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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 25-29, 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.

ロボット応援団に人型ロボット『ATLAS』がアメリカからリモートで緊急参戦!!!
ホークスビジョンの映像をお楽しみ下さい♪#sbhawks #Pepper #spot pic.twitter.com/6aTYn8GGli

— 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.

[ MIT CSAIL ]

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).

[ KAIST ]

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.

[ HKUST ]

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 UCLA and ARL, 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.

[ GRASP ]

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.

Just how do you bring home pieces of asteroid? Carefully, that’s how, with grudging respect for the curveballs the asteroid can throw you.

Sixteen years after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission was first proposed and two years after the robotic spacecraft went into orbit around asteroid 101955 Bennu, mission team members are now counting down to the moment when it will descend to the surface, grab a sample—and then get out of there before anything can go wrong.

The sampling is set for next Tuesday, Oct. 20. If it works, it will be a first for the United States. (A Japanese probe is currently returning to Earth with samples from asteroid 162173 Ryugu.)

Though the mission plan has so far been executed almost flawlessly, an outsider might be forgiven for thinking there’s something a bit…well, counterintuitive about it. The spacecraft has no landing legs, because it will never actually land. Instead, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft vaguely resembles an insect with a long snout—a honeybee, perhaps, hovering over a flower to pollinate it. The “snout” is actually an articulated arm with a 30.5 cm round collection chamber at the end. It’s called TAGSAM – short for Touch-And-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism. You’ve doubtless heard the old expression, “I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole.” The TAGSAM arm is an 11-foot pole.

Gif: Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Arizona/NASA The OSIRIS-REx sampling arm hovers a few meters above Bennu's surface in a practice run for its planned touch-and-go maneuver.

The TAGSAM collector will gently bump the surface—and then try to kick up some rock and dust with a blast of nitrogen gas from a small pressurized canister. If all goes well, at least 60 grams of dirt will be caught in the collection chamber in the 5 to 10 seconds before the spacecraft pulls away.

The mission was conceived in 2004 at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona. It was rejected twice by NASA before it won approval in 2011. The spacecraft was launched in 2016, reached Bennu in 2018, and has surveyed it for two years. If Tuesday's sample pickup is successful (if not, there are two backup nitrogen canisters), the ship will bring its cargo back in a sealed re-entry capsule for a parachute landing in the Utah desert on Sept. 24, 2023.

Think about that: nearly 20 years of work, seven years in space, US$800 million spent, and the moment of truth—actually touching the asteroid—will not even last a minute.

And all for just 60 grams? “That’s like a few sugar packets that you use for your coffee,” says Michael C. Moreau, the deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. But for scientists involved in the mission, that’s enough to conduct their experiments and put some aside for future research. Bennu, and other near-Earth asteroids like it, are interesting because they are rich in carbon, probably dating back 4.5 billion years to the formation of the solar system. Might they tell us about the origins of life on Earth? “We are now optimistic that we will collect and return a sample with organic material—a central goal of the OSIRIS-REx mission,” said Dante Lauretta, the OSIRIS-REx principal investigator at the University of Arizona, who has been on the mission team from the start.

Image: Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Arizona/NASA Asteroid Bennu, imaged by OSIRIS-REx from a distance of 7 km.

Bennu is not a friendly place for a spacecraft, especially a robotic probe operating on its own 334 million km from Earth, far enough away that commands from mission managers take 18 minutes to reach it. The asteroid is a rough, rocky spheroid, about 500 meters in diameter, and it spins fairly rapidly: a “day” on Bennu is about 4.3 hours long. It’s probably not solid. Scientists call it a rubble pile, a cluster of dirt and rock held together by gravity and natural cohesion. And when Moreau says Bennu threw them “a bunch of curveballs,” some of them were literal—pieces of debris being flung out into space from the surface, though not enough to endanger OSIRIS-REx.

An asteroid the size of Bennu has almost no gravity to speak of: an object on the surface would weigh 8 one-millionths of what it would on Earth. That means staying in orbit around it is very delicate business. OSIRIS-REx’s orbital velocity has been on the order of 0.2 km/hr, which means a tortoise could outrun it. More important, it can easily be thrown off course by solar wind, or heating on the sunlit side of the spacecraft, or other miniscule forces. “Wow, a[n extra] millimeter per second three days later changes the position by hundreds of meters,” says Moreau.

Gif: University of Arizona/CSA/York/MDA/NASA A false-color animated gif of asteroid Bennu to show subtle variations in its gravity. Red and orange mean higher elevations; hence, less gravity.

Which is an error they can’t afford. Scientists thought Bennu would have a fine-grained surface, but were surprised when the spacecraft’s images showed a rugged, craggy place with house-sized boulders. They had hoped to pick a touchdown spot 50 m across. But the best they could find was a depression they nicknamed Nightingale, all of 8.2 m wide, with a jagged rock nearby that they call Mount Doom. OSIRIS-REx has a hazard map on board; if it appears off-target it will automatically abort at an altitude of 5 meters.

So there will be some nail-biting on Tuesday, but after 16 years on the project, Dante Lauretta said they’re as ready as they can be. “It’s transcendental,” he said, “when you reach a moment that you’ve devoted most of your career to.”

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).

[ NVIDIA ]

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 ]

Quadrotors are among the most agile and dynamic machines ever created. In the hands of a skilled human pilot, they can do some astonishing series of maneuvers. And while autonomous flying robots have been getting better at flying dynamically in real-world environments, they still haven’t demonstrated the same level of agility of manually piloted ones.

Now researchers from the Robotics and Perception Group at the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich, in collaboration with Intel, have developed a neural network training method that “enables an autonomous quadrotor to fly extreme acrobatic maneuvers with only onboard sensing and computation.” Extreme.

There are two notable things here: First, the quadrotor can do these extreme acrobatics outdoors without any kind of external camera or motion-tracking system to help it out (all sensing and computing is onboard). Second, all of the AI training is done in simulation, without the need for an additional simulation-to-real-world (what researchers call “sim-to-real”) transfer step. Usually, a sim-to-real transfer step means putting your quadrotor into one of those aforementioned external tracking systems, so that it doesn’t completely bork itself while trying to reconcile the differences between the simulated world and the real world, where, as the researchers wrote in a paper describing their system, “even tiny mistakes can result in catastrophic outcomes.”

To enable “zero-shot” sim-to-real transfer, the neural net training in simulation uses an expert controller that knows exactly what’s going on to teach a “student controller” that has much less perfect knowledge. That is, the simulated sensory input that the student ends up using as it learns to follow the expert has been abstracted to present the kind of imperfect, imprecise data it’s going to encounter in the real world. This can involve things like abstracting away the image part of the simulation until you’d have no way of telling the difference between abstracted simulation and abstracted reality, which is what allows the system to make that sim-to-real leap.

The simulation environment that the researchers used was Gazebo, slightly modified to better simulate quadrotor physics. Meanwhile, over in reality, a custom 1.5-kilogram quadrotor with a 4:1 thrust to weight ratio performed the physical experiments, using only a Nvidia Jetson TX2 computing board and an Intel RealSense T265, a dual fisheye camera module optimized for V-SLAM. To challenge the learning system, it was trained to perform three acrobatic maneuvers plus a combo of all of them:

Image: University of Zurich/ETH Zurich/Intel Reference trajectories for acrobatic maneuvers. Top row, from left: Power Loop, Barrel Roll, and Matty Flip. Bottom row: Combo.

All of these maneuvers require high accelerations of up to 3 g’s and careful control, and the Matty Flip is particularly challenging, at least for humans, because the whole thing is done while the drone is flying backwards. Still, after just a few hours of training in simulation, the drone was totally real-world competent at these tricks, and could even extrapolate a little bit to perform maneuvers that it was not explicitly trained on, like doing multiple loops in a row. Where humans still have the advantage over drones is (as you might expect since we’re talking about robots) is quickly reacting to novel or unexpected situations. And when you’re doing this sort of thing outdoors, novel and unexpected situations are everywhere, from a gust of wind to a jealous bird.

For more details, we spoke with Antonio Loquercio from the University of Zurich’s Robotics and Perception Group.

IEEE Spectrum: Can you explain how the abstraction layer interfaces with the simulated sensors to enable effective sim-to-real transfer?

Antonio Loquercio: The abstraction layer applies a specific function to the raw sensor information. Exactly the same function is applied to the real and simulated sensors. The result of the function, which is “abstracted sensor measurements,” makes simulated and real observation of the same scene similar. For example, suppose we have a sequence of simulated and real images. We can very easily tell apart the real from the simulated ones given the difference in rendering. But if we apply the abstraction function of “feature tracks,” which are point correspondences in time, it becomes very difficult to tell which are the simulated and real feature tracks, since point correspondences are independent of the rendering. This applies for humans as well as for neural networks: Training policies on raw images gives low sim-to-real transfer (since images are too different between domains), while training on the abstracted images has high transfer abilities.

How useful is visual input from a camera like the Intel RealSense T265 for state estimation during such aggressive maneuvers? Would using an event camera substantially improve state estimation?

Our end-to-end controller does not require a state estimation module. It shares however some components with traditional state estimation pipelines, specifically the feature extractor and the inertial measurement unit (IMU) pre-processing and integration function. The input of the neural networks are feature tracks and integrated IMU measurements. When looking at images with low features (for example when the camera points to the sky), the neural net will mainly rely on IMU. When more features are available, the network uses to correct the accumulated drift from IMU. Overall, we noticed that for very short maneuvers IMU measurements were sufficient for the task. However, for longer ones, visual information was necessary to successfully address the IMU drift and complete the maneuver. Indeed, visual information reduces the odds of a crash by up to 30 percent in the longest maneuvers. We definitely think that event camera can improve even more the current approach since they could provide valuable visual information during high speed.

“The Matty Flip is probably one of the maneuvers that our approach can do very well … It is super challenging for humans, since they don’t see where they’re going and have problems in estimating their speed. For our approach the maneuver is no problem at all, since we can estimate forward velocities as well as backward velocities.” —Antonio Loquercio, University of Zurich

You describe being able to train on “maneuvers that stretch the abilities of even expert human pilots.” What are some examples of acrobatics that your drones might be able to do that most human pilots would not be capable of?

The Matty Flip is probably one of the maneuvers that our approach can do very well, but human pilots find very challenging. It basically entails doing a high speed power loop by always looking backward. It is super challenging for humans, since they don’t see where they’re going and have problems in estimating their speed. For our approach the maneuver is no problem at all, since we can estimate forward velocities as well as backward velocities.

What are the limits to the performance of this system?

