Feed aggregator

On April 11, the Mars helicopter Ingenuity will take to the skies of Mars for the first time. It will do so fully autonomously, out of necessity—the time delay between Ingenuity’s pilots at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Jezero Crater on Mars makes manual or even supervisory control impossible. So the best that the folks at JPL can do is practice as much as they can in simulation, and then hope that the helicopter can handle everything on its own.

Here on Earth, simulation is a critical tool for many robotics applications, because it doesn’t rely on access to expensive hardware, is non-destructive, and can be run in parallel and at faster-than-real-time speeds to focus on solving specific problems. Once you think you’ve gotten everything figured out in simulation, you can always give it a try on the real robot and see how close you came. If it works in real life, great! And if not, well, you can tweak some stuff in the simulation and try again.

For the Mars helicopter, simulation is much more important, and much higher stakes. Testing the Mars helicopter under conditions matching what it’ll find on Mars is not physically possible on Earth. JPL has flown engineering models in Martian atmospheric conditions, and they’ve used an actuated tether to mimic Mars gravity, but there’s just no way to know what it’ll be like flying on Mars until they’ve actually flown on Mars. With that in mind, the Ingenuity team has been relying heavily on simulation, since that’s one of the best tools they have to prepare for their Martian flights. We talk with Ingenuity’s Chief Pilot, Håvard Grip, to learn how it all works.

Ingenuity Facts:

Body Size: a box of tissues

Brains: Qualcomm Snapdragon 801

Weight: 1.8 kilograms

Propulsion: Two 1.2m carbon fiber rotors

Navigation sensors: VGA camera, laser altimeter, inclinometer

Ingenuity is scheduled to make its first flight no earlier than April 11. Before liftoff, the Ingenuity team will conduct a variety of pre-flight checks, including verifying the responsiveness of the control system and spinning the blades up to full speed (2,537 rpm) without lifting off. If everything looks good, the first flight will consist of a 1 meter per second climb to 3 meters, 30 seconds of hover at 3 meters while rotating in place a bit, and then a descent to landing. If Ingenuity pulls this off, that will have made its entire mission a success. There will be more flights over the next few weeks, but all it takes is one to prove that autonomous helicopter flight on Mars is possible.

Last month, we spoke with Mars Helicopter Operations Lead Tim Canham about Ingenuity’s hardware, software, and autonomy, but we wanted to know more about how the Ingenuity team has been using simulation for everything from vehicle design to flight planning. To answer our questions, we talked with JPL’s Håvard Grip, who led the development of Ingenuity’s navigation and flight control systems. Grip also has the title of Ingenuity Chief Pilot, which is pretty awesome. He summarizes this role as “operating the flight control system to make the helicopter do what we want it to do.”

IEEE Spectrum: Can you tell me about the simulation environment that JPL uses for Ingenuity’s flight planning?

Håvard Grip: We developed a Mars helicopter simulation ourselves at JPL, based on a multi-body simulation framework that’s also developed at JPL, called DARTS/DSHELL. That's a system that has been in development at JPL for about 30 years now, and it's been used in a number of missions. And so we took that multibody simulation framework, and based on it we built our own Mars helicopter simulation, put together our own rotor model, our own aerodynamics models, and everything else that's needed in order to simulate a helicopter. We also had a lot of help from the rotorcraft experts at NASA Ames and NASA Langley.

Image: NASA/JPL Ingenuity in JPL’s flight simulator.

Without being able to test on Mars, how much validation are you able to do of what you’re seeing in simulation?

We can do a fair amount, but it requires a lot of planning. When we made our first real prototype (with a full-size rotor that looked like what we were thinking of putting on Mars) we first spent a lot of time designing it and using simulation tools to guide that design, and when we were sufficiently confident that we were close enough, and that we understood enough about it, then we actually built the thing and designed a whole suite of tests in a vacuum chamber where where we could replicate Mars atmospheric conditions. And those tests were before we tried to fly the helicopter—they were specifically targeted at what we call system identification, which has to do with figuring out what the true properties, the true dynamics of a system are, compared to what we assumed in our models. So then we got to see how well our models did, and in the places where they needed adjustment, we could go back and do that. 

The simulation work that we really started after that very first initial lift test, that’s what allowed us to unlock all of the secrets to building a helicopter that can fly on Mars. —Håvard Grip, Ingenuity Chief Pilot

We did a lot of this kind of testing. It was a big campaign, in several stages. But there are of course things that you can't fully replicate, and you do depend on simulation to tie things together. For example, we can't truly replicate Martian gravity on Earth. We can replicate the atmosphere, but not the gravity, and so we have to do various things when we fly—either make the helicopter very light, or we have to help it a little bit by pulling up on it with a string to offload some of the weight. These things don't fully replicate what it will be like on Mars. We also can't simultaneously replicate the Mars aerodynamic environment and the physical and visual surroundings that the helicopter will be flying in. These are places where simulation tools definitely come in handy, with the ability to do full flight tests from A to B, with the helicopter taking off from the ground, running the flight software that it will be running on board, simulating the images that the navigation camera takes of the ground below as it flies, feeding that back into the flight software, and then controlling it.

To what extent can simulation really compensate for the kinds of physical testing that you can’t do on Earth?

It gives you a few different possibilities. We can take certain tests on Earth where we replicate key elements of the environment, like the atmosphere or the visual surroundings for example, and you can validate your simulation on those parameters that you can test on Earth. Then, you can combine those things in simulation, which gives you the ability to set up arbitrary scenarios and do lots and lots of tests. We can Monte Carlo things, we can do a flight a thousand times in a row, with small perturbations of various parameters and tease out what our sensitivities are to those things. And those are the kinds of things that you can't do with physical tests, both because you can't fully replicate the environment and also because of the resources that would be required to do the same thing a thousand times in a row.

Because there are limits to the physical testing we can do on Earth, there are elements where we know there's more uncertainty. On those aspects where the uncertainty is high, we tried to build in enough margin that we can handle a range of things. And simulation gives you the ability to then maybe play with those parameters, and put them at their outer limits, and test them beyond where the real parameters are going to be to make sure that you have robustness even in those extreme cases.

How do you make sure you’re not relying on simulation too much, especially since in some ways it’s your only option?

It’s about anchoring it in real data, and we’ve done a lot of that with our physical testing. I think what you’re referring to is making your simulation too perfect, and we’re careful to model the things that matter. For example, the simulated sensors that we use have realistic levels of simulated noise and bias in them, the navigation camera images have realistic levels of degradation, we have realistic disturbances from wind gusts. If you don’t properly account for those things, then you’re missing important details. So, we try to be as accurate as we can, and to capture that by overbounding in areas where we have a high degree of uncertainty.

What kinds of simulated challenges have you put the Mars helicopter through, and how do you decide how far to push those challenges?

One example is that we can simulate going over rougher terrain. We can push that, and see how far we can go and still have the helicopter behave the way that we want it to. Or we can inject levels of noise that maybe the real sensors don't see, but you want to just see how far you can push things and make sure that it's still robust.

