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Today at ProMat, a company called Pickle Robots is announcing Dill, a robot that can unload boxes from the back of a trailer at places like ecommerce fulfillment warehouses at very high speeds. With a peak box unloading rate of 1800 boxes per hour and a payload of up to 25 kg, Dill can substantially outperform even an expert human, and it can keep going pretty much forever as long as you have it plugged into the wall. 

Pickle Robots says that Dill’s approach to the box unloading task is unique in a couple of ways. First, it can handle messy trailers filled with a jumble of boxes of different shapes, colors, sizes, and weights. And second, from the get-go it’s intended to work under human supervision, relying on people to step in and handle edge cases.

Pickle’s “Dill” robot is based around a Kuka arm with up to 30 kg of payload. It uses two Intel L515s (Lidar-based RGB-D cameras) for box detection. The system is mounted on a wheeled base, and after getting positioned at the back of a trailer by a human operator, it’ll crawl forward by itself as it picks its way into the trailer. We’re told that the rate at which the robot can shift boxes averages 1600 per hour, with a peak speed closer to 1800 boxes per hour. A single human in top form can move about 800 boxes per hour, so Dill is very, very fast. In the video, you can see the robot slow down on some packages, and Pickle CEO Andrew Meyer says that’s because “we probably have a tenuous grasp on that package. As we continue to improve the gripper, we will be able to keep the speed up on more cycles.”

While the video shows Dill operating at speed autonomously, the company says it’s designed to function under human supervision. From the press release: “To maintain these speeds, Dill needs people to supervise the operation and lend an occasional helping hand, stepping in every so often to pick up any dropped packages and handle irregular items.” Typically, Meyer says, that means one person for every five robots depending on the use case. Although if you have only one robot, it’ll still require someone to keep an eye on it. A supervisor is not occupied with the task full-time, to be clear. They can also be doing something else while the robot works—although the longer a human takes to respond to issues the robot may have, the slower its effective speed will be. Typically, the company says, a human will need to help out the robot once every five minutes when it’s doing something particularly complex. But even in situations with lots of hard-to-handle boxes resulting in relatively low efficiency, Meyer says that users can expect speeds exceeding 1000 boxes per hour.

Photo: Pickle Robots Pickle Robots’ gripper, which includes a high contact area suction system and a retractable plate to help the robot quickly flip boxes.

From Pickle Robots’ video, it’s fairly obvious that the comparison that Pickle wants you to make is to Boston Dynamics’ Stretch robot, which has a peak box moving rate of 800 boxes per hour. Yes, Pickle’s robot is twice as fast. But it’s also a unitasker, designed to unload boxes from trucks, and that’s it. Focusing on a very specific problem is a good approach for robots, because then you can design a robot that does an excellent job of solving that problem, which is what Pickle has done. Boston Dynamics has chosen a different route with  Stretch, which is to build a robot that has the potential to do many other warehouse tasks, although not nearly as optimally.

The other big difference between Boston Dynamics and Pickle is, of course, that Boston Dynamics is focusing on autonomy. Meanwhile, Pickle, Meyer says in a press release, “resisted the fool’s errand of trying to create a system that could work entirely unsupervised.” Personally, I disagree that trying to create a system that could work entirely unsupervised is a fool’s errand. Approaching practical commercial robotics (in any context) from a perspective of requiring complete unsupervised autonomy is generally not practical right now outside of highly structured environments. But many companies do have goals that include unsupervised operation while still acknowledging that occasionally their robots will need a human to step in and help. In fact, these companies are (generally) doing exactly what Pickle is doing in practice: they’re deploying robots with the goal of fully unsupervised autonomy, while keeping humans available as they work their way towards that goal. The difference, perhaps, is philosophical—some companies see unsupervised operation as the future of robotics in these specific contexts, while Pickle does not. We asked Meyer about why this is. He replied:

Some problems are hardware-related and not likely to yield an automated solution anytime soon. For example, the gripper is physically incapable of grasping some objects, like car tires, no matter what intelligence the robot has. A part might start to wear out, like a spring on the gripper, and the gripper can behave unpredictably. Things can be too heavy. A sensor might get knocked out of place, dust might get on the camera lens. Or an already damaged package falls apart when you pick it up, and dumps its contents on the ground.

Other problems can go away over time as the algorithms learn and the engineers innovate in small ways. For example, learning not to pick packages that will cause a bunch more to fall down, learning to approach boxes in the corner from the side, or—and this was a real issue in production for a couple days—learning to avoid picking directly on labels where they might peel off from suction.

Machine learning algorithms, on both the perception and action sides of the story, are critical ingredients for making any of this work. However, even with them your engineering team still has to do a lot of problem solving wherever the AI is struggling. At some point you run out of engineering resources to solve all these problems in the long tail. When we talk about problems that require AI algorithms as capable as people are, we mean ones where the target on the reliability curve (99.99999% in the case of self driving, for example) is out of reach in this way. I think the big lesson from self-driving cars is that chasing that long tail of edge cases is really, really hard. We realized that in the loading dock, you can still deliver tremendous value to the customer even if you assume you can only handle 98% of the cases.  

These long-tail problems are everywhere in robotics, but again, some people believe that levels of reliability that are usable for unsupervised operation (at least in some specific contexts) are more near-term achievable than others do. In Pickle’s case, emphasizing human supervision means that they may be able to deploy faster and more reliably and at lower cost and with higher performance—we’ll just have to see how long it takes for other companies to come through with robots that are able to do the same tasks without human supervision.

Photo: Pickle Robots Pickle robots is also working on other high speed package sorting systems.

