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The more dynamic robots get, the more likely they are to break. Or rather, all robots are 100 percent guaranteed to break eventually (this is one of their defining characteristics). More dynamic robots will also break more violently. While they’re in the lab, this isn’t a big deal, but for long term real-world use, wouldn’t it be great if we could rely on robots to repair themselves?

Rather than give a robot a screwdriver and expect it to replace its own parts, though, a much more elegant solution is robots that can heal themselves more like animals, where for many common injuries, all you have to do is sit around for a little while and your body will magically fix itself. We’ve seen a few examples of this before using self-healing polymers, but for dynamic robots that run and jump, you need the strength of metal.

At the 2019 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) last month, roboticists from the University of Tokyo’s JSK Lab presented a prototype for a robot leg with a tendon “fuse” made out of a metal that can repair fractures. It does that by autonomously melting itself down and reforming into a single piece. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s basically a tiny little piece of the T-1000 Terminator. Great!

Image: University of Tokyo/JSK Lab In one test, the researchers equipped a robotic leg with the self-healing bolt and dropped it to the ground. The bolt broke, as designed, avoiding damage to other parts of the robot. At that point, internal heating elements were activated and the two halves of the bolt liquified and then melted back together again, healing the robotic leg within about half an hour. The leg wasn’t able to fully stand up, but that’s what the researchers want to achieve with future prototypes.

This is a life-sized robotic leg with an Achilles tendon made up of a cable that transmits force from the foot around the ankle to the lower leg bone. The cable is bisected by a module containing a bolt made out of a metallic alloy that will snap under stress lower than any other point in the system, meaning that it acts like a mechanical fuse—it’ll be the first thing that breaks, sacrificing itself to protect the robot’s other joints. 

Image: University of Tokyo/JSK Lab The self-healing module (top left) consists of two halves connected by magnets and springs. Each half has a cartridge that the researchers fill with a low melting point alloy (U-47). When the cartridges heat up, the alloy melts, fusing the two halves together.

The alloy has a very low melting point (just 50° Celsius), and the module around it is made up of two halves connected by magnets and springs. If the bolt breaks, the magnets and springs will come apart also, but then snap back together, realigning the two broken halves of the bolt. At that point, internal heaters fire up, the two halves of the bolt liquify, and then melt back together again, healing the tendon within about half an hour. This video shows the robot falling, the tendon breaking, and then the robot self-healing and starting to stand up again:

In the video, it’s not quite good as new—it turns out that passive melting reduces the strength of the self-healing bolt to just 30 percent of where it was before the break. But after some additional experiments, the researchers discovered that gentle vibration during the melting and reforming process can bring the healed strength up above 90 percent of the original strength, and there’s likely even more optimization that can be done.

The researchers feel like this is a practical system to have in a real robot, and the plan is to refine it to the point where it’s a realistic feature to have on a dynamic legged robot.

“An Approach of Facilitated Investigation of Active Self-healing Tension Transmission System Oriented for Legged Robots,” by Shinsuke Nakashima, Takuma Shirai, Kento Kawaharazuka, Yuki Asano, Yohei Kakiuchi, Kei Okada, and Masayuki Inaba from the University of Tokyo, was presented at IROS 2019 in Macau.

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!):

Robotic Arena – January 25, 2020 – Wrocław, Poland DARPA SubT Urban Circuit – February 18-27, 2020 – Olympia, Wash., USA ICARSC 2020 – April 15-17, 2020 – Ponta Delgada, Azores

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

One of Digit’s autonomy layers ensures a minimum distance from obstacles, even mobile ones like pesky engineers. In this video, the vision system is active and Digit is operating under full autonomy.

I would pay money to watch a second video that’s just like this one except Agility has given Digit a voice and it’s saying this stuff dynamically.

[ Agility Robotics ]

The Intel RealSense lidar camera L515 is the world’s smallest and most power efficient hi-resolution lidar, featuring unparalleled depth and accuracy that makes it perfect for indoor uses cases. The L515 is designed with proprietary technology that creates entirely new ways to incorporate lidar into smart devices to perceive the world in 3D.

[ Intel ]

This project investigates a design space, a fabrication system and applications of creating fluidic chambers and channels at millimeter scale for tangible actuated interfaces. The ability to design and fabricate millifluidic chambers allows one to create high frequency actuation, sequential control of flows and high resolution design on thin film materials. We propose a four dimensional design space of creating these fluidic chambers, a novel heat sealing system that enables easy and precise millifluidics fabrication, and application demonstrations of the fabricated materials for haptics, ambient devices and robotics.

[ MIT ]

This looks like it could be relaxing.

[ Eura Shin ]

This is only sort of robotics related, but it’s cool: changing the direction of a ping pong ball by nudging it with controllable ultrasound.

[ University of Tokyo ]

Check out the natural gait on this little running robot from Nagoya Institute of Technology:

[ Nagoya ]

UAV Turbines announced that it successfully demonstrated its Monarch Hybrid Range Extender (HREX), a microturbine powered generator technology that extends the range of electrically powered medium-sized unmanned aircraft.

In UAV Turbines’ HREX system, the engine extracts energy from the fuel and uses it to power the propulsion motor directly, with any excess electric power used to top off the battery charge. This greatly increases range before the weight of the added fuel becomes uneconomical. There are many tradeoffs in optimizing power for any specific system; for example, some energy is lost in the extraction process, but as the fuel is consumed, the net weight of the aircraft drops. It is this flexibility that enables engine optimizations not otherwise possible with a single power source.

[ UAV Turbines ]

Happy Holidays from Sphero!

[ Sphero ]

Happy Holidays from Yaskawa, which, despite having access to lots of real robots, stubbornly refuses to use them in their holiday videos.

[ Yaskawa ]

Join us in celebrating the life of Woodie Flowers, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at MIT and co-founder of the FIRST Robotics Competition. A beloved teacher and pioneer in hands-on engineering education, Flowers developed design and robotics competitions at MIT, FIRST, and beyond, while promoting his concept of “gracious professionalism.”

[ MIT ]

I still really like the design of EMYS, although I admit that it looks a little strange when viewed from the side.

[ EMYS ]

Japanese college students compete to make the best laundry hanging robot, where speed and efficiency are a hilarious priority.


The U in U-Drone stands for: Underground, Unlimited, Unjammable, User-Friendly and Unearthing. A prototype of a compact cable drone (U-Drone) has been developed in the one year project. It has been tested and demonstrated in underground tunnels (without GPS reception), whereby the drone can be operated at distances of up to 100 meters.

The commands to the U-Drone, and the images and data from the drone to the operator, run through an (unjammable) lightweight cable. The replaceable spool with the 100 meter cable is connected to the U-Drone and therefore unwinds from the drone during the flight in such a way that the drone is not stopped when the cable gets stuck.

[ Delft Dynamics ]

Interesting tiltrotor design for a drone that can apply a probe to a structure at any angle you want.

[ Skygauge ]

NASA has developed a flexible way to test new designs for aircraft that use multiple rotors to fly. The Multirotor Test Bed, or MTB, will let researchers study a wide variety of rotor configurations for different vehicles, including tiltrotor aircraft, mid-sized drones and even air taxis planned for the coming era of air travel called Urban Air Mobility.

[ NASA ]

Here’s a robot not to get on the wrong side of.

The Javelin Joint Venture team, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Company, successfully fired Javelin missiles from a Kongsberg remote weapon station integrated onto an unmanned vehicle platform. The demonstrations, conducted at the Redstone Test Center, Ala., validated the integration of the weapon station, missile and vehicle.

Raytheon ]

From Paul Scharre, who knows what he’s talking about more than most, a nuanced look at the lethal autonomous robots question.

[ Freethink ]

One year ago, for IEEE Spectrum’s special report on the Top Tech for 2019, Sarcos Robotics promised that by the end of the year they’d be ready to ship a powered exoskeleton that would be the future of industrial work. And late last month, Sarcos invited us to Salt Lake City, Utah, to see what that future looks like.

Sarcos has been developing powered exoskeletons and the robotic technologies that make them possible for decades, and the lobby of the company’s headquarters is a resting place for concepts and prototype hardware that’s been abandoned along the way. But now, Sarcos is ready to unveil the prototype of the Guardian XO, a strength-multiplying exoskeleton that’s about to begin shipping.

As our introductory briefing concludes, Sarcos CEO Ben Wolff is visibly excited to be able to show off what they’ve been working on in their lab. “If you were to ask the question, What does 30 years and $300 million look like,” Wolff tells us, “you're going to see it downstairs.”

This is what we see downstairs:

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum Guardian XO operator Fletcher Garrison demonstrates the company’s exosuit by lifting a 125-pound payload. Sarcos says this task usually requires three people. How the Guardian XO Works

The Sarcos Guardian XO is a 24-degrees-of-freedom full-body robotic exoskeleton. While wearing it, a human can lift  200 pounds (90 kilograms) while feeling like they’re lifting just 10 lbs (4.5 kg). The Guardian XO is fully electrical and untethered with a runtime of 2 hours, and hot-swappable battery packs can keep it going for a full work day. It takes seconds to put on and take off, and Sarcos says new users can be trained to use the system in minutes. One Guardian XO costs $100,000 per year to rent, and the company will be shipping its first batch of alpha units to customers (including both heavy industry and the U.S. military) in January.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum The prototype that Sarcos demonstrated had all of the functionality of the version that will ship in January, but latter models will include plastic fairings over the suit as well as quick-change end-effectors.

In a practical sense, the Guardian XO is a humanoid robot that uses a real human as its command and control system. As companies of all kinds look towards increasing efficiency through automation, Sarcos believes that the most effective solution is a direct combination of humans and machines, enhancing the intelligence and judgement of humans with the strength and endurance of robots. (Investors in the company include Caterpillar, GE Ventures, Microsoft, and Schlumberger.)

The first thing to understand about the Guardian XO is that like a humanoid robot, it’s self-supporting. Since it has its own legs and feet, the 150 lb weight of the suit (and whatever it’s carrying) bypasses its user and is transferred directly into the ground. You don’t strap the robot to you—you strap yourself to the robot, a process that takes less than a minute. So although it looks heavy and bulky (and it is definitely both of those things), at least the weight of the system isn’t something that the user experiences directly. You can see how that works by watching Guardian XO operator Fletcher Garrison lifting all kinds of payloads in the video below.

Hands On With the Guardian XO

When Sarcos reached out and asked if we wanted to come to Salt Lake City to try out the XO, we immediately said yes (disclosure: Sarcos covered our costs to attend a media event last month). But we were disappointed when, in the end, we were only allowed to try out a one-armed version of the exoskeleton. I even offered to sign additional waivers but, alas, the company wouldn’t let me into the full suit. So my experience with the exo was pretty limited—a hands-on, literally, of a single XO arm.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum That’s me trying out the one-arm XO system. It’s not quite like the full-body suit, but Sarcos still required me to sign a “waiver of liability, assumption of risk, and indemnity agreement.”

Still, it was an amazing sensation. The arm I tested, which Sarcos says uses the same control system as the full-body suit, was incredibly easy to operate. In terms of control, all the exo tries to do is get out of the way of your limbs: It uses force sensors to detect every motion that you make, and then moves its own limbs in parallel, smoothly matching your body with its own hardware. If you take a step, it takes a step with you. If you swing your arm back and forth, it swings its arm back and forth in the same way, right next to yours. There’s no discernible lag to this process, and it’s so intuitive that Sarcos says most people take just a minute or two to get comfortable using the system, and just an hour or two to be comfortable doing work in it.

The Guardian XO can augment the strength of the user all the way up to making a 200-pound load feel like it weighs zero pounds. Typically, this is not how the exoskeleton works, though, since it can be disconcerting to be lifting something heavy and not feel like you’re lifting anything at all. It’s better to think of the exo as a tool that makes you stronger rather than a tool that makes objects weightless, especially since you still have to deal with inertia. Remember, even if something has no apparent weight (either because you’re in space or because you’re holding it with a powered exoskeleton), it still has mass, which you have to be aware of when trying to move it or stop it from moving. The amount of help that the exo gives you is easy to adjust; it’s got a graphical control panel on the left wrist.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum This ammo crate weighs 110 pounds, but the exoskeleton makes it feel like each arm is lifting just 6 pounds. The Guardian XO is designed for loads of up to 200 lbs. How Safe Is the Exoskeleton?

With a robotic system this powerful (XO has a peak torque of about 4000 inch-pounds, or 450 newton-meters), Sarcos made safety a top priority. For example, to move the exo’s arms, your hands need to be holding down triggers. If you let go of the triggers (for whatever reason), the arms will lock in place, which has the added benefit of letting the exo hold stuff up for you while you, say, check your phone. All of the joints are speed limited, meaning that you can’t throw a punch with the exo—they told me this during my demo, so of course I tried it, and the joints locked themselves as soon as I exceeded their safety threshold. If the system loses power for any reason, current shunts back through the motors, bringing them down gradually rather than abruptly. And by design the joints are not capable of exceeding a human range of motion, which means that the exoskeleton can’t bend or twist in a way that would injure you. Interestingly, the Guardian XO’s joint speeds are easily fast enough to allow you to run, although that’s been limited for safety reasons as well.

We asked about whether falling down was much of a risk, but it turns out that having a human in the loop for control makes that problem much simpler. Sarcos hasn’t had to program the Guardian XO to balance itself, because the human inside does all of that naturally. Having someone try to push you over while you’re in the exoskeleton is no different than having someone try to push you over while you’re out of it, because you’ll keep your own balance in either case. If you do end up falling over, Sarcos claims that the exoskeleton is designed as a roll cage, so odds are you’ll be fine, although it’s not clear how easy it would be to get out of it afterwards (or get it off of you).

More of a concern is how the XO will operate around other people. While its mass and bulk may not make all that much of a different to the user, it seems like working collaboratively could be a problem, as could working in small spaces or around anything fragile. The suit does have force feedback so that you’ll feel if you contact something, but by then it might be too late to prevent an accident.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum With a pair of 12 lb 500 watt-hour battery packs, the exoskeleton can operate for over 2 hours during normal use. Energy Efficiency and Reliability

Efficiency might not seem like a big deal for an exoskeleton like this, but what Sarcos has managed is very impressive. The Guardian XO uses about 500 watts while fully operational—that is, while carrying 160 lbs and walking at 3 mph. To put that in context, SRI’s DURUS robot, which was designed specifically for efficiency (and is significantly smaller and lighter than the Guardian XO), used 350 watts while just walking. “That’s really one of our key innovations,” says Sarcos COO Chris Beaufait. “There aren’t many robots in the world that are as efficient as what we’re doing.” These innovations come in the form of energy recovery mechanisms, reductions in the number of individual computers on-board, and getting everything as tightly integrated as possible. With a pair of 12 lb 500 watt-hour battery packs, the exoskeleton can operate for over 2 hours during normal use, and Sarcos expects to improve the efficiency from 500 watts to 425 watts or better by January.

Since the Guardian XO is a commercial product, it has to be reliable enough to be a practical tool that’s cost effective to use. “The difference between being an R&D shop that can prove a concept versus making a commercially viable product that’s robust—it takes an entirely different skill set and mind set,” Wolff, the CEO, told us. “That’s been a challenge. I think it’s the biggest challenge that robotics companies have, and we’ve put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into that.”

Wolff says that future XO versions (not the alpha model that will ship in January) will be able to walk outdoors over challenging terrain, through a foot of mud, and in the rain or snow. It will be able to go up and down stairs, although they’re currently working on making sure that this will be safe. The expectation, Wolff tells us, is that there won’t be much ongoing service or maintenance required for the exo’s customers. We’re not sure we share Sarcos’ confidence yet—this is a complex system that’s going to be used by non-engineers in semi and unstructured environments. A lot of unexpected scenarios can happen, and until they do, we won’t know for sure how well the Guardian XO will stand up to real-world use.

