Frontiers in Robotics and AI

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Natural motion types found in skeletal and muscular systems of vertebrate animals inspire researchers to transfer this ability into engineered motion, which is highly desired in robotic systems. Dielectric elastomer actuators (DEAs) have shown promising capabilities as artificial muscles for driving such structures, as they are soft, lightweight, and can generate large strokes. For maximum performance, dielectric elastomer membranes need to be sufficiently pre-stretched. This fact is challenging, because it is difficult to integrate pre-stretched membranes into entirely soft systems, since the stored strain energy can significantly deform soft elements. Here, we present a soft robotic structure, possessing a bioinspired skeleton integrated into a soft body element, driven by an antagonistic pair of DEA artificial muscles, that enable the robot bending. In its equilibrium state, the setup maintains optimum isotropic pre-stretch. The robot itself has a length of 60 mm and is based on a flexible silicone body, possessing embedded transverse 3D printed struts. These rigid bone-like elements lead to an anisotropic bending stiffness, which only allows bending in one plane while maintaining the DEA's necessary pre-stretch in the other planes. The bones, therefore, define the degrees of freedom and stabilize the system. The DEAs are manufactured by aerosol deposition of a carbon-silicone-composite ink onto a stretchable membrane that is heat cured. Afterwards, the actuators are bonded to the top and bottom of the silicone body. The robotic structure shows large and defined bimorph bending curvature and operates in static as well as dynamic motion. Our experiments describe the influence of membrane pre-stretch and varied stiffness of the silicone body on the static and dynamic bending displacement, resonance frequencies and blocking forces. We also present an analytical model based on the Classical Laminate Theory for the identification of the main influencing parameters. Due to the simple design and processing, our new concept of a bioinspired DEA based robotic structure, with skeletal and muscular reinforcement, offers a wide range of robotic application.

There is a substantial number of telerobotics and teleoperation applications ranging from space operations, ground/aerial robotics, drive-by-wire systems to medical interventions. Major obstacles for such applications include latency, channel corruptions, and bandwidth which limit teleoperation efficacy. This survey reviews the time delay problem in teleoperation systems. We briefly review different solutions from early approaches which consist of control-theory-based models and user interface designs and focus on newer approaches developed since 2014. Future solutions to the time delay problem will likely be hybrid solutions which include modeling of user intent, prediction of robot movements, and time delay prediction all potentially using time series prediction methods. Hence, we examine methods that are primarily based on time series prediction. Recent prediction approaches take advantage of advances in nonlinear statistical models as well as machine learning and neural network techniques. We review Recurrent Neural Networks, Long Short-Term Memory, Sequence to Sequence, and Generative Adversarial Network models and examine each of these approaches for addressing time delay. As time delay is still an unsolved problem, we suggest some possible future research directions from information-theory-based modeling, which may lead to promising new approaches to advancing the field.

Multi-function swarms are swarms that solve multiple tasks at once. For example, a quadcopter swarm could be tasked with exploring an area of interest while simultaneously functioning as ad-hoc relays. With this type of multi-function comes the challenge of handling potentially conflicting requirements simultaneously. Using the Quality-Diversity algorithm MAP-elites in combination with a suitable controller structure, a framework for automatic behavior generation in multi-function swarms is proposed. The framework is tested on a scenario with three simultaneous tasks: exploration, communication network creation and geolocation of Radio Frequency (RF) emitters. A repertoire is evolved, consisting of a wide range of controllers, or behavior primitives, with different characteristics and trade-offs in the different tasks. This repertoire enables the swarm to online transition between behaviors featuring different trade-offs of applications depending on the situational requirements. Furthermore, the effect of noise on the behavior characteristics in MAP-elites is investigated. A moderate number of re-evaluations is found to increase the robustness while keeping the computational requirements relatively low. A few selected controllers are examined, and the dynamics of transitioning between these controllers are explored. Finally, the study investigates the importance of individual sensor or controller inputs. This is done through ablation, where individual inputs are disabled and their impact on the performance of the swarm controllers is assessed and analyzed.