We asked Meyer how much Dill costs, and to our surprise, he gave us a candid answer: Depending on the configuration, the system can cost anywhere from $50-100k to deploy and about that same amount per year to operate. Meyer points out that you can’t really compare the robot to a human (or humans) simply on speed, since with the robot, you don’t have to worry about injuries or improper sorting of packages or training or turnover. While Pickle is currently working on several other configurations of robots for package handling, this particular truck unloading configuration will be shipping to customers next year.

Today at ProMat, a company called Pickle Robots is announcing Dill, a robot that can unload boxes from the back of a trailer at places like ecommerce fulfillment warehouses at very high speeds. With a peak box unloading rate of 1800 boxes per hour and a payload of up to 25 kg, Dill can substantially outperform even an expert human, and it can keep going pretty much forever as long as you have it plugged into the wall. 

Pickle Robots says that Dill’s approach to the box unloading task is unique in a couple of ways. First, it can handle messy trailers filled with a jumble of boxes of different shapes, colors, sizes, and weights. And second, from the get-go it’s intended to work under human supervision, relying on people to step in and handle edge cases.

Pickle’s “Dill” robot is based around a Kuka arm with up to 30 kg of payload. It uses two Intel L515s (Lidar-based RGB-D cameras) for box detection. The system is mounted on a wheeled base, and after getting positioned at the back of a trailer by a human operator, it’ll crawl forward by itself as it picks its way into the trailer. We’re told that the rate at which the robot can shift boxes averages 1600 per hour, with a peak speed closer to 1800 boxes per hour. A single human in top form can move about 800 boxes per hour, so Dill is very, very fast. In the video, you can see the robot slow down on some packages, and Pickle CEO Andrew Meyer says that’s because “we probably have a tenuous grasp on that package. As we continue to improve the gripper, we will be able to keep the speed up on more cycles.”

While the video shows Dill operating at speed autonomously, the company says it’s designed to function under human supervision. From the press release: “To maintain these speeds, Dill needs people to supervise the operation and lend an occasional helping hand, stepping in every so often to pick up any dropped packages and handle irregular items.” Typically, Meyer says, that means one person for every five robots depending on the use case. Although if you have only one robot, it’ll still require someone to keep an eye on it. A supervisor is not occupied with the task full-time, to be clear. They can also be doing something else while the robot works—although the longer a human takes to respond to issues the robot may have, the slower its effective speed will be. Typically, the company says, a human will need to help out the robot once every five minutes when it’s doing something particularly complex. But even in situations with lots of hard-to-handle boxes resulting in relatively low efficiency, Meyer says that users can expect speeds exceeding 1000 boxes per hour.

Photo: Pickle Robots Pickle Robots’ gripper, which includes a high contact area suction system and a retractable plate to help the robot quickly flip boxes.

From Pickle Robots’ video, it’s fairly obvious that the comparison that Pickle wants you to make is to Boston Dynamics’ Stretch robot, which has a peak box moving rate of 800 boxes per hour. Yes, Pickle’s robot is twice as fast. But it’s also a unitasker, designed to unload boxes from trucks, and that’s it. Focusing on a very specific problem is a good approach for robots, because then you can design a robot that does an excellent job of solving that problem, which is what Pickle has done. Boston Dynamics has chosen a different route with  Stretch, which is to build a robot that has the potential to do many other warehouse tasks, although not nearly as optimally.

The other big difference between Boston Dynamics and Pickle is, of course, that Boston Dynamics is focusing on autonomy. Meanwhile, Pickle, Meyer says in a press release, “resisted the fool’s errand of trying to create a system that could work entirely unsupervised.” Personally, I disagree that trying to create a system that could work entirely unsupervised is a fool’s errand. Approaching practical commercial robotics (in any context) from a perspective of requiring complete unsupervised autonomy is generally not practical right now outside of highly structured environments. But many companies do have goals that include unsupervised operation while still acknowledging that occasionally their robots will need a human to step in and help. In fact, these companies are (generally) doing exactly what Pickle is doing in practice: they’re deploying robots with the goal of fully unsupervised autonomy, while keeping humans available as they work their way towards that goal. The difference, perhaps, is philosophical—some companies see unsupervised operation as the future of robotics in these specific contexts, while Pickle does not. We asked Meyer about why this is. He replied:

Some problems are hardware-related and not likely to yield an automated solution anytime soon. For example, the gripper is physically incapable of grasping some objects, like car tires, no matter what intelligence the robot has. A part might start to wear out, like a spring on the gripper, and the gripper can behave unpredictably. Things can be too heavy. A sensor might get knocked out of place, dust might get on the camera lens. Or an already damaged package falls apart when you pick it up, and dumps its contents on the ground.

Other problems can go away over time as the algorithms learn and the engineers innovate in small ways. For example, learning not to pick packages that will cause a bunch more to fall down, learning to approach boxes in the corner from the side, or—and this was a real issue in production for a couple days—learning to avoid picking directly on labels where they might peel off from suction.

Machine learning algorithms, on both the perception and action sides of the story, are critical ingredients for making any of this work. However, even with them your engineering team still has to do a lot of problem solving wherever the AI is struggling. At some point you run out of engineering resources to solve all these problems in the long tail. When we talk about problems that require AI algorithms as capable as people are, we mean ones where the target on the reliability curve (99.99999% in the case of self driving, for example) is out of reach in this way. I think the big lesson from self-driving cars is that chasing that long tail of edge cases is really, really hard. We realized that in the loading dock, you can still deliver tremendous value to the customer even if you assume you can only handle 98% of the cases.  

These long-tail problems are everywhere in robotics, but again, some people believe that levels of reliability that are usable for unsupervised operation (at least in some specific contexts) are more near-term achievable than others do. In Pickle’s case, emphasizing human supervision means that they may be able to deploy faster and more reliably and at lower cost and with higher performance—we’ll just have to see how long it takes for other companies to come through with robots that are able to do the same tasks without human supervision.

Photo: Pickle Robots Pickle robots is also working on other high speed package sorting systems.