Guardian XO Applications

The Guardian XO has been designed to target some specific (but also very common) types of jobs that require humans to repetitively lift heavy things. These jobs are generally not automatable, or at least not automatable in a way that’s cost effective—the skill of a human is required. These jobs are also labor intensive, which creates both short term and long term problems for human workers. Short term, acute injuries (like back injuries) lead to lost productivity. Long term, these injuries add up to serious medical problems for workers, many of whom can only function for between five and eight years before their bodies become permanently damaged.

Wolff believes that this is where there’s an opportunity for powered exoskeletons. Using the Guardian XO to offload the kinds of tasks that put strain on a worker’s body means that humans can work at a job longer without injury. And they can keep working at that same job as they age, since the exoskeleton takes jobs that used to be about strength and instead makes them about skill and experience.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum Sarcos says that one worker in an exoskeleton can handle tasks that would otherwise take between 4 and 10 people.

Of course, the sad fact is that none of this stuff about worker health would matter all that much if companies couldn’t be convinced that exoskeletons could also save them money. Fortunately for workers, it’s an easy argument to make. Since the Guardian XO can lift 200 pounds, Wolff says that it can improve the productivity of its user by up to an order of magnitude: “Overall, we’re seeing across the board improved productivity of somewhere between 4 and 10 times in use cases that we’ve looked at. So what that means is, one worker in an exoskeleton can do the work of between 4 and 10 employees without any stress or strain on their body.”

On the 4x end of the scale, it’s just about being able to lift more, and for longer. OSHA recommends a maximum one person load of 51 pounds, a number that gets adjusted downwards if the object has to be lifted repetitively, held for a long time, or moved. The Guardian XO allows a worker to lift four times that, for hours, while walking at up to 3 mph. Things are a little more complicated on the 10x end of the scale, but you can imagine a single 200 pound object that requires an overhead crane plus several people to manage it. It’s not just about the extra people—it’s also about the extra time and infrastructure required, when a single worker in a Guardian XO could just pick up that same object and move it by themselves.

The obvious question at this point is whether introducing powered exoskeletons is going to put people out of work. Wolff insists that is not the reality of the industry right now, since the real problem is finding qualified workers to hire in the first place. “None of our customers are talking about firing people,” Wolff says. “All of them are talking about simply not being able to produce enough of their products or services to keep their customers happy.” It should keep workers happy as well. Wolff tells us that they’ve had “enthusiastic responses” from workers who’ve tried the Guardian XO out, with their only concern being whether the exoskeleton can be adjusted to fit folks of different shapes and sizes. While initial units will be adjustable for people ranging in height from 5’4” to 6’, by next year, Sarcos promises that they’ll be adjustable enough to cover 90 percent of the American workforce. 

Image: Sarcos A rendering of how the Guardian XO will look with fairings applied. Cost and Availability

“We could not have made this an economically viable product three years ago,” Wolff says. “The size, power, weight, and cost of all of the components that we use—all of that has now gotten to a point where this is commercially feasible.” What that means, for Sarcos and the companies that they’re partnering with, is that each exoskeleton costs about $100,000 per year. The alpha units will be going to companies that can afford at least 10 of them at once, and Sarcos will send a dedicated engineer along with each batch. The Guardian XO is being sold as a service rather than a product—at least for now, it’s more of a rental with dedicated customer support. “The goal is this has to be stupid simple to manage and use,” says Wolff, adding that Sarcos expects to learn a lot over the next few months once the exoskeletons start being deployed. Commercial versions should ship later in 2020.

I made sure to ask Wolff when I might be able to rent one of these things from my local hardware store for the next time I have to move, but disappointingly, he doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. Sarcos still has a lot to learn about how to make a business out of exoskeletons, and they’d rather keep expectations realistic than promise anyone an Iron Man suit. It’s too late for me, though—I’ve seen what the Guardian XO can do. And I want one.

[ Sarcos ]

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!):

Robotic Arena – January 25, 2020 – Wrocław, Poland DARPA SubT Urban Circuit – February 18-27, 2020 – Olympia, Wash., USA

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

In case you somehow missed the massive Skydio 2 review we posted earlier this week, the first batches of the drone are now shipping. Each drone gets a lot of attention before it goes out the door, and here’s a behind-the-scenes clip of the process.

[ Skydio ]

Sphero RVR is one of the 15 robots on our robot gift guide this year. Here’s a new video Sphero just released showing some of the things you can do with the robot.

[ RVR ]

NimbRo-OP2 has some impressive recovery skills from the obligatory research-motivated robot abuse.

NimbRo ]

Teams seeking to qualify for the Virtual Urban Circuit of the Subterranean Challenge can access practice worlds to test their approaches prior to submitting solutions for the competition. This video previews three of the practice environments.

[ DARPA SubT ]

Stretchable skin-like robots that can be rolled up and put in your pocket have been developed by a University of Bristol team using a new way of embedding artificial muscles and electrical adhesion into soft materials.

[ Bristol ]

Happy Holidays from ABB!

Helping New York celebrate the festive season, twelve ABB robots are interacting with visitors to Bloomingdale’s iconic holiday celebration at their 59th Street flagship store. ABB’s robots are the main attraction in three of Bloomingdale’s twelve-holiday window displays at Lexington and Third Avenue, as ABB demonstrates the potential for its robotics and automation technology to revolutionize visual merchandising and make the retail experience more dynamic and whimsical.

[ ABB ]

We introduce pelican eel–inspired dual-morphing architectures that embody quasi-sequential behaviors of origami unfolding and skin stretching in response to fluid pressure. In the proposed system, fluid paths were enclosed and guided by a set of entirely stretchable origami units that imitate the morphing principle of the pelican eel’s stretchable and foldable frames. This geometric and elastomeric design of fluid networks, in which fluid pressure acts in the direction that the whole body deploys first, resulted in a quasi-sequential dual-morphing response. To verify the effectiveness of our design rule, we built an artificial creature mimicking a pelican eel and reproduced biomimetic dual-morphing behavior.

And here’s a real pelican eel:

[ Science Robotics ]

Delft Dynamics’ updated anti-drone system involves a tether, mid-air net gun, and even a parachute.

[ Delft Dynamics ]

Teleoperation is a great way of helping robots with complex tasks, especially if you can do it through motion capture. But what if you’re teleoperating a non-anthropomorphic robot? Columbia’s ROAM Lab is working on it.

[ Paper ] via [ ROAM Lab ]

I don’t know how I missed this video last year because it’s got a steely robot hand squeezing a cute lil’ chick.

[ MotionLib ] via [ RobotStart ]

In this video we present results of a trajectory generation method for autonomous overtaking of unexpected obstacles in a dynamic urban environment. In these settings, blind spots can arise from perception limitations. For example when overtaking unexpected objects on the vehicle’s ego lane on a two-way street. In this case, a human driver would first make sure that the opposite lane is free and that there is enough room to successfully execute the maneuver, and then it would cut into the opposite lane in order to execute the maneuver successfully. We consider the practical problem of autonomous overtaking when the coverage of the perception system is impaired due to occlusion.

[ Paper ]

New weirdness from Toio!

[ Toio ]

Palo Alto City Library won a technology innovation award! Watch to see how Senior Librarian Dan Lou is using Misty to enhance their technology programs to inspire and educate customers.

[ Misty Robotics ]

We consider the problem of reorienting a rigid object with arbitrary known shape on a table using a two-finger pinch gripper. Reorienting problem is challenging because of its non-smoothness and high dimensionality. In this work, we focus on solving reorienting using pivoting, in which we allow the grasped object to rotate between fingers. Pivoting decouples the gripper rotation from the object motion, making it possible to reorient an object under strict robot workspace constraints.

[ CMU ]

How can a mobile robot be a good pedestrian without bumping into you on the sidewalk? It must be hard for a robot to navigate in crowded environments since the flow of traffic follows implied social rules. But researchers from MIT developed an algorithm that teaches mobile robots to maneuver in crowds of people, respecting their natural behaviour.

[ Roboy Research Reviews ]

What happens when humans and robots make art together? In this awe-inspiring talk, artist Sougwen Chung shows how she "taught" her artistic style to a machine -- and shares the results of their collaboration after making an unexpected discovery: robots make mistakes, too. "Part of the beauty of human and machine systems is their inherent, shared fallibility," she says.

[ TED ]

Last month at the Cooper Union in New York City, IEEE TechEthics hosted a public panel session on the facts and misperceptions of autonomous vehicles, part of the IEEE TechEthics Conversations Series. The speakers were: Jason Borenstein from Georgia Tech; Missy Cummings from Duke University; Jack Pokrzywa from SAE; and Heather M. Roff from Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The panel was moderated by Mark A. Vasquez, program manager for IEEE TechEthics.

[ IEEE TechEthics ]

Two videos this week from Lex Fridman’s AI podcast: Noam Chomsky, and Whitney Cummings.

[ AI Podcast ]

This week’s CMU RI Seminar comes from Jeff Clune at the University of Wyoming, on “Improving Robot and Deep Reinforcement Learning via Quality Diversity and Open-Ended Algorithms.”

Quality Diversity (QD) algorithms are those that seek to produce a diverse set of high-performing solutions to problems. I will describe them and a number of their positive attributes. I will then summarize our Nature paper on how they, when combined with Bayesian Optimization, produce a learning algorithm that enables robots, after being damaged, to adapt in 1-2 minutes in order to continue performing their mission, yielding state-of-the-art robot damage recovery. I will next describe our QD-based Go-Explore algorithm, which dramatically improves the ability of deep reinforcement learning algorithms to solve previously unsolvable problems wherein reward signals are sparse, meaning that intelligent exploration is required. Go-Explore solves Montezuma’s Revenge, considered by many to be a major AI research challenge. Finally, I will motivate research into open-ended algorithms, which seek to innovate endlessly, and introduce our POET algorithm, which generates its own training challenges while learning to solve them, automatically creating a curricula for robots to learn an expanding set of diverse skills. POET creates and solves challenges that are unsolvable with traditional deep reinforcement learning techniques.

[ CMU RI ]

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When mobile manipulators eventually make it into our homes, self-repair is going to be a very important function. Hopefully, these robots will be durable enough that they won’t need to be repaired very often, but from time to time they’ll almost certainly need minor maintenance. At Humanoids 2019 in Toronto, researchers from the University of Tokyo showed how they taught a PR2 to perform simple repairs on itself by tightening its own screws. And using that skill, the robot was also able to augment itself, adding accessories like hooks to help it carry more stuff. Clever robot!

To keep things simple, the researchers provided the robot with CAD data that tells it exactly where all of its screws are. 

At the moment, the robot can’t directly detect on its own whether a particular screw needs tightening, although it can tell if its physical pose doesn’t match its digital model, which suggests that something has gone wonky. It can also check its screws autonomously from time to time, or rely on a human physically pointing out that it has a screw loose, using the human’s finger location to identify which screw it is. Another challenge is that most robots, like most humans, are limited in the areas on themselves that they can comfortably reach. So to tighten up everything, they might have to find themselves a robot friend to help, just like humans help each other put on sunblock.

The actual tightening is either super easy or quite complicated, depending on the location and orientation of the screw. If the robot is lucky, it can just use its continuous wrist rotation for tightening, but if a screw is located in a tight position that requires an Allen wrench, the robot has to regrasp the tool over and over as it incrementally tightens the screw. 

Image: University of Tokyo In one experiment, the researchers taught a PR2 robot to attach a hook to one of its shoulders. The robot uses one hand to grasp the hook and another hand to grasp a screwdriver. The researchers tested the hook by hanging a tote bag on it.

The other neat trick that a robot can do once it can tighten screws on its own body is to add new bits of hardware to itself. PR2 was thoughtfully designed with mounting points on its shoulders (or maybe technically its neck) and head, and it turns out that it can reach these points with its manipulators, allowing to modify itself, as the researchers explain:

When PR2 wants to have a lot of things, the only two hands are not enough to realize that. So we let PR2 to use a bag the same as we put it on our shoulder. PR2 started attaching the hook whose pose is calculated with self CAD data with a driver on his shoulder in order to put a bag on his shoulder. PR2 finished attaching the hook, and the people put a lot of cans in a tote bag and put it on PR2’s shoulder.

“Self-Repair and Self-Extension by Tightening Screws based on Precise Calculation of Screw Pose of Self-Body with CAD Data and Graph Search with Regrasping a Driver,” by Takayuki Murooka, Kei Okada, and Masayuki Inaba from the University of Tokyo, was presented at Humanoids 2019 in Toronto, Canada. < Back to IEEE Journal Watch

Let me begin this review by saying that the Skydio 2 is one of the most impressive robots that I have ever seen. Over the last decade, I’ve spent enough time around robots to have a very good sense of what kinds of things are particularly challenging for them, and to set my expectations accordingly. Those expectations include things like “unstructured environments are basically impossible” and “full autonomy is impractically expensive” and “robot videos rarely reflect reality.”

Skydio’s newest drone is an exception to all of this. It’s able to fly autonomously at speed through complex environments in challenging real-world conditions in a way that’s completely effortless and stress-free for the end user, allowing you to capture the kind of video that would be otherwise impossible, even (I’m guessing) for professional drone pilots. When you see this technology in action, it’s (almost) indistinguishable from magic. 

Skydio 2 Price

To be clear, the Skydio 2 is not without compromises, and the price of $999 (on pre-order with delivery of the next batch expected in spring of 2020) requires some justification. But the week I’ve had with this drone has left me feeling like its fundamental autonomous capability is so far beyond just about anything that I’ve ever experienced that I’m questioning why I would every fly anything else ever again.

We’ve written extensively about Skydio, beginning in early 2016 when the company posted a video of a prototype drone dodging trees while following a dude on a bike. Even three years ago, Skydio’s tech was way better than anything we’d seen outside of a research lab, and in early 2018, they introduced their first consumer product, the Skydio R1. A little over a year later, Skydio has introduced the Skydio 2, which is smaller, smarter, and much more affordable. Here’s an overview video just to get you caught up:

Skydio sent me a Skydio 2 review unit last week, and while I’m reasonably experienced with drones in general, this is the first time I’ve tried a Skydio drone in person. I had a pretty good idea what to expect, and I was absolutely blown away. Like, I was giggling to myself while running through the woods as the drone zoomed around, deftly avoiding trees and keeping me in sight. Robots aren’t supposed to be this good.

A week is really not enough time to explore everything that the Skydio can do, especially Thanksgiving week in Washington, D.C. (a no-fly zone) in early winter. But I found a nearby state park in which I could legally and safely fly the drone, and I did my best to put the Skydio 2 through its paces.

Note: Throughout this review, we’ve got a bunch of GIFs to help illustrate different features of the drone. To fit them all in, these GIFs had to be heavily compressed. Underneath each GIF is a timestamped link to this YouTube video (also available at the bottom of the post), which you can click on to see the an extended cut of the original 4K 30 fps footage. And there’s a bunch of interesting extra video in there as well.

Skydio 2 Specs Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum The Skydio 2 is primarily made out of magnesium, which (while light) is both heavier and more rigid and durable than plastic. The offset props (the back pair are above the body, and the front pair are below) are necessary to maintain the field of view of the navigation cameras.

The Skydio 2 both looks and feels like a well-designed and carefully thought-out drone. It’s solid, and a little on the heavy side as far as drones go—it’s primarily made out of magnesium, which (while light) is both heavier and more rigid and durable than plastic. The blue and black color scheme is far more attractive than you typically see with drones. 

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum To detect and avoid obstacles, the Skydio 2 uses an array of six 4K hemispherical cameras that feed data into an NVIDIA Jetson TX2 at 30 fps, with the drone processing a million points in 3D space per second to plan the safest path.

The Skydio 2 is built around an array of six hemispherical obstacle-avoidance cameras and the NVIDIA Jetson TX2 computing module that they’re connected to. This defines the placement of the gimbal, the motors and props, and the battery, since all of this stuff has to be as much as possible out of the view of the cameras in order for the drone to effectively avoid obstacles in any direction. 