This paper tackles the problem of formation reconstruction for a team of vehicles based on the knowledge of the range between agents of a subset of the participants. One main peculiarity of the proposed approach is that the relative velocity between agents, which is a fundamental data to solve the problem, is not assumed to be known in advance neither directly communicated. For the purpose of estimating this quantity, a collaborative control protocol is designed in order to mount the velocity data in the motion of each vehicle as a parameter through a dedicated control protocol, so that it can be inferred from the motion of the neighbor agents. Moreover, some suitable geometrical constraints related to the agents' relative positions are built and explicitly taken into account in the estimation framework providing a more accurate estimate. The issue of the presence of delays in the transmitted signals is also studied and two possible solutions are provided explaining how it is possible to get a reasonable range data exchange to get the solution both in a centralized fashion and in a decentralized one. Numerical examples are presented corroborating the validity of the proposed approach.

Occupational back-support exoskeletons are becoming a more and more common solution to mitigate work-related lower-back pain associated with lifting activities. In addition to lifting, there are many other tasks performed by workers, such as carrying, pushing, and pulling, that might benefit from the use of an exoskeleton. In this work, the impact that carrying has on lower-back loading compared to lifting and the need to select different assistive strategies based on the performed task are presented. This latter need is studied by using a control strategy that commands for constant torques. The results of the experimental campaign conducted on 9 subjects suggest that such a control strategy is beneficial for the back muscles (up to 12% reduction in overall lumbar activity), but constrains the legs (around 10% reduction in hip and knee ranges of motion). Task recognition and the design of specific controllers can be exploited by active and, partially, passive exoskeletons to enhance their versatility, i.e., the ability to adapt to different requirements.

Background: Gait analysis studies during robot-assisted walking have been predominantly focused on lower limb biomechanics. During robot-assisted walking, the users' interaction with the robot and their adaptations translate into altered gait mechanics. Hence, robust and objective metrics for quantifying walking performance during robot-assisted gait are especially relevant as it relates to dynamic stability. In this study, we assessed bi-planar dynamic stability margins for healthy adults during robot-assisted walking using EksoGT™, ReWalk™, and Indego® compared to independent overground walking at slow, self-selected, and fast speeds. Further, we examined the use of forearm crutches and its influence on dynamic gait stability margins.

Methods: Kinematic data were collected at 60 Hz under several walking conditions with and without the robotic exoskeleton for six healthy controls. Outcome measures included (i) whole-body center of mass (CoM) and extrapolated CoM (XCoM), (ii) base of support (BoS), (iii) margin of stability (MoS) with respect to both feet and bilateral crutches.

Results: Stability outcomes during exoskeleton-assisted walking at self-selected, comfortable walking speeds were significantly (p < 0.05) different compared to overground walking at self-selected speeds. Unlike overground walking, the control mechanisms for stability using these exoskeletons were not related to walking speed. MoSs were lower during the single support phase of gait, especially in the medial–lateral direction for all devices. MoSs relative to feet were significantly (p < 0.05) lower than those relative to crutches. The spatial location of crutches during exoskeleton-assisted walking pushed the whole-body CoM, during single support, beyond the lateral boundary of the lead foot, increasing the risk for falls if crutch slippage were to occur.

Conclusion: Careful consideration of crutch placement is critical to ensuring that the margins of stability are always within the limits of the BoS to control stability and decrease fall risk.

This work presents a novel five-fingered soft hand prototype actuated by Shape Memory Alloy (SMA) wires. The use of thin (100 μm diameter) SMA wire actuators, in conjunction with an entirely 3D printed hand skeleton, guarantees an overall lightweight and flexible structure capable of silent motion. To enable high forces with sufficiently high actuation speed at each fingertip, bundles of welded actuated SMA wires are used. In order to increase the compliance of each finger, flexible joints from superelastic SMA wires are inserted between each phalanx. The resulting system is a versatile hand prototype having intrinsically elastic fingers, which is capable to grasp several types of objects with a considerable force. The paper starts with the description of the finger hand design, along with practical considerations for the optimal placement of the superelastic SMA in the soft joint. The maximum achievable displacement of each finger phalanx is measured together with the phalanxes dynamic responsiveness at different power stimuli. Several force measurement are also realized at each finger phalanx. The versatility of the prototype is finally demonstrated by presenting several possible hand configurations while handling objects with different sizes and shapes.