At the moment the main limitation is the maneuver duration. We never trained a controller that could perform maneuvers longer than 20 seconds. In the future, we plan to address this limitation and train general controllers which can fly in that agile way for significantly longer with relatively small drift. In this way, we could start being competitive against human pilots in drone racing competitions.

Can you talk about how the techniques developed here could be applied beyond drone acrobatics?

The current approach allows us to do acrobatics and agile flight in free space. We are now working to perform agile flight in cluttered environments, which requires a higher degree of understanding of the surrounding with respect to this project. Drone acrobatics is of course only an example application. We selected it because it makes a stress test of the controller performance. However, several other applications which require fast and agile flight can benefit from our approach. Examples are delivery (we want our Amazon packets always faster, don’t we?), search and rescue, or inspection. Going faster allows us to cover more space in less time, saving battery costs. Indeed, agile flight has very similar battery consumption of slow hovering for an autonomous drone.

Deep Drone Acrobatics,” by Elia Kaufmann, Antonio Loquercio, René Ranftl, Matthias Müller, Vladlen Koltun, and Davide Scaramuzza from the Robotics and Perception Group at the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich, and Intel’s Intelligent Systems Lab, was presented at RSS 2020.

Details on the design and clinical tests of an open-source bionic leg are now freely available online, so that researchers can hopefully create and test safe and useful new prosthetics.

Bionic knees, ankles and legs under development worldwide to help patients walk are equipped with electric motors. Getting the most from such powered prosthetics requires safe and reliable control systems that can account for many different types of motion: for example, shifting from striding on level ground to walking up or down ramps or stairs.

However, developing such control systems has proven difficult. “The challenge stems from the fact that these limbs support a person's body weight,” says Elliott Rouse, a biomedical engineer and director of the neurobionics lab at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “If it makes a mistake, a person can fall and get seriously injured. That's a really high burden on a control system, in addition to trying to have it help people with activities in their daily life.”

Part of the problem with designing these control systems is the fact that many research groups don't have access to prosthetic legs for testing purposes. As such, they have to either build their own, which is expensive and time-consuming, or rely on virtual testing, which may not adequately emulate real-life situations.

To solve this problem, Rouse and his colleagues have developed the Open Source Leg. The scientists detailed their research findings online today in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering. Accompanying the artificial limb are free-to-copy step-by-step guides meant to assist researchers looking to assemble it or order parts for it. The Michigan group has also produced videos illustrating how to build and test the hardware, and has developed code for programming the prosthetic to walk using a preliminary control system. 

The scientists focused on keeping the Open Source Leg relatively easy to assemble, control, and maintain by reducing the number of parts and suppliers needed. The knee and ankle joints can operate independently, allowing research in patients with above-knee and below-knee amputations. In addition, each joint has on-board batteries and its own set of sensing and control systems, enabling test outside the laboratory. Also, a number of the Open Source Leg's design and control features can be customized to fit specific research needs, such as the foot type and the knee elasticity.

A key part of the new prosthetic's design is the use of brushless electric motors developed for the drone industry “that were not previously used in our field,” Rouse says. These flat, pancake-shaped devices give up speed in exchange for more torque, allowing for more efficient, finer control and more human-like movements. Designing these motors to be as light and efficient as possible—a key feature in unmanned aircraft—meant that, in the Open Source Leg, “they made it easier to walk with less fatigue, and the batteries onboard the prosthetic could be smaller,” Rouse says.

Photo: Joseph Xu/Michigan Engineering

The bionic leg they designed weighs only 4 kilograms or so. Although that's significantly lighter than a biological leg, to patients, it still feels heavier than it is “because it's not attached to the skeleton; it's attached to a prosthetic socket,” Rouse says.
All in all, the Open Source Leg costs about $10,000 to $30,000, depending on the options wanted. By contrast, commercially available powered prosthetics cost up to $100,000, the researchers note.

In a new study, the scientists conducted clinical tests of the Open Source Leg with three volunteers with above-knee amputations who had tried other powered leg prostheses. When they wore the new device in a hospital setting, they met goals set by physical therapists such as walking up and down stairs. What’s more, they noted it felt supportive, responsive, and smooth.

“They liked the Open Source leg a lot,” Rouse says. One volunteer “didn't feel like he was riding it, as he did other prostheses; he said it did what he wanted it to do. He got a feeling of embodiment he didn't get with conventional prostheses.”

Rouse notes that eight other institutions have asked for the new legs or are building their own. “We're really impressed with their interest and desire to collaborate with us and willingness to help,” he says. “They're helping make the system better.”

Recently Yujin Robot launched a new 3D LiDAR for indoor service robot, AGVs/AMRs and smart factory.  The YRL3 series is a line of precise laser sensors for vertical and horizontal scanning to detect environments or objects.  The Yujin Robot YRL3 series LiDAR is designed for indoor applications and utilizes an innovative 3D scanning LiDAR for a 270°(Horizontal) x 90°(vertical) dynamic field of view as a single channel.  The fundamental principle is based on direct ToF (Time of Flight) and designed to measure distances towards surroundings.  YRL3 collect useful data including ranges, angles, intensities and Cartesian coordinates (x,y,z).  Real-time vertical right-angle adjustment is possible and supports powerful S/W package for autonomous driving devices.

“In recent years, our product lineup expanded to include models for the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” shares the marketing team of Yujin Robot.  These models namely are Kobuki, the ROS reference research robot platform used by robotics research labs around the world, the Yujin LiDAR range-finding scanning sensor for LiDAR-based autonomous driving, AMS solution (Autonomous Mobility Solution) for customized autonomous driving.  The company continues to push the boundaries of robotics and artificial intelligence, developing game-changing autonomous solutions that give companies around the world an edge over the competition.

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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!):

AUVSI EXPONENTIAL 2020 – October 5-8, 2020 – [Online] 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.

Bear Robotics, a robotics and artificial intelligence company, and SoftBank Robotics Group, a leading robotics manufacturer and solutions provider, have collaborated to bring a new robot named Servi to the food service and hospitality field.

[ Bear Robotics ]

A literal in-depth look at Engineered Arts’ Mesmer android.

Engineered Arts ]

Is your robot running ROS? Is it connected to the Internet? Are you actually in control of it right now? Are you sure?

I appreciate how the researchers admitted to finding two of their own robots as part of the scan, a Baxter and a drone.

[ Brown ]

Smile Robotics describes this as “(possibly) world’s first full-autonomous clear-up-the-table robot.”

We’re not qualified to make a judgement on the world firstness, but personally I hate clearing tables, so this robot has my vote.

Smile Robotics founder and CEO Takashi Ogura, along with chief engineer Mitsutaka Kabasawa and engineer Kazuya Kobayashi, are former Google roboticists. Ogura also worked at SCHAFT. Smile says its robot uses ROS and is controlled by a framework written mainly in Rust, adding: “We are hiring Rustacean Roboticists!”  

[ Smile Robotics ]

We’re not entirely sure why, but Panasonic has released plans for an Internet of Things system for hamsters.

We devised a recipe for a "small animal healthcare device" that can measure the weight and activity of small animals, the temperature and humidity of the breeding environment, and manage their health. This healthcare device visualizes the health status and breeding environment of small animals and manages their health to promote early detection of diseases. While imagining the scene where a healthcare device is actually used for an important small animal that we treat with affection, we hope to help overcome the current difficult situation through manufacturing.

[ Panasonic ] via [ RobotStart ]

Researchers at Yale have developed a robotic fabric, a breakthrough that could lead to such innovations as adaptive clothing, self-deploying shelters, or lightweight shape-changing machinery.

The researchers focused on processing functional materials into fiber-form so they could be integrated into fabrics while retaining its advantageous properties. For example, they made variable stiffness fibers out of an epoxy embedded with particles of Field’s metal, an alloy that liquifies at relatively low temperatures. When cool, the particles are solid metal and make the material stiffer; when warm, the particles melt into liquid and make the material softer.

Yale ]

In collaboration with Armasuisse and SBB, RSL demonstrated the use of a teleoperated Menzi Muck M545 to clean up a rock slide in Central Switzerland. The machine can be operated from a teloperation platform with visual and motion feedback. The walking excavator features an active chassis that can adapt to uneven terrain.

ETHZ RSL ]

An international team of JKU researchers is continuing to develop their vision for robots made out of soft materials. A new article in the journal "Communications Materials" demonstrates just how these kinds of soft machines react using weak magnetic fields to move very quickly. A triangle-shaped robot can roll itself in air at high speed and walk forward when exposed to an alternating in-plane square wave magnetic field (3.5 mT, 1.5 Hz). The diameter of the robot is 18 mm with a thickness of 80 µm. A six-arm robot can grab, transport, and release non-magnetic objects such as a polyurethane foam cube controlled by a permanent magnet.

Okay but tell me more about that cute sheep.

JKU ]

Interbotix has this “research level robotic crawler,” which both looks mean and runs ROS, a dangerous combination.

And here’s how it all came together:

[ Interbotix ]

I guess if you call them “loitering missile systems” rather than “drones that blow things up” people are less likely to get upset?

[ AeroVironment ]

In this video, we show a planner for a master dual-arm robot to manipulate tethered tools with an assistant dual-arm robot’s help. The assistant robot provides assistance to the master robot by manipulating the tool cable and avoiding collisions. The provided assistance allows the master robot to perform tool placements on the robot workspace table to regrasp the tool, which would typically fail since the tool cable tension may change the tool positions. It also allows the master robot to perform tool handovers, which would normally cause entanglements or collisions with the cable and the environment without the assistance.

[ Harada Lab ]

This video shows a flexible and robust robotic system for autonomous drawing on 3D surfaces. The system takes 2D drawing strokes and a 3D target surface (mesh or point clouds) as input. It maps the 2D strokes onto the 3D surface and generates a robot motion to draw the mapped strokes using visual recognition, grasp pose reasoning, and motion planning.

[ Harada Lab ]

Weekly mobility test. This time the Warthog takes on a fallen tree. Will it cross it? The answer is in the video!

And the answer is: kinda?

[ NORLAB ]

One of the advantages of walking machines is their ability to apply forces in all directions and of various magnitudes to the environment. Many of the multi-legged robots are equipped with point contact feet as these simplify the design and control of the robot. The iStruct project focuses on the development of a foot that allows extensive contact with the environment.

[ DFKI ]

An urgent medical transport was simulated in NASA’s second Systems Integration and Operationalization (SIO) demonstration Sept. 28 with partner Bell Textron Inc. Bell used the remotely-piloted APT 70 to conduct a flight representing an urgent medical transport mission. It is envisioned in the future that an operational APT 70 could provide rapid medical transport for blood, organs, and perishable medical supplies (payload up to 70 pounds). The APT 70 is estimated to move three times as fast as ground transportation.