Without the bottom-mounted battery attached, the drone is quite flat. The offset props (the back pair are above the body, and the front pair are below) are necessary to maintain the field of view of the obstacle-avoidance cameras. These hemispherical cameras are on the end of each of the prop arms as well as above and below the body of the drone. They look awfully exposed, even though each is protected from ground contact by a little fin. You need to make sure these cameras are clean and smudge-free, and Skydio includes a cleaning cloth for this purpose. Underneath the drone there are slots for microSD cards, one for recording from the camera and a second one that the drone uses to store data. The attention to detail extends to the SD card insertion, which has a sloped channel that guides the card securely into its slot. 

Once you snap the battery in, the drone goes from looking streamlined to looking a little chubby. Relative to other drones, the battery almost seems like an afterthought, like Skydio designed the drone and then remembered, “oops we have to add a battery somewhere, let’s just kludge it onto the bottom.” But again, the reason for this is to leave room inside the body for the NVIDIA TX2, while making sure that the battery stays out of view of the obstacle avoidance cameras.

The magnetic latching system for the battery is both solid and satisfying. I’m not sure why it’s necessary, strictly speaking, but I do like it, and it doesn’t seem like the battery will fly off even during the most aggressive maneuvers. Each battery includes an LED array that will display its charge level in 25 percent increments, as well as a button that you push to turn the drone on and off. Charging takes place via a USB-C port in the top of the drone, which I don’t like, because it means that the batteries can’t be charged on their own (like the Parrot Anafi’s battery), and that you can’t charge one battery while flying with another, like basically every other drone ever. A separate battery charger that will charge two at once is available from Skydio for an eyebrow-raising $129.

I appreciate that all of Skydio’s stuff (batteries, controller, and beacon) charges via USB-C, though. The included USB-C adapter with its beefy cable will output at up to 65 watts, which’ll charge a mostly depleted battery in under an hour. The drone turns itself on while charging, which seems unnecessary.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum The Skydio 2 is not foldable, making it not nearly as easy to transport as some other drones. But it does come with a nice case that mitigates this issue somewhat, and the drone plus two batteries end up as a passably flat package about the size of a laptop case.

The most obvious compromise that Skydio made with the Skydio 2 is that the drone is not foldable. Skydio CEO Adam Bry told us that adding folding joints to the arms of the Skydio 2 would have made calibrating all six cameras a nightmare and significantly impacted performance. This makes complete sense, of course, but it does mean that the Skydio 2 is not nearly as easy to transport as some other drones. 

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum Folded and unfolded: The Skydio 2 compared to the Parrot Anafi (upper left) and the DJI Mavic Pro (upper right).

The Skydio 2 does come with a very nice case that mitigates this issue somewhat, and the drone plus two batteries end up as a passably flat package about the size of a laptop case. Still, it’s just not as convenient to toss into a backpack as my Anafi, although the Mavic Mini might be even more portable.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum While the Skydio 2’s case is relatively compact, the non-foldable drone is overall a significantly larger package than the Parrot Anafi.

The design of the drone leads to some other compromises as well. Since landing gear would, I assume, occlude the camera system, the drone lands directly on the bottom of its battery pack, which has a slightly rubberized pad about the size of a playing card. This does’t feel particularly stable unless you end up on a very flat surface, and made me concerned for the exposed cameras underneath the drone as well as the lower set of props. I’d recommend hand takeoffs and landings—more on those later.

Skydio 2 Camera System

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum The Skydio 2’s primary camera is a Sony IMX577 1/2.3" 12.3-megapixel CMOS sensor. It’s mounted to a three-axis gimbal and records 4K video at 60 fps, or 1080p video at 120 fps.

The Skydio 2 comes with a three-axis gimbal supporting a 12-megapixel camera, just enough to record 4K video at 60 fps, or 1080p video at 120 fps. Skydio has provided plenty of evidence that its imaging system is at least as good if not better than other drone cameras. Tested against my Mavic Pro and Parrot Anafi, I found no reason to doubt that. To be clear, I didn’t do exhaustive pixel-peeping comparisons between them, you’re just getting my subjective opinion that the Skydio 2 has a totally decent camera that you won’t be disappointed with. I will say that I found the HDR photo function to be not all that great under the few situations in which I tested it—after looking at a few muddy sunset shots, I turned it off and was much happier.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum The Skydio 2’s 12-megapixel camera is solid, although we weren’t impressed with the HDR option.

The video stabilization is fantastic, to the point where watching the video footage can be underwhelming because it doesn’t reflect the motion of the drone. I almost wish there was a way to change to unstabilized (or less-stabilized) video so that the viewer could get a little more of a wild ride. Or, ideally, there’d be a way for the drone to provide you with a visualization of what it was doing using the data collected by its cameras. That’s probably wishful thinking, though. The drone itself doesn’t record audio because all you’d get would be an annoying buzz, but the app does record audio, so the audio from your phone gets combined with the drone video. Don’t expect great quality, but it’s better than nothing.

Skydio 2 App

The app is very simple compared to every other drone app I’ve tried, and that’s a good thing. Here’s what it looks like:

Image: Skydio Trackable subjects get a blue “+” sign over them, and if you tap them, the “+” turns into a spinny blue circle. Once you’ve got a subject selected, you can choose from a variety of cinematic skills that the drone will execute while following you.

You get the controls that you need and the information that you need, and nothing else. Manual flight with the on-screen buttons works adequately, and the double-tap to fly function on the phone works surprisingly well, making it easy to direct the drone to a particular spot above the ground.

The settings menus are limited but functional, allowing you to change settings for the camera and a few basic tweaks for controlling the drone. One unique setting to the Skydio 2 is the height floor—since the drone only avoids static obstacles, you can set it to maintain a height of at least 8 feet above the ground while flying autonomously to make sure that if you’re flying around other people, it won’t run into anyone who isn’t absurdly tall and therefore asking for it.

Trackable subjects get a blue “+” sign over them in the app, and if you tap them, the “+” turns into a spinny blue circle. Once you’ve got a subject selected, you can choose from a variety of cinematic skills that the drone will execute while following you, and in addition, you can select “one-shot” skills that involve the drone performing a specific maneuver before returning to the previously selected cinematic skill. For example, you can tell the drone to orbit around you, and then do a “rocket” one-shot where it’ll fly straight up above you (recording the whole time, of course), before returning to its orbiting. 

After you’re done flying, you can scroll through your videos and easily clip out excerpts from them and save them to your phone for sharing. Again, it’s a fairly simple interface without a lot of options. You could call it limited, I guess, but I appreciate that it just does a few things that you care about and otherwise doesn’t clutter itself up.

The real limitation of the app is that it uses Wi-Fi to connect to the Skydio 2, which restricts the range. To fly much beyond a hundred meters or so, you’ll need to use the controller or beacon instead.

Skydio 2 Controller and Beacon Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum While the Skydio 2 controller provides a better hands-on flight experience than with the phone, plus an extended range of up to 3.5 km, more experienced pilots may find manual control a bit frustrating, because the underlying autonomy will supersede your maneuvers when you start getting close to objects.

I was looking forward to using the controller, because with every other drone I’ve had, the precision that a physically controller provides is, I find, mandatory for a good flying experience and to get the photos and videos that you want. With Skydio 2, that’s all out the window. It’s not that the controller is useless or anything, it’s just that because the drone tracks you and avoids obstacles on its own, that level of control precision becomes largely unnecessary. 

The controller itself is perfectly fine. It’s a rebranded Parrot Skycontroller3, which is the same as the one that you get with a Parrot Anafi. It’s too bad that the sticks don’t unscrew to make it a little more portable, and overall it’s functional rather than fancy, but it feels good to use and includes a sizeable antenna that makes a significant difference to the range that you get (up to 3.5 kilometers).

You definitely get a better hands-on flight experience with the controller than with the phone, so if you want to (say) zip the drone around some big open space for fun, it’s good for that. And it’s nice to be able to hand the controller to someone who’s never flown a drone before and let them take it for a spin without freaking out about them crashing it the whole time. For more experienced pilots, though, the controller is ultimately just a bit frustrating, because the underlying autonomy will supersede your control when you start getting close to objects, which (again) limits how useful the controller is relative to your phone.

I do still prefer the controller over the phone, but I’m not sure that it’s worth the extra $150, unless you plan to fly the Skydio 2 at very long distances or primarily in manual mode. And honestly, if either of those two things are your top priority, the Skydio 2 is probably not the drone for you.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum The Skydio 2 beacon uses GPS tracking to help the drone follow you, extending range up to 1.5 km. You can also fly the with the beacon alone, no phone necessary.

The purpose of the beacon, according to Skydio, is to give the drone a way of tracking you if it can’t see you, which can happen, albeit infrequently. My initial impression of the beacon was that it was primarily useful as a range-extending bridge between my phone and the drone. But I accidentally left my phone at home one day (oops) and had to fly the drone with only the beacon, and it was a surprisingly decent experience. The beacon allows for full manual control of a sort—you can tap different buttons to rotate, fly forward, and ascend or descend. This is sufficient for takeoff, landing, to make sure that the drone is looking at you when you engage visual tracking, and to rescue it if it gets trapped somewhere.

The rest of the beacon’s control functions are centered around a few different tracking modes, and with these, it works just about as well as your phone. You have fewer options overall, but all the basic stuff is there with just a few intuitive button clicks, including tracking range and angle. If you’re willing to deal with this relatively minor compromise, it’s nice to not have your phone available for other things rather than being monopolized by the drone.

Skydio 2 In Flight GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum Hand takeoffs are simple and reliable.  Click here for a full resolution clip.

Starting up the Skydio 2 doesn’t require any kind of unusual calibration steps or anything like that. It prefers to be kept still, but you can start it up while holding it, it’ll just take a few seconds longer to tell you that it’s ready to go. While the drone will launch from any flat surface with significant clearance around it (it’ll tell you if it needs more room), the small footprint of the battery means that I was more comfortable hand launching it. This is not a “throw” launch; you just let the drone rest on your palm, tell it to take off, and then stay still while it gets its motors going and then gently lifts off. The lift off is so gentle that you have to be careful not to pull your hand away too soon—I did that once and the drone, being not quite ready, dropped towards the ground, but managed to recover without much drama.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum Hand landings always look scary, but the Skydio 2 is incredibly gentle. After trying this once, it became the only way I ever landed the drone.  Click here for a full resolution clip.

Catching the drone for landing is perhaps very slightly more dangerous, but not any more difficult. You put the drone above and in front of you facing away, tell it to land in the app or with the beacon, and then put your hand underneath it to grasp it as it slowly descends. It settles delicately and promptly turns itself off. Every drone should land this way. The battery pack provides a good place to grip, although you do have to be mindful of the forward set of props, which (since they’re the pair that are beneath the body of drone) are quite close to your fingers. You’ll certainly be mindful after you catch a blade with your fingers once. Which I did. For the purposes of this review and totally not by accident. No damage, for the record.

Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum You won’t be disappointed with the Skydio 2’s in-flight performance, unless you’re looking for a dedicated racing drone.

In normal flight, the Skydio 2 performs as well as you’d expect. It’s stable and manages light to moderate wind without any problems, although I did notice some occasional lateral drifting when the drone should have been in a stationary hover. While the controller gains are adjustable, the Skydio 2 isn’t quite as aggressive in flight as my Mavic Pro on Sport Mode, but again, if you’re looking for a high-speed drone, that’s really not what the Skydio is all about.

The Skydio 2 is substantially louder than my Anafi, although the Anafi is notably quiet for a drone. It’s not annoying to hear (not a high-pitched whine), but you can hear it from a ways away, and farther away than my Mavic Pro. I’m not sure whether that’s because of the absolute volume or the volume plus the pitch. In some ways, this is a feature, since you can hear the drone following you even if you’re not looking at it, you just need to be aware of the noise it makes when you’re flying it around people.

Obstacle Avoidance

The primary reason Skydio 2 is the drone that you want to fly is because of its autonomous subject tracking and obstacle avoidance. Skydio’s PR videos make this capability look almost too good, and since I hadn’t tried out one of their drones before, the first thing I did with it was exactly what you’d expect: attempt to fly it directly into the nearest tree.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum The Skydio 2 deftly slides around trees and branches. The control inputs here were simple “forward” or “turn,” all obstacle avoidance is autonomous.  Click here for a full resolution clip.

And it just won’t do it. It slows down a bit, and then slides right around one tree after another, going over and under and around branches. I pointed the drone into a forest and just held down “forward” and away it went, without any fuss, effortlessly ducking and weaving its way around. Of course, it wasn’t effortless at all—six 4K cameras were feeding data into the NVIDIA TX2 at 30 fps, and the drone was processing a million points in 3D space per second to plan the safest path while simultaneously taking into account where I wanted it to go. I spent about 10 more minutes doing my level best to crash the drone into anything at all using a flying technique probably best described as “reckless,” but the drone was utterly unfazed. It’s incredible.

What knocked my socks off was telling the drone to pass through treetops—in the clip below, I’m just telling the drone to fly straight down. Watch as it weaves its way through gaps between the branches:

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum The result of parking the Skydio 2 above some trees and holding “down” on the controller is this impressive fully autonomous descent through the branches.  Click here for a full resolution clip.

Here’s one more example, where I sent the drone across a lake and started poking around in a tree. Sometimes the Skydio 2 isn’t sure where you want it to go, and you have to give it a little bit of a nudge in a clear direction, but that’s it.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum In obstacle-heavy environments, the Skydio 2 prudently slows down, but it can pick its way through almost anything that it can see.  Click here for a full resolution clip.

It’s important to keep in mind that all of the Skydio 2’s intelligence is based on vision. It uses cameras to see the world, which means that it has similar challenges as your eyes do. Specifically, Skydio warns against flying in the following conditions:

  • Skydio 2 can’t see certain visually challenging obstacles. Do not fly around thin branches, telephone or power lines, ropes, netting, wires, chain link fencing or other objects less than ½ inch in diameter.
  • Do not fly around transparent surfaces like windows or reflective surfaces like mirrors greater than 60 cm wide.
  • When the sun is low on the horizon, it can temporarily blind Skydio 2’s cameras depending on the angle of flight. Your drone may be cautious or jerky when flying directly toward the sun.

Basically, if you’d have trouble seeing a thing, or seeing under some specific flight conditions, then the Skydio 2 almost certainly will also. It gets even more problematic when challenging obstacles are combined with challenging flight conditions, which is what I’m pretty sure led to the only near-crash I had with the drone. Here’s a video:

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum Flying around very thin branches and into the sun can cause problems for the Skydio 2’s obstacle avoidance.  Click here for a full resolution clip.

I had the Skydio 2 set to follow me on my bike (more about following and tracking in a bit). It was mid afternoon, but since it’s late fall here in Washington, D.C., the sun doesn’t get much higher than 30 degrees above the horizon. Late fall also means that most of the deciduous trees have lost their leaves, and so there are a bunch of skinny branches all over the place. The drone was doing a pretty good job of following me along the road at a relatively slow speed, and then it clipped the branch that you can just barely see in the video above. It recovered in an acrobatic maneuver that has been mostly video-stabilized out, and resumed tracking me before I freaked and told it to land. You can see another example here, where the drone (again) clips a branch that has the sun behind it, and this clip shows me stopping my bike before the drone runs into another branch in a similar orientation. As the video shows, it’s very hard to see the branches until it’s too late.

As far as I can tell, the drone is no worse for wear from any of this, apart from a small nick in one of the props. But, this is a good illustration of a problematic situation for the Skydio 2: flying into a low sun angle around small bare branches. Should I not have been flying the drone in this situation? It’s hard to say. These probably qualify as “thin branches,” although there was plenty of room along with middle of the road. There is an open question with the Skydio 2 as to exactly how much responsibility the user should have about when and where it’s safe to fly—for branches, how thin is too thin? How low can the sun be? What if the branches are only kinda thin and the sun is only kinda low, but it’s also a little windy? Better to be safe than sorry, of course, but there’s really no way for the user (or the drone) to know what it can’t handle until it can’t handle it.

