scalability. Smartphones are ubiquitous and are becoming more powerful by the year. We have developed a combination of hardware and software that turns smartphones into robots. The resulting robots are inexpensive but capable. Our experiments have shown that a $50 robot body powered by a smartphone is capable of person following and real-time autonomous navigation. We hope that the presented work will open new opportunities for education and large-scale learning via thousands of low-cost robots deployed around the world.

Smartphones point to many possibilities for robotics that we have not yet exploited. For example, smartphones also provide a microphone, speaker, and screen, which are not commonly found on existing navigation robots. These may enable research and applications at the confluence of human-robot interaction and natural language processing. We also expect the basic ideas presented in this work to extend to other forms of robot embodiment, such as manipulators, aerial vehicles, and watercraft.

One of the interesting things about this idea is how not-new it is. The highest profile phone robot was likely the $150 Romo, from Romotive, which raised a not-insignificant amount of money on Kickstarter in 2012 and 2013 for a little mobile chassis that accepted one of three different iPhone models and could be controlled via another device or operated somewhat autonomously. It featured “computer vision, autonomous navigation, and facial recognition” capabilities, but was really designed to be a toy. Lack of compatibility hampered Romo a bit, and there wasn’t a lot that it could actually do once the novelty wore off.

As impressive as smartphone hardware was in a robotics context (even back in 2013), we’re obviously way, way beyond that now, and OpenBot figures that smartphones now have enough clout and connectivity that turning them into mobile robots is a good idea. You know, again. We asked Intel Labs’ Matthias Muller why now was the right time to launch OpenBot, and he mentioned things like the existence of a large maker community with broad access to 3D printing as well as open source software that makes broader development easier.

And of course, there’s the smartphone hardware: “Smartphones have become extremely powerful and feature dedicated AI processors in addition to CPUs and GPUs,” says Mueller. “Almost everyone owns a very capable smartphone now. There has been a big boost in sensor performance, especially in cameras, and a lot of the recent developments for VR applications are well aligned with robotic requirements for state estimation.” OpenBot has been tested with 10 recent Android phones, and since camera placement tends to be similar and USB-C is becoming the charging and communications standard, compatibility is less of an issue nowadays. 

Image: OpenBot Intel researchers created this table comparing OpenBot to other wheeled robot platforms, including Amazon’s DeepRacer, MIT’s Duckiebot, iRobot’s Create-2, and Thymio. The top group includes robots based on RC trucks; the bottom group includes navigation robots for deployment at scale and in education. Note that the cost of the smartphone needed for OpenBot is not included in this comparison.

If you’d like an OpenBot of your own, you don’t need to know all that much about robotics hardware or software. For the hardware, you probably need some basic mechanical and electronics experience—think Arduino project level. The software is a little more complicated; there’s a pretty good walkthrough to get some relatively sophisticated behaviors (like autonomous person following) up and running, but things rapidly degenerate into a command line interface that could be intimidating for new users. We did ask about why OpenBot isn’t ROS-based to leverage the robustness and reach of that community, and Muller said that ROS “adds unnecessary overhead,” although “if someone insists on using ROS with OpenBot, it should not be very difficult.”

Without building OpenBot to explicitly be part of an existing ecosystem, the challenge going forward is to make sure that the project is consistently supported, lest it wither and die like so many similar robotics projects have before it. “We are committed to the OpenBot project and will do our best to maintain it,” Mueller assures us. “We have a good track record. Other projects from our group (e.g. CARLA, Open3D, etc.) have also been maintained for several years now.” The inherently open source nature of the project certainly helps, although it can be tricky to rely too much on community contributions, especially when something like this is first starting out.

The OpenBot folks at Intel, we’re told, are already working on a “bigger, faster and more powerful robot body that will be suitable for mass production,” which would certainly help entice more people into giving this thing a go. They’ll also be focusing on documentation, which is probably the most important but least exciting part about building a low-cost community focused platform like this. And as soon as they’ve put together a way for us actual novices to turn our phones into robots that can do cool stuff for cheap, we’ll definitely let you know.

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here's what we have so far (send us your events!):

IROS 2020 – October 25-29, 2020 – [Online] ROS World 2020 – November 12, 2020 – [Online] CYBATHLON 2020 – November 13-14, 2020 – [Online] ICSR 2020 – November 14-16, 2020 – Golden, Colo., USA

Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today's videos.

Engineers at the University of California San Diego have built a squid-like robot that can swim untethered, propelling itself by generating jets of water. The robot carries its own power source inside its body. It can also carry a sensor, such as a camera, for underwater exploration.

[ UCSD ]

Thanks Ioana!

Shark Robotics, French and European leader in Unmanned Ground Vehicles, is announcing today a disinfection add-on for Boston Dynamics Spot robot, designed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The Spot robot with Shark’s purpose-built disinfection payload can decontaminate up to 2,000 m2 in 15 minutes, in any space that needs to be sanitized - such as hospitals, metro stations, offices, warehouses or facilities.

[ Shark Robotics ]

Here’s an update on the Poimo portable inflatable mobility project we wrote about a little while ago; while not strictly robotics, it seems like it holds some promise for rapidly developing different soft structures that robotics might find useful.

[ University of Tokyo ]

Thanks Ryuma!

Pretty cool that you can do useful force feedback teleop while video chatting through a “regular broadband Internet connection.” Although, what “regular” means to you is a bit subjective, right?

[ HEBI Robotics ]

Thanks Dave!

While NASA's Mars rover Perseverance travels through space toward the Red Planet, its nearly identical rover twin is hard at work on Earth. The vehicle system test bed (VSTB) rover named OPTIMISM is a full-scale engineering version of the Mars-bound rover. It is used to test hardware and software before the commands are sent up to the Perseverance rover.