Where we put the limits on this and what we consider to be realistic is often a challenge. We consider this on a case by case basis—if you have a sensor that you're dealing with, you try to do testing with it to characterize it and understand its performance as much as possible, and you build a level of confidence in it that allows you to find the proper balance.

When it comes to things like terrain roughness, it's a little bit of a different thing, because we're actually picking where we're flying the helicopter. We have made that choice, and we know what the terrain looks like around us, so we don’t have to wonder about that anymore. 

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona Satellite image of the Ingenuity flight area.

The way that we’re trying to approach this operationally is that we should be done with the engineering at this point. We’re not depending on going back and resimulating things, other than a few checks here and there. 

Are there any examples of things you learned as part of the simulation process that resulted in changes to the hardware or mission?

You know, it’s been a journey. One of the early things that we discovered as part of modeling the helicopter was that the rotor dynamics were quite different for a helicopter on Mars, in particular with respect to how the rotor responds to the up and down bending of the blades because they’re not perfectly rigid. That motion is a very important influence on the overall flight dynamics of the helicopter, and what we discovered as we started modeling was that this motion is damped much less on Mars. Under-damped oscillatory things like that, you kind of figure might pose a control issue, and that is the case here: if you just naively design it as you might a helicopter on Earth, without taking this into account, you could have a system where the response to control inputs becomes very sluggish. So that required changes to the vehicle design from some of the very early concepts, and it led us to make a rotor that’s extremely light and rigid.

The design cycle for the Mars helicopter—it’s not like we could just build something and take it out to the back yard and try it and then come back and tweak it if it doesn’t work. It’s a much bigger effort to build something and develop a test program where you have to use a vacuum chamber to test it. So you really want to get as close as possible up front, on your first iteration, and not have to go back to the drawing board on the basic things.

So how close were you able to get on your first iteration of the helicopter design?

[This video shows] a very early demo which was done more or less just assuming that things were going to behave as they would on Earth, and that we’d be able to fly in a Martian atmosphere just spinning the rotor faster and having a very light helicopter. We were basically just trying to demonstrate that we could produce enough lift. You can see the helicopter hopping around, with someone trying to joystick it, but it turned out to be very hard to control. This was prior to doing any of the modeling that I talked about earlier. But once we started seriously focusing on the modeling and simulation, we then went on to build a prototype vehicle which had a full-size rotor that’s very close to the rotor that will be flying on Mars. One difference is that prototype had cyclic control only on the lower rotor, and later we added cyclic control on the upper rotor as well, and that decision was informed in large part by the work we did in simulation—we’d put in the kinds of disturbances that we thought we might see on Mars, and decided that we needed to have the extra control authority. 

How much room do you think there is for improvement in simulation, and how could that help you in the future?

The tools that we have were definitely sufficient for doing the job that we needed to do in terms of building a helicopter that can fly on Mars. But simulation is a compute-intensive thing, and so I think there’s definitely room for higher fidelity simulation if you have the compute power to do so. For a future Mars helicopter, you could get some benefits by more closely coupling together high-fidelity aerodynamic models with larger multi-body models, and doing that in a fast way, where you can iterate quickly. There’s certainly more potential for optimizing things.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech Ingenuity preparing for flight.

Watching Ingenuity’s first flight take place will likely be much like watching the Perseverance landing—we’ll be able to follow along with the Ingenuity team while they send commands to the helicopter and receive data back, although the time delay will mean that any kind of direct control won’t be possible. If everything goes the way it’s supposed to, there will hopefully be some preliminary telemetry from Ingenuity saying so, but it sounds like we’ll likely have to wait until April 12 before we get pictures or video of the flight itself.

Because Mars doesn’t care what time it is on Earth, the flight will actually be taking place very early on April 12, with the JPL Mission Control livestream starting at 3:30 a.m. EDT (12:30 a.m. PDT). Details are here.

On April 11, the Mars helicopter Ingenuity will take to the skies of Mars for the first time. It will do so fully autonomously, out of necessity—the time delay between Ingenuity’s pilots at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Jezero Crater on Mars makes manual or even supervisory control impossible. So the best that the folks at JPL can do is practice as much as they can in simulation, and then hope that the helicopter can handle everything on its own.

Here on Earth, simulation is a critical tool for many robotics applications, because it doesn’t rely on access to expensive hardware, is non-destructive, and can be run in parallel and at faster-than-real-time speeds to focus on solving specific problems. Once you think you’ve gotten everything figured out in simulation, you can always give it a try on the real robot and see how close you came. If it works in real life, great! And if not, well, you can tweak some stuff in the simulation and try again.

For the Mars helicopter, simulation is much more important, and much higher stakes. Testing the Mars helicopter under conditions matching what it’ll find on Mars is not physically possible on Earth. JPL has flown engineering models in Martian atmospheric conditions, and they’ve used an actuated tether to mimic Mars gravity, but there’s just no way to know what it’ll be like flying on Mars until they’ve actually flown on Mars. With that in mind, the Ingenuity team has been relying heavily on simulation, since that’s one of the best tools they have to prepare for their Martian flights. We talk with Ingenuity’s Chief Pilot, Håvard Grip, to learn how it all works.

Ingenuity Facts:

Body Size: a box of tissues

Brains: Qualcomm Snapdragon 801

Weight: 1.8 kilograms

Propulsion: Two 1.2m carbon fiber rotors

Navigation sensors: VGA camera, laser altimeter, inclinometer

Ingenuity is scheduled to make its first flight no earlier than April 11. Before liftoff, the Ingenuity team will conduct a variety of pre-flight checks, including verifying the responsiveness of the control system and spinning the blades up to full speed (2,537 rpm) without lifting off. If everything looks good, the first flight will consist of a 1 meter per second climb to 3 meters, 30 seconds of hover at 3 meters while rotating in place a bit, and then a descent to landing. If Ingenuity pulls this off, that will have made its entire mission a success. There will be more flights over the next few weeks, but all it takes is one to prove that autonomous helicopter flight on Mars is possible.

Last month, we spoke with Mars Helicopter Operations Lead Tim Canham about Ingenuity’s hardware, software, and autonomy, but we wanted to know more about how the Ingenuity team has been using simulation for everything from vehicle design to flight planning. To answer our questions, we talked with JPL’s Håvard Grip, who led the development of Ingenuity’s navigation and flight control systems. Grip also has the title of Ingenuity Chief Pilot, which is pretty awesome. He summarizes this role as “operating the flight control system to make the helicopter do what we want it to do.”

IEEE Spectrum: Can you tell me about the simulation environment that JPL uses for Ingenuity’s flight planning?

Håvard Grip: We developed a Mars helicopter simulation ourselves at JPL, based on a multi-body simulation framework that’s also developed at JPL, called DARTS/DSHELL. That's a system that has been in development at JPL for about 30 years now, and it's been used in a number of missions. And so we took that multibody simulation framework, and based on it we built our own Mars helicopter simulation, put together our own rotor model, our own aerodynamics models, and everything else that's needed in order to simulate a helicopter. We also had a lot of help from the rotorcraft experts at NASA Ames and NASA Langley.