Edge cases like these aside, the obstacle avoidance just works. Even if you’re not deliberately trying to fly into branches, it’s keeping a lookout for you all the time, which means that flying the drone goes from somewhat stressful to just pure fun. I can’t emphasize enough how amazing it is to be able to fly without worrying about running into things, and how great it feels to be able to hand the controller to someone who’s never flown a drone before and say, with complete confidence, “go ahead, fly it around!”

Skydio 2 vs. DJI Mavic Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum Both the Skydio 2 and many models of DJI’s Mavic use visual obstacle avoidance, but the Skydio 2 is so much more advanced that you can’t really compare the two systems.

It’s important to note that there’s a huge difference between the sort of obstacle avoidance that you get with a DJI Mavic, and the sort of obstacle avoidance that you get with the Skydio 2. The objective of the Mavic’s obstacle avoidance is really there to prevent you from accidentally running into things, and in that capacity, it usually works. But there are two things to keep in mind here—first, not running into things is not the same as avoiding things, because avoiding things means planning several steps ahead, not just one step.

Second, there’s the fact that the Mavic’s obstacle detection only works most of the time. Fundamentally, I don’t trust my Mavic Pro, because sometimes the safety system doesn’t kick in for whatever reason and the drone ends up alarmingly close to something. And that’s actually fine, because with the Mavic, I expect to be piloting it. It’s for this same reason that I don’t care that my Parrot Anafi doesn’t have obstacle avoidance at all: I’m piloting it anyway, and I’m a careful pilot, so it just doesn’t matter. The Skydio 2 is totally and completely different. It’s in a class by itself, and you can’t compare what it can do to what anything else out there right now. Period.

Skydio 2 Tracking

Skydio’s big selling point on the Skydio 2 is that it’ll autonomously track you while avoiding obstacles. It does this visually, by watching where you go, predicting your future motion, and then planning its own motion to keep you in frame. The works better than you might expect, in that it’s really very good at not losing you. Obviously, the drone prioritizes not running into stuff over tracking you, which means that it may not always be where you feel like it should be. It’s probably trying to get there, but in obstacle dense environments, it can take some creative paths.

Having said that, I found it to be very consistent with keeping me in the frame, and I only managed to lose it when changing direction while fully occluded by an obstacle, or while it was executing an avoidance maneuver that was more dynamic than normal. If you deliberately try to hide from the drone it’s not that hard to do so if there are enough obstacles around, but I didn’t find the tracking to be something that I had to worry about it most cases. When tracking does fail and you’re not using the beacon, the drone will come to a hover. It won’t try and find you, but it will reacquire you if you get back into its field of view.

The Skydio 2 had no problem tracking me running through fairly dense trees:

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum The Skydio 2 had no problem chasing me around through these trees, even while I was asking it to continually change its tracking angle.  Click here for a full resolution clip.

It also managed to keep up with me as I rode my bike along a tree-lined road:

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum The Skydio 2 is easily fast enough to keep up with me on a bike, even while avoiding tree branches.  Click here for a full resolution clip.

It lost me when I asked it to follow very close behind me as I wove through some particularly branch-y trees, but it fails more or less gracefully by just sort of nope-ing out of situations when they start to get bad and coming to a hover somewhere safe.

GIF: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum The Skydio 2 knows better than to put itself into situations that it can’t handle, and will bail to a safe spot if things get too complicated.  Click here for a full resolution clip.

After a few days of playing with the drone, I started to get to the point where I could set it to track me and then just forget about it while I rode my bike or whatever, as opposed to constantly turning around to make sure it was still behind me, which is what I was doing initially. It’s a level of trust that I don’t think would be possible with any other drone. 

Should You Buy a Skydio 2? Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum We think the Skydio 2 is fun and relaxing to fly, with unique autonomous intelligence that makes it worth the cost.

In case I haven’t said it often enough in this review, the Skydio 2 is an incredible piece of technology. As far as I know (as a robotics journalist, mind you), this represents the state of the art in commercial drone autonomy, and quite possibly the state of the art in drone autonomy, period. And it’s available for $999, which is expensive, but less money than a Mavic Pro 2. If you’re interested in a new drone, you should absolutely consider the Skydio 2.

There are some things to keep in mind—battery life is a solid but not stellar 20 minutes. Extra batteries are expensive at $99 each (the base kit includes just one). The controller and the beacon are also expensive, at $150 each. And while I think the Skydio 2 is definitely the drone you want to fly, it may not be the drone you want to travel with, since it’s bulky compared to other options.

But there’s no denying the fact that the experience is uniquely magical. Once you’ve flown the Skydio 2, you won’t want to fly anything else. This drone makes it possible to get pictures and videos that would be otherwise impossible, and you can do it completely on your own. You can trust the drone to do what it promises, as long as you’re mindful of some basic and common sense safety guidelines. And we’ve been told that the drone is only going to get smarter and more capable over time.

If you buy a Skydio 2, it comes with the following warranty from Skydio:

“If you’re operating your Skydio 2 within our Safe Flight guidelines, and it crashes, we’ll repair or replace it for free.”

Skydio trusts their drone to go out into a chaotic and unstructured world and dodge just about anything that comes its way. And after a week with this drone, I can see how they’re able to offer this kind of guarantee. This is the kind of autonomy that robots have been promising for years, and the Skydio 2 makes it real.

Detailed technical specifications are available on Skydio’s website, and if you have any questions, post a comment—we’ve got this drone for a little while longer, and I’d be happy to try out (nearly) anything with it.

Skydio 2 Review Video Highlights

This video is about 7 minutes of 4K, 30 fps footage directly from the Skydio 2. The only editing I did was cutting clips together, no stabilization or color correcting or anything like that. The drone will record in 4K 60 fps, so it gets smoother than this, but I, er, forgot to change the setting.

[ Skydio ]

Welcome to the eighth edition of IEEE Spectrum’s Robot Gift Guide!

This year we’re featuring 15 robotic products that we think will make fantastic holiday gifts. As always, we tried to include a broad range of robot types and prices, focusing mostly on items released this year. (A reminder: While we provide links to places where you can buy these items, we’re not endorsing any in particular, and a little bit of research may result in better deals.)

If you need even more robot gift ideas, take a look at our past guides: 201820172016201520142013, and 2012. Some of those robots are still great choices and might be way cheaper now than when we first posted about them. And if you have suggestions that you’d like to share, post a comment below to help the rest of us find the perfect robot gift.

  1. Skydio 2 Image: Skydio

    What makes robots so compelling is their autonomy, and the Skydio 2 is one of the most autonomous robots we’ve ever seen. It uses an array of cameras to map its environment and avoid obstacles in real-time, making flight safe and effortless and enabling the kinds of shots that would be impossible otherwise. Seriously, this thing is magical, and it’s amazing that you can actually buy one.

  2. UBTECH Jimu MeeBot 2 Image: UBTECH

    The Jimu MeeBot 2.0 from UBTECH is a STEM education robot designed to be easy to build and program. It includes six servo motors, a color sensor, and LED lights. An app for iPhone or iPad provides step-by-step 3D instructions, and helps you code different behaviors for the robot. It’s available exclusively from Apple.

  3. iRobot Roomba s9+ Image: iRobot

    We know that $1,400 is a crazy amount of money to spend on a robot vacuum, but the Roomba s9+ is a crazy robot vacuum. As if all of its sensors and mapping intelligence wasn’t enough, it empties itself, which means that you can have your floors vacuumed every single day for a month and you don’t have to even think about it. This is what home robots are supposed to be.

  4. PFF Gita Photo: Piaggio Fast Forward

    Nobody likes carrying things, which is why Gita is perfect for everyone with an extra $3,000 lying around. Developed by Piaggio Fast Forward, this autonomous robot will follow you around with a cargo hold full of your most important stuff, and do it in a way guaranteed to attract as much attention as possible.

  5. DJI Mavic Mini Photo: DJI

    It’s tiny, it’s cheap, and it takes good pictures—what more could you ask for from a drone? And for $400, this is an excellent drone to get if you’re on a budget and comfortable with manual flight. Keep in mind that while the Mavic Mini is small enough that you don’t need to register it with the FAA, you do still need to follow all the same rules and regulations.

  6. LEGO Star Wars Droid Commander Image: LEGO

    Designed for kids ages 8+, this LEGO set includes more than 1,000 pieces, enough to build three different droids: R2-D2, Gonk Droid, and Mouse Droid. Using a Bluetooth-controlled robotic brick called Move Hub, which connects to the LEGO BOOST Star Wars app, kids can change how the robots behave and solve challenges, learning basic robotics and coding skills.

  7. Sony Aibo Photo: Sony

    Robot pets don’t get much more sophisticated (or expensive) than Sony’s Aibo. Strictly speaking, it’s one of the most complex consumer robots you can buy, and Sony continues to add to Aibo’s software. Recent new features include user programmability, and the ability to “feed” it. 

    $2,900 (free aibone and paw pads until 12/29/2019)
  8. Neato Botvac D4 Connected Photo: Neato

    The Neato Botvac D4 may not have all of the features of its fancier and more expensive siblings, but it does have the features that you probably care the most about: The ability to make maps of its environment for intelligent cleaning (using lasers!), along with user-defined no-go lines that keep it where you want it. And it cleans quite well, too.

    $530  $350 (sale)
    Neato Robotics 
  9. Cubelets Curiosity Set Photo: Modular Robotics

    Cubelets are magnetic blocks that you can snap together to make an endless variety of robots with no programming and no wires. The newest set, called Curiosity, is designed for kids ages 4+ and comes with 10 robotic cubes. These include light and distance sensors, motors, and a Bluetooth module, which connects the robot constructions to the Cubelets app.

    Modular Robotics
  10. Tertill Photo: Franklin Robotics

    Tertill does one simple job: It weeds your garden. It’s waterproof, dirt proof, solar powered, and fully autonomous, meaning that you can leave it out in your garden all summer and just enjoy eating your plants rather than taking care of them.

  11. iRobot Root Photo: iRobot

    Root was originally developed by Harvard University as a tool to help kids progressively learn to code. iRobot has taken over Root and is now supporting the curriculum, which starts for kids before they even know how to read and should keep them busy for years afterwards.

  12. LOVOT Image: Lovot

    Let’s be honest: Nobody is really quite sure what LOVOT is. We can all agree that it’s kinda cute, though. And kinda weird. But cute. Created by Japanese robotics startup Groove X, LOVOT does have a whole bunch of tech packed into its bizarre little body and it will do its best to get you to love it.

    $2,750 (¥300,000)
  13. Sphero RVR Photo: Sphero

    RVR is a rugged, versatile, easy to program mobile robot. It’s a development platform designed to be a bridge between educational robots like Sphero and more sophisticated and expensive systems like Misty. It’s mostly affordable, very expandable, and comes from a company with a lot of experience making robots.

  14. "How to Train Your Robot" Image: Lawrence Hall of Science

    Aimed at 4th and 5th graders, “How to Train Your Robot,” written by Blooma Goldberg, Ken Goldberg, and Ashley Chase, and illustrated by Dave Clegg, is a perfect introduction to robotics for kids who want to get started with designing and building robots. But the book isn’t just for beginners: It’s also a fun, inspiring read for kids who are already into robotics and want to go further—it even introduces concepts like computer simulations and deep learning. You can download a free digital copy or request hardcopies here.

    UC Berkeley
  15. MIT Mini Cheetah Photo: MIT

    Yes, Boston Dynamics’ Spotnow available for lease, is probably the world’s most famous quadruped, but MIT is starting to pump out Mini Cheetahs en masse for researchers, and while we’re not exactly sure how you’d manage to get one of these things short of stealing one directly for MIT, a Mini Cheetah is our fantasy robotics gift this year. Mini Cheetah looks like a ton of fun—it’s portable, highly dynamic, super rugged, and easy to control. We want one!

    Price N/A
    MIT Biomimetic Robotics Lab

For more tech gift ideas, see also IEEE Spectrum’s annual Gift Guide.

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!):

DARPA SubT Urban Circuit – February 18-27, 2020 – Olympia, WA, USA

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

Kuka has just announced the results of its annual Innovation Award. From an initial batch of 30 applicants, five teams reached the finals (we were part of the judging committee). The five finalists worked for nearly a year on their applications, which they demonstrated this week at the Medica trade show in Düsseldorf, Germany. And the winner of the €20,000 prize is...Team RoboFORCE, led by the STORM Lab in the U.K., which developed a “robotic magnetic flexible endoscope for painless colorectal cancer screening, surveillance, and intervention.”

The system could improve colonoscopy procedures by reducing pain and discomfort as well as other risks such as bleeding and perforation, according to the STORM Lab researchers. It uses a magnetic field to control the endoscope, pulling rather than pushing it through the colon.

The other four finalists also presented some really interesting applications—you can see their videos below.

“Because we were so pleased with the high quality of the submissions, we will have next year’s finals again at the Medica fair, and the challenge will be named ‘Medical Robotics’,” says Rainer Bischoff, vice president for corporate research at Kuka. He adds that the selected teams will again use Kuka’s LBR Med robot arm, which is “already certified for integration into medical products and makes it particularly easy for startups to use a robot as the main component for a particular solution.”

Applications are now open for Kuka’s Innovation Award 2020. You can find more information on how to enter here. The deadline is 5 January 2020.

[ Kuka ]

Oh good, Aibo needs to be fed now.

You know what comes next, right?

[ Aibo ]

Your cat needs this robot.

It's about $200 on Kickstarter.

[ Kickstarter ]

Enjoy this tour of the Skydio offices courtesy Skydio 2, which runs into not even one single thing.

If any Skydio employees had important piles of papers on their desks, well, they don’t anymore.

[ Skydio ]

Artificial intelligence is everywhere nowadays, but what exactly does it mean? We asked a group MIT computer science grad students and post-docs how they personally define AI.

“When most people say AI, they actually mean machine learning, which is just pattern recognition.” Yup.

[ MIT ]

Using event-based cameras, this drone control system can track attitude at 1600 degrees per second (!).

[ UZH ]

Introduced at CES 2018, Walker is an intelligent humanoid service robot from UBTECH Robotics. Below are the latest features and technologies used during our latest round of development to make Walker even better.

[ Ubtech ]

Introducing the Alpha Prime by #VelodyneLidar, the most advanced lidar sensor on the market! Alpha Prime delivers an unrivaled combination of field-of-view, range, high-resolution, clarity and operational performance.

Performance looks good, but don’t expect it to be cheap.

[ Velodyne ]

Ghost Robotics’ Spirit 40 will start shipping to researchers in January of next year.

[ Ghost Robotics ]

Unitree is about to ship the first batch of their AlienGo quadrupeds as well:

[ Unitree ]

Mechanical engineering’s Sarah Bergbreiter discusses her work on micro robotics, how they draw inspiration from insects and animals, and how tiny robots can help humans in a variety of fields.

[ CMU ]

Learning contact-rich, robotic manipulation skills is a challenging problem due to the high-dimensionality of the state and action space as well as uncertainty from noisy sensors and inaccurate motor control. To combat these factors and achieve more robust manipulation, humans actively exploit contact constraints in the environment. By adopting a similar strategy, robots can also achieve more robust manipulation. In this paper, we enable a robot to autonomously modify its environment and thereby discover how to ease manipulation skill learning. Specifically, we provide the robot with fixtures that it can freely place within the environment. These fixtures provide hard constraints that limit the outcome of robot actions. Thereby, they funnel uncertainty from perception and motor control and scaffold manipulation skill learning.

[ Stanford ]

Since 2016, Verity's drones have completed more than 200,000 flights around the world. Completely autonomous, client-operated and designed for live events, Verity is making the magic real by turning drones into flying lights, characters, and props.