[ NASA ]

Jacquard takes ordinary, familiar objects and enhances them with new digital abilities and experiences, while remaining true to their original purpose — like being your favorite jacket, backpack or a pair of shoes that you love to wear.

Our ambition is simple: to make life easier. By staying connected to your digital world, your things can do so much more. Skip a song by brushing your sleeve. Take a picture by tapping on a shoulder strap. Get reminded about the phone you left behind with a blink of light or a haptic buzz on your cuff.

[ Google ATAP ]

Should you attend the IROS 2020 workshop on “Planetary Exploration Robots: Challenges and Opportunities”? Of course you should!

[ Workshop ]

Kuka makes a lot of these videos where I can’t help but think that if they put as much effort into programming the robot as they did into producing the video, the result would be much more impressive.

[ Kuka ]

The Colorado School of Mines is one of the first customers to buy a Spot robot from Boston Dynamics to help with robotics research. Watch as scientists take Spot into the school's mine for the first time.

[ HCR ] via [ CNET ]

A very interesting soft(ish) actuator from Ayato Kanada at Kyushu University's Control Engineering Lab.

A flexible ultrasonic motor (FUSM), which generates linear motion as a novel soft actuator. This motor consists of a single metal cube stator with a hole and an elastic elongated coil spring inserted into the hole. When voltages are applied to piezoelectric plates on the stator, the coil spring moves back and forward as a linear slider. In the FUSM that uses the friction drive as the principle, the most important parameter for optimizing its output is the preload between the stator and slider. The coil spring has a slightly larger diameter than the stator hole and generates the preload by expanding in a radial direction. The coil springs act not only as a flexible slider but also as a resistive positional sensor. Changes in the resistance between the stator and the coil spring end are converted to a voltage and used for position detection.

[ Control Engineering Lab ]

Thanks Ayato!

We show how to use the limbs of a quadruped robot to identify fine-grained soil, representative for Martian regolith.

[ Paper ] via [ ANYmal Research ]

PR2 is serving breakfast and cleaning up afterwards. It’s slow, but all you have to do is eat and leave.

That poor PR2 is a little more naked than it's probably comfortable with.

[ EASE ]

NVIDIA researchers present a hierarchical framework that combines model-based control and reinforcement learning (RL) to synthesize robust controllers for a quadruped robot (the Unitree Laikago).


What's interesting about this assembly task is that the robot is using its arm only for positioning, and doing the actual assembly with just fingers.

[ RC2L ]

In this electronics assembly application, Kawasaki's cobot duAro2 uses a tool changing station to tackle a multitude of tasks and assemble different CPU models.

Okay but can it apply thermal paste to a CPU in the right way? Personally, I find that impossible.

[ Kawasaki ]

You only need to watch this video long enough to appreciate the concept of putting a robot on a robot.

[ Impress ]

In this lecture, we’ll hear from the man behind one of the biggest robotics companies in the world, Boston Dynamics, whose robotic dog, Spot, has been used to encourage social distancing in Singapore and is now getting ready for FDA approval to be able to measure patients’ vital signs in hospitals.

[ Alan Turing Institute ]

Greg Kahn from UC Berkeley wrote in to share his recent dissertation talk on “Mobile Robot Learning.”

In order to create mobile robots that can autonomously navigate real-world environments, we need generalizable perception and control systems that can reason about the outcomes of navigational decisions. Learning-based methods, in which the robot learns to navigate by observing the outcomes of navigational decisions in the real world, offer considerable promise for obtaining these intelligent navigation systems. However, there are many challenges impeding mobile robots from autonomously learning to act in the real-world, in particular (1) sample-efficiency--how to learn using a limited amount of data? (2) supervision--how to tell the robot what to do? and (3) safety--how to ensure the robot and environment are not damaged or destroyed during learning? In this talk, I will present deep reinforcement learning methods for addressing these real world mobile robot learning challenges and show results which enable ground and aerial robots to navigate in complex indoor and outdoor environments.

[ UC Berkeley ]

Thanks Greg!

Leila Takayama from UC Santa Cruz (and previously Google X and Willow Garage) gives a talk entitled “Toward a more human-centered future of robotics.”

Robots are no longer only in outer space, in factory cages, or in our imaginations. We interact with robotic agents when withdrawing cash from bank ATMs, driving cars with adaptive cruise control, and tuning our smart home thermostats. In the moment of those interactions with robotic agents, we behave in ways that do not necessarily align with the rational belief that robots are just plain machines. Through a combination of controlled experiments and field studies, we use theories and concepts from the social sciences to explore ways that human and robotic agents come together, including how people interact with personal robots and how people interact through telepresence robots. Together, we will explore topics and raise questions about the psychology of human-robot interaction and how we could invent a future of a more human-centered robotics that we actually want to live in.

[ Leila Takayama ]

Roboticist and stand-up comedian Naomi Fitter from Oregon State University gives a talk on “Everything I Know about Telepresence.”

Telepresence robots hold promise to connect people by providing videoconferencing and navigation abilities in far-away environments. At the same time, the impacts of current commercial telepresence robots are not well understood, and circumstances of robot use including internet connection stability, odd personalizations, and interpersonal relationship between a robot operator and people co-located with the robot can overshadow the benefit of the robot itself. And although the idea of telepresence robots has been around for over two decades, available nonverbal expressive abilities through telepresence robots are limited, and suitable operator user interfaces for the robot (for example, controls that allow for the operator to hold a conversation and move the robot simultaneously) remain elusive. So where should we be using telepresence robots? Are there any pitfalls to watch out for? What do we know about potential robot expressivity and user interfaces? This talk will cover my attempts to address these questions and ways in which the robotics research community can build off of this work

[ Talking Robotics ]