Image: NASA/JPL Ingenuity in JPL’s flight simulator.

Without being able to test on Mars, how much validation are you able to do of what you’re seeing in simulation?

We can do a fair amount, but it requires a lot of planning. When we made our first real prototype (with a full-size rotor that looked like what we were thinking of putting on Mars) we first spent a lot of time designing it and using simulation tools to guide that design, and when we were sufficiently confident that we were close enough, and that we understood enough about it, then we actually built the thing and designed a whole suite of tests in a vacuum chamber where where we could replicate Mars atmospheric conditions. And those tests were before we tried to fly the helicopter—they were specifically targeted at what we call system identification, which has to do with figuring out what the true properties, the true dynamics of a system are, compared to what we assumed in our models. So then we got to see how well our models did, and in the places where they needed adjustment, we could go back and do that. 

The simulation work that we really started after that very first initial lift test, that’s what allowed us to unlock all of the secrets to building a helicopter that can fly on Mars. —Håvard Grip, Ingenuity Chief Pilot

We did a lot of this kind of testing. It was a big campaign, in several stages. But there are of course things that you can't fully replicate, and you do depend on simulation to tie things together. For example, we can't truly replicate Martian gravity on Earth. We can replicate the atmosphere, but not the gravity, and so we have to do various things when we fly—either make the helicopter very light, or we have to help it a little bit by pulling up on it with a string to offload some of the weight. These things don't fully replicate what it will be like on Mars. We also can't simultaneously replicate the Mars aerodynamic environment and the physical and visual surroundings that the helicopter will be flying in. These are places where simulation tools definitely come in handy, with the ability to do full flight tests from A to B, with the helicopter taking off from the ground, running the flight software that it will be running on board, simulating the images that the navigation camera takes of the ground below as it flies, feeding that back into the flight software, and then controlling it.

To what extent can simulation really compensate for the kinds of physical testing that you can’t do on Earth?

It gives you a few different possibilities. We can take certain tests on Earth where we replicate key elements of the environment, like the atmosphere or the visual surroundings for example, and you can validate your simulation on those parameters that you can test on Earth. Then, you can combine those things in simulation, which gives you the ability to set up arbitrary scenarios and do lots and lots of tests. We can Monte Carlo things, we can do a flight a thousand times in a row, with small perturbations of various parameters and tease out what our sensitivities are to those things. And those are the kinds of things that you can't do with physical tests, both because you can't fully replicate the environment and also because of the resources that would be required to do the same thing a thousand times in a row.

Because there are limits to the physical testing we can do on Earth, there are elements where we know there's more uncertainty. On those aspects where the uncertainty is high, we tried to build in enough margin that we can handle a range of things. And simulation gives you the ability to then maybe play with those parameters, and put them at their outer limits, and test them beyond where the real parameters are going to be to make sure that you have robustness even in those extreme cases.

How do you make sure you’re not relying on simulation too much, especially since in some ways it’s your only option?

It’s about anchoring it in real data, and we’ve done a lot of that with our physical testing. I think what you’re referring to is making your simulation too perfect, and we’re careful to model the things that matter. For example, the simulated sensors that we use have realistic levels of simulated noise and bias in them, the navigation camera images have realistic levels of degradation, we have realistic disturbances from wind gusts. If you don’t properly account for those things, then you’re missing important details. So, we try to be as accurate as we can, and to capture that by overbounding in areas where we have a high degree of uncertainty.

What kinds of simulated challenges have you put the Mars helicopter through, and how do you decide how far to push those challenges?

One example is that we can simulate going over rougher terrain. We can push that, and see how far we can go and still have the helicopter behave the way that we want it to. Or we can inject levels of noise that maybe the real sensors don't see, but you want to just see how far you can push things and make sure that it's still robust.

Where we put the limits on this and what we consider to be realistic is often a challenge. We consider this on a case by case basis—if you have a sensor that you're dealing with, you try to do testing with it to characterize it and understand its performance as much as possible, and you build a level of confidence in it that allows you to find the proper balance.

When it comes to things like terrain roughness, it's a little bit of a different thing, because we're actually picking where we're flying the helicopter. We have made that choice, and we know what the terrain looks like around us, so we don’t have to wonder about that anymore. 

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona Satellite image of the Ingenuity flight area.

The way that we’re trying to approach this operationally is that we should be done with the engineering at this point. We’re not depending on going back and resimulating things, other than a few checks here and there. 

Are there any examples of things you learned as part of the simulation process that resulted in changes to the hardware or mission?

You know, it’s been a journey. One of the early things that we discovered as part of modeling the helicopter was that the rotor dynamics were quite different for a helicopter on Mars, in particular with respect to how the rotor responds to the up and down bending of the blades because they’re not perfectly rigid. That motion is a very important influence on the overall flight dynamics of the helicopter, and what we discovered as we started modeling was that this motion is damped much less on Mars. Under-damped oscillatory things like that, you kind of figure might pose a control issue, and that is the case here: if you just naively design it as you might a helicopter on Earth, without taking this into account, you could have a system where the response to control inputs becomes very sluggish. So that required changes to the vehicle design from some of the very early concepts, and it led us to make a rotor that’s extremely light and rigid.

The design cycle for the Mars helicopter—it’s not like we could just build something and take it out to the back yard and try it and then come back and tweak it if it doesn’t work. It’s a much bigger effort to build something and develop a test program where you have to use a vacuum chamber to test it. So you really want to get as close as possible up front, on your first iteration, and not have to go back to the drawing board on the basic things.

So how close were you able to get on your first iteration of the helicopter design?

[This video shows] a very early demo which was done more or less just assuming that things were going to behave as they would on Earth, and that we’d be able to fly in a Martian atmosphere just spinning the rotor faster and having a very light helicopter. We were basically just trying to demonstrate that we could produce enough lift. You can see the helicopter hopping around, with someone trying to joystick it, but it turned out to be very hard to control. This was prior to doing any of the modeling that I talked about earlier. But once we started seriously focusing on the modeling and simulation, we then went on to build a prototype vehicle which had a full-size rotor that’s very close to the rotor that will be flying on Mars. One difference is that prototype had cyclic control only on the lower rotor, and later we added cyclic control on the upper rotor as well, and that decision was informed in large part by the work we did in simulation—we’d put in the kinds of disturbances that we thought we might see on Mars, and decided that we needed to have the extra control authority. 

How much room do you think there is for improvement in simulation, and how could that help you in the future?

The tools that we have were definitely sufficient for doing the job that we needed to do in terms of building a helicopter that can fly on Mars. But simulation is a compute-intensive thing, and so I think there’s definitely room for higher fidelity simulation if you have the compute power to do so. For a future Mars helicopter, you could get some benefits by more closely coupling together high-fidelity aerodynamic models with larger multi-body models, and doing that in a fast way, where you can iterate quickly. There’s certainly more potential for optimizing things.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech Ingenuity preparing for flight.