[ Verity ]

To monitor and stop the spread of wildfires, University of Michigan engineers developed UAVs that could find, map and report fires. One day UAVs like this could work with disaster response units, firefighters and other emergency teams to provide real-time accurate information to reduce damage and save lives. For their research, the University of Michigan graduate students won first place at a competition for using a swarm of UAVs to successfully map and report simulated wildfires.

[ University of Michigan ]

Here’s an important issue that I haven’t heard talked about all that much: How first responders should interact with self-driving cars.

“To put the car in manual mode, you must call Waymo.” Huh.

[ Waymo ]

Here’s what Gitai has been up to recently, from a Humanoids 2019 workshop talk.

[ Gitai ]

The latest CMU RI seminar comes from Girish Chowdhary at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on “Autonomous and Intelligent Robots in Unstructured Field Environments.”

What if a team of collaborative autonomous robots grew your food for you? In this talk, I will discuss some key advances in robotics, machine learning, and autonomy that will one day enable teams of small robots to grow food for you in your backyard in a fundamentally more sustainable way than modern mega-farms! Teams of small aerial and ground robots could be a potential solution to many of the serious problems that modern agriculture is facing. However, fully autonomous robots that operate without supervision for weeks, months, or entire growing season are not yet practical. I will discuss my group’s theoretical and practical work towards the underlying challenging problems in robotic systems, autonomy, sensing, and learning. I will begin with our lightweight, compact, and autonomous field robot TerraSentia and the recent successes of this type of undercanopy robots for high-throughput phenotyping with deep learning-based machine vision. I will also discuss how to make a team of autonomous robots learn to coordinate to weed large agricultural farms under partial observability. These direct applications will help me make the case for the type of reinforcement learning and adaptive control that are necessary to usher in the next generation of autonomous field robots that learn to solve complex problems in harsh, changing, and dynamic environments. I will then end with an overview of our new MURI, in which we are working towards developing AI and control that leverages neurodynamics inspired by the Octopus brain.

[ CMU RI ]

As useful as drones are up in the air, the process of getting them there tends to be annoying at best and dangerous at worst. Consider what it takes to launch something as simple as a DJI Mavic or a Parrot Anafi— you need to find a flat spot free of debris or obstructions, unfold the thing and let it boot up and calibrate and whatnot, stand somewhere safe(ish), and then get it airborne and high enough quick enough to avoid hitting any people or things that you care about.

I’m obviously being a little bit dramatic here, but ground launching drones is certainly both time consuming and risky, and there are occasions where getting a drone into the air as quickly and as safely as possible is a priority. At IROS in Macau earlier this month, researchers from Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) presented a prototype for a ballistically launched drone—a football-shaped foldable quadrotor that gets fired out of a cannon, unfolds itself, and then flies off.

Test launching the SQUID (Streamlined Quick Unfolding Investigation Drone) from a truck as shown in the video effectively demonstrates why this is more than a novelty: It would otherwise be very difficult to conventionally launch a quadrotor from a vehicle moving that fast. You can imagine how useful this would be for first responders, ships dealing with waves, or even other aircraft in flight.

Image: Caltech & NASA JPL A CAD model of the SQUID system showing (from left): ballistic configuration, multirotor configuration, and section view with a closer look of a hinge.

The prototype SQUID shown here weighs 530 grams and is about 27 centimeters long. Folded up, it’s just over 8 cm in diameter. SQUID gets its initial boost of 15 meters per second (referred to as “muzzle velocity” in the paper) from a pneumatic baseball pitching machine, which gives the drone an apex of about 10 m. Immediately after the drone exits the launcher, a nichrome wire heats up and burns through a monofilament line holding the arms in place. Driven by springs, the arms snap out in just 70 ms, while the aerodynamic body of the drone passively orients it into the airstream.

As soon as the motors spin up (after about 200 ms), SQUID automatically orients itself into a hovering attitude, and it can be controlled just like a normal quadrotor within less than 1 second of launch. Landing is a bit of a challenge, although apparently “it can safely land if the bottom touches the ground first at a low speed,” after which it’ll gently topple over.

SQUID’s design is easily scalable, and the researchers are currently working on both smaller (2-inch diameter) and larger (6-inch diameter) prototypes. The 6-inch SQUID would be large enough to carry a battery and payload enabling significantly more autonomy, including vision-based ballistic stabilization.

Image: Caltech & NASA JPL To test the drone, the researchers launched it from a moving vehicle up to 50 mph.

We should mention that ballistically launched drones aren’t a completely new idea—we’ve seen a couple of examples in the past, like this very satisfying-sounding system from Raytheon. But getting something similar to work for a quadrotor is a bit more difficult, and as far as we know, nobody else has thought about applying this launch technique to drones for planetary exploration:

While the SQUID prototype, as outlined in this paper, has been designed for operation on Earth, the same concept is potentially adaptable to other planetary bodies, in particular Mars and Titan. The Mars helicopter, planned to deploy from the Mars 2020 rover, will provide a proof-of-concept for powered rotorcraft flight on the planet, despite the thin atmosphere. A rotorcraft greatly expands the data collection range of a rover, and allows access to sites that a rover would find impassible. However, the current deployment method for the Mars Helicopter from the underbelly of the rover reduces ground clearance, resulting in stricter terrain constraints. Additionally, the rover must move a significant distance away from the helicopter drop site before the helicopter can safely take off. The addition of a ballistic, deterministic launch system for future rovers or entry vehicles would isolate small rotorcraft from the primary mission asset, as well as enable deployment at longer distances or over steep terrain features.

“Design of a Ballistically-Launched Foldable Multirotor,” by Daniel Pastor, Jacob Izraelevitz, Paul Nadan, Amanda Bouman, Joel Burdick, and Brett Kennedy, from Caltech, JPL, and Olin College, was presented at IROS 2019 in Macau.

There’s no particular reason why knowing how to juggle would be a useful skill for a robot. Despite this, robots are frequently taught how to juggle things. Blind robots can juggle, humanoid robots can juggle, and even drones can juggle. Why? Because juggling is hard, man! You have to think about a bunch of different things at once, and also do a bunch of different things at once, which this particular human at least finds to be overly stressful. While juggling may not stress robots out, it does require carefully coordinated sensing and computing and actuation, which means that it’s as good a task as any (and a more entertaining task than most) for testing the capabilities of your system.

UC Berkeley’s Cassie Cal robot, which consists of two legs and what could be called a torso if you were feeling charitable, has just learned to juggle by bouncing a ball on what would be her head if she had one of those. The idea is that if Cassie can juggle while balancing at the same time, she’ll be better able to do other things that require dynamic multitasking, too. And if that doesn’t work out, she’ll still be able to join the circus.

Cassie’s juggling is assisted by an external motion capture system that tracks the location of the ball, but otherwise everything is autonomous. Cassie is able to juggle the ball by leaning forwards and backwards, left and right, and moving up and down. She does this while maintaining her own balance, which is the whole point of this research—successfully executing two dynamic behaviors that may sometimes be at odds with one another. The end goal here is not to make a better juggling robot, but rather to explore dynamic multitasking, a skill that robots will need in order to be successful in human environments.

This work is from the Hybrid Robotics Lab at UC Berkeley, led by Koushil Sreenath, and is being done by Katherine Poggensee, Albert Li, Daniel Sotsaikich, Bike Zhang, and Prasanth Kotaru.

For a bit more detail, we spoke with Albert Li via email.

Image: UC Berkeley UC Berkeley’s Cassie Cal getting ready to juggle.

IEEE Spectrum: What would be involved in getting Cassie to juggle without relying on motion capture?

Albert Li: Our motivation for starting off with motion capture was to first address the control challenge of juggling on a biped without worrying about implementing the perception. We actually do have a ball detector working on a camera, which would mean we wouldn’t have to rely on the motion capture system. However, we need to mount the camera in a way that it would provide the best upwards field of view, and we also have develop a reliable estimator. The estimator is particularly important because when the ball gets close enough to the camera, we actually can’t track the ball and have to assume our dynamic models describe its motion accurately enough until it bounces back up.

What keeps Cassie from juggling indefinitely?

There are a few factors that affect how long Cassie can sustain a juggle. While in simulation the paddle exhibits homogeneous properties like its stiffness and damping, in reality every surface has anisotropic contact properties. So, there are parts of the paddle which may be better for juggling than others (and importantly, react differently than modeled). These differences in contact are also exacerbated due to how the paddle is cantilevered when mounted on Cassie. When the ball hits these areas, it leads to a larger than expected error in a juggle. Due to the small size of the paddle, the ball may then just hit the paddle’s edge and end the juggling run. Over a very long run, this is a likely occurrence. Additionally, some large juggling errors could cause Cassie’s feet to slip slightly, which ends up changing the stable standing position over time. Since this version of the controller assumes Cassie is stationary, this change in position eventually leads to poor juggles and failure.

Would Cassie be able to juggle while walking (or hovershoe-ing)?

Walking (and hovershoe-ing) while juggling is a far more challenging problem and is certainly a goal for future research. Some of these challenges include getting the paddle to precise poses to juggle the ball while also moving to avoid any destabilizing effects of stepping incorrectly. The number of juggles per step of walking could also vary and make the mathematics of the problem more challenging. The controller goal is also more involved. While the current goal of the juggling controller is to juggle the ball to a static apex position, with a walking juggling controller, we may instead want to hit the ball forwards and also walk forwards to bounce it, juggle the ball along a particular path, etc. Solving such challenges would be the main thrusts of the follow-up research.

Can you give an example of a practical task that would be made possible by using a controller like this?

Studying juggling means studying contact behavior and leveraging our models of it to achieve a known objective. Juggling could also be used to study predictable post-contact flight behavior. Consider the scenario where a robot is attempting to make a catch, but fails, letting the ball to bounce off of its hand, and then recovering the catch. This behavior could also be intentional: It is often easier to first execute a bounce to direct the target and then perform a subsequent action. For example, volleyball players could in principle directly hit a spiked ball back, but almost always bump the ball back up and then return it.

Even beyond this motivating example, the kinds of models we employ to get juggling working are more generally applicable to any task that involves contact, which could include tasks besides bouncing like sliding and rolling. For example, clearing space on a desk by pushing objects to the side may be preferable than individually manipulating each and every object on it.

You mention collaborative juggling or juggling multiple balls—is that something you’ve tried yet? Can you talk a bit more about what you’re working on next? 

We haven’t yet started working on collaborative or multi-ball juggling, but that’s also a goal for future work. Juggling multiple balls statically is probably the most reasonable next goal, but presents additional challenges. For instance, you have to encode a notion of juggling urgency (if the second ball isn’t hit hard enough, you have less time to get the first ball up before you get back to the second one).  

On the other hand, collaborative human-robot juggling requires a more advanced decision-making framework. To get robust multi-agent juggling, the robot will need to employ some sort of probabilistic model of the expected human behavior (are they likely to move somewhere? Are they trying to catch the ball high or low? Is it safe to hit the ball back?). In general, developing such human models is difficult since humans are fairly unpredictable and often don’t exhibit rational behavior. This will be a focus of future work.

[ Hybrid Robotics Lab ]

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!):

DARPA SubT Urban Circuit – February 18-27, 2020 – Olympia, Wash., USA

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

There will be a Mini-Cheetah Workshop (sponsored by Naver Labs) a year from now at IROS 2020 in Las Vegas. Mini-Cheetahs for everyone!

That’s just a rendering, of course, but this isn’t:

[ MCW ]

I was like 95 percent sure that the Urban Circuit of the DARPA SubT Challenge was going to be in something very subway station-y. Oops!

In the Subterranean (SubT) Challenge, teams deploy autonomous ground and aerial systems to attempt to map, identify, and report artifacts along competition courses in underground environments. The artifacts represent items a first responder or service member may encounter in unknown underground sites. This video provides a preview of the Urban Circuit event location. The Urban Circuit is scheduled for February 18-27, 2020, at Satsop Business Park west of Olympia, Washington.

[ SubT ]

Researchers at SEAS and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have developed a resilient RoboBee powered by soft artificial muscles that can crash into walls, fall onto the floor, and collide with other RoboBees without being damaged. It is the first microrobot powered by soft actuators to achieve controlled flight.

To solve the problem of power density, the researchers built upon the electrically-driven soft actuators developed in the lab of David Clarke, the Extended Tarr Family Professor of Materials. These soft actuators are made using dielectric elastomers, soft materials with good insulating properties, that deform when an electric field is applied. By improving the electrode conductivity, the researchers were able to operate the actuator at 500 Hertz, on par with the rigid actuators used previously in similar robots.

Next, the researchers aim to increase the efficiency of the soft-powered robot, which still lags far behind more traditional flying robots.

[ Harvard ]

We present a system for fast and robust handovers with a robot character, together with a user study investigating the effect of robot speed and reaction time on perceived interaction quality. The system can match and exceed human speeds and confirms that users prefer human-level timing.

In a 3×3 user study, we vary the speed of the robot and add variable sensorimotor delays. We evaluate the social perception of the robot using the Robot Social Attribute Scale (RoSAS). Inclusion of a small delay, mimicking the delay of the human sensorimotor system, leads to an improvement in perceived qualities over both no delay and long delay conditions. Specifically, with no delay the robot is perceived as more discomforting and with a long delay, it is perceived as less warm.

[ Disney Research ]

When cars are autonomous, they’re not going to be able to pump themselves full of gas. Or, more likely, electrons. Kuka has the solution.

[ Kuka ]

This looks like fun, right?

[ Robocoaster ]

NASA is leading the way in the use of On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing to enable large, persistent, upgradable, and maintainable spacecraft. This video was developed by the Advanced Concepts Lab (ACL) at NASA Langley Research Center.

[ NASA ]

The noisiest workshop by far at Humanoids last month (by far) was Musical Interactions With Humanoids, the end result of which was this:

[ Workshop ]

IROS is an IEEE event, and in furthering the IEEE mission to benefit humanity through technological innovation, IROS is doing a great job. But don’t take it from us – we are joined by IEEE President-Elect Professor Toshio Fukuda to find out a bit more about the impact events like IROS can have, as well as examine some of the issues around intelligent robotics and systems - from privacy to transparency of the systems at play.


Speaking of IROS, we hope you’ve been enjoying our coverage. We have already featured Harvard’s strange sea-urchin-inspired robot and a Japanese quadruped that can climb vertical ladders, with more stories to come over the next several weeks.

In the mean time, enjoy these 10 videos from the conference (as usual, we’re including the title, authors, and abstract for each—if you’d like more details about any of these projects, let us know and we’ll find out more for you).

"A Passive Closing, Tendon Driven, Adaptive Robot Hand for Ultra-Fast, Aerial Grasping and Perching," by Andrew McLaren, Zak Fitzgerald, Geng Gao, and Minas Liarokapis from the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Current grasping methods for aerial vehicles are slow, inaccurate and they cannot adapt to any target object. Thus, they do not allow for on-the-fly, ultra-fast grasping. In this paper, we present a passive closing, adaptive robot hand design that offers ultra-fast, aerial grasping for a wide range of everyday objects. We investigate alternative uses of structural compliance for the development of simple, adaptive robot grippers and hands and we propose an appropriate quick release mechanism that facilitates an instantaneous grasping execution. The quick release mechanism is triggered by a simple distance sensor. The proposed hand utilizes only two actuators to control multiple degrees of freedom over three fingers and it retains the superior grasping capabilities of adaptive grasping mechanisms, even under significant object pose or other environmental uncertainties. The hand achieves a grasping time of 96 ms, a maximum grasping force of 56 N and it is able to secure objects of various shapes at high speeds. The proposed hand can serve as the end-effector of grasping capable Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) platforms and it can offer perching capabilities, facilitating autonomous docking.