Always a little suspicious when the video just shows the drone flying, and sitting on the ground, but not that tricky transition between those two states.

[ NASA ]

A Lockheed Martin Robotics Seminar on “Socially Assistive Mobile Robots,” by Yi Guo from Stevens Institute of Technology.

The use of autonomous mobile robots in human environments is on the rise. Assistive robots have been seen in real-world environments, such as robot guides in airports, robot polices in public parks, and patrolling robots in supermarkets. In this talk, I will first present current research activities conducted in the Robotics and Automation Laboratory at Stevens. I’ll then focus on robot-assisted pedestrian regulation, where pedestrian flows are regulated and optimized through passive human-robot interaction.

[ UMD ]

This week’s CMU RI Seminar is by CMU’s Zachary Manchester, on “The World’s Tiniest Space Program.”

The aerospace industry has experienced a dramatic shift over the last decade: Flying a spacecraft has gone from something only national governments and large defense contractors could afford to something a small startup can accomplish on a shoestring budget. A virtuous cycle has developed where lower costs have led to more launches and the growth of new markets for space-based data. However, many barriers remain. This talk will focus on driving these trends to their ultimate limit by harnessing advances in electronics, planning, and control to build spacecraft that cost less than a new smartphone and can be deployed in large numbers.

[ CMU RI ]

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Yesterday, the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) showed off some of the projects that it’s been working on recently, including a ceiling-mounted robot that could one day help us with household chores. That system is just one example of how TRI envisions the future of robotics and artificial intelligence. As TRI CEO Gill Pratt told us, the company is focusing on robotics and AI technology for “amplifying, rather than replacing, human beings.” In other words, Toyota wants to develop robots not for convenience or to do our jobs for us, but rather to allow people to continue to live and work independently even as we age.

To better understand Toyota’s vision of robotics 15 to 20 years from now, it’s worth watching the 20-minute video below, which depicts various scenarios “where the application of robotic capabilities is enabling members of an aging society to live full and independent lives in spite of the challenges that getting older brings.” It’s a long video, but it helps explains TRI’s perspective on how robots will collaborate with humans in our daily lives over the next couple of decades.

Those are some interesting conceptual telepresence-controlled bipeds they’ve got running around in that video, right?

For more details, we sent TRI some questions on how it plans to go from concepts like the ones shown in the video to real products that can be deployed in human environments. Below are answers from TRI CEO Gill Pratt, who is also chief scientist for Toyota Motor Corp.; Steffi Paepcke, senior UX designer at TRI; and Max Bajracharya, VP of robotics at TRI.

IEEE Spectrum: TRI seems to have a more explicit focus on eventual commercialization than most of the robotics research that we cover. At what point TRI starts to think about things like reliability and cost?

Photo: TRI Toyota is exploring robots capable of manipulating dishes in a sink and a dishwasher, performing experiments and simulations to make sure that the robots can handle a wide range of conditions. 

Gill Pratt: It’s a really interesting question, because the normal way to think about this would be to say, well, both reliability and cost are product development tasks. But actually, we need to think about it at the earliest possible stage with research as well. The hardware that we use in the laboratory for doing experiments, we don’t worry about cost there, or not nearly as much as you’d worry about for a product. However, in terms of what research we do, we very much have to think about, is it possible (if the research is successful) for it to end up in a product that has a reasonable cost. Because if a customer can’t afford what we come up with, maybe it has some academic value but it’s not actually going to make a difference in their quality of life in the real world. So we think about cost very much from the beginning.

The same is true with reliability. Right now, we’re working very hard to make our control techniques robust to wide variations in the environment. For instance, in work that Russ Tedrake is doing with manipulating dishes in a sink and a dishwasher, both in physical testing and in simulation, we’re doing thousands and now millions of different experiments to make sure that we can handle the edge cases and it works over a very wide range of conditions.

A tremendous amount of work that we do is trying to bring robotics out of the age of doing demonstrations. There’s been a history of robotics where for some time, things have not been reliable, so we’d catch the robot succeeding just once and then show that video to the world, and people would get the mis-impression that it worked all of the time. Some researchers have been very good about showing the blooper reel too, to show that some of the time, robots don’t work.

“A tremendous amount of work that we do is trying to bring robotics out of the age of doing demonstrations. There’s been a history of robotics where for some time, things have not been reliable, so we’d catch the robot succeeding just once and then show that video to the world, and people would get the mis-impression that it worked all of the time.” —Gill Pratt, TRI

In the spirit of sharing things that didn’t work, can you tell us a bit about some of the robots that TRI has had under development that didn’t make it into the demo yesterday because they were abandoned along the way?

Steffi Paepcke: We’re really looking at how we can connect people; it can be hard to stay in touch and see our loved ones as much as we would like to. There have been a few prototypes that we’ve worked on that had to be put on the shelf, at least for the time being. We were exploring how to use light so that people could be ambiently aware of one another across distances. I was very excited about that—the internal name was “glowing orb.” For a variety of reasons, it didn’t work out, but it was really fascinating to investigate different modalities for keeping in touch.

Another prototype we worked on—we found through our research that grocery shopping is obviously an important part of life, and for a lot of older adults, it’s not necessarily the right answer to always have groceries delivered. Getting up and getting out of the house keeps you physically active, and a lot of people prefer to continue doing it themselves. But it can be challenging, especially if you’re purchasing heavy items that you need to transport. We had a prototype that assisted with grocery shopping, but when we pivoted our focus to Japan, we found that the inside of a Japanese home really needs to stay inside, and the outside needs to stay outside, so a robot that traverses both domains is probably not the right fit for a Japanese audience, and those were some really valuable lessons for us.

Photo: TRI

Toyota recently demonstrated a gantry robot that would hang from the ceiling to perform tasks like wiping surfaces and clearing clutter.

I love that TRI is exploring things like the gantry robot both in terms of near-term research and as part of its long-term vision, but is a robot like this actually worth pursuing? Or more generally, what’s the right way to compromise between making an environment robot friendly, and asking humans to make changes to their homes?

Max Bajracharya: We think a lot about the problems that we’re trying to address in a holistic way. We don’t want to just give people a robot, and assume that they’re not going to change anything about their lifestyle. We have a lot of evidence from people who use automated vacuum cleaners that people will adapt to the tools you give them, and they’ll change their lifestyle. So we want to think about what is that trade between changing the environment, and giving people robotic assistance and tools.

We certainly think that there are ways to make the gantry system plausible. The one you saw today is obviously a prototype and does require significant infrastructure. If we’re going to retrofit a home, that isn’t going to be the way to do it. But we still feel like we’re very much in the prototype phase, where we’re trying to understand whether this is worth it to be able to bypass navigation challenges, and coming up with the pros and cons of the gantry system. We’re evaluating whether we think this is the right approach to solving the problem.

To what extent do you think humans should be either directly or indirectly in the loop with home and service robots?

Bajracharya: Our goal is to amplify people, so achieving this is going to require robots to be in a loop with people in some form. One thing we have learned is that using people in a slow loop with robots, such as teaching them or helping them when they make mistakes, gives a robot an important advantage over one that has to do everything perfectly 100 percent of the time. In unstructured human environments, robots are going to encounter corner cases, and are going to need to learn to adapt. People will likely play an important role in helping the robots learn.

Over the last several years, Toyota has been putting more muscle into forward-looking robotics research than just about anyone. In addition to the Toyota Research Institute (TRI), there’s that massive 175-acre robot-powered city of the future that Toyota still plans to build next to Mount Fuji. Even Toyota itself acknowledges that it might be crazy, but that’s just how they roll—as TRI CEO Gill Pratt told me a while back, when Toyota decides to do something, they really do go all-in on it.

TRI has been focusing heavily on home robots, which is reflective of the long-term nature of what TRI is trying to do, because home robots are both the place where we’ll need robots the most at the same time as they’re the place where it’s going to be hardest to deploy them. The unpredictable nature of homes, and the fact that homes tend to have squishy fragile people in them, are robot-unfriendly characteristics, but as the population continues to age (an increasingly acute problem in Japan), homes offer an enormous amount of potential for helping us maintain our independence.

Today, Toyota is showing off some of the research that it’s been working on recently, in the form of a virtual reality presentation in lieu of an in-person press event. For journalists, TRI pre-loaded the recording onto a VR headset, which was FedEx’ed to my house. You can watch the entire 40-minute presentation in 360 video on YouTube (or in VR if you have a headset of your own), but if you don’t watch the whole thing, you should at least check out the full-on GLaDOS (with arms) that TRI thinks belongs in your home.

The presentation features an introduction from Gill Pratt, who looks entirely too comfortable embedded inside of one of TRI’s telepresence robots. The event also covers a lot of territory, but the highlight is almost certainly the new hardware that TRI demonstrates.

Soft bubble gripper Photo: TRI

This is a “soft bubble gripper,” under development at TRI’s Cambridge, Mass., branch. These passively-compliant, air-filled grippers make it easier to grasp many different kinds of objects safely, but the nifty thing is that they’ve got cameras inside of them watching a pattern of dots on the interior of the soft membrane.

When the outside of the bubble makes contact with an object, the bubble deforms, and the deformation of the dot pattern on the inside can be tracked by the camera to determine both directions and magnitudes of forces. This is a concept that we’ve seen elsewhere before, but TRI’s implementation is a clever way of making an inherently safe end effector that can still perform all the sensing you need it to do for relatively complex manipulation tasks. 

The bubble gripper was presented at ICRA this year, and you can read the technical paper here.

Ceiling-mounted home robot Photo: TRI

I don’t know whether robots dangling from the ceiling was somehow sinister pre-Portal, but it sure as heck is for me having played through that game a couple of times, and it’s since been reinforced by AUTO from WALL-E.

The reason that we generally see robots mounted on the floor or on tables or on mobile bases is that we’re bipeds, not bats, and giving a robot access to a human-like workspace is easiest to do if you also give that robot a human-like position and orientation. And if you want to be able to reach stuff high up, you do what TRI did with their previous generation of kitchen manipulator, and just give it the ability to make itself super tall. But TRI is convinced it’s a good place to put our future home robots:

One innovative concept is a “gantry robot” that would descend from an overhead framework to perform tasks such as loading the dishwasher, wiping surfaces, and clearing clutter. By traveling on the ceiling, the robot avoids the problems of navigating household floor clutter and navigating cramped spaces. When not in use, the robot would tuck itself up out of the way. To further investigate this idea, the team has built a laboratory prototype robot that can do all the same tasks as a floor-based mobile robot but with the innovative overhead mobility system.