Watching Ingenuity’s first flight take place will likely be much like watching the Perseverance landing—we’ll be able to follow along with the Ingenuity team while they send commands to the helicopter and receive data back, although the time delay will mean that any kind of direct control won’t be possible. If everything goes the way it’s supposed to, there will hopefully be some preliminary telemetry from Ingenuity saying so, but it sounds like we’ll likely have to wait until April 12 before we get pictures or video of the flight itself.

Because Mars doesn’t care what time it is on Earth, the flight will actually be taking place very early on April 12, with the JPL Mission Control livestream starting at 3:30 a.m. EDT (12:30 a.m. PDT). Details are here.

The DARPA Subterranean Challenge Final Event is scheduled to take place at the Louisville Mega Cavern in Louisville, Kentucky, from September 21 to 23. We’ve followed SubT teams as they’ve explored their way through abandoned mines, unfinished nuclear reactors, and a variety of caves, and now everything comes together in one final course where the winner of the Systems Track will take home the $2 million first prize.

It’s a fitting reward for teams that have been solving some of the hardest problems in robotics, but winning isn’t going to be easy, and we’ll talk with SubT Program Manager Tim Chung about what we have to look forward to.

Since we haven’t talked about SubT in a little while (what with the unfortunate covid-related cancellation of the Systems Track Cave Circuit), here’s a quick refresher of where we are: the teams have made it through the Tunnel Circuit, the Urban Circuit, and a virtual version of the Cave Circuit, and some of them have been testing in caves of their own. The Final Event will include all of these environments, and the teams of robots will have 60 minutes to autonomously map the course, locating artifacts to score points. Since I’m not sure where on Earth there’s an underground location that combines tunnels and caves with urban structures, DARPA is going to have to get creative, and the location in which they’ve chosen to do that is Louisville, Kentucky.

The Louisville Mega Cavern is a former limestone mine, most of which is under the Louisville Zoo. It’s not all that deep, mostly less than 30 meters under the surface, but it’s enormous: with 370,000 square meters of rooms and passages, the cavern currently hosts (among other things) a business park, a zipline course, and mountain bike trails, because why not. While DARPA is keeping pretty quiet on the details, I’m guessing that they’ll be taking over a chunk of the cavern and filling it with features representing as many of the environmental challenges as they can.

To learn more about how the SubT Final Event is going to go, we spoke with SubT Program Manager Tim Chung. But first, we talked about Tim’s perspective on the success of the Urban Circuit, and how teams have been managing without an in-person Cave Circuit.

IEEE Spectrum: How did the SubT Urban Circuit go?

Tim Chung: On a couple fronts, Urban Circuit was really exciting. We were in this unfinished nuclear power plant—I’d be surprised if any of the competitors had prior experience in such a facility, or anything like it. I think that was illuminating both from an experiential point of view for the competitors, but also from a technology point of view, too.

One thing that I thought was really interesting was that we, DARPA, didn't need to make the venue more challenging. The real world is really that hard. There are places that were just really heinous for these robots to have to navigate through in order to look in every nook and cranny for artifacts. There were corners and doorways and small corridors and all these kind of things that really forced the teams to have to work hard, and the feedback was, why did DARPA have to make it so hard? But we didn’t, and in fact there were places that for the safety of the robots and personnel, we had to ensure the robots couldn’t go.

It sounds like some teams thought this course was on the more difficult side—do you think you tuned it to just the right amount of DARPA-hard?

Our calibration worked quite well. We were able to tease out and help refine and better understand what technologies are both useful and critical and also those technologies that might not necessarily get you the leap ahead capability. So as an example, the Urban Circuit really emphasized verticality, where you have to be able to sense, understand, and maneuver in three dimensions. Being able to capitalize on their robot technologies to address that verticality really stratified the teams, and showed how critical those capabilities are. 

We saw teams that brought a lot of those capabilities do very well, and teams that brought baseline capabilities do what they could on the single floor that they were able to operate on. And so I think we got the Goldilocks solution for Urban Circuit that combined both difficulty and ambition.

Photos: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum Two SubT Teams embedded networking equipment in balls that they could throw onto the course.

One of the things that I found interesting was that two teams independently came up with throwable network nodes. What was DARPA’s reaction to this? Is any solution a good solution, or was it more like the teams were trying to game the system?

You mean, do we want teams to game the rules in any way so as to get a competitive advantage? I don't think that's what the teams were doing. I think they were operating not only within the bounds of the rules, which permitted such a thing as throwable sensors where you could stand at the line and see how far you could chuck these things—not only was that acceptable by the rules, but anticipated. Behind the scenes, we tried to do exactly what these teams are doing and think through different approaches, so we explicitly didn't forbid such things in our rules because we thought it's important to have as wide an aperture as possible. 

With these comms nodes specifically, I think they’re pretty clever. They were in some cases hacked together with a variety of different sports paraphernalia to see what would provide the best cushioning. You know, a lot of that happens in the field, and what it captured was that sometimes you just need to be up at two in the morning and thinking about things in a slightly different way, and that's when some nuggets of innovation can arise, and we see this all the time with operators in the field as well. They might only have duct tape or Styrofoam or whatever the case may be and that's when they come up with different ways to solve these problems. I think from DARPA’s perspective, and certainly from my perspective, wherever innovation can strike, we want to try to encourage and inspire those opportunities. I thought it was great, and it’s all part of the challenge.

Is there anything you can tell us about what your original plan had been for the Cave Circuit?

I can say that we’ve had the opportunity to go through a number of these caves scattered all throughout the country, and engage with caving communities—cavers clubs, speleologists that conduct research, and then of course the cave rescue community. The single biggest takeaway 
is that every cave, and there are tens of thousands of them in the US alone, every cave has its own personality, and a lot of that personality is quite hidden from humans, because we can’t explore or access all of the cave. This led us to a number of different caves that were intriguing from a DARPA perspective but also inspirational for our Cave Circuit Virtual Competition.

How do you feel like the tuning was for the Virtual Cave Circuit?

The Virtual Competition, as you well know, was exciting in the sense that we could basically combine eight worlds into one competition, whereas the systems track competition really didn’t give us that opportunity. Even if we were able have held the Cave Circuit Systems Competition in person, it would have been at one site, and it would have been challenging to represent the level of diversity that we could with the Virtual Competition. So I think from that perspective, it’s clearly an advantage in terms of calibration—diversity gets you the ability to aggregate results to capture those that excel across all worlds as well as those that do well in one world or some worlds and not the others. I think the calibration was great in the sense that we were able to see the gamut of performance. Those that did well, did quite well, and those that have room to grow showed where those opportunities are for them as well. 

We had to find ways to capture that diversity and that representativeness, and I think one of the fun ways we did that was with the different cave world tiles that we were able to combine in a variety of different ways. We also made use of a real world data set that we were able to take from a laser scan. Across the board, we had a really great chance to illustrate why virtual testing and simulation still plays such a dominant role in robotics technology development, and why I think it will continue to play an increasing role for developing these types of autonomy solutions.

Photo: Team CSIRO Data 61

How can systems track teams learn from their testing in whatever cave is local to them and effectively apply that to whatever cave environment is part of the final considering what the diversity of caves is?