"Unstructured Terrain Navigation and Topographic Mapping With a Low-Cost Mobile Cuboid Robot," by Andrew S. Morgan, Robert L. Baines, Hayley McClintock, and Brian Scassellati from Yale University, USA.

Current robotic terrain mapping techniques require expensive sensor suites to construct an environmental representation. In this work, we present a cube-shaped robot that can roll through unstructured terrain and construct a detailed topographic map of the surface that it traverses in real time with low computational and monetary expense. Our approach devolves many of the complexities of locomotion and mapping to passive mechanical features. Namely, rolling movement is achieved by sequentially inflating latex bladders that are located on four sides of the robot to destabilize and tip it. Sensing is achieved via arrays of fine plastic pins that passively conform to the geometry of underlying terrain, retracting into the cube. We developed a topography by shade algorithm to process images of the displaced pins to reconstruct terrain contours and elevation. We experimentally validated the efficacy of the proposed robot through object mapping and terrain locomotion tasks.

"Toward a Ballbot for Physically Leading People: A Human-Centered Approach," by Zhongyu Li and Ralph Hollis from Carnegie Mellon University, USA.

This work presents a new human-centered method for indoor service robots to provide people with physical assistance and active guidance while traveling through congested and narrow spaces. As most previous work is robot-centered, this paper develops an end-to-end framework which includes a feedback path of the measured human positions. The framework combines a planning algorithm and a human-robot interaction module to guide the led person to a specified planned position. The approach is deployed on a person-size dynamically stable mobile robot, the CMU ballbot. Trials were conducted where the ballbot physically led a blindfolded person to safely navigate in a cluttered environment.

"Achievement of Online Agile Manipulation Task for Aerial Transformable Multilink Robot," by Fan Shi, Moju Zhao, Tomoki Anzai, Keita Ito, Xiangyu Chen, Kei Okada, and Masayuki Inaba from the University of Tokyo, Japan.

Transformable aerial robots are favorable in aerial manipulation tasks for their flexible ability to change configuration during the flight. By assuming robot keeping in the mild motion, the previous researches sacrifice aerial agility to simplify the complex non-linear system into a single rigid body with a linear controller. In this paper, we present a framework towards agile swing motion for the transformable multi-links aerial robot. We introduce a computational-efficient non-linear model predictive controller and joints motion primitive frame-work to achieve agile transforming motions and validate with a novel robot named HYRURS-X. Finally, we implement our framework under a table tennis task to validate the online and agile performance.

"Small-Scale Compliant Dual Arm With Tail for Winged Aerial Robots," by Alejandro Suarez, Manuel Perez, Guillermo Heredia, and Anibal Ollero from the University of Seville, Spain.

Winged aerial robots represent an evolution of aerial manipulation robots, replacing the multirotor vehicles by fixed or flapping wing platforms. The development of this morphology is motivated in terms of efficiency, endurance and safety in some inspection operations where multirotor platforms may not be suitable. This paper presents a first prototype of compliant dual arm as preliminary step towards the realization of a winged aerial robot capable of perching and manipulating with the wings folded. The dual arm provides 6 DOF (degrees of freedom) for end effector positioning in a human-like kinematic configuration, with a reach of 25 cm (half-scale w.r.t. the human arm), and 0.2 kg weight. The prototype is built with micro metal gear motors, measuring the joint angles and the deflection with small potentiometers. The paper covers the design, electronics, modeling and control of the arms. Experimental results in test-bench validate the developed prototype and its functionalities, including joint position and torque control, bimanual grasping, the dynamic equilibrium with the tail, and the generation of 3D maps with laser sensors attached at the arms.

"A Novel Small-Scale Turtle-inspired Amphibious Spherical Robot," by Huiming Xing, Shuxiang Guo, Liwei Shi, Xihuan Hou, Yu Liu, Huikang Liu, Yao Hu, Debin Xia, and Zan Li from Beijing Institute of Technology, China.

This paper describes a novel small-scale turtle-inspired Amphibious Spherical Robot (ASRobot) to accomplish exploration tasks in the restricted environment, such as amphibious areas and narrow underwater cave. A Legged, Multi-Vectored Water-Jet Composite Propulsion Mechanism (LMVWCPM) is designed with four legs, one of which contains three connecting rod parts, one water-jet thruster and three joints driven by digital servos. Using this mechanism, the robot is able to walk like amphibious turtles on various terrains and swim flexibly in submarine environment. A simplified kinematic model is established to analyze crawling gaits. With simulation of the crawling gait, the driving torques of different joints contributed to the choice of servos and the size of links of legs. Then we also modeled the robot in water and proposed several underwater locomotion. In order to assess the performance of the proposed robot, a series of experiments were carried out in the lab pool and on flat ground using the prototype robot. Experiments results verified the effectiveness of LMVWCPM and the amphibious control approaches.

"Advanced Autonomy on a Low-Cost Educational Drone Platform," by Luke Eller, Theo Guerin, Baichuan Huang, Garrett Warren, Sophie Yang, Josh Roy, and Stefanie Tellex from Brown University, USA.

PiDrone is a quadrotor platform created to accompany an introductory robotics course. Students build an autonomous flying robot from scratch and learn to program it through assignments and projects. Existing educational robots do not have significant autonomous capabilities, such as high-level planning and mapping. We present a hardware and software framework for an autonomous aerial robot, in which all software for autonomy can run onboard the drone, implemented in Python. We present an Unscented Kalman Filter (UKF) for accurate state estimation. Next, we present an implementation of Monte Carlo (MC) Localization and Fast-SLAM for Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM). The performance of UKF, localization, and SLAM is tested and compared to ground truth, provided by a motion-capture system. Our evaluation demonstrates that our autonomous educational framework runs quickly and accurately on a Raspberry Pi in Python, making it ideal for use in educational settings.

"FlightGoggles: Photorealistic Sensor Simulation for Perception-driven Robotics using Photogrammetry and Virtual Reality," by Winter Guerra, Ezra Tal, Varun Murali, Gilhyun Ryou and Sertac Karaman from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA.

FlightGoggles is a photorealistic sensor simulator for perception-driven robotic vehicles. The key contributions of FlightGoggles are twofold. First, FlightGoggles provides photorealistic exteroceptive sensor simulation using graphics assets generated with photogrammetry. Second, it provides the ability to combine (i) synthetic exteroceptive measurements generated in silico in real time and (ii) vehicle dynamics and proprioceptive measurements generated in motio by vehicle(s) in flight in a motion-capture facility. FlightGoggles is capable of simulating a virtual-reality environment around autonomous vehicle(s) in flight. While a vehicle is in flight in the FlightGoggles virtual reality environment, exteroceptive sensors are rendered synthetically in real time while all complex dynamics are generated organically through natural interactions of the vehicle. The FlightGoggles framework allows for researchers to accelerate development by circumventing the need to estimate complex and hard-to-model interactions such as aerodynamics, motor mechanics, battery electrochemistry, and behavior of other agents. The ability to perform vehicle-in-the-loop experiments with photorealistic exteroceptive sensor simulation facilitates novel research directions involving, e.g., fast and agile autonomous flight in obstacle-rich environments, safe human interaction, and flexible sensor selection. FlightGoggles has been utilized as the main test for selecting nine teams that will advance in the AlphaPilot autonomous drone racing challenge. We survey approaches and results from the top AlphaPilot teams, which may be of independent interest. FlightGoggles is distributed as open-source software along with the photorealistic graphics assets for several simulation environments, under the MIT license at http://flightgoggles.mit.edu.

"An Autonomous Quadrotor System for Robust High-Speed Flight Through Cluttered Environments Without GPS," by Marc Rigter, Benjamin Morrell, Robert G. Reid, Gene B. Merewether, Theodore Tzanetos, Vinay Rajur, KC Wong, and Larry H. Matthies from University of Sydney, Australia; NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, USA; and Georgia Institute of Technology, USA.

Robust autonomous flight without GPS is key to many emerging drone applications, such as delivery, search and rescue, and warehouse inspection. These and other appli- cations require accurate trajectory tracking through cluttered static environments, where GPS can be unreliable, while high- speed, agile, flight can increase efficiency. We describe the hardware and software of a quadrotor system that meets these requirements with onboard processing: a custom 300 mm wide quadrotor that uses two wide-field-of-view cameras for visual- inertial motion tracking and relocalization to a prior map. Collision-free trajectories are planned offline and tracked online with a custom tracking controller. This controller includes compensation for drag and variability in propeller performance, enabling accurate trajectory tracking, even at high speeds where aerodynamic effects are significant. We describe a system identification approach that identifies quadrotor-specific parameters via maximum likelihood estimation from flight data. Results from flight experiments are presented, which 1) validate the system identification method, 2) show that our controller with aerodynamic compensation reduces tracking error by more than 50% in both horizontal flights at up to 8.5 m/s and vertical flights at up to 3.1 m/s compared to the state-of-the-art, and 3) demonstrate our system tracking complex, aggressive, trajectories.

"Morphing Structure for Changing Hydrodynamic Characteristics of a Soft Underwater Walking Robot," by Michael Ishida, Dylan Drotman, Benjamin Shih, Mark Hermes, Mitul Luhar, and Michael T. Tolley from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and University of Southern California, USA.

Existing platforms for underwater exploration and inspection are often limited to traversing open water and must expend large amounts of energy to maintain a position in flow for long periods of time. Many benthic animals overcome these limitations using legged locomotion and have different hydrodynamic profiles dictated by different body morphologies. This work presents an underwater legged robot with soft legs and a soft inflatable morphing body that can change shape to influence its hydrodynamic characteristics. Flow over the morphing body separates behind the trailing edge of the inflated shape, so whether the protrusion is at the front, center, or back of the robot influences the amount of drag and lift. When the legged robot (2.87 N underwater weight) needs to remain stationary in flow, an asymmetrically inflated body resists sliding by reducing lift on the body by 40% (from 0.52 N to 0.31 N) at the highest flow rate tested while only increasing drag by 5.5% (from 1.75 N to 1.85 N). When the legged robot needs to walk with flow, a large inflated body is pushed along by the flow, causing the robot to walk 16% faster than it would with an uninflated body. The body shape significantly affects the ability of the robot to walk against flow as it is able to walk against 0.09 m/s flow with the uninflated body, but is pushed backwards with a large inflated body. We demonstrate that the robot can detect changes in flow velocity with a commercial force sensor and respond by morphing into a hydrodynamically preferable shape.

When we look at quadruped robots, it’s impossible not to compare them to quadruped animals like dogs and cats. Over the last several years, such robots have begun to approach the capabilities of their biological counterparts under just a few very specific situations, like walking without falling over. Biology provides a gold standard that robots are striving to reach, and it’s going to take us a very long time to make quadrupeds that can do everything that animals can.

The cool thing about robots, though, is that they don’t have to be constrained by biology, meaning that there’s always the potential for them to learn new behaviors that animals simply aren’t designed for. At IROS 2019 last week, we saw one such example, with a quadruped robot that’s able to climb vertical ladders.

Photo: Tokyo Metropolitan University To generate the robot’s autonomous climbing behavior, the researchers used a recurrent neural network that trained it to ascend the ladder. The behavior was created for this specific ladder, but the researchers plan to generalize the system so that the robot can climb new ladders without prior training.

A casual Google search makes it seems like vertical ladder climbing is quite challenging for biological quadrupeds. Dogs can do it, although usually you see them climbing up ladders that are angled (leaning against something) rather than vertical. Cats are a bit better, but vertical ladders still look like a challenge for them, especially if they can’t use their claws to grip. The problem is as the steepness of a ladder increases to vertical, your center of mass moves farther and farther away from the rungs, and you have to support an increasing amount of your own weight by actively gripping rungs rather than just standing on them, which is a problem for animals that don’t have robust grasping systems.

Image: Tokyo Metropolitan University To climb the ladder, the quadruped robot is equipped with an inertial measurement unit (IMU), time-of-flight 3D camera on its face, and touch and force sensors on each claw. An Intel NUC computer acts as the main control system, with an Arduino used as a secondary controller to manage the input-output signals of the internal sensors (force, touch, and IMU). The robot has 23 degrees of freedom (DoF): 5 DoF in each leg, 2 DoF for the dual laser rangefinder sensors, and 1 DoF for the head.

Most robotic quadrupeds don’t have robust grasping systems either, but adding such a system to a robot seems like a promising idea to explore. Roboticists at Tokyo Metropolitan University have built a cute little (7 kilograms) quadruped with 5 degrees-of-freedom legs that include a sort of opposable thumb that turn its feet into grippers. It’s able to use those grippers to climb vertical handrail-free ladders fully autonomously.

That transition from the ladder to the upper surface seems quite tricky to perform, and it’s particularly clever how the robot uses its hind legs to grasp the top rung and use it to propel itself onto the platform. It’s also worth noting that the autonomous system was trained on this specific ladder, and that it took five tries to get it right, although the researchers say that the failures were due to lack of actuator torque rather than their overall approach. They plan to fix this in future work, as well as to generalize the system so that it can climb new ladders without prior training.

“A Novel Capability of Quadruped Robot Moving Through Vertical Ladder Without Handrail Support,” by Azhar Aulia Saputra, Yuichiro Toda, Naoyuki Takesue, and Naoyuki Kubota from Tokyo Metropolitan University and Okayama University, was presented at IROS 2019 in Macau.

Have you ever encountered a lifelike humanoid robot or a realistic computer-generated face that seem a bit off or unsettling, though you can’t quite explain why?

Take for instance AVA, one of the “digital humans” created by New Zealand tech startup Soul Machines as an on-screen avatar for Autodesk. Watching a lifelike digital being such as AVA can be both fascinating and disconcerting. AVA expresses empathy through her demeanor and movements: slightly raised brows, a tilt of the head, a nod.

By meticulously rendering every lash and line in its avatars, Soul Machines aimed to create a digital human that is virtually undistinguishable from a real one. But to many, rather than looking natural, AVA actually looks creepy. There’s something about it being almost human but not quite that can make people uneasy.

Like AVA, many other ultra-realistic avatars, androids, and animated characters appear stuck in a disturbing in-between world: They are so lifelike and yet they are not “right.” This void of strangeness is known as the uncanny valley.

Uncanny Valley: Definition and History

The uncanny valley is a concept first introduced in the 1970s by Masahiro Mori, then a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Mori coined the term “uncanny valley” to describe his observation that as robots appear more humanlike, they become more appealing—but only up to a certain point. Upon reaching the uncanny valley, our affinity descends into a feeling of strangeness, a sense of unease, and a tendency to be scared or freaked out. So the uncanny valley can be defined as people’s negative reaction to certain lifelike robots.

Image: Masahiro Mori The uncanny valley graph created by Masahiro Mori: As a robot’s human likeness [horizontal axis] increases, our affinity towards the robot [vertical axis] increases too, but only up to a certain point. For some lifelike robots, our response to them plunges, and they appear repulsive or creepy. That’s the uncanny valley.

In his seminal essay for Japanese journal Energy, Mori wrote:

I have noticed that, in climbing toward the goal of making robots appear human, our affinity for them increases until we come to a valley, which I call the uncanny valley.

Later in the essay, Mori describes the uncanny valley by using an example—the first prosthetic hands:

One might say that the prosthetic hand has achieved a degree of resemblance to the human form, perhaps on a par with false teeth. However, when we realize the hand, which at first site looked real, is in fact artificial, we experience an eerie sensation. For example, we could be startled during a handshake by its limp boneless grip together with its texture and coldness. When this happens, we lose our sense of affinity, and the hand becomes uncanny.

In an interview with IEEE Spectrum, Mori explained how he came up with the idea for the uncanny valley:

“Since I was a child, I have never liked looking at wax figures. They looked somewhat creepy to me. At that time, electronic prosthetic hands were being developed, and they triggered in me the same kind of sensation. These experiences had made me start thinking about robots in general, which led me to write that essay. The uncanny valley was my intuition. It was one of my ideas.”