We asked Meyer how much Dill costs, and to our surprise, he gave us a candid answer: Depending on the configuration, the system can cost anywhere from $50-100k to deploy and about that same amount per year to operate. Meyer points out that you can’t really compare the robot to a human (or humans) simply on speed, since with the robot, you don’t have to worry about injuries or improper sorting of packages or training or turnover. While Pickle is currently working on several other configurations of robots for package handling, this particular truck unloading configuration will be shipping to customers next year.

The unprecedented shock caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has severely influenced the delivery of regular healthcare services. Most non-urgent medical activities, including elective surgeries, have been paused to mitigate the risk of infection and to dedicate medical resources to managing the pandemic. In this regard, not only surgeries are substantially influenced, but also pre- and post-operative assessment of patients and training for surgical procedures have been significantly impacted due to the pandemic. Many countries are planning a phased reopening, which includes the resumption of some surgical procedures. However, it is not clear how the reopening safe-practice guidelines will impact the quality of healthcare delivery. This perspective article evaluates the use of robotics and AI in 1) robotics-assisted surgery, 2) tele-examination of patients for pre- and post-surgery, and 3) tele-training for surgical procedures. Surgeons interact with a large number of staff and patients on a daily basis. Thus, the risk of infection transmission between them raises concerns. In addition, pre- and post-operative assessment also raises concerns about increasing the risk of disease transmission, in particular, since many patients may have other underlying conditions, which can increase their chances of mortality due to the virus. The pandemic has also limited the time and access that trainee surgeons have for training in the OR and/or in the presence of an expert. In this article, we describe existing challenges and possible solutions and suggest future research directions that may be relevant for robotics and AI in addressing the three tasks mentioned above.

The rise of rehabilitation robotics has ignited a global investigation into the human machine interface (HMI) between device and user. Previous research on wearable robotics has primarily focused on robotic kinematics and controls but rarely on the actual design of the physical HMI (pHMI). This paper presents a data-driven statistical forearm surface model for designing a forearm orthosis in exoskeleton applications. The forearms of 6 subjects were 3D scanned in a custom-built jig to capture data in extreme pronation and supination poses, creating 3D point clouds of the forearm surface. Resulting data was characterized into a series of ellipses from 20 to 100% of the forearm length. Key ellipse parameters in the model include: normalized major and minor axis length, normalized center point location, tilt angle, and circularity ratio. Single-subject (SS) ellipse parameters were normalized with respect to forearm radiale-stylion (RS) length and circumference and then averaged over the 6 subjects. Averaged parameter profiles were fit with 3rd-order polynomials to create combined-subjects (CS) elliptical models of the forearm. CS models were created in the jig as-is (CS1) and after alignment to ellipse centers at 20 and 100% of the forearm length (CS2). Normalized curve fits of ellipse major and minor axes in model CS2 achieve R2 values ranging from 0.898 to 0.980 indicating a high degree of correlation between cross-sectional size and position along the forearm. Most other parameters showed poor correlation with forearm position (0.005 < R2 < 0.391) with the exception of tilt angle in pronation (0.877) and circularity in supination (0.657). Normalized RMSE of the CS2 ellipse-fit model ranged from 0.21 to 0.64% of forearm circumference and 0.22 to 0.46% of forearm length. The average and peak surface deviation between the scaled CS2 model and individual scans along the forearm varied from 0.56 to 2.86 mm (subject averages) and 3.86 to 7.16 (subject maximums), with the peak deviation occurring between 45 and 50% RS length. The developed equations allow reconstruction of a scalable 3D model that can be sized based on two user measures, RS length and forearm circumference, or based on generic arm measurements taken from existing anthropometric databases.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highly impacted the communities globally by reprioritizing the means through which various societal sectors operate. Among these sectors, healthcare providers and medical workers have been impacted prominently due to the massive increase in demand for medical services under unprecedented circumstances. Hence, any tool that can help the compliance with social guidelines for COVID-19 spread prevention will have a positive impact on managing and controlling the virus outbreak and reducing the excessive burden on the healthcare system. This perspective article disseminates the perspectives of the authors regarding the use of novel biosensors and intelligent algorithms embodied in wearable IoMT frameworks for tackling this issue. We discuss how with the use of smart IoMT wearables certain biomarkers can be tracked for detection of COVID-19 in exposed individuals. We enumerate several machine learning algorithms which can be used to process a wide range of collected biomarkers for detecting (a) multiple symptoms of SARS-CoV-2 infection and (b) the dynamical likelihood of contracting the virus through interpersonal interaction. Eventually, we enunciate how a systematic use of smart wearable IoMT devices in various social sectors can intelligently help controlling the spread of COVID-19 in communities as they enter the reopening phase. We explain how this framework can benefit individuals and their medical correspondents by introducing Systems for Symptom Decoding (SSD), and how the use of this technology can be generalized on a societal level for the control of spread by introducing Systems for Spread Tracing (SST).

With impressive developments in human–robot interaction it may seem that technology can do anything. Especially in the domain of social robots which suggest to be much more than programmed machines because of their anthropomorphic shape, people may overtrust the robot's actual capabilities and its reliability. This presents a serious problem, especially when personal well-being might be at stake. Hence, insights about the development and influencing factors of overtrust in robots may form an important basis for countermeasures and sensible design decisions. An empirical study [N = 110] explored the development of overtrust using the example of a pet feeding robot. A 2 × 2 experimental design and repeated measurements contrasted the effect of one's own experience, skill demonstration, and reputation through experience reports of others. The experiment was realized in a video environment where the participants had to imagine they were going on a four-week safari trip and leaving their beloved cat at home, making use of a pet feeding robot. Every day, the participants had to make a choice: go to a day safari without calling options (risk and reward) or make a boring car trip to another village to check if the feeding was successful and activate an emergency call if not (safe and no reward). In parallel to cases of overtrust in other domains (e.g., autopilot), the feeding robot performed flawlessly most of the time until in the fourth week; it performed faultily on three consecutive days, resulting in the cat's death if the participants had decided to go for the day safari on these days. As expected, with repeated positive experience about the robot's reliability on feeding the cat, trust levels rapidly increased and the number of control calls decreased. Compared to one's own experience, skill demonstration and reputation were largely neglected or only had a temporary effect. We integrate these findings in a conceptual model of (over)trust over time and connect these to related psychological concepts such as positivism, instant rewards, inappropriate generalization, wishful thinking, dissonance theory, and social concepts from human–human interaction. Limitations of the present study as well as implications for robot design and future research are discussed.