I think that hits the nail on the head for what we as technologists are trying to discover—what are the transferable generalizable insights and how does that inform our technology development? As roboticists we want to optimize our systems to perform well at the tasks that they were designed to do, and oftentimes that means specialization because we get increased performance at the expense of being a generalist robot. I think in the case of SubT, we want to have our cake and eat it too—we want robots that perform well and reliably, but we want them to do so not just in one environment, which is how we tend to think about robot performance, but we want them to operate well in many environments, many of which have yet to be faced. 

And I think that's kind of the nuance here, that we want robot systems to be generalists for the sake of being able to handle the unknown, namely the real world, but still achieve a high level of performance and perhaps they do that to their combined use of different technologies or advances in autonomy or perception approaches or novel mechanisms or mobility, but somehow they're still able, at least in aggregate, to achieve high performance.

We know these teams eagerly await any type of clue that DARPA can provide like about the SubT environments. From the environment previews for Tunnel, Urban, and even Cave, the teams were pivoting around and thinking a little bit differently. The takeaway, however, was that they didn't go to a clean sheet design—their systems were flexible enough that they could incorporate some of those specialist trends while still maintaining the notion of a generalist framework.

Looking ahead to the SubT Final, what can you tell us about the Louisville Mega Cavern?

As always, I’ll keep you in suspense until we get you there, but I can say that from the beginning of the SubT Challenge we had always envisioned teams of robots that are able to address not only the uncertainty of what's right in front of them, but also the uncertainty of what comes next. So I think the teams will be advantaged by thinking through subdomain awareness, or domain awareness if you want to generalize it, whether that means tuning multi-purpose robots, or deploying different robots, or employing your team of robots differently. Knowing which subdomain you are in is likely to be helpful, because then you can take advantage of those unique lessons learned through all those previous experiences then capitalize on that.

As far as specifics, I think the Mega Cavern offers many of the features important to what it means to be underground, while giving DARPA a pretty blank canvas to realize our vision of the SubT Challenge. 

The SubT Final will be different from the earlier circuits in that there’s just one 60-minute run, rather than two. This is going to make things a lot more stressful for teams who have experienced bad robot days—why do it this way?

The preliminary round has two 30-minute runs, and those two runs are very similar to how we have done it during the circuits, of a single run per configuration per course. Teams will have the opportunity to show that their systems can face the obstacles in the final course, and it's the sum of those scores much like we did during the circuits, to help mitigate some of the concerns that you mentioned of having one robot somehow ruin their chances at a prize. 

The prize round does give DARPA as well as the community a chance to focus on the top six teams from the preliminary round, and allows us to understand how they came to be at the top of the pack while emphasizing their technological contributions. The prize round will be one and done, but all of these teams we anticipate will be putting their best robot forward and will show the world why they deserve to win the SubT Challenge. 

We’ve always thought that when called upon these robots need to operate in really challenging environments, and in the context of real world operations, there is no second chance. I don't think it's actually that much of a departure from our interests and insistence on bringing reliable technologies to the field, and those teams that might have something break here and there, that's all part of the challenge, of being resilient. Many teams struggled with robots that were debilitated on the course, and they still found ways to succeed and overcome that in the field, so maybe the rules emphasize that desire for showing up and working on game day which is consistent, I think, with how we've always envisioned it. This isn’t to say that these systems have to work perfectly, they just have to work in a way such that the team is resilient enough to tackle anything that they face.

It’s not too late for teams to enter for both the Virtual Track and the Systems Track to compete in the SubT Final, right?

Yes, that's absolutely right. Qualifications are still open, we are eager to welcome new teams to join in along with our existing competitors. I think any dark horse competitors coming into the Finals may be able to bring something that we haven't seen before, and that would be really exciting. I think it'll really make for an incredibly vibrant and illuminating final event.

The final event qualification deadline for the Systems Competition is April 21, and the qualification deadline for the Virtual Competition is June 29. More details here.

The DARPA Subterranean Challenge Final Event is scheduled to take place at the Louisville Mega Cavern in Louisville, Kentucky, from September 21 to 23. We’ve followed SubT teams as they’ve explored their way through abandoned mines, unfinished nuclear reactors, and a variety of caves, and now everything comes together in one final course where the winner of the Systems Track will take home the $2 million first prize.

It’s a fitting reward for teams that have been solving some of the hardest problems in robotics, but winning isn’t going to be easy, and we’ll talk with SubT Program Manager Tim Chung about what we have to look forward to.

Since we haven’t talked about SubT in a little while (what with the unfortunate covid-related cancellation of the Systems Track Cave Circuit), here’s a quick refresher of where we are: the teams have made it through the Tunnel Circuit, the Urban Circuit, and a virtual version of the Cave Circuit, and some of them have been testing in caves of their own. The Final Event will include all of these environments, and the teams of robots will have 60 minutes to autonomously map the course, locating artifacts to score points. Since I’m not sure where on Earth there’s an underground location that combines tunnels and caves with urban structures, DARPA is going to have to get creative, and the location in which they’ve chosen to do that is Louisville, Kentucky.

The Louisville Mega Cavern is a former limestone mine, most of which is under the Louisville Zoo. It’s not all that deep, mostly less than 30 meters under the surface, but it’s enormous: with 370,000 square meters of rooms and passages, the cavern currently hosts (among other things) a business park, a zipline course, and mountain bike trails, because why not. While DARPA is keeping pretty quiet on the details, I’m guessing that they’ll be taking over a chunk of the cavern and filling it with features representing as many of the environmental challenges as they can.

To learn more about how the SubT Final Event is going to go, we spoke with SubT Program Manager Tim Chung. But first, we talked about Tim’s perspective on the success of the Urban Circuit, and how teams have been managing without an in-person Cave Circuit.

IEEE Spectrum: How did the SubT Urban Circuit go?

Tim Chung: On a couple fronts, Urban Circuit was really exciting. We were in this unfinished nuclear power plant—I’d be surprised if any of the competitors had prior experience in such a facility, or anything like it. I think that was illuminating both from an experiential point of view for the competitors, but also from a technology point of view, too.

One thing that I thought was really interesting was that we, DARPA, didn't need to make the venue more challenging. The real world is really that hard. There are places that were just really heinous for these robots to have to navigate through in order to look in every nook and cranny for artifacts. There were corners and doorways and small corridors and all these kind of things that really forced the teams to have to work hard, and the feedback was, why did DARPA have to make it so hard? But we didn’t, and in fact there were places that for the safety of the robots and personnel, we had to ensure the robots couldn’t go.

It sounds like some teams thought this course was on the more difficult side—do you think you tuned it to just the right amount of DARPA-hard?

Our calibration worked quite well. We were able to tease out and help refine and better understand what technologies are both useful and critical and also those technologies that might not necessarily get you the leap ahead capability. So as an example, the Urban Circuit really emphasized verticality, where you have to be able to sense, understand, and maneuver in three dimensions. Being able to capitalize on their robot technologies to address that verticality really stratified the teams, and showed how critical those capabilities are. 

We saw teams that brought a lot of those capabilities do very well, and teams that brought baseline capabilities do what they could on the single floor that they were able to operate on. And so I think we got the Goldilocks solution for Urban Circuit that combined both difficulty and ambition.