Another obvious problem with the gantry robot is that you have to install all kinds of stuff in your ceiling for this to work, which makes it very impractical (if not totally impossible) to introduce a system like this into a home that wasn’t built specifically for it. If, however, you do build a home with a robot like this in mind, the animation below from TRI shows how it could be extra useful. Suddenly, stairs are a non-issue. Payload is presumably also a non-issue, since loads can be transferred to the ceiling. Batteries become unnecessary, so the whole robot can be much lighter weight, which in turn makes it safer. Sensors get a fantastic view, and obstacle avoidance becomes trivial.

Robots as “time machines” Photo: TRI

TRI’s presentation covered more than what we’ve highlighted here—our focus has been on the hardware prototypes, but TRI had more to talk about, including learning through demonstration, scaling learning through simulation, and how TRI has been working with users to figure out what research directions should be explored. It’s all available right now on YouTube, and it’s well worth 40 minutes of your time.

“What we’re really focused on is this principle idea of amplifying, rather than replacing, human beings” —Gill Pratt, TRI

It’s only been five years since Toyota announced the $1 billion investment that established TRI, and it feels like the progress that’s been made since then has been substantial. It’s not often that vision, resources, and long-term commitment come together like this, and TRI’s emphasis on making life better for people is one of the things that helps to keep us optimistic about the future of robotics.

“What we’re really focused on is this principle idea of amplifying, rather than replacing, human beings,” Gill Pratt told us. “And what it means to amplify a person, particularly as they’re aging—what we’re really trying to do is build a time machine. This may sound fanciful, and of course we can’t build a real time machine, but maybe we can build robotic assistants to make our lives as we age seem as if we are actually using a time machine.” He explains that it doesn’t mean building robots for convenience or to do our jobs for us. “It means building technology that enables us to continue to live and to work and to relate to each other as if we were younger,” he says. “And that’s really what our main goal is.”

A huge number of machine learning applications could receive a performance upgrade, thanks to a relatively minor modification to their underlying neural networks. 

If you are a developer creating a new machine learning application, you typically build on top of a existing neural network architecture, one that is already tuned for the kind of problem you are trying to solve—creating your own architecture from scratch is a difficult job that’s typically more trouble than it’s worth. Even with an existing architecture in hand, reengineering it for better performance is no small task. But one team has come up with new neural network module that can boost AI performance when plugged into four of the most widely used architectures.

Critically, the research funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and Army Research Office achieves this performance boost through the new module without requiring much of an increase in computing power. It’s part of a broader project by North Carolina State University researchers to rethink the architecture of the neural networks involved in modern AI’s deep learning capabilities. 

“At the macro level, we try to redesign the entire neural network as a whole,” says Tianfu Wu, an electrical and computer engineer at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “Then we try to focus on the specific components of the neural network.”

Wu and his colleagues presented their work (PDF) on the new neural network component, or module, named Attentive Normalization, at the virtual version of the 16th European Conference on Computer Vision in August. They have also released the code so that other researchers can plug the module into their own deep learning models.

The most noticeable improvement in performance came in the neural network architectures suited for mobile platforms such as smartphones

In preliminary testing, the group found that the new module improved performance in four mainstream neural network architectures: ResNets, DenseNets, MobileNetsV2 and AOGNets. The researchers checked the upgraded networks’ performances against two industry benchmarks for testing visual object recognition and classification, including ImageNet-1000 and MS-COCO 2017. For example, the new module boosted the top-1 accuracy in the ImageNet-1000 benchmark by between 0.5 percent and 2.7 percent. This may seem small, but it can make a significant difference in practice, not least because of the large scale of many machine learning deployments. 

Altogether, the diverse array of architectures are suitable for performing AI-driven tasks on both large computing systems and mobile devices with more limited computing power. But the most noticeable improvement in performance came in the neural network architectures suited for mobile platforms such as smartphones.

The key to the team’s success came from combining two neural network modules that usually operate separately. “In order to make a neural network more powerful or easier to train, feature normalization and feature attention are probably two of the most important components,” Wu says.

The feature normalization module helps to make sure that no single subset of the data used to train a neural network outweighs the other subsets in shaping the deep learning model. By comparing neural network training to driving a car on a dark road, Wu describes feature normalization as the car’s suspension system smoothing out the jolts from any bumps in the road.

By comparison, the feature attention module helps to focus on certain features in the training data that could better achieve the learning task at hand. Going back to the car analogy for training neural networks, the feature attention module represents the vehicle headlights showing what to look out for on the dark road ahead.

After scrutinizing both modules, the researchers realized that certain sub-processes in both modules overlap in the shared goal of re-calibrating certain features in the training data. That provided a natural integration point for combining feature normalization and feature attention in the new module. “We want to see different micro components in neural architecture that can be and should be integrated together to make them more effective,” Wu says. 

Wu and his colleagues also designed the new module so that it could perform the re-calibration task in a more dynamic and adaptive way than the standard modules. That may offer benefits when it comes to transfer learning—taking AI trained on one set of data to perform a given task and applying it to new data for a related task (for example, in a face recognition application, developers typically start with a network that’s good at identifying what objects in a camera’s view are faces, and then train it to recognize specific people).

The new module represents just one small part of the North Carolina State group’s vision for redesigning modern AI. For example, the researchers are trying to develop interpretable AI systems that allow humans to better understand the logic of AI decisions—a not insignificant problem for deep learning models based on neural networks. As one possible step toward that goal, Wu and his colleagues previously developed a framework for building deep neural networks based on a compositional grammar system.

Meanwhile, Wu still sees many other opportunities for fine-tuning smaller parts of neural networks without requiring a complete overhaul of the main architecture.

“There are so many other components in deep neural networks,” Wu says. “We probably also can take a similar angle and try to look at whether there are natural integration points to put them together, or try to redesign them in better a form.”

Photo: Sivaram V/Reuters A robot, developed by Asimov Robotics to spread awareness about the coronavirus, holds a tray with face masks and sanitizer.

As the coronavirus emergency exploded into a full-blown pandemic in early 2020, forcing countless businesses to shutter, robot-making companies found themselves in an unusual situation: Many saw a surge in orders. Robots don’t need masks, can be easily disinfected, and, of course, they don’t get sick.

An army of automatons has since been deployed all over the world to help with the crisis: They are monitoring patientssanitizing hospitalsmaking deliveries, and helping frontline medical workers reduce their exposure to the virus. Not all robots operate autonomously—many, in fact, require direct human supervision, and most are limited to simple, repetitive tasks. But robot makers say the experience they’ve gained during this trial-by-fire deployment will make their future machines smarter and more capable. These photos illustrate how robots are helping us fight this pandemic—and how they might be able to assist with the next one.

DROID TEAM Photo: Clement Uwiringiyimana/Reuters

A squad of robots serves as the first line of defense against person-to-person transmission at a medical center in Kigali, Rwanda. Patients walking into the facility get their temperature checked by the machines, which are equipped with thermal cameras atop their heads. Developed by UBTech Robotics, in China, the robots also use their distinctive appearance—they resemble characters out of a Star Wars movie—to get people’s attention and remind them to wash their hands and wear masks.

Photo: Clement Uwiringiyimana/Reuters SAY “AAH”

To speed up COVID-19 testing, a team of Danish doctors and engineers at the University of Southern Denmark and at Lifeline Robotics is developing a fully automated swab robot. It uses computer vision and machine learning to identify the perfect target spot inside the person’s throat; then a robotic arm with a long swab reaches in to collect the sample—all done with a swiftness and consistency that humans can’t match. In this photo, one of the creators, Esben Østergaard, puts his neck on the line to demonstrate that the robot is safe.

Photo: University of Southern Denmark GERM ZAPPER

After six of its doctors became infected with the coronavirus, the Sassarese hospital in Sardinia, Italy, tightened its safety measures. It also brought in the robots. The machines, developed by UVD Robots, use lidar to navigate autonomously. Each bot carries an array of powerful short-wavelength ultraviolet-C lights that destroy the genetic material of viruses and other pathogens after a few minutes of exposure. Now there is a spike in demand for UV-disinfection robots as hospitals worldwide deploy them to sterilize intensive care units and operating theaters.

Photo: UVD Robots RUNNING ERRANDS

In medical facilities, an ideal role for robots is taking over repetitive chores so that nurses and physicians can spend their time doing more important tasks. At Shenzhen Third People’s Hospital, in China, a robot called Aimbot drives down the hallways, enforcing face-mask and social-distancing rules and spraying disinfectant. At a hospital near Austin, Texas, a humanoid robot developed by Diligent Robotics fetches supplies and brings them to patients’ rooms. It repeats this task day and night, tirelessly, allowing the hospital staff to spend more time interacting with patients.

Photos, left: Diligent Robotics; Right: UBTech Robotics THE DOCTOR IS IN

Nurses and doctors at Circolo Hospital in Varese, in northern Italy—the country’s hardest-hit region—use robots as their avatars, enabling them to check on their patients around the clock while minimizing exposure and conserving protective equipment. The robots, developed by Chinese firm Sanbot, are equipped with cameras and microphones and can also access patient data like blood oxygen levels. Telepresence robots, originally designed for offices, are becoming an invaluable tool for medical workers treating highly infectious diseases like COVID-19, reducing the risk that they’ll contract the pathogen they’re fighting against.

Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

HELP FROM ABOVE Photo: Zipline

Authorities in several countries attempted to use drones to enforce lockdowns and social-distancing rules, but the effectiveness of such measures remains unclear. A better use of drones was for making deliveries. In the United States, startup Zipline deployed its fixed-wing autonomous aircraft to connect two medical facilities 17 kilometers apart. For the staff at the Huntersville Medical Center, in North Carolina, masks, gowns, and gloves literally fell from the skies. The hope is that drones like Zipline’s will one day be able to deliver other kinds of critical materials, transport test samples, and distribute drugs and vaccines.

Photos: Zipline SPECIAL DELIVERY

It’s not quite a robot takeover, but the streets and sidewalks of dozens of cities around the world have seen a proliferation of hurrying wheeled machines. Delivery robots are now in high demand as online orders continue to skyrocket.

In Hamburg, the six-wheeled robots developed by Starship Technologies navigate using cameras, GPS, and radar to bring groceries to customers.

Photo: Christian Charisius/Picture Alliance/Getty Images

In Medellín, Colombia, a startup called Rappi deployed a fleet of robots, built by Kiwibot, to deliver takeout to people in lockdown. 