Optical see-through (OST) augmented reality head-mounted displays are quickly emerging as a key asset in several application fields but their ability to profitably assist high precision activities in the peripersonal space is still sub-optimal due to the calibration procedure required to properly model the user's viewpoint through the see-through display. In this work, we demonstrate the beneficial impact, on the parallax-related AR misregistration, of the use of optical see-through displays whose optical engines collimate the computer-generated image at a depth close to the fixation point of the user in the peripersonal space. To estimate the projection parameters of the OST display for a generic viewpoint position, our strategy relies on a dedicated parameterization of the virtual rendering camera based on a calibration routine that exploits photogrammetry techniques. We model the registration error due to the viewpoint shift and we validate it on an OST display with short focal distance. The results of the tests demonstrate that with our strategy the parallax-related registration error is submillimetric provided that the scene under observation stays within a suitable view volume that falls in a ±10 cm depth range around the focal plane of the display. This finding will pave the way to the development of new multi-focal models of OST HMDs specifically conceived to aid high-precision manual tasks in the peripersonal space.

Research on human-robot interactions has been driven by the increasing employment of robotic manipulators in manufacturing and production. Toward developing more effective human-robot collaboration during shared tasks, this paper proposes an interaction scheme by employing machine learning algorithms to interpret biosignals acquired from the human user and accordingly planning the robot reaction. More specifically, a force myography (FMG) band was wrapped around the user's forearm and was used to collect information about muscle contractions during a set of collaborative tasks between the user and an industrial robot. A recurrent neural network model was trained to estimate the user's hand movement pattern based on the collected FMG data to determine whether the performed motion was random or intended as part of the predefined collaborative tasks. Experimental evaluation during two practical collaboration scenarios demonstrated that the trained model could successfully estimate the category of hand motion, i.e., intended or random, such that the robot either assisted with performing the task or changed its course of action to avoid collision. Furthermore, proximity sensors were mounted on the robotic arm to investigate if monitoring the distance between the user and the robot had an effect on the outcome of the collaborative effort. While further investigation is required to rigorously establish the safety of the human worker, this study demonstrates the potential of FMG-based wearable technologies to enhance human-robot collaboration in industrial settings.

Snake robotics is an important research topic with a wide range of applications, including inspection in confined spaces, search-and-rescue, and disaster response. Snake robots are well-suited to these applications because of their versatility and adaptability to unstructured and constrained environments. In this paper, we introduce a soft pneumatic robotic snake that can imitate the capabilities of biological snakes, its soft body can provide flexibility and adaptability to the environment. This paper combines soft mobile robot modeling, proprioceptive feedback control, and motion planning to pave the way for functional soft robotic snake autonomy. We propose a pressure-operated soft robotic snake with a high degree of modularity that makes use of customized embedded flexible curvature sensing. On this platform, we introduce the use of iterative learning control using feedback from the on-board curvature sensors to enable the snake to automatically correct its gait for superior locomotion. We also present a motion planning and trajectory tracking algorithm using an adaptive bounding box, which allows for efficient motion planning that still takes into account the kinematic state of the soft robotic snake. We test this algorithm experimentally, and demonstrate its performance in obstacle avoidance scenarios.