There has been an explosion of ideas in soft robotics over the past decade, resulting in unprecedented opportunities for end effector design. Soft robot hands offer benefits of low-cost, compliance, and customized design, with the promise of dexterity and robustness. The space of opportunities is vast and exciting. However, new tools are needed to understand the capabilities of such manipulators and to facilitate manipulation planning with soft manipulators that exhibit free-form deformations. To address this challenge, we introduce a sampling based approach to discover and model continuous families of manipulations for soft robot hands. We give an overview of the soft foam robots in production in our lab and describe novel algorithms developed to characterize manipulation families for such robots. Our approach consists of sampling a space of manipulation actions, constructing Gaussian Mixture Model representations covering successful regions, and refining the results to create continuous successful regions representing the manipulation family. The space of manipulation actions is very high dimensional; we consider models with and without dimensionality reduction and provide a rigorous approach to compare models across different dimensions by comparing coverage of an unbiased test dataset in the full dimensional parameter space. Results show that some dimensionality reduction is typically useful in populating the models, but without our technique, the amount of dimensionality reduction to use is difficult to predict ahead of time and can depend on the hand and task. The models we produce can be used to plan and carry out successful, robust manipulation actions and to compare competing robot hand designs.

Engineers, using artificial intelligence and wearable cameras, now aim to help robotic exoskeletons walk by themselves.

Increasingly, researchers around the world are developing lower-body exoskeletons to help people walk. These are essentially walking robots users can strap to their legs to help them move.

One problem with such exoskeletons: They often depend on manual controls to switch from one mode of locomotion to another, such as from sitting to standing, or standing to walking, or walking on the ground to walking up or down stairs. Relying on joysticks or smartphone apps every time you want to switch the way you want to move can prove awkward and mentally taxing, says Brokoslaw Laschowski, a robotics researcher at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

Scientists are working on automated ways to help exoskeletons recognize when to switch locomotion modes — for instance, using sensors attached to legs that can detect bioelectric signals sent from your brain to your muscles telling them to move. However, this approach comes with a number of challenges, such as how how skin conductivity can change as a person’s skin gets sweatier or dries off.

Now several research groups are experimenting with a new approach: fitting exoskeleton users with wearable cameras to provide the machines with vision data that will let them operate autonomously. Artificial intelligence (AI) software can analyze this data to recognize stairs, doors, and other features of the surrounding environment and calculate how best to respond.

Laschowski leads the ExoNet project, the first open-source database of high-resolution wearable camera images of human locomotion scenarios. It holds more than 5.6 million images of indoor and outdoor real-world walking environments. The team used this data to train deep-learning algorithms;  their convolutional neural networks can already automatically recognize different walking environments with 73 percent accuracy "despite the large variance in different surfaces and objects sensed by the wearable camera," Laschowski notes.

According to Laschowski, a potential limitation of their work their reliance on conventional 2-D images, whereas depth cameras could also capture potentially useful distance data. He and his collaborators ultimately chose not to rely on depth cameras for a number of reasons, including the fact that the accuracy of depth measurements typically degrades in outdoor lighting and with increasing distance, he says.

In similar work, researchers in North Carolina had volunteers with cameras either mounted on their eyeglasses or strapped onto their knees walk through a variety of indoor and outdoor settings to capture the kind of image data exoskeletons might use to see the world around them. The aim?  "To automate motion," says Edgar Lobaton an electrical engineering researcher at North Carolina State University. He says they are focusing on how AI software might reduce uncertainty due to factors such as motion blur or overexposed images "to ensure safe operation. We want to ensure that we can really rely on the vision and AI portion before integrating it into the hardware."

In the future, Laschowski and his colleagues will focus on improving the accuracy of their environmental analysis software with low computational and memory storage requirements, which are important for onboard, real-time operations on robotic exoskeletons. Lobaton and his team also seek to account for uncertainty introduced into their visual systems by movements .

Ultimately, the ExoNet researchers want to explore how AI software can transmit commands to exoskeletons so they can perform tasks such as climbing stairs or avoiding obstacles based on a system’s analysis of a user's current movements and the upcoming terrain. With autonomous cars as inspiration, they are seeking to develop autonomous exoskeletons that can handle the walking task without human input, Laschowski says.

However, Laschowski adds, “User safety is of the utmost importance, especially considering that we're working with individuals with mobility impairments," resulting perhaps from advanced age or physical disabilities.
“The exoskeleton user will always have the ability to override the system should the classification algorithm or controller make a wrong decision.”