Photo: Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images

China’s JD.com, one of the country’s largest e-commerce companies, is using 20 robots to transport goods in Changsha, Hunan province; each vehicle has 22 separate compartments, which customers unlock using face authentication.

Photos: TPG/Getty Images LIFE THROUGH ROBOTS

Robots can’t replace real human interaction, of course, but they can help people feel more connected at a time when meetings and other social activities are mostly on hold.

In Ostend, Belgium, ZoraBots brought one of its waist-high robots, equipped with cameras, microphones, and a screen, to a nursing home, allowing residents like Jozef Gouwy to virtually communicate with loved ones despite a ban on in-person visits. 

Photo: Yves Herman/Reuters

In Manila, nearly 200 high school students took turns “teleporting” into a tall wheeled robot, developed by the school’s robotics club, to walk on stage during their graduation ceremony. 

Photo: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

And while Japan’s Chiba Zoological Park was temporarily closed due to the pandemic, the zoo used an autonomous robotic vehicle called RakuRo, equipped with 360-degree cameras, to offer virtual tours to children quarantined at home.

Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images SENTRY ROBOTS

Offices, stores, and medical centers are adopting robots as enforcers of a new coronavirus code.

At Fortis Hospital in Bangalore, India, a robot called Mitra uses a thermal camera to perform a preliminary screening of patients.

Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

In Tunisia, the police use a tanklike robot to patrol the streets of its capital city, Tunis, verifying that citizens have permission to go out during curfew hours.

Photo: Khaled Nasraoui/Picture Alliance/Getty Images

And in Singapore, the Bishan-Ang Moh Kio Park unleashed a Spot robot dog, developed by Boston Dynamics, to search for social-distancing violators. Spot won’t bark at them but will rather play a recorded message reminding park-goers to keep their distance.

Photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images

This article appears in the October 2020 print issue as “How Robots Became Essential Workers.”

Among all of the other in-person events that have been totally wrecked by COVID-19 is the Cave Circuit of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge. DARPA has already hosted the in-person events for the Tunnel and Urban SubT circuits (see our previous coverage here), and the plan had always been for a trio of events representing three uniquely different underground environments in advance of the SubT Finals, which will somehow combine everything into one bonkers course.

While the SubT Urban Circuit event snuck in just under the lockdown wire in late February, DARPA made the difficult (but prudent) decision to cancel the in-person Cave Circuit event. What this means is that there will be no Systems Track Cave competition, which is a serious disappointment—we were very much looking forward to watching teams of robots navigating through an entirely unpredictable natural environment with a lot of verticality. Fortunately, DARPA is still running a Virtual Cave Circuit, and 17 teams will be taking part in this competition featuring a simulated cave environment that’s as dynamic and detailed as DARPA can make it.

From DARPA’s press releases:

DARPA’s Subterranean (SubT) Challenge will host its Cave Circuit Virtual Competition, which focuses on innovative solutions to map, navigate, and search complex, simulated cave environments November 17. Qualified teams have until Oct. 15 to develop and submit software-based solutions for the Cave Circuit via the SubT Virtual Portal, where their technologies will face unknown cave environments in the cloud-based SubT Simulator. Until then, teams can refine their roster of selected virtual robot models, choose sensor payloads, and continue to test autonomy approaches to maximize their score.

The Cave Circuit also introduces new simulation capabilities, including digital twins of Systems Competition robots to choose from, marsupial-style platforms combining air and ground robots, and breadcrumb nodes that can be dropped by robots to serve as communications relays. Each robot configuration has an associated cost, measured in SubT Credits – an in-simulation currency – based on performance characteristics such as speed, mobility, sensing, and battery life.

Each team’s simulated robots must navigate realistic caves, with features including natural terrain and dynamic rock falls, while they search for and locate various artifacts on the course within five meters of accuracy to score points during a 60-minute timed run. A correct report is worth one point. Each course contains 20 artifacts, which means each team has the potential for a maximum score of 20 points. Teams can leverage numerous practice worlds and even build their own worlds using the cave tiles found in the SubT Tech Repo to perfect their approach before they submit one official solution for scoring. The DARPA team will then evaluate the solution on a set of hidden competition scenarios.

Of the 17 qualified teams (you can see all of them here), there are a handful that we’ll quickly point out. Team BARCS, from Michigan Tech, was the winner of the SubT Virtual Urban Circuit, meaning that they may be the team to beat on Cave as well, although the course is likely to be unique enough that things will get interesting. Some Systems Track teams to watch include Coordinated Robotics, CTU-CRAS-NORLAB, MARBLE, NUS SEDS, and Robotika, and there are also a handful of brand new teams as well.

Now, just because there’s no dedicated Cave Circuit for the Systems Track teams, it doesn’t mean that there won’t be a Cave component (perhaps even a significant one) in the final event, which as far as we know is still scheduled to happen in fall of next year. We’ve heard that many of the Systems Track teams have been testing out their robots in caves anyway, and as the virtual event gets closer, we’ll be doing a sort of Virtual Systems Track series that highlights how different teams are doing mock Cave Circuits in caves they’ve found for themselves. 

For more, we checked in with DARPA SubT program manager Dr. Timothy H. Chung.

IEEE Spectrum: Was it a difficult decision to cancel the Systems Track for Cave?

Tim Chung: The decision to go virtual only was heart wrenching, because I think DARPA’s role is to offer up opportunities that may be unimaginable for some of our competitors, like opening up a cave-type site for this competition. We crawled and climbed through a number of these sites, and I share the sense of disappointment that both our team and the competitors have that we won’t be able to share all the advances that have been made since the Urban Circuit. But what we’ve been able to do is pour a lot of our energy and the insights that we got from crawling around in those caves into what’s going to be a really great opportunity on the Virtual Competition side. And whether it’s a global pandemic, or just lack of access to physical sites like caves, virtual environments are an opportunity that we want to develop.

“The simulator offers us a chance to look at where things could be … it really allows for us to find where some of those limits are in the technology based only on our imagination.”  —Timothy H. Chung, DARPA

What kind of new features will be included in the Virtual Cave Circuit for this competition?

I’m really excited about these particular features because we’re seeing an opportunity for increased synergy between the physical and the virtual. The first I’d say is that we scanned some of the Systems Track robots using photogrammetry and combined that with some additional models that we got from the systems competitors themselves to turn their systems robots into virtual models. We often talk about the sim to real transfer and how successful we can get a simulation to transfer over to the physical world, but now we’ve taken something from the physical world and made it virtual. We’ve validated the controllers as well as the kinematics of the robots, we’ve iterated with the systems competitors themselves, and now we have these 13 robots (air and ground) in the SubT Tech Repo that now all virtual competitors can take advantage of.

We also have additional robot capability. Those comms bread crumbs are common among many of the competitors, so we’ve adopted that in the virtual world, and now you have comms relay nodes that are baked in to the SubT Simulator—you can have either six or twelve comms nodes that you can drop from a variety of our ground robot platforms. We have the marsupial deployment capability now, so now we have parent ground robots that can be mixed and matched with different child drones to become marsupial pairs. 

And this is something I’ve been planning for for a while: we now have the ability to trigger things like rock falls. They still don’t quite look like Indiana Jones with the boulder coming down the corridor, but this comes really close. In addition to it just being an interesting and realistic consideration, we get to really dynamically test and stress the robots’ ability to navigate and recognize that something has changed in the environment and respond to it.

Image: DARPA DARPA is still running a Virtual Cave Circuit, and 17 teams will be taking part in this competition featuring a simulated cave environment.

No simulation is perfect, so can you talk to us about what kinds of things aren’t being simulated right now? Where does the simulator not match up to reality?

I think that question is foundational to any conversation about simulation. I’ll give you a couple of examples:

We have the ability to represent wholesale damage to a robot, but it’s not at the actuator or component level. So there’s not a reliability model, although I think that would be really interesting to incorporate so that you could do assessments on things like mean time to failure. But if a robot falls off a ledge, it can be disabled by virtue of being too damaged to continue.

With communications, and this is one that’s near and dear not only to my heart but also to all of those that have lived through developing communication systems and robotic systems, we’ve gone through and conducted RF surveys of underground environments to get a better handle on what propagation effects are. There’s a lot of research that has gone into this, and trying to carry through some of that realism, we do have path loss models for RF communications baked into the SubT Simulator. For example, when you drop a bread crumb node, it’s using a path loss model so that it can represent the degradation of signal as you go farther into a cave. Now, we’re not modeling it at the Maxwell equations level, which I think would be awesome, but we’re not quite there yet. 

We do have things like battery depletion, sensor degradation to the extent that simulators can degrade sensor inputs, and things like that. It’s just amazing how close we can get in some places, and how far away we still are in others, and I think showing where the limits are of how far you can get simulation is all part and parcel of why SubT Challenge wants to have both System and Virtual tracks. Simulation can be an accelerant, but it’s not going to be the panacea for development and innovation, and I think all the competitors are cognizant those limitations.

One of the most amazing things about the SubT Virtual Track is that all of the robots operate fully autonomously, without the human(s) in the loop that the System Track teams have when they compete. Why make the Virtual Track even more challenging in that way?

I think it’s one of the defining, delineating attributes of the Virtual Track. Our continued vision for the simulation side is that the simulator offers us a chance to look at where things could be, and allows for us to explore things like larger scales, or increased complexity, or types of environments that we can’t physically gain access to—it really allows for us to find where some of those limits are in the technology based only on our imagination, and this is one of the intrinsic values of simulation. 

But I think finding a way to incorporate human input, or more generally human factors like teleoperation interfaces and the in-situ stress that you might not be able to recreate in the context of a virtual competition provided a good reason for us to delineate the two competitions, with the Virtual Competition really being about the role of fully autonomous or self-sufficient systems going off and doing their solution without human guidance, while also acknowledging that the real world has conditions that would not necessarily be represented by a fully simulated version. Having said that, I think cognitive engineering still has an incredibly important role to play in human robot interaction.

What do we have to look forward to during the Virtual Competition Showcase?

We have a number of additional features and capabilities that we’ve baked into the simulator that will allow for us to derive some additional insights into our competition runs. Those insights might involve things like the performance of one or more robots in a given scenario, or the impact of the environment on different types of robots, and what I can tease is that this will be an opportunity for us to showcase both the technology and also the excitement of the robots competing in the virtual environment. I’m trying not to give too many spoilers, but we’ll have an opportunity to really get into the details.

Check back as we get closer to the 17 November event for more on the DARPA SubT Challenge.

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!):

ICRES 2020 – September 28-29, 2020 – Taipei, Taiwan AUVSI EXPONENTIAL 2020 – October 5-8, 2020 – [Online] 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.