Uncanny Valley Examples

To better illustrate how the uncanny valley works, here are some examples of the phenomenon. Prepare to be freaked out.

1. Telenoid

Photo: Hiroshi Ishiguro/Osaka University/ATR

Taking the top spot in the “creepiest” rankings of IEEE Spectrum’s Robots Guide, Telenoid is a robotic communication device designed by Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro. Its bald head, lifeless face, and lack of limbs make it seem more alien than human.

2. Diego-san

Photo: Andrew Oh/Javier Movellan/Calit2

Engineers and roboticists at the University of California San Diego’s Machine Perception Lab developed this robot baby to help parents better communicate with their infants. At 1.2 meters (4 feet) tall and weighing 30 kilograms (66 pounds), Diego-san is a big baby—bigger than an average 1-year-old child.

“Even though the facial expression is sophisticated and intuitive in this infant robot, I still perceive a false smile when I’m expecting the baby to appear happy,” says Angela Tinwell, a senior lecturer at the University of Bolton in the U.K. and author of The Uncanny Valley in Games and Animation. “This, along with a lack of detail in the eyes and forehead, can make the baby appear vacant and creepy, so I would want to avoid those ‘dead eyes’ rather than interacting with Diego-san.”

​3. Geminoid HI

Photo: Osaka University/ATR/Kokoro

Another one of Ishiguro’s creations, Geminoid HI is his android replica. He even took hair from his own scalp to put onto his robot twin. Ishiguro says he created Geminoid HI to better understand what it means to be human.

4. Sophia

Photo: Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS/Getty Images

Designed by David Hanson of Hanson Robotics, Sophia is one of the most famous humanoid robots. Like Soul Machines’ AVA, Sophia displays a range of emotional expressions and is equipped with natural language processing capabilities.

5. Anthropomorphized felines

The uncanny valley doesn’t only happen with robots that adopt a human form. The 2019 live-action versions of the animated film The Lion King and the musical Cats brought the uncanny valley to the forefront of pop culture. To some fans, the photorealistic computer animations of talking lions and singing cats that mimic human movements were just creepy.

Are you feeling that eerie sensation yet?

Uncanny Valley: Science or Pseudoscience?

Despite our continued fascination with the uncanny valley, its validity as a scientific concept is highly debated. The uncanny valley wasn’t actually proposed as a scientific concept, yet has often been criticized in that light.

Mori himself said in his IEEE Spectrum interview that he didn’t explore the concept from a rigorous scientific perspective but as more of a guideline for robot designers:

Pointing out the existence of the uncanny valley was more of a piece of advice from me to people who design robots rather than a scientific statement.

Karl MacDorman, an associate professor of human-computer interaction at Indiana University who has long studied the uncanny valley, interprets the classic graph not as expressing Mori’s theory but as a heuristic for learning the concept and organizing observations.

“I believe his theory is instead expressed by his examples, which show that a mismatch in the human likeness of appearance and touch or appearance and motion can elicit a feeling of eeriness,” MacDorman says. “In my own experiments, I have consistently reproduced this effect within and across sense modalities. For example, a mismatch in the human realism of the features of a face heightens eeriness; a robot with a human voice or a human with a robotic voice is eerie.”

How to Avoid the Uncanny Valley

Unless you intend to create creepy characters or evoke a feeling of unease, you can follow certain design principles to avoid the uncanny valley. “The effect can be reduced by not creating robots or computer-animated characters that combine features on different sides of a boundary—for example, human and nonhuman, living and nonliving, or real and artificial,” MacDorman says.

To make a robot or avatar more realistic and move it beyond the valley, Tinwell says to ensure that a character’s facial expressions match its emotive tones of speech, and that its body movements are responsive and reflect its hypothetical emotional state. Special attention must also be paid to facial elements such as the forehead, eyes, and mouth, which depict the complexities of emotion and thought. “The mouth must be modeled and animated correctly so the character doesn’t appear aggressive or portray a ‘false smile’ when they should be genuinely happy,” she says.

For Christoph Bartneck, an associate professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, the goal is not to avoid the uncanny valley, but to avoid bad character animations or behaviors, stressing the importance of matching the appearance of a robot with its ability. “We’re trained to spot even the slightest divergence from ‘normal’ human movements or behavior,” he says. “Hence, we often fail in creating highly realistic, humanlike characters.”

But he warns that the uncanny valley appears to be more of an uncanny cliff. “We find the likability to increase and then crash once robots become humanlike,” he says. “But we have never observed them ever coming out of the valley. You fall off and that’s it.”

On the spectrum of weird stuff that can be found in the ocean, sea urchins are probably somewhere in the middle. They’re an interesting combination of rigid and flexible, with shells covered in hard movable spines as well as soft tubular appendages that work like a combination of legs and sticky feet. The mobility strategy of sea urchins leverages both of these appendages, and while they may not be speedy, they can get themselves into all kinds of potentially useful nooks and crannies, which seems like a capability that could be valuable in a robot.

At IROS 2019 this week, roboticists from Harvard presented a bioinspired robot that “incorporates anatomical features unique to sea urchins,” actuated by pneumatics or hydraulics and operating without a tether. It may be based on a real animal, but even so, UrchinBot is definitely one of the weirdest looking robots we’ve ever seen.

As it turns out, adult sea urchins are complicated critters, and making a robotic version of one of them was asking a bit much. Juvenile sea urchins incorporate the same basic features in a much simpler body, and while they’re only 0.5 millimeters in size, a scaled-up version (with a body 230 mm in diameter) was much more feasible.

Just like the adults, sea urchin babies have two mobility appendages: movable spines, and sticky tube feet. The physical resemblance is striking, but it’s much more than just aesthetics, as the researchers emphasize that “particular attention was paid to accurately replicating the geometry and ranges of motion of the anatomical features on which our design was based.”

UrchinBot’s spines (which the real animal uses for protection, mobility, and to jam itself into crevices) reflect the two different kinds of spines that you see on juvenile urchins. Nobody’s quite sure why the babies have fancier spines than the adults, but UrchinBot replicates that detail too. Each spine is connected to the body with a ball joint, and a triangle of three pneumatic domes around the joint can inflate to push the spine in different directions. All of the domes are interconnected inside of the robot which means both that the spines can’t be actuated separately and that you get a satisfyingly symmetric rotational motion whenever the spines move. As they rotate against a surface that UrchinBot is resting on, the robot slowly turns itself in the opposite direction.

The tube feet are a little more complicated, because real urchins excrete sticky stuff that they use to glue themselves to surfaces, and then excrete an enzyme that dissolves the glue when they want to move. UrchinBot instead uses extendable and retractable toe magnets, which work perfectly well as long as the robot is moving on a ferrous surface. As the tube feet inflate, they move outward and angle their tips down, and with enough pressure, the toe magnets pop out and adhere. UrchinBot then reverses its hydraulics to suck the tube foot back in, pulling itself towards the adhesion point, and causing the magnet to pop off again once it gets there.

The rest of UrchinBot’s body is taken up with pumps, valves, and electronics that allows it to operate completely untethered, both on land and underwater. Here it is in action:

It turns out that UrchinBot’s spines exhibit a range of motion similar to that of an actual urchin, which is neat. The tube feet can achieve an extension ratio of 6:1, which is reasonably close to a juvenile urchin’s 10:1 ratio, but much less than an adult urchin, which can extend its tube feet out to a 50:1 ratio. UrchinBot is not as fast as the real thing, which is to be expected with most bioinspired robots. Top speed is 6 mm/s, or 0.027 body-lengths per second, quite a bit slower than a juvenile urchin (which can hit 10 body-lengths per second going flat out) but only half as fast as an adult urchin.

UrchinBot may not be the speediest robot under the sea, but the researchers say that it could be useful for underwater cleaning and inspection applications, especially in situations where heavy fouling would be a challenge for more conventional robots. The priority for UrchinBot upgrades is to stuff it with as many extra actuators as it’ll hold, with the goal of making the spines actuate individually and giving the tube feet extra degrees of freedom. While UrchinBot may not find near-term applications, it serves as a testbed to help researchers identify physical features and control techniques that could result in new types of more versatile and effective underwater robots.

“Design, Fabrication, and Characterization of an Untethered Amphibious Sea Urchin-Inspired Robot,” by Thibaut Paschal, Michael A. Bell, Jakob Sperry, Satchel Sieniewicz, Robert J. Wood, and James C. Weaver from Harvard’s Wyss Institute, was presented this week at IROS 2019 in Macau.

The 2019 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) is taking place in Macau this week, featuring well over a thousand presentations on the newest and most amazing robotics research from around the world. There are also posters, workshops, tutorials, an exhibit hall, and plenty of social events where roboticists have the chance to get a little tipsy and talk about all the really interesting stuff.

As always, our plan is to bring you all of the coolest, weirdest, and most interesting things that we find at the show, and here are just a few of the things we’re looking forward to this week:

  • Flying robots with wings, tails, and... arms?
  • Spherical robot turtles
  • An update on that crazy jet-powered iCub
  • Agile and tiny robot insects
  • Metallic self-healing robot bones
  • How to train robots by messing with them
  • A weird robot sea urchin

And all that is happening just on Tuesday!

Our IROS coverage will continue beyond this week, so keep checking back for more of the best new robotics from Macau.

[ IROS 2019 ]

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 2019 – November 4-8, 2019 – Macau

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

DJI’s new Mavic Mini looks like a pretty great drone for US $400 ($500 for a combo with more accessories): It’s tiny, flies for 30 minutes, and will do what you need as far as pictures and video (although not a whole lot more).

DJI seems to have put a bunch of effort into making the drone 249 grams, 1 gram under what’s required for FAA registration. That means you save $5 and a few minutes of your time, but that does not mean you don’t have to follow the FAA’s rules and regulations governing drone use.

[ DJI ]

Don’t panic, but Clearpath and HEBI Robotics have armed the Jackal:

After locking eyes across a crowded room at ICRA 2019, Clearpath Robotics and HEBI Robotics basked in that warm and fuzzy feeling that comes with starting a new and exciting relationship. Over a conference hall coffee, they learned that the two companies have many overlapping interests. The most compelling was the realization that customers across a variety of industries are hunting for an elusive true love of their own – a robust but compact robotic platform combined with a long reach manipulator for remote inspection tasks.

After ICRA concluded, Arron Griffiths, Application Engineer at Clearpath, and Matthew Tesch, Software Engineer at HEBI, kept in touch and decided there had been enough magic in the air to warrant further exploration. A couple of months later, Matthew arrived at Clearpath to formally introduce the HEBI’s X-Series Arm to Clearpath’s Jackal UGV. It was love.

[ Clearpath ]

Thanks Dave!

I’m really not a fan of the people-carrying drones, but heavy lift cargo drones seem like a more okay idea.

Volocopter, the pioneer in Urban Air Mobility, presented the demonstrator of its VoloDrone. This marks Volocopters expansion into the logistics, agriculture, infrastructure and public services industry. The VoloDrone is an unmanned, fully electric, heavy-lift utility drone capable of carrying a payload of 200 kg (440 lbs) up to 40 km (25 miles). With a standardized payload attachment, VoloDrone can serve a great variety of purposes from transporting boxes, to liquids, to equipment and beyond. It can be remotely piloted or flown in automated mode on pre-set routes.

[ Volocopter ]

JAY is a mobile service robot that projects a display on the floor and plays sound with its speaker. By playing sounds and videos, it provides visual and audio entertainment in various places such as exhibition halls, airports, hotels, department stores and more.

[ Rainbow Robotics ]

The DARPA Subterranean Challenge Virtual Tunnel Circuit concluded this week—it was the same idea as the physical challenge that took place in August, just with a lot less IRL dirt.

The awards ceremony and team presentations are in this next video, and we’ll have more on this once we get back from IROS.

[ DARPA SubT ]

NASA is sending a mobile robot to the south pole of the Moon to get a close-up view of the location and concentration of water ice in the region and for the first time ever, actually sample the water ice at the same pole where the first woman and next man will land in 2024 under the Artemis program.

About the size of a golf cart, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, will roam several miles, using its four science instruments — including a 1-meter drill — to sample various soil environments. Planned for delivery in December 2022, VIPER will collect about 100 days of data that will be used to inform development of the first global water resource maps of the Moon.

[ NASA ]

Happy Halloween from HEBI Robotics!

[ HEBI ]

Happy Halloween from Soft Robotics!

[ Soft Robotics ]

Halloween must be really, really confusing for autonomous cars.

[ Waymo ]

Once a year at Halloween, hardworking JPL engineers put their skills to the test in a highly competitive pumpkin carving contest. The result: A pumpkin gently landed on the Moon, its retrorockets smoldering, while across the room a Nemo-inspired pumpkin explored the sub-surface ocean of Jupiter moon Europa. Suffice to say that when the scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory compete in a pumpkin-carving contest, the solar system’s the limit. Take a look at some of the masterpieces from 2019.

Now in its ninth year, the contest gives teams only one hour to carve and decorate their pumpkin though they can prepare non-pumpkin materials - like backgrounds, sound effects and motorized parts - ahead of time.

[ JPL ]

The online autonomous navigation and semantic mapping experiment presented [below] is conducted with the Cassie Blue bipedal robot at the University of Michigan. The sensors attached to the robot include an IMU, a 32-beam LiDAR and an RGB-D camera. The whole online process runs in real-time on a Jetson Xavier and a laptop with an i7 processor.

[ BPL ]

Misty II is now available to anyone who wants one, and she’s on sale for a mere $2900.

[ Misty ]

We leveraged LIDAR-based slam, in conjunction with our specialized relative localization sensor UVDAR to perform a de-centralized, communication-free swarm flight without the units knowing their absolute locations. The swarming and obstacle avoidance control is based on a modified Boids-like algorithm, while the whole swarm is controlled by directing a selected leader unit.

[ MRS ]

The MallARD robot is an autonomous surface vehicle (ASV), designed for the monitoring and inspection of wet storage facilities for example spent fuel pools or wet silos. The MallARD is holonomic, uses a LiDAR for localisation and features a robust trajectory tracking controller.

The University of Manchester’s researcher Dr Keir Groves designed and built the autonomous surface vehicle (ASV) for the challenge which came in the top three of the second round in Nov 2017. The MallARD went on to compete in a final 3rd round where it was deployed in a spent fuel pond at a nuclear power plant in Finland by the IAEA, along with two other entries. The MallARD came second overall, in November 2018.

[ RNE ]

Thanks Jennifer!

I sometimes get the sense that in the robotic grasping and manipulation world, suction cups are kinda seen as cheating at times. But, their nature allows you to do some pretty interesting things.

More clever octopus footage please.

[ CMU ]

A Personal, At-Home Teacher For Playful Learning: From academic topics to child-friendly news bulletins, fun facts and more, Miko 2 is packed with relevant and freshly updated content specially designed by educationists and child-specialists. Your little one won’t even realize they’re learning.

As we point out pretty much every time we post a video like this, keep in mind that you’re seeing a heavily edited version of a hypothetical best case scenario for how this robot can function. And things like "creating a relationship that they can then learn how to form with their peers" is almost certainly overselling things. But at $300 (shipping included), this may be a decent robot as long as your expectations are appropriately calibrated.

[ Miko ]

ICRA 2018 plenary talk by Rodney Brooks: “Robots and People: the Research Challenge.”


ICRA-X 2018 talk by Ron Arkin: “Lethal Autonomous Robots and the Plight of the Noncombatant.”


On the most recent episode of the AI Podcast, Lex Fridman interviews Garry Kasparov.

[ AI Podcast ]

MIT researchers have demonstrated a new kind of teleoperation system that allows a two-legged robot to “borrow” a human operator’s physical skills to move with greater agility. The system works a bit like those haptic suits from the Spielberg movie “Ready Player One.” But while the suits in the film were used to connect humans to their VR avatars, the MIT suit connects the operator to a real robot.