The importance of embodiment for effective robot performance has been postulated for a long time. Despite this, only relatively recently concrete quantitative models were put forward to characterize the advantages provided by a well-chosen embodiment. We here use one of these models, based on the concept of relevant information, to identify in a minimalistic scenario how and when embodiment affects the decision density. Concretely, we study how embodiment affects information costs when, instead of atomic actions, scripts are introduced, that is, predefined action sequences. Their inclusion can be treated as a straightforward extension of the basic action space. We will demonstrate the effect on informational decision cost of utilizing scripts vs. basic actions using a simple navigation task. Importantly, we will also employ a world with “mislabeled” actions, which we will call a “twisted” world. This is a model which had been used in an earlier study of the influence of embodiment on decision costs. It will turn out that twisted scenarios, as opposed to well-labeled (“embodied”) ones, are significantly more costly in terms of relevant information. This cost is further worsened when the agent is forced to lower the decision density by employing scripts (once a script is triggered, no decisions are taken until the script has run to its end). This adds to our understanding why well-embodied (interpreted in our model as well-labeled) agents should be preferable, in a quantifiable, objective sense.

Virtual humans (VHs)—automated, three-dimensional agents—can serve as realistic embodiments for social interactions with human users. Extant literature suggests that a user’s cognitive and affective responses toward a VH depend on the extent to which the interaction elicits a sense of copresence, or the subjective “sense of being together.” Furthermore, prior research has linked copresence to important social outcomes (e.g., likeability and trust), emphasizing the need to understand which factors contribute to this psychological state. Although there is some understanding of the determinants of copresence in virtual reality (VR) (cf. Oh et al., 2018), it is less known what determines copresence in mixed reality (MR), a modality wherein VHs have unique access to social cues in a “real-world” setting. In the current study, we examined the extent to which a VH’s responsiveness to events occurring in the user’s physical environment increased a sense of copresence and heightened affective connections to the VH. Participants (N = 65) engaged in two collaborative tasks with a (nonspeaking) VH using an MR headset. In the first task, no event in the participant’s physical environment would occur, which served as the control condition. In the second task, an event in the participants’ physical environment occurred, to which the VH either responded or ignored depending on the experimental condition. Copresence and interpersonal evaluations of the VHs were measured after each collaborative task via self-reported measures. Results show that when the VH responded to the physical event, participants experienced a significant stronger sense of copresence than when the VH did not respond. However, responsiveness did not elicit more positive evaluations toward the VH (likeability and emotional connectedness). This study is an integral first step in establishing how and when affective and cognitive components of evaluations during social interactions diverge. Importantly, the findings suggest that feeling copresence with VH in MR is partially determined by the VHs’ response to events in the actual physical environment shared by both interactants.

There are currently many quadruped robots suited to a wide range of applications, but traversing some terrains, such as vertical ladders, remains an open challenge. There is still a need to develop adaptive robots that can walk and climb efficiently. This paper presents an adaptive quadruped robot that, by mimicking feline structure, supports several novel capabilities. We design a novel paw structure and several point-cloud-based sensory structures incorporating a quad-composite time-of-flight sensor and a dual-laser range finder. The proposed robot is equipped with physical and cognitive capabilities which include: 1) a dynamic-density topological map building with attention model, 2) affordance perception using the topological map, and 3) a neural-based locomotion model. The novel capabilities show strong integration between locomotion and internal–external sensory information, enabling short-term adaptations in response to environmental changes. The robot performed well in several situations: walking on natural terrain, walking with a leg malfunction, avoiding a sudden obstacle, climbing a vertical ladder. Further, we consider current problems and future development.

Worldwide, at the time this article was written, there are over 127 million cases of patients with a confirmed link to COVID-19 and about 2.78 million deaths reported. With limited access to vaccine or strong antiviral treatment for the novel coronavirus, actions in terms of prevention and containment of the virus transmission rely mostly on social distancing among susceptible and high-risk populations. Aside from the direct challenges posed by the novel coronavirus pandemic, there are serious and growing secondary consequences caused by the physical distancing and isolation guidelines, among vulnerable populations. Moreover, the healthcare system’s resources and capacity have been focused on addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, causing less urgent care, such as physical neurorehabilitation and assessment, to be paused, canceled, or delayed. Overall, this has left elderly adults, in particular those with neuromusculoskeletal (NMSK) conditions, without the required service support. However, in many cases, such as stroke, the available time window of recovery through rehabilitation is limited since neural plasticity decays quickly with time. Given that future waves of the outbreak are expected in the coming months worldwide, it is important to discuss the possibility of using available technologies to address this issue, as societies have a duty to protect the most vulnerable populations. In this perspective review article, we argue that intelligent robotics and wearable technologies can help with remote delivery of assessment, assistance, and rehabilitation services while physical distancing and isolation measures are in place to curtail the spread of the virus. By supporting patients and medical professionals during this pandemic, robots, and smart digital mechatronic systems can reduce the non-COVID-19 burden on healthcare systems. Digital health and cloud telehealth solutions that can complement remote delivery of assessment and physical rehabilitation services will be the subject of discussion in this article due to their potential in enabling more effective and safer NMSDK rehabilitation, assistance, and assessment service delivery. This article will hopefully lead to an interdisciplinary dialogue between the medical and engineering sectors, stake holders, and policy makers for a better delivery of care for those with NMSK conditions during a global health crisis including future pandemics.

There are high risks of infection for surgeons during the face-to-face COVID-19 swab sampling due to the novel coronavirus’s infectivity. To address this issue, we propose a flexible transoral robot with a teleoperated configuration for swab sampling. The robot comprises a flexible manipulator, an endoscope with a monitor, and a master device. A 3-prismatic-universal (3-PU) flexible parallel mechanism with 3 degrees of freedom (DOF) is used to realize the manipulator’s movements. The flexibility of the manipulator improves the safety of testees. Besides, the master device is similar to the manipulator in structure. It is easy to use for operators. Under the guidance of the vision from the endoscope, the surgeon can operate the master device to control the swab’s motion attached to the manipulator for sampling. In this paper, the robotic system, the workspace, and the operation procedure are described in detail. The tongue depressor, which is used to prevent the tongue’s interference during the sampling, is also tested. The accuracy of the manipulator under visual guidance is validated intuitively. Finally, the experiment on a human phantom is conducted to demonstrate the feasibility of the robot preliminarily.