Photos: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum Two SubT Teams embedded networking equipment in balls that they could throw onto the course.

One of the things that I found interesting was that two teams independently came up with throwable network nodes. What was DARPA’s reaction to this? Is any solution a good solution, or was it more like the teams were trying to game the system?

You mean, do we want teams to game the rules in any way so as to get a competitive advantage? I don't think that's what the teams were doing. I think they were operating not only within the bounds of the rules, which permitted such a thing as throwable sensors where you could stand at the line and see how far you could chuck these things—not only was that acceptable by the rules, but anticipated. Behind the scenes, we tried to do exactly what these teams are doing and think through different approaches, so we explicitly didn't forbid such things in our rules because we thought it's important to have as wide an aperture as possible. 

With these comms nodes specifically, I think they’re pretty clever. They were in some cases hacked together with a variety of different sports paraphernalia to see what would provide the best cushioning. You know, a lot of that happens in the field, and what it captured was that sometimes you just need to be up at two in the morning and thinking about things in a slightly different way, and that's when some nuggets of innovation can arise, and we see this all the time with operators in the field as well. They might only have duct tape or Styrofoam or whatever the case may be and that's when they come up with different ways to solve these problems. I think from DARPA’s perspective, and certainly from my perspective, wherever innovation can strike, we want to try to encourage and inspire those opportunities. I thought it was great, and it’s all part of the challenge.

Is there anything you can tell us about what your original plan had been for the Cave Circuit?

I can say that we’ve had the opportunity to go through a number of these caves scattered all throughout the country, and engage with caving communities—cavers clubs, speleologists that conduct research, and then of course the cave rescue community. The single biggest takeaway 
is that every cave, and there are tens of thousands of them in the US alone, every cave has its own personality, and a lot of that personality is quite hidden from humans, because we can’t explore or access all of the cave. This led us to a number of different caves that were intriguing from a DARPA perspective but also inspirational for our Cave Circuit Virtual Competition.

How do you feel like the tuning was for the Virtual Cave Circuit?

The Virtual Competition, as you well know, was exciting in the sense that we could basically combine eight worlds into one competition, whereas the systems track competition really didn’t give us that opportunity. Even if we were able have held the Cave Circuit Systems Competition in person, it would have been at one site, and it would have been challenging to represent the level of diversity that we could with the Virtual Competition. So I think from that perspective, it’s clearly an advantage in terms of calibration—diversity gets you the ability to aggregate results to capture those that excel across all worlds as well as those that do well in one world or some worlds and not the others. I think the calibration was great in the sense that we were able to see the gamut of performance. Those that did well, did quite well, and those that have room to grow showed where those opportunities are for them as well. 

We had to find ways to capture that diversity and that representativeness, and I think one of the fun ways we did that was with the different cave world tiles that we were able to combine in a variety of different ways. We also made use of a real world data set that we were able to take from a laser scan. Across the board, we had a really great chance to illustrate why virtual testing and simulation still plays such a dominant role in robotics technology development, and why I think it will continue to play an increasing role for developing these types of autonomy solutions.

Photo: Team CSIRO Data 61

How can systems track teams learn from their testing in whatever cave is local to them and effectively apply that to whatever cave environment is part of the final considering what the diversity of caves is?

I think that hits the nail on the head for what we as technologists are trying to discover—what are the transferable generalizable insights and how does that inform our technology development? As roboticists we want to optimize our systems to perform well at the tasks that they were designed to do, and oftentimes that means specialization because we get increased performance at the expense of being a generalist robot. I think in the case of SubT, we want to have our cake and eat it too—we want robots that perform well and reliably, but we want them to do so not just in one environment, which is how we tend to think about robot performance, but we want them to operate well in many environments, many of which have yet to be faced. 

And I think that's kind of the nuance here, that we want robot systems to be generalists for the sake of being able to handle the unknown, namely the real world, but still achieve a high level of performance and perhaps they do that to their combined use of different technologies or advances in autonomy or perception approaches or novel mechanisms or mobility, but somehow they're still able, at least in aggregate, to achieve high performance.

We know these teams eagerly await any type of clue that DARPA can provide like about the SubT environments. From the environment previews for Tunnel, Urban, and even Cave, the teams were pivoting around and thinking a little bit differently. The takeaway, however, was that they didn't go to a clean sheet design—their systems were flexible enough that they could incorporate some of those specialist trends while still maintaining the notion of a generalist framework.

Looking ahead to the SubT Final, what can you tell us about the Louisville Mega Cavern?

As always, I’ll keep you in suspense until we get you there, but I can say that from the beginning of the SubT Challenge we had always envisioned teams of robots that are able to address not only the uncertainty of what's right in front of them, but also the uncertainty of what comes next. So I think the teams will be advantaged by thinking through subdomain awareness, or domain awareness if you want to generalize it, whether that means tuning multi-purpose robots, or deploying different robots, or employing your team of robots differently. Knowing which subdomain you are in is likely to be helpful, because then you can take advantage of those unique lessons learned through all those previous experiences then capitalize on that.

As far as specifics, I think the Mega Cavern offers many of the features important to what it means to be underground, while giving DARPA a pretty blank canvas to realize our vision of the SubT Challenge. 

The SubT Final will be different from the earlier circuits in that there’s just one 60-minute run, rather than two. This is going to make things a lot more stressful for teams who have experienced bad robot days—why do it this way?

The preliminary round has two 30-minute runs, and those two runs are very similar to how we have done it during the circuits, of a single run per configuration per course. Teams will have the opportunity to show that their systems can face the obstacles in the final course, and it's the sum of those scores much like we did during the circuits, to help mitigate some of the concerns that you mentioned of having one robot somehow ruin their chances at a prize. 

The prize round does give DARPA as well as the community a chance to focus on the top six teams from the preliminary round, and allows us to understand how they came to be at the top of the pack while emphasizing their technological contributions. The prize round will be one and done, but all of these teams we anticipate will be putting their best robot forward and will show the world why they deserve to win the SubT Challenge. 

We’ve always thought that when called upon these robots need to operate in really challenging environments, and in the context of real world operations, there is no second chance. I don't think it's actually that much of a departure from our interests and insistence on bringing reliable technologies to the field, and those teams that might have something break here and there, that's all part of the challenge, of being resilient. Many teams struggled with robots that were debilitated on the course, and they still found ways to succeed and overcome that in the field, so maybe the rules emphasize that desire for showing up and working on game day which is consistent, I think, with how we've always envisioned it. This isn’t to say that these systems have to work perfectly, they just have to work in a way such that the team is resilient enough to tackle anything that they face.

It’s not too late for teams to enter for both the Virtual Track and the Systems Track to compete in the SubT Final, right?

Yes, that's absolutely right. Qualifications are still open, we are eager to welcome new teams to join in along with our existing competitors. I think any dark horse competitors coming into the Finals may be able to bring something that we haven't seen before, and that would be really exciting. I think it'll really make for an incredibly vibrant and illuminating final event.