The Giant Gundam in Yokohama is actually way cooler than I thought it was going to be.

[ Gundam Factory ] via [ YouTube ]

A new 3D-printing method will make it easier to manufacture and control the shape of soft robots, artificial muscles and wearable devices. Researchers at UC San Diego show that by controlling the printing temperature of liquid crystal elastomer, or LCE, they can control the material’s degree of stiffness and ability to contract—also known as degree of actuation. What’s more, they are able to change the stiffness of different areas in the same material by exposing it to heat.

[ UCSD ]

Thanks Ioana!

This is the first successful reactive stepping test on our new torque-controlled biped robot named Bolt. The robot has 3 active degrees of freedom per leg and one passive joint in ankle. Since there is no active joint in ankle, the robot only relies on step location and timing adaptation to stabilize its motion. Not only can the robot perform stepping without active ankles, but it is also capable of rejecting external disturbances as we showed in this video.

ODRI ]

The curling robot “Curly” is the first AI-based robot to demonstrate competitive curling skills in an icy real environment with its high uncertainties. Scientists from seven different Korean research institutions including Prof. Klaus-Robert Müller, head of the machine-learning group at TU Berlin and guest professor at Korea University, have developed an AI-based curling robot.

TU Berlin ]

MoonRanger, a small robotic rover being developed by Carnegie Mellon University and its spinoff Astrobotic, has completed its preliminary design review in preparation for a 2022 mission to search for signs of water at the moon’s south pole. Red Whittaker explains why the new MoonRanger Lunar Explorer design is innovative and different from prior planetary rovers.

[ CMU ]

Cobalt’s security robot can now navigate unmodified elevators, which is an impressive feat.

Also, EXTERMINATE!

[ Cobalt ]

OrionStar, the robotics company invested in by Cheetah Mobile, announced the Robotic Coffee Master. Incorporating 3,000 hours of AI learning, 30,000 hours of robotic arm testing and machine vision training, the Robotic Coffee Master can perform complex brewing techniques, such as curves and spirals, with millimeter-level stability and accuracy (reset error ≤ 0.1mm).

[ Cheetah Mobile ]

DARPA OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) researchers recently tested swarms of autonomous air and ground vehicles at the Leschi Town Combined Arms Collective Training Facility (CACTF), located at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) in Washington. The Leschi Town field experiment is the fourth of six planned experiments for the OFFSET program, which seeks to develop large-scale teams of collaborative autonomous systems capable of supporting ground forces operating in urban environments.

[ DARPA ]

Here are some highlights from Team Explorer’s SubT Urban competition back in February.

[ Team Explorer ]

Researchers with the Skoltech Intelligent Space Robotics Laboratory have developed a system that allows easy interaction with a micro-quadcopter with LEDs that can be used for light-painting. The researchers used a 92x92x29 mm Crazyflie 2.0 quadrotor that weighs just 27 grams, equipped with a light reflector and an array of controllable RGB LEDs. The control system consists of a glove equipped with an inertial measurement unit (IMU; an electronic device that tracks the movement of a user’s hand), and a base station that runs a machine learning algorithm.

[ Skoltech ]

“DeKonBot” is the prototype of a cleaning and disinfection robot for potentially contaminated surfaces in buildings such as door handles, light switches or elevator buttons. While other cleaning robots often spray the cleaning agents over a large area, DeKonBot autonomously identifies the surface to be cleaned.

[ Fraunhofer IPA ]

On Oct. 20, the OSIRIS-REx mission will perform the first attempt of its Touch-And-Go (TAG) sample collection event. Not only will the spacecraft navigate to the surface using innovative navigation techniques, but it could also collect the largest sample since the Apollo missions.

[ NASA ]

With all the robotics research that seems to happen in places where snow is more of an occasional novelty or annoyance, it’s good to see NORLAB taking things more seriously

[ NORLAB ]

Telexistence’s Model-T robot works very slowly, but very safely, restocking shelves.

[ Telexistence ] via [ YouTube ]

Roboy 3.0 will be unveiled next month!

[ Roboy ]

KUKA ready2_educate is your training cell for hands-on education in robotics. It is especially aimed at schools, universities and company training facilities. The training cell is a complete starter package and your perfect partner for entry into robotics.

[ KUKA ]

A UPenn GRASP Lab Special Seminar on Data Driven Perception for Autonomy, presented by Dapo Afolabi from UC Berkeley.

Perception systems form a crucial part of autonomous and artificial intelligence systems since they convert data about the relationship between an autonomous system and its environment into meaningful information. Perception systems can be difficult to build since they may involve modeling complex physical systems or other autonomous agents. In such scenarios, data driven models may be used to augment physics based models for perception. In this talk, I will present work making use of data driven models for perception tasks, highlighting the benefit of such approaches for autonomous systems.

[ GRASP Lab ]

A Maryland Robotics Center Special Robotics Seminar on Underwater Autonomy, presented by Ioannis Rekleitis from the University of South Carolina.

This talk presents an overview of algorithmic problems related to marine robotics, with a particular focus on increasing the autonomy of robotic systems in challenging environments. I will talk about vision-based state estimation and mapping of underwater caves. An application of monitoring coral reefs is going to be discussed. I will also talk about several vehicles used at the University of South Carolina such as drifters, underwater, and surface vehicles. In addition, a short overview of the current projects will be discussed. The work that I will present has a strong algorithmic flavour, while it is validated in real hardware. Experimental results from several testing campaigns will be presented.

[ MRC ]

This week’s CMU RI Seminar comes from Scott Niekum at UT Austin, on Scaling Probabilistically Safe Learning to Robotics.

Before learning robots can be deployed in the real world, it is critical that probabilistic guarantees can be made about the safety and performance of such systems. This talk focuses on new developments in three key areas for scaling safe learning to robotics: (1) a theory of safe imitation learning; (2) scalable reward inference in the absence of models; (3) efficient off-policy policy evaluation. The proposed algorithms offer a blend of safety and practicality, making a significant step towards safe robot learning with modest amounts of real-world data.

[ CMU RI ]

Yesterday, Ring, the smart home company owned by Amazon, announced the Always Home Cam, a “next-level indoor security” system in the form of a small autonomous drone. It costs US $250 and is designed to closely integrate with the rest of Ring’s home security hardware and software. Technologically, it’s impressive. But you almost certainly don’t want one.

I honestly don’t know why that fake burglar is any more worried about the Ring drone than he would be about a regular security camera. It’s not like the drone can do anything, and he could just knock it out of the air. But, it’s a product launch video, so, who knows?

Ring hasn’t revealed a lot of details on the drone itself, but here’s what we can puzzle out. My guess is that there’s a planar lidar right at the top that the drone uses to localize, and that it probably has a downward-looking camera as well. Ring says that you pre-map the areas that you want the drone to fly in, which works because the environment mostly doesn’t change. It’s also nice that you don’t have to worry about weather, and minimal battery life isn’t a big deal since you don’t need to fly for very long and the recharging dock is always close by. I like that the user can only direct the drone to specific waypoints rather than piloting it directly, which (depending on how well the drone actually performs) should help minimize crashes. Ring also says that “designed with privacy in mind, the motors even hum when in flight” which is a ridiculous statement to make because it’s a drone, of course the motors hum when in flight. 

So is this a realistic product? Sure, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be. It seems like it could do what it says it does under some amount of as yet to be revealed constraints. But is it a good idea, and should you buy one? Personally, I wouldn’t recommend it. My skepticism comes from a few different places. First, an important question to ask about any consumer robot that purports to be useful is whether the robot is, really, just a flashy and cool way of doing something that could be done more easily, more reliably, and more cheaply with a more conventional system. In this case, we can compare the drone to a network of indoor security cameras.

Today you can get a totally decent indoor security camera for as little as $25, and the cameras are usually trivial to set up and keep running. So you could get 10 of them for the cost of the Ring drone. Cameras are static (although you can pay a bit more for pan/tilt options), meaning that the drone can visually survey a lot more of your house than the cameras can. But the real question is, can a few cameras cover the parts of your house that you actually care about? For example, in my (admittedly small) apartment, one static camera covers most of the living room, the front door, and the stairs up to my office. My one camera can’t monitor the kitchen or bedroom or office the way a Ring’s drone could, but if I really felt the need to monitor those things, I could buy three more cameras and still have $150 left rather than going with the drone. That would still leave some odd corners and stuff that the drone could get to, but I can’t imagine ever needing to urgently look at those corners remotely.

For larger houses, scaling is going to be different, and you may get to the point where you would actually break even on all the cameras you’d need. However, I’d argue that for security purposes (which is what this drone seems to be all about), it’s not nearly as useful as a static camera is. Static cameras offer continuous monitoring, while the best the drone can do is reactive monitoring, as shown in the video. If a static camera detects a movement, it can ping you instantly and send you footage of the event itself as well as some amount of time both before and after. The drone is not nearly as effective, since it has to launch, travel, recharge, and can only be in one place at a time.

Ring also says that “designed with privacy in mind, the motors even hum when in flight” which is a ridiculous statement to make because it’s a drone, of course the motors hum when in flight. 

A second important question to ask about any robot, especially one with a camera on it, is whether the benefits of such a system outweigh the risks. And before we get into why having an autonomous internet-connected flying security camera could be a privacy nightmare, we should also point out a potentially significant privacy upside to the Ring drone over a more conventional static camera setup. I think it’s reasonable to point out (as Ring has) that with the drone, you always know when it’s recording and where it’s recording from, because it’ll be loudly airborne and making a nuisance of itself. This is not the case with most static security cameras, which are typically on all the time, and it’s hard to have perfect confidence that what those cameras are seeing is staying as private as it should. If the drone isn’t in the air and being noisy, I can’t see how it could be used to spy on you without you realizing it. And if you don’t want a permanent camera in (say) your bedroom but would like the option of monitoring it while you’re away, a mobile system like the Ring drone offers that capability, as long as you remember to leave your bedroom door open when you leave.

But this potential privacy feature also comes with privacy risks, says Ryan Calo, associate professor at the University of Washington School of Law, in Seattle. “Fixed cameras can be avoided, whereas mobile ones can’t, which can make it impossible for a child, spouse, or roommate to get away from the camera,” he explains. This is not unique to Ring’s drone, but for better or worse, Ring is among the first to offer a dedicated mobile surveillance robot. “If mobile surveillance is normalized,” he adds, “my concern is that it will permit an abuser to check in on their partner wherever they are, erase surveillance blind spots, and remove excuses that the surveilled individual was merely ‘off camera.’ In other words, Ring is offering a more complete surveillance. And surveillance is a well-known component of domestic abuse.”