Social interaction might prevent or delay dementia, but little is known about the specific effects of various social activity interventions on cognition. This study conducted a single-site randomized controlled trial (RCT) of Photo-Integrated Conversation Moderated by Robots (PICMOR), a group conversation intervention program for resilience against cognitive decline and dementia. In the RCT, PICMOR was compared to an unstructured group conversation condition. Sixty-five community-living older adults participated in this study. The intervention was provided once a week for 12 weeks. Primary outcome measures were the cognitive functions; process outcome measures included the linguistic characteristics of speech to estimate interaction quality. Baseline and post-intervention data were collected. PICMOR contains two key features: 1) photos taken by the participants are displayed and discussed sequentially; and 2) a robotic moderator manages turn-taking to make sure that participants are allocated the same amount of time. Among the primary outcome measures, one of the subcategories of cognitive functions, verbal fluency significantly improved in the intervention group. Among the process outcome measures, a part of the subcategories of linguistic characteristics of speech, the amount of speech and richness of words, proportion of providing topics, questions, and answers in total utterances were larger for the intervention group. This study demonstrated for the first time the positive effects of a robotic social activity intervention on cognitive function in healthy older adults via RCT. The group conversation generated by PICMOR may improve participants’ verbal fluency since participants have more opportunity to provide their own topics, asking and answering questions which results in exploring larger vocabularies. PICMOR is available and accessible to community-living older adults.

Clinical Trial Registration:https://clinicaltrials.gov/UMIN000036667, identifier UMIN000036667.

Finding the shortest tour visiting all given points at least ones belongs to the most famous optimization problems until today [travelling salesman problem (TSP)]. Optimal solutions exist for many problems up to several ten thousand points. The major difficulty in solving larger problems is the required computational complexity. This shifts the research from finding the optimum with no time limitation to approaches that find good but sub-optimal solutions in pre-defined limited time. This paper proposes a new approach for two-dimensional symmetric problems with more than a million coordinates that is able to create good initial tours within few minutes. It is based on a hierarchical clustering strategy and supports parallel processing. In addition, a method is proposed that can correct unfavorable paths with moderate computational complexity. The new approach is superior to state-of-the-art methods when applied to TSP instances with non-uniformly distributed coordinates.

Walking animals demonstrate impressive self-organized locomotion and adaptation to body property changes by skillfully manipulating their complicated and redundant musculoskeletal systems. Adaptive interlimb coordination plays a crucial role in this achievement. It has been identified that interlimb coordination is generated through dynamical interactions between the neural system, musculoskeletal system, and environment. Based on this principle, two classical interlimb coordination mechanisms (continuous phase modulation and phase resetting) have been proposed independently. These mechanisms use decoupled central pattern generators (CPGs) with sensory feedback, such as ground reaction forces (GRFs), to generate robot locomotion autonomously without predefining it (i.e., self-organized locomotion). A comparative study was conducted on the two mechanisms under decoupled CPG-based control implemented on a quadruped robot in simulation. Their characteristics were compared by observing their CPG phase convergence processes at different control parameter values. Additionally, the mechanisms were investigated when the robot faced various unexpected situations, such as noisy feedback, leg motor damage, and carrying a load. The comparative study reveals that the phase modulation and resetting mechanisms demonstrate satisfactory performance when they are subjected to symmetric and asymmetric GRF distributions, respectively. This work also suggests a strategy for the appropriate selection of adaptive interlimb coordination mechanisms under different conditions and for the optimal setting of their control parameter values to enhance their control performance.

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!):

RoboSoft 2021 – April 12-16, 2021 – [Online Conference] ICRA 2021 – May 30-5, 2021 – Xi'an, China RoboCup 2021 – June 22-28, 2021 – [Online Event] DARPA SubT Finals – September 21-23, 2021 – Louisville, KY, USA WeRobot 2021 – September 23-25, 2021 – Coral Gables, FL, USA

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

What if seeing devices looked like us? Eyecam is a prototype exploring the potential future design of sensing devices. Eyecam is a webcam shaped like a human eye that can see, blink, look around and observe us.

And it's open source, so you can build your own!

[ Eyecam ]

Looks like Festo will be turning some of its bionic robots into educational kits, which is a pretty cool idea.

[ Bionics4Education ]

Underwater soft robots are challenging to model and control because of their high degrees of freedom and their intricate coupling with water. In this paper, we present a method that leverages the recent development in differentiable simulation coupled with a differentiable, analytical hydrodynamic model to assist with the modeling and control of an underwater soft robot. We apply this method to Starfish, a customized soft robot design that is easy to fabricate and intuitive to manipulate.

[ MIT CSAIL ]

Rainbow Robotics, the company who made HUBO, has a new collaborative robot arm.

[ Rainbow Robotics ]

Thanks Fan!

We develop an integrated robotic platform for advanced collaborative robots and demonstrates an application of multiple robots collaboratively transporting an object to different positions in a factory environment. The proposed platform integrates a drone, a mobile manipulator robot, and a dual-arm robot to work autonomously, while also collaborating with a human worker. The platform also demonstrates the potential of a novel manufacturing process, which incorporates adaptive and collaborative intelligence to improve the efficiency of mass customization for the factory of the future.

[ Paper ]

Thanks Poramate!

In Sevastopol State University the team of the Laboratory of Underwater Robotics and Control Systems and Research and Production Association “Android Technika” performed tests of an underwater anropomorphic manipulator robot.

[ Sevastopol State ]

Thanks Fan!

Taiwanese company TCI Gene created a COVID test system based on their fully automated and enclosed gene testing machine QVS-96S. The system includes two ABB robots and carries out 1800 tests per day, operating 24/7. Every hour 96 virus samples tests are made with an accuracy of 99.99%.