This paper demonstrates how tactile and proximity sensing can be used to perform automatic mechanical fractures detection (surface cracks). For this purpose, a custom-designed integrated tactile and proximity sensor has been implemented. With the help of fiber optics, the sensor measures the deformation of its body, when interacting with the physical environment, and the distance to the environment's objects. This sensor slides across different surfaces and records data which are then analyzed to detect and classify fractures and other mechanical features. The proposed method implements machine learning techniques (handcrafted features, and state of the art classification algorithms). An average crack detection accuracy of ~94% and width classification accuracy of ~80% is achieved. Kruskal-Wallis results (p < 0.001) indicate statistically significant differences among results obtained when analysing only integrated deformation measurements, only proximity measurements and both deformation and proximity data. A real-time classification method has been implemented for online classification of explored surfaces. In contrast to previous techniques, which mainly rely on visual modality, the proposed approach based on optical fibers might be more suitable for operation in extreme environments (such as nuclear facilities) where radiation may damage electronic components of commonly employed sensing devices, such as standard force sensors based on strain gauges and video cameras.

For naive robots to become truly autonomous, they need a means of developing their perceptive capabilities instead of relying on hand crafted models. The sensorimotor contingency theory asserts that such a way resides in learning invariants of the sensorimotor flow. We propose a formal framework inspired by this theory for the description of sensorimotor experiences of a naive agent, extending previous related works. We then use said formalism to conduct a theoretical study where we isolate sufficient conditions for the determination of a sensory prediction function. Furthermore, we also show that algebraic structure found in this prediction can be taken as a proxy for structure on the motor displacements, allowing for the discovery of the combinatorial structure of said displacements. Both these claims are further illustrated in simulations where a toy naive agent determines the sensory predictions of its spatial displacements from its uninterpreted sensory flow, which it then uses to infer the combinatorics of said displacements.

Automatic Latent Fingerprint Identification Systems (AFIS) are most widely used by forensic experts in law enforcement and criminal investigations. One of the critical steps used in automatic latent fingerprint matching is to automatically extract reliable minutiae from fingerprint images. Hence, minutiae extraction is considered to be a very important step in AFIS. The performance of such systems relies heavily on the quality of the input fingerprint images. Most of the state-of-the-art AFIS failed to produce good matching results due to poor ridge patterns and the presence of background noise. To ensure the robustness of fingerprint matching against low quality latent fingerprint images, it is essential to include a good fingerprint enhancement algorithm before minutiae extraction and matching. In this paper, we have proposed an end-to-end fingerprint matching system to automatically enhance, extract minutiae, and produce matching results. To achieve this, we have proposed a method to automatically enhance the poor-quality fingerprint images using the “Automated Deep Convolutional Neural Network (DCNN)” and “Fast Fourier Transform (FFT)” filters. The Deep Convolutional Neural Network (DCNN) produces a frequency enhanced map from fingerprint domain knowledge. We propose an “FFT Enhancement” algorithm to enhance and extract the ridges from the frequency enhanced map. Minutiae from the enhanced ridges are automatically extracted using a proposed “Automated Latent Minutiae Extractor (ALME)”. Based on the extracted minutiae, the fingerprints are automatically aligned, and a matching score is calculated using a proposed “Frequency Enhanced Minutiae Matcher (FEMM)” algorithm. Experiments are conducted on FVC2002, FVC2004, and NIST SD27 latent fingerprint databases. The minutiae extraction results show significant improvement in precision, recall, and F1 scores. We obtained the highest Rank-1 identification rate of 100% for FVC2002/2004 and 84.5% for NIST SD27 fingerprint databases. The matching results reveal that the proposed system outperforms state-of-the-art systems.

End-effector-based robotic systems provide easy-to-set-up motion support in rehabilitation of stroke and spinal-cord-injured patients. However, measurement information is obtained only about the motion of the limb segments to which the systems are attached and not about the adjacent limb segments. We demonstrate in one particular experimental setup that this limitation can be overcome by augmenting an end-effector-based robot with a wearable inertial sensor. Most existing inertial motion tracking approaches rely on a homogeneous magnetic field and thus fail in indoor environments and near ferromagnetic materials and electronic devices. In contrast, we propose a magnetometer-free sensor fusion method. It uses a quaternion-based algorithm to track the heading of a limb segment in real time by combining the gyroscope and accelerometer readings with position measurements of one point along that segment. We apply this method to an upper-limb rehabilitation robotics use case in which the orientation and position of the forearm and elbow are known, and the orientation and position of the upper arm and shoulder are estimated by the proposed method using an inertial sensor worn on the upper arm. Experimental data from five healthy subjects who performed 282 proper executions of a typical rehabilitation motion and 163 executions with compensation motion are evaluated. Using a camera-based system as a ground truth, we demonstrate that the shoulder position and the elbow angle are tracked with median errors around 4 cm and 4°, respectively; and that undesirable compensatory shoulder movements, which were defined as shoulder displacements greater ±10 cm for more than 20% of a motion cycle, are detected and classified 100% correctly across all 445 performed motions. The results indicate that wearable inertial sensors and end-effector-based robots can be combined to provide means for effective rehabilitation therapy with likewise detailed and accurate motion tracking for performance assessment, real-time biofeedback and feedback control of robotic and neuroprosthetic motion support.