The final event qualification deadline for the Systems Competition is April 21, and the qualification deadline for the Virtual Competition is June 29. More details here.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a widespread effect across the globe. The major effect on health-care workers and the vulnerable populations they serve has been of particular concern. Near-complete lockdown has been a common strategy to reduce the spread of the pandemic in environments such as live-in care facilities. Robotics is a promising area of research that can assist in reducing the spread of covid-19, while also preventing the need for complete physical isolation. The research presented in this paper demonstrates a speech-controlled, self-sanitizing robot that enables the delivery of items from a visitor to a resident of a care facility. The system is automated to reduce the burden on facility staff, and it is controlled entirely through hands-free audio interaction in order to reduce transmission of the virus. We demonstrate an end-to-end delivery test, and an in-depth evaluation of the speech interface. We also recorded a speech dataset with two conditions: the talker wearing a face mask and the talker not wearing a face mask. We then used this dataset to evaluate the speech recognition system. This enabled us to test the effect of face masks on speech recognition interfaces in the context of autonomous systems.

Most people touch their faces unconsciously, for instance to scratch an itch or to rest one’s chin in their hands. To reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), public health officials recommend against touching one’s face, as the virus is transmitted through mucous membranes in the mouth, nose and eyes. Students, office workers, medical personnel and people on trains were found to touch their faces between 9 and 23 times per hour. This paper introduces FaceGuard, a system that utilizes deep learning to predict hand movements that result in touching the face, and provides sensory feedback to stop the user from touching the face. The system utilizes an inertial measurement unit (IMU) to obtain features that characterize hand movement involving face touching. Time-series data can be efficiently classified using 1D-Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) with minimal feature engineering; 1D-CNN filters automatically extract temporal features in IMU data. Thus, a 1D-CNN based prediction model is developed and trained with data from 4,800 trials recorded from 40 participants. Training data are collected for hand movements involving face touching during various everyday activities such as sitting, standing, or walking. Results showed that while the average time needed to touch the face is 1,200 ms, a prediction accuracy of more than 92% is achieved with less than 550 ms of IMU data. As for the sensory response, the paper presents a psychophysical experiment to compare the response time for three sensory feedback modalities, namely visual, auditory, and vibrotactile. Results demonstrate that the response time is significantly smaller for vibrotactile feedback (427.3 ms) compared to visual (561.70 ms) and auditory (520.97 ms). Furthermore, the success rate (to avoid face touching) is also statistically higher for vibrotactile and auditory feedback compared to visual feedback. These results demonstrate the feasibility of predicting a hand movement and providing timely sensory feedback within less than a second in order to avoid face touching.

Over the past years, extensive research has been dedicated to developing robust platforms and data-driven dialog models to support long-term human-robot interactions. However, little is known about how people's perception of robots and engagement with them develop over time and how these can be accurately assessed through implicit and continuous measurement techniques. In this paper, we explore this by involving participants in three interaction sessions with multiple days of zero exposure in between. Each session consists of a joint task with a robot as well as two short social chats with it before and after the task. We measure participants' gaze patterns with a wearable eye-tracker and gauge their perception of the robot and engagement with it and the joint task using questionnaires. Results disclose that aversion of gaze in a social chat is an indicator of a robot's uncanniness and that the more people gaze at the robot in a joint task, the worse they perform. In contrast with most HRI literature, our results show that gaze toward an object of shared attention, rather than gaze toward a robotic partner, is the most meaningful predictor of engagement in a joint task. Furthermore, the analyses of gaze patterns in repeated interactions disclose that people's mutual gaze in a social chat develops congruently with their perceptions of the robot over time. These are key findings for the HRI community as they entail that gaze behavior can be used as an implicit measure of people's perception of robots in a social chat and of their engagement and task performance in a joint task.

For athletes trying to run fast, the right shoe can be essential to achieving peak performance. For athletes trying to run fast as humanly possible, a runner’s shoe can also become a work of individually customized engineering.

This is why Adidas has married 3D printing with robotic automation in a  mass-market footwear project it’s called Futurecraft.Strung, expected to be available for purchase as soon as later this year. Using a customized, 3D-printed sole, a Futurecraft.Strung manufacturing robot can place some 2,000 threads from up to 10 different sneaker yarns in one upper section of the shoe.

Skylar Tibbits, founder and co-director of the Self-Assembly Lab and associate professor in MIT's Department of Architecture, says that because of its small scale, footwear has been an area of focus for 3D printing and additive manufacturing, which involves adding material bit by bit.

“There are really interesting complex geometry problems,” he says. “It’s pretty well suited.”

Photo: Adidas Beginning with a 3D-printed sole, Adidas robots weave together some 2000 threads from up to 10 different sneaker yarns to make one Futurecraft.Strung shoe—expected on the marketplace later this year or sometime in 2022. 

Adidas began working on the Futurecraft.Strung project in 2016. Then two years later, Adidas Futurecraft, the company’s innovation incubator, began collaborating with digital design studio Kram/Weisshaar. In less than a year the team built the software and hardware for the upper part of the shoe, called Strung uppers. 

“Most 3D printing in the footwear space has been focused on the midsole or outsole, like the bottom of the shoe,” Tibbits explains. But now, he says, Adidas is bringing robotics and a threaded design to the upper part of the shoe. The company bases its Futurecraft.Strung design on high-resolution scans of how runners’ feet move as they travel. 

This more flexible design can benefit athletes in multiple sports, according to an Adidas blog post. It will be able to use motion capture of an athlete’s foot  and feedback from the athlete to make the design specific to the athlete’s specific gait. Adidas customizes the weaving of the shoe’s “fabric” (really more like an elaborate woven string figure, a cat’s cradle to fit the foot) to achieve a close and comfortable fit, the company says. 

What they call their “4D sole” consists of a design combining 3D printing with materials that can change their shape and properties over time. In fact, Tibbits coined the term 4D printing to describe this process in 2013. The company takes customized data from the Adidas Athlete Intelligent Engine to make the shoe, according to Kram/Weisshaar’s website.

Photo: Adidas Closeup of the weaving process behind a Futurecraft.Strung shoe

“With Strung for the first time, we can program single threads in any direction, where each thread has a different property or strength,” Fionn Corcoran-Tadd, an innovation designer at Adidas’ Futurecraft lab, said in a company video. He said each thread serves a purpose. Tibbits calls this process “string art.”

Although the robotics technology the company uses has been around for many years, what Adidas’s robotic weavers can achieve with thread is a matter of elaborate geometry. “It’s more just like a really elegant way to build up material combining robotics and the fibers and yarns into these intricate and complex patterns,” he says.

Robots can of course create patterns with more precision than if someone wound it by hand, as well as rapidly and reliably changing the yarn and color of the fabric pattern. Adidas says it can make a single upper in 45 minutes and a pair of sneakers in 1 hour and 30 minutes. It plans to reduce this time down to minutes in the months ahead, the company said. 

An Adidas spokesperson says sneakers incorporating the Futurecraft.Strung uppers design are a prototype, but the company plans to bring a Strung shoe to market in late 2021 or 2022. However, Adidas Futurecraft sneakers are currently available with a 3D-printed midsole.