In some ways, the Ring drone is like a telepresence robot, where someone can put themselves into your personal, private space from anywhere, with a level of physical agency that’s unique to robots. The potential for abuse of this capability is drastically higher than for a system that can see but can’t move. You can disable Ring’s system by throwing a blanket or something over it, and shutting doors will keep it out, but there is no reason why you should find yourself in that kind of situation in your own home.

Ring, and its parent company Amazon, also don’t have the greatest track record on security and privacy. And it’s not just keeping your data safe from hackers: Ring specifically has cultivated close ties with law enforcement. As this July article from the EFF points out, “with a warrant, police could also circumvent the device’s owner and get footage straight from Amazon, even if the owner denied the police.” The EFF is talking about the Ring doorbell camera here, but it’s not clear to me that the Ring drone would be an exception.

The Ring drone can also give Amazon even more opportunities to collect data about you, now from a mobile platform that can move around inside of your house and even look out your windows. “It helps Amazon build your digital twin,” says Julie Carpenter, a research fellow in the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University, in San Luis Obispo. “They’re using this type of consumer data to create a database version of who you are, and then using it to sell you things. The data collected is increasingly invasive, as with the Ring drone capabilities, such as mapping your home and collecting audio and dynamic aerial video of you and your family in your bedrooms, bathrooms, everywhere you live.”

Opening up your home to internet-connected cameras is already a privacy compromise. Many people find that compromise to be worth it for the security and peace of mind that these systems offer. When we look at the advantages that you’d get from buying Ring’s drone over fixed cameras, though, the additional privacy risks that come with an autonomous mobile camera seem hard to justify. The technology is certainly impressive, and the idea of an autonomous indoor security drone is, as I’m sure Ring well knows, very cool. But is it worth $250, questionably better security versus cheap static cameras, and a much larger potential for misuse or abuse? I’m not convinced.

For the past eight months, Boston Dynamics has been trying to find ways in which their friendly yellow quadruped, Spot, can provide some kind of useful response to COVID-19. The company has been working with researchers from MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts to use Spot as a telepresence-based extension for healthcare workers in suitable contexts, with the goal of minimizing exposure and preserving supplies of PPE.

For triaging sick patients, it’s necessary to collect a variety of vital data, including body temperature, respiration rate, pulse rate, and oxygen saturation. Boston Dynamics has helped to develop “a set of contactless  monitoring systems for measuring vital signs and a tablet computer to enable face-to-face medical interviewing,” all of which fits neatly on Spot’s back. This system was recently tested in a medical tent for COVID-19 triage, which appeared to be a well constrained and very flat environment that left us wondering whether a legged platform like Spot was really necessary in this particular application. What makes Spot unique (and relatively complex and expensive) is its ability to navigate around complex environments in an agile manner. But in a tent in a hospital parking lot, are you really getting your US $75k worth out of those legs, or would a wheeled platform do almost as well while being significantly simpler and more affordable?

As it turns out, we weren’t the only ones who wondered whether Spot is really the best platform for this application. “We had the same response when we started getting pitched these opportunities in Feb / March,” Michael Perry, Boston Dynamics’ VP of business development commented on Twitter. “As triage tents started popping up in late March, though, there wasn’t confidence wheeled robots would be able to handle arbitrary triage environments (parking lots, lawns, etc).”

To better understand Spot’s value in this role, we sent Boston Dynamics a few questions about their approach to healthcare robots.

This video shows Dr. Spot (their nickname, not ours) walking around Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

While the video is very focused on Spot itself, the researchers also released a  paper about the effectiveness of Spot’s payload, and about how well it worked in the triage tent, which was outside of the hospital and looks like this:

Photo: MIT/Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Boston Dynamics

The COVID-19 triage area at Brigham and Women’s Hospital includes a medical tent outside of the emergency department (a), where the researchers deployed a Spot with IR camera for fever screening and respiratory rate detection (b).

To me, this seems like somewhere a wheeled robot would do just fine, although Boston Dynamics told us that the tent also had “concrete bumps and curbs that made mobility a challenge.” Spot left the tent and wandered around the hospital when the small number of hospital staff that had been trained to operate the robot rotated to the emergency department instead. It turns out that there’s a second, separate paper in the works about the effectiveness of Spot for telemedicine that’s still under peer review, but it’ll more directly address how useful Spot itself is as a platform in a busy hospital. 

But back to our question of how useful a legged robot like Spot is in a well-constrained and mostly flat environment like the triage tent—concrete bumps and curbs could certainly be a challenge, but it seems like minor alterations to the environment (say, adding some ramps or something) would be much more cost effective than picking a legged robot over a wheeled robot. Even if there are obstacles (like stairs) that are difficult for a wheeled robot, using two (or more?) wheeled robots instead of one legged robot could still potentially be a more efficient solution.

Photo: MIT/Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Boston Dynamics

The researchers mounted four cameras on Spot and showed that they can measure skin temperature, breathing rate, pulse rate, and blood oxygen saturation in healthy patients, from a distance of 2 meters.

For that matter, why use a robot when you could just make your remote monitoring system stationary, instead? That was our first question for Boston Dynamics roboticist Marco da Silva and field applications lead Seth Davis.

IEEE Spectrum: From what I understand from the paper, the goal was to develop a system that can adapt its distance and angle of view to take more accurate readings of patients, rather than asking patients to adapt to a static system. Why make this a mobile robot at all, rather than (for example) something that sits on a table with a couple of actuated DoFs that make the necessary adjustments?

Marco da Silva: It’s possible that you could build an actuated device expressly for this purpose but Spot already existed and was ready to be deployed. Further, the Brigham and Women’s team was expecting long lines of patients at intake or patients seated in the tent. The expectation was that Spot could efficiently move from patient to patient.

Your Boston Dynamics colleague Michael Perry mentioned that “there wasn’t confidence wheeled robots would be able to handle arbitrary triage environments (parking lots, lawns, etc.).” Can you elaborate on that?

Seth Davis: We initially questioned the need for legged robots or even a mobile platform. In this case, the Brigham and Women’s and MIT teams informed us that a wheeled robot with sufficient payload capacity was not readily available and not well suited to the initial concept which was to operate outside the hospital in temporary treatment areas. In addition to its mobility, our robots’ obstacle avoidance abilities and simple user interface also seemed appealing to the Brigham and Women’s team as they worked right out of the box and did not require additional development or significant training in order to get something their staff could use. 

“In addition to its mobility, our robots’ obstacle avoidance abilities and simple user interface also seemed appealing to the Brigham and Women’s team as they worked right out of the box and did not require additional development or significant training in order to get something their staff could use.” —Seth Davis, Boston Dynamics

With the experience that you have now, do you think that legged robots are worth the extra cost and complexity in these situations, relative to a (likely much less expensive) wheeled platform?

Davis: It depends on the environment, the requirements for speed of deployment, and how flexible the solution needs to be. It’s highly likely that the pandemic is going to have researchers looking at creating one robotic solution (fixed or mobile) to interact with patients. In this instance, the rapidly evolving pandemic situation necessitated a robot that could be deployed in a tent, a parking lot, a lawn, or in the Emergency Department, and rapidly adapt to the sensor and data collection needs of their team. 

Has this experience suggested any other healthcare applications where legged robots would be uniquely useful?

Da Silva: We have a few hospitals around the world that are interested in this specific configuration of Spot as a “just in case” solution if or when their triage facilities need to be set up in an unknown environment. Moving forward we have teams that are looking at delivering goods and doing rounds in convalescent facilities, and mobile disinfection in ad hoc or unstructured environments. One thing we learned as well is that elevator usage is often over capacity in hospitals causing long wait times, so we’ve been approached to see how Spot can carry physical items up and down the stairs to alleviate elevator congestion.

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Within moments of meeting each other at a conference last year, Nathan Collins and Yann Gaston-Mathé began devising a plan to work together. Gaston-Mathé runs a startup that applies automated software to the design of new drug candidates. Collins leads a team that uses an automated chemistry platform to synthesize new drug candidates.

“There was an obvious synergy between their technology and ours,” recalls Gaston-Mathé, CEO and cofounder of Paris-based Iktos.

In late 2019, the pair launched a project to create a brand-new antiviral drug that would block a specific protein exploited by influenza viruses. Then the COVID-19 pandemic erupted across the world stage, and Gaston-Mathé and Collins learned that the viral culprit, SARS-CoV-2, relied on a protein that was 97 percent similar to their influenza protein. The partners pivoted.

Their companies are just two of hundreds of biotech firms eager to overhaul the drug-discovery process, often with the aid of artificial intelligence (AI) tools. The first set of antiviral drugs to treat COVID-19 will likely come from sifting through existing drugs. Remdesivir, for example, was originally developed to treat Ebola, and it has been shown to speed the recovery of hospitalized COVID-19 patients. But a drug made for one condition often has side effects and limited potency when applied to another. If researchers can produce an ­antiviral that specifically targets SARS-CoV-2, the drug would likely be safer and more effective than a repurposed drug.

There’s one big problem: Traditional drug discovery is far too slow to react to a pandemic. Designing a drug from scratch typically takes three to five years—and that’s before human clinical trials. “Our goal, with the combination of AI and automation, is to reduce that down to six months or less,” says Collins, who is chief strategy officer at SRI Biosciences, a division of the Silicon Valley research nonprofit SRI International. “We want to get this to be very, very fast.”

That sentiment is shared by small biotech firms and big pharmaceutical companies alike, many of which are now ramping up automated technologies backed by supercomputing power to predict, design, and test new antivirals—for this pandemic as well as the next—with unprecedented speed and scope.

“The entire industry is embracing these tools,” says Kara Carter, president of the International Society for Antiviral Research and executive vice president of infectious disease at Evotec, a drug-discovery company in Hamburg. “Not only do we need [new antivirals] to treat the SARS-CoV-2 infection in the population, which is probably here to stay, but we’ll also need them to treat future agents that arrive.”

There are currently about 200 known viruses that infect humans. Although viruses represent less than 14 percent of all known human pathogens, they make up two-thirds of all new human pathogens discovered since 1980.

Antiviral drugs are fundamentally different from vaccines, which teach a person’s immune system to mount a defense against a viral invader, and antibody treatments, which enhance the body’s immune response. By contrast, anti­virals are chemical compounds that directly block a virus after a person has become infected. They do this by binding to specific proteins and preventing them from functioning, so that the virus cannot copy itself or enter or exit a cell.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus has an estimated 25 to 29 proteins, but not all of them are suitable drug targets. Researchers are investigating, among other targets, the virus’s exterior spike protein, which binds to a receptor on a human cell; two scissorlike enzymes, called proteases, that cut up long strings of viral proteins into functional pieces inside the cell; and a polymerase complex that makes the cell churn out copies of the virus’s genetic material, in the form of single-stranded RNA.