[ ABB ]

A short video showing how a Halodi Robotics can be used in a commercial guarding application.

[ Halodi ]

During the past five years, under the NASA Early Space Innovations program, we have been developing new design optimization methods for underactuated robot hands, aiming to achieve versatile manipulation in highly constrained environments. We have prototyped hands for NASA’s Astrobee robot, an in-orbit assistive free flyer for the International Space Station.

[ ROAM Lab ]

The new, improved OTTO 1500 is a workhorse AMR designed to move heavy payloads through demanding environments faster than any other AMR on the market, with zero compromise to safety.

[ ROAM Lab ]

Very, very high performance sensing and actuation to pull this off.

[ Ishikawa Group ]

We introduce a conversational social robot designed for long-term in-home use to help with loneliness. We present a novel robot behavior design to have simple self-reflection conversations with people to improve wellness, while still being feasible, deployable, and safe.

[ HCI Lab ]

We are one of the 5 winners of the Start-up Challenge. This video illustrates what we achieved during the Swisscom 5G exploration week. Our proof-of-concept tele-excavation system is composed of a Menzi Muck M545 walking excavator automated & customized by Robotic Systems Lab and IBEX motion platform as the operator station. The operator and remote machine are connected for the first time via a 5G network infrastructure which was brought to our test field by Swisscom.

[ RSL ]

This video shows LOLA balancing on different terrain when being pushed in different directions. The robot is technically blind, not using any camera-based or prior information on the terrain (hard ground is assumed).

[ TUM ]

Autonomous driving when you cannot see the road at all because it's buried in snow is some serious autonomous driving.

[ Norlab ]

A hierarchical and robust framework for learning bipedal locomotion is presented and successfully implemented on the 3D biped robot Digit. The feasibility of the method is demonstrated by successfully transferring the learned policy in simulation to the Digit robot hardware, realizing sustained walking gaits under external force disturbances and challenging terrains not included during the training process.

[ OSU ]

This is a video summary of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue's deployments under the direction of emergency response agencies to more than 30 disasters in five countries from 2001 (9/11 World Trade Center) to 2018 (Hurricane Michael). It includes the first use of ground robots for a disaster (WTC, 2001), the first use of small unmanned aerial systems (Hurricane Katrina 2005), and the first use of water surface vehicles (Hurricane Wilma, 2005).

[ CRASAR ]

In March, a team from the Oxford Robotics Institute collected a week of epic off-road driving data, as part of the Sense-Assess-eXplain (SAX) project.

[ Oxford Robotics ]

As a part of the AAAI 2021 Spring Symposium Series, HEBI Robotics was invited to present an Industry Talk on the symposium's topic: Machine Learning for Mobile Robot Navigation in the Wild. Included in this presentation was a short case study on one of our upcoming mobile robots that is being designed to successfully navigate unstructured environments where today's robots struggle.

[ HEBI Robotics ]

Thanks Hardik!

This Lockheed Martin Robotics Seminar is from Chad Jenkins at the University of Michigan, on “Semantic Robot Programming... and Maybe Making the World a Better Place.”

I will present our efforts towards accessible and general methods of robot programming from the demonstrations of human users. Our recent work has focused on Semantic Robot Programming (SRP), a declarative paradigm for robot programming by demonstration that builds on semantic mapping. In contrast to procedural methods for motion imitation in configuration space, SRP is suited to generalize user demonstrations of goal scenes in workspace, such as for manipulation in cluttered environments. SRP extends our efforts to crowdsource robot learning from demonstration at scale through messaging protocols suited to web/cloud robotics. With such scaling of robotics in mind, prospects for cultivating both equal opportunity and technological excellence will be discussed in the context of broadening and strengthening Title IX and Title VI.

[ UMD ]

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!):

RoboSoft 2021 – April 12-16, 2021 – [Online Conference] ICRA 2021 – May 30-5, 2021 – Xi'an, China RoboCup 2021 – June 22-28, 2021 – [Online Event] DARPA SubT Finals – September 21-23, 2021 – Louisville, KY, USA WeRobot 2021 – September 23-25, 2021 – Coral Gables, FL, USA

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

What if seeing devices looked like us? Eyecam is a prototype exploring the potential future design of sensing devices. Eyecam is a webcam shaped like a human eye that can see, blink, look around and observe us.

And it's open source, so you can build your own!

[ Eyecam ]

Looks like Festo will be turning some of its bionic robots into educational kits, which is a pretty cool idea.

[ Bionics4Education ]

Underwater soft robots are challenging to model and control because of their high degrees of freedom and their intricate coupling with water. In this paper, we present a method that leverages the recent development in differentiable simulation coupled with a differentiable, analytical hydrodynamic model to assist with the modeling and control of an underwater soft robot. We apply this method to Starfish, a customized soft robot design that is easy to fabricate and intuitive to manipulate.

[ MIT CSAIL ]

Rainbow Robotics, the company who made HUBO, has a new collaborative robot arm.

[ Rainbow Robotics ]

Thanks Fan!

We develop an integrated robotic platform for advanced collaborative robots and demonstrates an application of multiple robots collaboratively transporting an object to different positions in a factory environment. The proposed platform integrates a drone, a mobile manipulator robot, and a dual-arm robot to work autonomously, while also collaborating with a human worker. The platform also demonstrates the potential of a novel manufacturing process, which incorporates adaptive and collaborative intelligence to improve the efficiency of mass customization for the factory of the future.

[ Paper ]

Thanks Poramate!

In Sevastopol State University the team of the Laboratory of Underwater Robotics and Control Systems and Research and Production Association “Android Technika” performed tests of an underwater anropomorphic manipulator robot.

[ Sevastopol State ]

Thanks Fan!