COVID-19 can induce severe respiratory problems that need prolonged mechanical ventilation in the intensive care unit. While Open Tracheostomy (OT) is the preferred technique due to the excellent visualization of the surgical field and structures, Percutaneous Tracheostomy (PT) has proven to be a feasible minimally invasive alternative. However, PT's limitation relates to the inability to precisely enter the cervical trachea at the exact spot since the puncture is often performed based on crude estimation from anatomical laryngeal surface landmarks. Besides, there is no absolute control of the trajectory and force required to make the percutaneous puncture into the trachea, resulting in inadvertent injury to the cricoid ring, cervical esophagus, and vessels in the neck. Therefore, we hypothesize that a flexible mini-robotic system, incorporating the robotic needling technology, can overcome these challenges by allowing the trans-oral robotic instrument of the cervical trachea. This approach promises to improve current PT technology by making the initial trachea puncture from an “inside-out” approach, rather than an “outside-in” manner, fraught with several technical uncertainties.

Current designs of powered prosthetic limbs are limited by the nearly exclusive use of DC motor technology. Soft actuators promise new design freedom to create prosthetic limbs which more closely mimic intact neuromuscular systems and improve the capabilities of prosthetic users. This work evaluates the performance of a hydraulically amplified self-healing electrostatic (HASEL) soft actuator for use in a prosthetic hand. We compare a linearly-contracting HASEL actuator, termed a Peano-HASEL, to an existing actuator (DC motor) when driving a prosthetic finger like those utilized in multi-functional prosthetic hands. A kinematic model of the prosthetic finger is developed and validated, and is used to customize a prosthetic finger that is tuned to complement the force-strain characteristics of the Peano-HASEL actuators. An analytical model is used to inform the design of an improved Peano-HASEL actuator with the goal of increasing the fingertip pinch force of the prosthetic finger. When compared to a weight-matched DC motor actuator, the Peano-HASEL and custom finger is 10.6 times faster, has 11.1 times higher bandwidth, and consumes 8.7 times less electrical energy to grasp. It reaches 91% of the maximum range of motion of the original finger. However, the DC motor actuator produces 10 times the fingertip force at a relevant grip position. In this body of work, we present ways to further increase the force output of the Peano-HASEL driven prosthetic finger system, and discuss the significance of the unique properties of Peano-HASELs when applied to the field of upper-limb prosthetic design. This approach toward clinically-relevant actuator performance paired with a substantially different form-factor compared to DC motors presents new opportunities to advance the field of prosthetic limb design.

Forests present one of the most challenging environments for computer vision due to traits, such as complex texture, rapidly changing lighting, and high dynamicity. Loop closure by place recognition is a crucial part of successfully deploying robotic systems to map forests for the purpose of automating conservation. Modern CNN-based place recognition systems like NetVLAD have reported promising results, but the datasets used to train and test them are primarily of urban scenes. In this paper, we investigate how well NetVLAD generalizes to forest environments and find that it out performs state of the art loop closure approaches. Finally, integrating NetVLAD with ORBSLAM2 and evaluating on a novel forest data set, we find that, although suitable locations for loop closure can be identified, the SLAM system is unable to resolve matched places with feature correspondences. We discuss additional considerations to be addressed in future to deal with this challenging problem.