But it’s not enough for a drug candidate to simply attach to a target protein. Chemists also consider how tightly the compound binds to its target, whether it binds to other things as well, how quickly it metabolizes in the body, and so on. A drug candidate may have 10 to 20 such objectives. “Very often those objectives can appear to be anticorrelated or contradictory with each other,” says Gaston-Mathé.

Compared with antibiotics, antiviral drug discovery has proceeded at a snail’s pace. Scientists advanced from isolating the first antibacterial molecules in 1910 to developing an arsenal of powerful antibiotics by 1944. By contrast, it took until 1951 for researchers to be able to routinely grow large amounts of virus particles in cells in a dish, a breakthrough that earned the inventors a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1954.

And the lag between the discovery of a virus and the creation of a treatment can be heartbreaking. According to the World Health Organization, 71 million people worldwide have chronic hepatitis C, a major cause of liver cancer. The virus that causes the infection was discovered in 1989, but effective antiviral drugs didn’t hit the market until 2014.

While many antibiotics work on a range of microbes, most antivirals are highly specific to a single virus—what those in the business call “one bug, one drug.” It takes a detailed understanding of a virus to develop an antiviral against it, says Che Colpitts, a virologist at Queen’s University, in Canada, who works on antivirals against RNA viruses. “When a new virus emerges, like SARS-CoV-2, we’re at a big disadvantage.”

Making drugs to stop viruses is hard for three main reasons. First, viruses are the Spartans of the pathogen world: They’re frugal, brutal, and expert at evading the human immune system. About 20 to 250 nanometers in diameter, viruses rely on just a few parts to operate, hijacking host cells to reproduce and often destroying those cells upon departure. They employ tricks to camouflage their presence from the host’s immune system, including preventing infected cells from sending out molecular distress beacons. “Viruses are really small, so they only have a few components, so there’s not that many drug targets available to start with,” says Colpitts.

Second, viruses replicate quickly, typically doubling in number in hours or days. This constant copying of their genetic material enables viruses to evolve quickly, producing mutations able to sidestep drug effects. The virus that causes AIDS soon develops resistance when exposed to a single drug. That’s why a cocktail of antiviral drugs is used to treat HIV infection.

Finally, unlike bacteria, which can exist independently outside human cells, viruses invade human cells to propagate, so any drug designed to eliminate a virus needs to spare the host cell. A drug that fails to distinguish between a virus and a cell can cause serious side effects. “Discriminating between the two is really quite difficult,” says Evotec’s Carter, who has worked in antiviral drug discovery for over three decades.

And then there’s the money barrier. Developing antivirals is rarely profitable. Health-policy researchers at the London School of Economics recently estimated that the average cost of developing a new drug is US $1 billion, and up to $2.8 billion for cancer and other specialty drugs. Because antivirals are usually taken for only short periods of time or during short outbreaks of disease, companies rarely recoup what they spent developing the drug, much less turn a profit, says Carter.

To change the status quo, drug discovery needs fresh approaches that leverage new technologies, rather than incremental improvements, says Christian Tidona, managing director of BioMed X, an independent research institute in Heidelberg, Germany. “We need breakthroughs.”

Putting Drug Development on Autopilot

Earlier this year, SRI Biosciences and Iktos began collaborating on a way to use artificial intelligence and automated chemistry to rapidly identify new drugs to target the COVID-19 virus. Within four months, they had designed and synthesized a first round of antiviral candidates. Here’s how they’re doing it.

1/5

STEP 1: Iktos’s AI platform uses deep-learning algorithms in an iterative process to come up with new molecular structures likely to bind to and disable a specific coronavirus protein. Illustrations: Chris Philpot

2/5

STEP 2: SRI Biosciences’s SynFini system is a three-part automated chemistry suite for producing new compounds. Starting with a target compound from Iktos, SynRoute uses machine learning to analyze and optimize routes for creating that compound, with results in about 10 seconds. It prioritizes routes based on cost, likelihood of success, and ease of implementation.

3/5

STEP 3: SynJet, an automated inkjet printer platform, tests the routes by printing out tiny quantities of chemical ingredients to see how they react. If the right compound is produced, the platform tests it.

4/5

STEP 4: AutoSyn, an automated tabletop chemical plant, synthesizes milligrams to grams of the desired compound for further testing. Computer-selected “maps” dictate paths through the plant’s modular components.

5/5

STEP 5: The most promising compounds are tested against live virus samples.

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Iktos’s AI platform was created by a medicinal chemist and an AI expert. To tackle SARS-CoV-2, the company used generative models—deep-learning algorithms that generate new data—to “imagine” molecular structures with a good chance of disabling a key coronavirus protein.

For a new drug target, the software proposes and evaluates roughly 1 million compounds, says Gaston-Mathé. It’s an iterative process: At each step, the system generates 100 virtual compounds, which are tested in silico with predictive models to see how closely they meet the objectives. The test results are then used to design the next batch of compounds. “It’s like we have a very, very fast chemist who is designing compounds, testing compounds, getting back the data, then designing another batch of compounds,” he says.

The computer isn’t as smart as a human chemist, Gaston-Mathé notes, but it’s much faster, so it can explore far more of what people in the field call “chemical space”—the set of all possible organic compounds. Unexplored chemical space is huge: Biochemists estimate that there are at least 1063 possible druglike molecules, and that 99.9 percent of all possible small molecules or compounds have never been synthesized.

Still, designing a chemical compound isn’t the hardest part of creating a new drug. After a drug candidate is designed, it must be synthesized, and the highly manual process for synthesizing a new chemical hasn’t changed much in 200 years. It can take days to plan a synthesis process and then months to years to optimize it for manufacture.

That’s why Gaston-Mathé was eager to send Iktos’s AI-generated designs to Collins’s team at SRI Biosciences. With $13.8 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, SRI Biosciences spent the last four years automating the synthesis process. The company’s automated suite of three technologies, called SynFini, can produce new chemical compounds in just hours or days, says Collins.

First, machine-learning software devises possible routes for making a desired molecule. Next, an inkjet printer platform tests the routes by printing out and mixing tiny quantities of chemical ingredients to see how they react with one another; if the right compound is produced, the platform runs tests on it. Finally, a tabletop chemical plant synthesizes milligrams to grams of the desired compound.

Less than four months after Iktos and SRI Biosciences announced their collaboration, they had designed and synthesized a first round of antiviral candidates for SARS-CoV-2. Now they’re testing how well the compounds work on actual samples of the virus.

Out of 10 63 possible druglike molecules, 99.9 percent have never been synthesized.

Theirs isn’t the only collaboration applying new tools to drug discovery. In late March, Alex Zhavoronkov, CEO of Hong Kong–based Insilico Medicine, came across a YouTube video showing three virtual-reality avatars positioning colorful, sticklike fragments in the side of a bulbous blue protein. The three researchers were using VR to explore how compounds might bind to a SARS-CoV-2 enzyme. Zhavoronkov contacted the startup that created the simulation—Nanome, in San Diego—and invited it to examine Insilico’s ­AI-generated molecules in virtual reality.

Insilico runs an AI platform that uses biological data to train deep-learning algorithms, then uses those algorithms to identify molecules with druglike features that will likely bind to a protein target. A four-day training sprint in late January yielded 100 molecules that appear to bind to an important SARS-CoV-2 protease. The company recently began synthesizing some of those molecules for laboratory testing.

Nanome’s VR software, meanwhile, allows researchers to import a molecular structure, then view and manipulate it on the scale of individual atoms. Like human chess players who use computer programs to explore potential moves, chemists can use VR to predict how to make molecules more druglike, says Nanome CEO Steve McCloskey. “The tighter the interface between the human and the computer, the more information goes both ways,” he says.

Zhavoronkov sent data about several of Insilico’s compounds to Nanome, which re-created them in VR. Nanome’s chemist demonstrated chemical tweaks to potentially improve each compound. “It was a very good experience,” says Zhavoronkov.

Meanwhile, in March, Takeda Pharmaceutical Co., of Japan, invited Schrödinger, a New York–based company that develops chemical-simulation software, to join an alliance working on antivirals. Schrödinger’s AI focuses on the physics of how proteins interact with small molecules and one another.

The software sifts through billions of molecules per week to predict a compound’s properties, and it optimizes for multiple desired properties simultaneously, says Karen Akinsanya, chief biomedical scientist and head of discovery R&D at Schrödinger. “There’s a huge sense of urgency here to come up with a potent molecule, but also to come up with molecules that are going to be well tolerated” by the body, she says. Drug developers are seeking compounds that can be broadly used and easily administered, such as an oral drug rather than an intravenous drug, she adds.

Schrödinger evaluated four protein targets and performed virtual screens for two of them, a computing-intensive process. In June, Google Cloud donated the equivalent of 16 million hours of Nvidia GPU time for the company’s calculations. Next, the alliance’s drug companies will synthesize and test the most promising compounds identified by the virtual screens.

Other companies, including Amazon Web Services, IBM, and Intel, as well as several U.S. national labs are also donating time and resources to the Covid-19 High Performance Computing Consortium. The consortium is supporting 87 projects, which now have access to 6.8 million CPU cores, 50,000 GPUs, and 600 petaflops of computational resources.

While advanced technologies could transform early drug discovery, any new drug candidate still has a long road after that. It must be tested in animals, manufactured in large batches for clinical trials, then tested in a series of trials that, for antivirals, lasts an average of seven years.

In May, the BioMed X Institute in Germany launched a five-year project to build a Rapid Antiviral Response Platform, which would speed drug discovery all the way through manufacturing for clinical trials. The €40 million ($47 million) project, backed by drug companies, will identify ­outside-the-box proposals from young scientists, then provide space and funding to develop their ideas.

“We’ll focus on technologies that allow us to go from identification of a new virus to 10,000 doses of a novel potential therapeutic ready for trials in less than six months,” says BioMed X’s Tidona, who leads the project.

While a vaccine will likely arrive long before a bespoke antiviral does, experts expect COVID-19 to be with us for a long time, so the effort to develop a direct-acting, potent antiviral continues. Plus, having new antivirals—and tools to rapidly create more—can only help us prepare for the next pandemic, whether it comes next month or in another 102 years.

“We’ve got to start thinking differently about how to be more responsive to these kinds of threats,” says Collins. “It’s pushing us out of our comfort zones.”

This article appears in the October 2020 print issue as “Automating Antivirals.”

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