Taiwanese company TCI Gene created a COVID test system based on their fully automated and enclosed gene testing machine QVS-96S. The system includes two ABB robots and carries out 1800 tests per day, operating 24/7. Every hour 96 virus samples tests are made with an accuracy of 99.99%.

[ ABB ]

A short video showing how a Halodi Robotics can be used in a commercial guarding application.

[ Halodi ]

During the past five years, under the NASA Early Space Innovations program, we have been developing new design optimization methods for underactuated robot hands, aiming to achieve versatile manipulation in highly constrained environments. We have prototyped hands for NASA’s Astrobee robot, an in-orbit assistive free flyer for the International Space Station.

[ ROAM Lab ]

The new, improved OTTO 1500 is a workhorse AMR designed to move heavy payloads through demanding environments faster than any other AMR on the market, with zero compromise to safety.

[ ROAM Lab ]

Very, very high performance sensing and actuation to pull this off.

[ Ishikawa Group ]

We introduce a conversational social robot designed for long-term in-home use to help with loneliness. We present a novel robot behavior design to have simple self-reflection conversations with people to improve wellness, while still being feasible, deployable, and safe.

[ HCI Lab ]

We are one of the 5 winners of the Start-up Challenge. This video illustrates what we achieved during the Swisscom 5G exploration week. Our proof-of-concept tele-excavation system is composed of a Menzi Muck M545 walking excavator automated & customized by Robotic Systems Lab and IBEX motion platform as the operator station. The operator and remote machine are connected for the first time via a 5G network infrastructure which was brought to our test field by Swisscom.

[ RSL ]

This video shows LOLA balancing on different terrain when being pushed in different directions. The robot is technically blind, not using any camera-based or prior information on the terrain (hard ground is assumed).

[ TUM ]

Autonomous driving when you cannot see the road at all because it's buried in snow is some serious autonomous driving.

[ Norlab ]

A hierarchical and robust framework for learning bipedal locomotion is presented and successfully implemented on the 3D biped robot Digit. The feasibility of the method is demonstrated by successfully transferring the learned policy in simulation to the Digit robot hardware, realizing sustained walking gaits under external force disturbances and challenging terrains not included during the training process.

[ OSU ]

This is a video summary of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue's deployments under the direction of emergency response agencies to more than 30 disasters in five countries from 2001 (9/11 World Trade Center) to 2018 (Hurricane Michael). It includes the first use of ground robots for a disaster (WTC, 2001), the first use of small unmanned aerial systems (Hurricane Katrina 2005), and the first use of water surface vehicles (Hurricane Wilma, 2005).

[ CRASAR ]

In March, a team from the Oxford Robotics Institute collected a week of epic off-road driving data, as part of the Sense-Assess-eXplain (SAX) project.

[ Oxford Robotics ]

As a part of the AAAI 2021 Spring Symposium Series, HEBI Robotics was invited to present an Industry Talk on the symposium's topic: Machine Learning for Mobile Robot Navigation in the Wild. Included in this presentation was a short case study on one of our upcoming mobile robots that is being designed to successfully navigate unstructured environments where today's robots struggle.

[ HEBI Robotics ]

Thanks Hardik!

This Lockheed Martin Robotics Seminar is from Chad Jenkins at the University of Michigan, on “Semantic Robot Programming... and Maybe Making the World a Better Place.”

I will present our efforts towards accessible and general methods of robot programming from the demonstrations of human users. Our recent work has focused on Semantic Robot Programming (SRP), a declarative paradigm for robot programming by demonstration that builds on semantic mapping. In contrast to procedural methods for motion imitation in configuration space, SRP is suited to generalize user demonstrations of goal scenes in workspace, such as for manipulation in cluttered environments. SRP extends our efforts to crowdsource robot learning from demonstration at scale through messaging protocols suited to web/cloud robotics. With such scaling of robotics in mind, prospects for cultivating both equal opportunity and technological excellence will be discussed in the context of broadening and strengthening Title IX and Title VI.

[ UMD ]

Robots increasingly act as our social counterparts in domains such as healthcare and retail. For these human-robot interactions (HRI) to be effective, a question arises on whether we trust robots the same way we trust humans. We investigated whether the determinants competence and warmth, known to influence interpersonal trust development, influence trust development in HRI, and what role anthropomorphism plays in this interrelation. In two online studies with 2 × 2 between-subjects design, we investigated the role of robot competence (Study 1) and robot warmth (Study 2) in trust development in HRI. Each study explored the role of robot anthropomorphism in the respective interrelation. Videos showing an HRI were used for manipulations of robot competence (through varying gameplay competence) and robot anthropomorphism (through verbal and non-verbal design cues and the robot's presentation within the study introduction) in Study 1 (n = 155) as well as robot warmth (through varying compatibility of intentions with the human player) and robot anthropomorphism (same as Study 1) in Study 2 (n = 157). Results show a positive effect of robot competence (Study 1) and robot warmth (Study 2) on trust development in robots regarding anticipated trust and attributed trustworthiness. Subjective perceptions of competence (Study 1) and warmth (Study 2) mediated the interrelations in question. Considering applied manipulations, robot anthropomorphism neither moderated interrelations of robot competence and trust (Study 1) nor robot warmth and trust (Study 2). Considering subjective perceptions, perceived anthropomorphism moderated the effect of perceived competence (Study 1) and perceived warmth (Study 2) on trust on an attributional level. Overall results support the importance of robot competence and warmth for trust development in HRI and imply transferability regarding determinants of trust development in interpersonal interaction to HRI. Results indicate a possible role of perceived anthropomorphism in these interrelations and support a combined consideration of these variables in future studies. Insights deepen the understanding of key variables and their interaction in trust dynamics in HRI and suggest possibly relevant design factors to enable appropriate trust levels and a resulting desirable HRI. Methodological and conceptual limitations underline benefits of a rather robot-specific approach for future research.

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