The robot is called Little HERMES, and it’s currently just a pair of little legs, about a third the size of an average adult. It can step and jump in place or walk a short distance while supported by a gantry. While that in itself is not very impressive, the researchers say their approach could help bring capable disaster robots closer to reality. They explain that, despite recent advances, building fully autonomous robots with motor and decision-making skills comparable to those of humans remains a challenge. That’s where a more advanced teleoperation system could help. 

The researchers, João Ramos, now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Sangbae Kim, director of MIT’s Biomimetic Robotics Lab, describe the project in this week’s issue of Science Robotics. In the paper, they argue that existing teleoperation systems often can’t effectively match the operator’s motions to that of a robot. In addition, conventional systems provide no physical feedback to the human teleoperator about what the robot is doing. Their new approach addresses these two limitations, and to see how it would work in practice, they built Little HERMES.

Image: Science Robotics The main components of MIT’s bipedal robot Little HERMES: (A) Custom actuators designed to withstand impact and capable of producing high torque. (B) Lightweight limbs with low inertia and fast leg swing. (C) Impact-robust and lightweight foot sensors with three-axis contact force sensor. (D) Ruggedized IMU to estimates the robot’s torso posture, angular rate, and linear acceleration. (E) Real-time computer sbRIO 9606 from National Instruments for robot control. (F) Two three-cell lithium-polymer batteries in series. (G) Rigid and lightweight frame to minimize the robot mass.

Early this year, the MIT researchers wrote an in-depth article for IEEE Spectrum about the project, which includes Little HERMES and also its big brother, HERMES (for Highly Efficient Robotic Mechanisms and Electromechanical System). In that article, they describe the two main components of the system:

[...] We are building a telerobotic system that has two parts: a humanoid capable of nimble, dynamic behaviors, and a new kind of two-way human-machine interface that sends your motions to the robot and the robot’s motions to you. So if the robot steps on debris and starts to lose its balance, the operator feels the same instability and instinctively reacts to avoid falling. We then capture that physical response and send it back to the robot, which helps it avoid falling, too. Through this human-robot link, the robot can harness the operator’s innate motor skills and split-second reflexes to keep its footing.

You could say we’re putting a human brain inside the machine.

Image: Science Robotics The human-machine interface built by the MIT researchers for controlling Little HERMES is different from conventional ones in that it relies on the operator’s reflexes to improve the robot’s stability. The researchers call it the balance-feedback interface, or BFI. The main modules of the BFI include: (A) Custom interface attachments for torso and feet designed to capture human motion data at high speed (1 kHz). (B) Two underactuated modules to track the position and orientation of the torso and apply forces to the operator. (C) Each actuation module has three DoFs, one of which is a push/pull rod actuated by a DC brushless motor. (D) A series of linkages with passive joints connected to the operator’s feet and track their spatial translation. (E) Real-time controller cRIO 9082 from National Instruments to close the BFI control loop. (F) Force plate to estimated the operator’s center of pressure position and measure the shear and normal components of the operator’s net contact force.

Here’s more footage of the experiments, showing Little HERMES stepping and jumping in place, walking a few steps forward and backward, and balancing. Watch until the end to see a compilation of unsuccessful stepping experiments. Poor Little HERMES!

In the new Science Robotics paper, the MIT researchers explain how they solved one of the key challenges in making their teleoperation system effective:

The challenge of this strategy lies in properly mapping human body motion to the machine while simultaneously informing the operator how closely the robot is reproducing the movement. Therefore, we propose a solution for this bilateral feedback policy to control a bipedal robot to take steps, jump, and walk in synchrony with a human operator. Such dynamic synchronization was achieved by (i) scaling the core components of human locomotion data to robot proportions in real time and (ii) applying feedback forces to the operator that are proportional to the relative velocity between human and robot.

Little HERMES is now taking its first steps, quite literally, but the researchers say they hope to use robotic legs with similar design as part of a more advanced humanoid. One possibility they’ve envisioned is a fast-moving quadruped robot that could run through various kinds of terrain and then transform into a bipedal robot that would use its hands to perform dexterous manipulations. This could involve merging some of the robots the MIT researchers have built in their lab, possibly creating hybrids between Cheetah and HERMES, or Mini Cheetah and Little HERMES. We can’t wait to see what the resulting robots will look like.

[ Science Robotics ]

In September of 2015, Buddy the social home robot closed its Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign more than 600 percent over its funding goal. A thousand people pledged for a robot originally scheduled to be delivered in December of 2016. But nearly three years later, the future of Buddy is still unclear. Last May, Blue Frog Robotics asked for forgiveness from its backers and announced the launch of an “equity crowdfunding campaign” to try to raise the additional funding necessary to deliver the robot in April of 2020.

By the time the crowdfunding campaign launched in August, the delivery date had slipped again, to September 2020, even as Blue Frog attempted to draw investors by estimating that sales of Buddy would “increase from 2000 robots in 2020 to 20,000 in 2023.” Blue Frog’s most recent communication with backers, in September, mentions a new CTO and a North American office, but does little to reassure backers of Buddy that they’ll ever be receiving their robot. 

Backers of the robot are understandably concerned about the future of Buddy, so we sent a series of questions to the founder and CEO of Blue Frog Robotics, Rodolphe Hasselvander.

We’ve edited this interview slightly for clarity, but we should also note that Hasselvander was unable to provide answers to every question. In particular, we asked for some basic information about Blue Frog’s near-term financial plans, on which the entire future of Buddy seems to depend. We’ve left those questions in the interview anyway, along with Hasselvander’s response.

1. At this point, how much additional funding is necessary to deliver Buddy to backers?
2. Assuming funding is successful, when can backers expect to receive Buddy?
3. What happens if the fundraising goal is not met?
4. You estimate that sales of Buddy will increase 10x over three years. What is this estimate based on?

Rodolphe Hasselvander: Regarding the questions 1-4, unfortunately, as we are fundraising in a Regulation D, we do not comment on prospect, customer data, sales forecasts, or figures. Please refer to our press release here to have information about the fundraising.

5. Do you feel that you are currently being transparent enough about this process to satisfy backers? 
6. Buddy’s launch date has moved from April 2020 to September 2020 over the last four months. Why should backers remain confident about Buddy’s schedule?

Since the last newsletter, we haven’t changed our communication, the backers will be the first to receive their Buddy, and we plan an official launch in September 2020.

7. What is the goal of My Buddy World?

At Blue Frog, we think that matching a great product with a big market can only happen through continual experimentation, iteration and incorporation of customer feedback. That’s why we created the forum My Buddy World. It has been designed for our Buddy Community to join us, discuss the world’s first emotional robot, and create with us. The objective is to deepen our conversation with Buddy’s fans and users, stay agile in testing our hypothesis and validate our product-market fit. We trust the value of collaboration. Behind Buddy, there is a team of roboticists, engineers, and programmers that are eager to know more about our consumers’ needs and are excited to work with them to create the perfect human/robot experience.  

8. How is the current version of Buddy different from the 2015 version that backers pledged for during the successful crowdfunding campaign, in both hardware and software?

We have completely revised some parts of Buddy as well as replaced and/or added more accurate and reliable components to ensure we fully satisfy our customers’ requirements for a mature and high-quality robot from day one. We sourced more innovative components to make sure that Buddy has the most up-to-date technologies such as adding four microphones, a high def thermal matrix, a 3D camera, an 8-megapixel RGB camera, time-of-flight sensors, and touch sensors. 
If you want more info, we just posted an article about what is Buddy here.

9. Will the version of Buddy that ships to backers in 2020 do everything that that was shown in the original crowdfunding video?

Concerning the capabilities of Buddy regarding the video published on YouTube, I confirm that Buddy will be able to do everything you can see, like patrol autonomously and secure your home, telepresence, mathematics applications, interactive stories for children, IoT/smart home management, face recognition, alarm clock, reminder, message/photo sharing, music, hands free call, people following, games like hide and seek (and more). In addition, everyone will be able to create their own apps thanks to the “BuddyLab” application.

10. What makes you confident that Buddy will be successful when Jibo, Kuri, and other social robots have not?

Consumer robotics is a new market. Some people think it is a tough one. But we, at Blue Frog Robotics, believe it is a path of learning, understanding, and finding new ways to serve consumers. Here are the five key factors that will make Buddy successful.

1) A market-fit robot

Blue Frog Robotics is a consumer-centric company. We know that a successful business model and a compelling fit to market Buddy must come up from solving consumers’ frustrations and problems in a way that’s new and exciting. We started from there.  

By leveraged existing research and syndicated consumer data sets to understand our customers’ needs and aspirations, we get that creating a robot is not about the best tech innovation and features, but always about how well technology becomes a service to one’s basic human needs and assets: convenience, connection, security, fun, self-improvement, and time. To answer to these consumers’ needs and wants, we designed an all-in-one robot with four vital capabilities: intelligence, emotionality, mobility, and customization.

With his multi-purpose brain, he addresses a broad range of needs in modern-day life, from securing homes to carrying out his owners’ daily activities, from helping people with disabilities to educating children, from entertaining to just becoming a robot friend.

Buddy is a disruptive innovative robot that is about to transform the way we live, learn, utilize information, play, and even care about our health.
2) Endless possibilities

One of the major advantages of Buddy is his adaptability. Beyond to be adorable, playful, talkative, and to accompany anyone in their daily life at home whether you are comfortable with technology or not, he offers via his platform applications to engage his owners in a wide range of activities. From fitness to cooking, from health monitoring to education, from games to meditation, the combination of intelligence, sensors, mobility, multi-touch panel opens endless possibilities for consumers and organizations to adapt their Buddy to their own needs. 
3) An affordable price

Buddy will be the first robot combining smart, social, and mobile capabilities and a developed platform with a personality to enter the U.S. market at affordable price. 

Our competitors are social or assistant robots but rarely both. Competitors differentiate themselves by features: mobile, non-mobile; by shapes: humanoid or not; by skills: social versus smart; targeting a specific domain like entertainment, retail assistant, eldercare, or education for children; and by price. Regarding our six competitors: Moorebot, Elli-Q, and Olly are not mobile; Lynx and Nao are in toy category; Pepper is above $10k targeting B2B market; and finally, Temi can’t be considered an emotional robot. 
Buddy remains highly differentiated as an all-in-one, best of his class experience, covering the needs for social interactions and assistance of his owners at each stage of their life at an affordable price.

The price range of Buddy will be between US $1700 and $2000. 

4) A winning business model 

Buddy’s great business model combines hardware, software, and services, and provides game-changing convenience for consumers, organizations, and developers.

Buddy offers a multi-sided value proposition focused on three vertical markets: direct consumers, corporations (healthcare, education, hospitality), and developers. The model creates engagement and sustained usage and produces stable and diverse cash flow.
5) A Passion for people and technology

From day one, we have always believed in the power of our dream: To bring the services and the fun of an emotional robot in every house, every hospital, in every care house. Each day, we refuse to think that we are stuck or limited; we work hard to make Buddy a reality that will help people all over the world and make them smile.

While we certainly appreciate Hasselvander’s consistent optimism and obvious enthusiasm, we’re obligated to point out that some of our most important questions were not directly answered. We haven’t learned anything that makes us all that much more confident that Blue Frog will be able to successfully deliver Buddy this time. Hasselvander also didn’t address our specific question about whether he feels like Blue Frog’s communication strategy with backers has been adequate, which is particularly relevant considering that over the four months between the last two newsletters, Buddy’s launch date slipped by six months. 

At this point, all we can do is hope that the strategy Blue Frog has chosen will be successful. We’ll let you know if as soon as we learn more.

[ Buddy ]

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!):

ARSO 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Beijing, China ROSCon 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Macau IROS 2019 – November 4-8, 2019 – Macau

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

Kuka’s “robutt” can, according to the company, simulate “thousands of butts in the pursuit of durability and comfort.” Two of the robots are used at a Ford development center in Germany to evaluate new car seats. The tests are quite exhaustive, consisting of around 25,000 simulated sitting motions for each new seat design.” Or as Kuka puts it, “Pleasing all the butts on the planet is serious business.”

Kuka ]

Here’s a clever idea: 3D printing manipulators, and then using the 3D printer head to move those manipulators around and do stuff with them:

[ Paper ]

Two former soldiers performed a series of tests to see if the ONYX Exoskeleton gave them extra strength and endurance in difficult environments.

So when can I rent one of these to help me move furniture?

[ Lockheed ]

One of the defining characteristics of legged robots in general (and humanoid robots in particular) is the ability of walking on various types of terrain. In this video, we show our humanoid robot TORO walking dynamically over uneven (on grass outside the lab), rough (large gravel), and compliant terrain (a soft gym mattress). The robot can maintain its balance, even when the ground shifts rapidly under foot, such as when walking over gravel. This behaviour showcases the torque-control capability of quickly adapting the contact forces compared to position control methods.

An in-depth discussion of the current implementation is presented in the paper "Dynamic Walking on Compliant and Uneven Terrain using DCM and Passivity-based Whole-body Control".


Tsuki is a ROS-enabled quadruped designed and built by Lingkang Zhang. It’s completely position controlled, with no contact sensors on the feet, or even an IMU.

It can even do flips!

[ Tsuki ]

Thanks Lingkang!

TRI CEO Dr. Gill Pratt presents TRI’s contributions to Toyota’s New "LQ" Concept Vehicle, which includes onboard artificial intelligence agent "Yui" and LQ’s automated driving technology.

[ TRI ]

Hooman Hedayati wrote in to share some work (presented at HRI this year) on using augmented reality to make drone teleoperation more intuitive. Get a virtual drone to do what you want first, and then the real drone will follow.

[ Paper ]

Thanks Hooman!

You can now order a Sphero RVR for $250. It’s very much not spherical, but it does other stuff, so we’ll give it a pass.

[ Sphero ]

The AI Gamer Q56 robot is an expert at whatever this game is, using AI plus actual physical control manipulation. Watch until the end!

[ Bandai Namco ]

We present a swarm of autonomous flying robots for the exploration of unknown environments. The tiny robots do not make maps of their environment, but deal with obstacles on the fly. In robotics, the algorithms for navigating like this are called "bug algorithms". The navigation of the robots involves them first flying away from the base station and later finding their way back with the help of a wireless beacon.

[ MAVLab ]

Okay Soft Robotics you successfully and disgustingly convinced us that vacuum grippers should never be used for food handling. Yuck!

[ Soft Robotics ]

Beyond the asteroid belt are "fossils of planet formation" known as the Trojan asteroids. These primitive bodies share Jupiter’s orbit in two vast swarms, and may hold clues to the formation and evolution of our solar system. Now, NASA is preparing to explore the Trojan asteroids for the first time. A mission called Lucy will launch in 2021 and visit seven asteroids over the course of twelve years - one in the main belt and six in Jupiter’s Trojan swarms.

[ NASA ]

I’m not all that impressed by this concept car from Lexus except that it includes some kind of super-thin autonomous luggage-carrying drone.

The LF-30 Electrified also carries the ‘Lexus Airporter’ drone-technology support vehicle. Using autonomous control, the Lexus Airporter is capable of such tasks as independently transporting baggage from a household doorstep to the vehicle’s luggage area.

[ Lexus ]

Vision 60 legged robot managing unstructured terrain without vision or force sensors in its legs. Using only high-transparency actuators and 2kHz algorithmic stability control... 4-limbs and 12-motors with only a velocity command.

[ Ghost Robotics ]

Tech United Eindhoven is looking good for RoboCup@Home 2020.

[ Tech United ]

Penn engineers participated in the Subterranean (SubT) Challenge hosted by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The goal of this Challenge is for teams to develop automated systems that can work in underground environments so they could be deployed after natural disasters or on dangerous search-and-rescue missions.

[ Team PLUTO ]

It’s BeetleCam vs White Rhinos in Kenya, and the White Rhinos don’t seem to mind at all.

[ Will Burrard-Lucas ]