Adidas plans to continue gathering data from athletes to customize the uppers of sneakers. “We’re building up a library of knowledge and it will get more interesting as we aggregate data of testing and from different athletes and sports,” the Adidas Futurecraft team writes in a blog post. “The more we understand about how data can become design code, the more we can take that and apply it to new Strung textiles. It’s a continuous evolution.”

In the fictional worlds of film and TV, artificial intelligence has been depicted as so advanced that it is indistinguishable from humans. But what if we’re actually getting closer to a world where AI is capable of thinking and feeling?

Tech company UneeQ is embarking on that journey with its “digital humans.” These avatars act as visual interfaces for customer service chatbots, virtual assistants, and other applications. UneeQ’s digital humans appear lifelike not only in terms of language and tone of voice, but also because of facial movements: raised eyebrows, a tilt of the head, a smile, even a wink. They transform a transaction into an interaction: creepy yet astonishing, human, but not quite.

What lies beneath UneeQ’s digital humans? Their 3D faces are modeled on actual human features. Speech recognition enables the avatar to understand what a person is saying, and natural language processing is used to craft a response. Before the avatar utters a word, specific emotions and facial expressions are encoded within the response.

UneeQ may be part of a larger trend towards humanizing computing. ObEN’s digital avatars serve as virtual identities for celebrities, influencers, gaming characters, and other entities in the media and entertainment industry. Meanwhile, Soul Machines is taking a more biological approach, with a “digital brain” that simulates aspects of the human brain to modulate the emotions “felt” and “expressed” by its “digital people.” Amelia is employing a similar methodology in building its “digital employees.” It emulates parts of the brain involved with memory to respond to queries and, with each interaction, learns to deliver more engaging and personalized experiences.

Shiwali Mohan, an AI systems scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center, is skeptical of these digital beings. “They’re humanlike in their looks and the way they sound, but that in itself is not being human,” she says. “Being human is also how you think, how you approach problems, and how you break them down; and that takes a lot of algorithmic design. Designing for human-level intelligence is a different endeavor than designing graphics that behave like humans. If you think about the problems we’re trying to design these avatars for, we might not need something that looks like a human—it may not even be the right solution path.”

And even if these avatars appear near-human, they still evoke an uncanny valley feeling. “If something looks like a human, we have high expectations of them, but they might behave differently in ways that humans just instinctively know how other humans react. These differences give rise to the uncanny valley feeling,” says Mohan.

Yet the demand is there, with Amelia seeing high adoption of its digital employees across the financial, health care, and retail sectors. “We find that banks and insurance companies, which are so risk-averse, are leading the adoption of such disruptive technologies because they understand that the risk of non-adoption is much greater than the risk of early adoption,” says Chetan Dube, Amelia’s CEO. “Unless they innovate their business models and make them much more efficient digitally, they might be left behind.” Dube adds that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated adoption of digital employees in health care and retail as well.

Amelia, Soul Machines, and UneeQ are taking their digital beings a step further, enabling organizations to create avatars themselves using low-code or no-code platforms: Digital Employee Builder for Amelia, Creator for UneeQ, and Digital DNA Studio for Soul Machines. Unreal Engine, a game engine developed by Epic Games, is doing the same with MetaHuman Creator, a tool that allows anyone to create photorealistic digital humans. “The biggest motivation for Digital Employee Builder is to democratize AI,” Dube says.

Mohan is cautious about this approach. “AI has problems with bias creeping in from data sets and into the way it speaks. The AI community is still trying to figure out how to measure and counter that bias,” she says. “[Companies] have to have an AI expert on board that can recommend the right things to build for.”

Despite being wary of the technology, Mohan supports the purpose behind these virtual beings and is optimistic about where they’re headed. “We do need these tools that support humans in different kinds of things. I think the vision is the pro, and I’m behind that vision,” she says. “As we develop more sophisticated AI technology, we would then have to implement novel ways of interacting with that technology. Hopefully, all of that is designed to support humans in their goals.”

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

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

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

Festo's Bionic Learning Network for 2021 presents a flock of BionicSwifts.

To execute the flight maneuvers as true to life as possible, the wings are modeled on the plumage of birds. The individual lamellae are made of an ultralight, flexible but very robust foam and lie on top of each other like shingles. Connected to a carbon quill, they are attached to the actual hand and arm wings as in the natural model.

During the wing upstroke, the individual lamellae fan out so that air can flow through the wing. This means that the birds need less force to pull the wing up. During the downstroke, the lamellae close up so that the birds can generate more power to fly. Due to this close-to-nature replica of the wings, the BionicSwifts have a better flight profile than previous wing-beating drives.

[ Festo ]

While we've seen a wide variety of COVID-motivated disinfecting robots, they're usually using either ultraviolet light or a chemical fog. This isn't the way that humans clean—we wipe stuff down, which gets rid of surface dirt and disinfects at the same time. Fraunhofer has been working on a mobile manipulator that can clean in the same ways that we do.

It's quite the technical challenge, but it has the potential to be both more efficient and more effective.

[ Fraunhofer ]

In recent years, robots have gained artificial vision, touch, and even smell. “Researchers have been giving robots human-like perception,” says MIT Associate Professor Fadel Adib. In a new paper, Adib’s team is pushing the technology a step further. “We’re trying to give robots superhuman perception,” he says. The researchers have developed a robot that uses radio waves, which can pass through walls, to sense occluded objects. The robot, called RF-Grasp, combines this powerful sensing with more traditional computer vision to locate and grasp items that might otherwise be blocked from view.

[ MIT ]

Ingenuity is now scheduled to fly on April 11.

[ JPL ]

The legendary Zenta is back after a two year YouTube hiatus with "a kind of freaky furry hexapod bunny creature."

[ Zenta ]

It is with great pride and excitement that the South Australia Police announce a new expansion to their kennel by introducing three new Police Dog (PD) recruits. These dogs have been purposely targeted to bring a whole new range of dog operational capabilities known as the ‘small area urban search and guided evacuation’ dogs. Police have been working closely with specialist vets and dog trainers to ascertain if the lightweight dogs could be transported safely by drones and released into hard-to-access areas where at the moment the larger PDs just simply cannot get in due to their size.

[ SA Police ]

SoftBank may not have Spot cheerleading robots for their baseball team anymore, but they've more than made up for it with a full century of Peppers. And one dude doing the robot.

[ SoftBank ]

MAB Robotics is a Polish company developing walking robots for inspection, and here's a prototype they've been working on.

[ MAB Robotics ]

Thanks Jakub!

DoraNose: Smell your way to a better tomorrow.

[ Dorabot ]

Our robots need to learn how to cope with their new neighbors, and we have just the solution for this, the egg detector! Using cutting-edge AI, it provides incredible precision in detecting a vast variety of eggs. We have deployed this new feature on Boston Dynamics Spot, one of our fleet's robots. It can now detect eggs with its cameras and avoid them on his autonomous missions.

[ Energy Robotics ]

When dropping a squishy robot from an airplane 1,000 feet up, make sure that you land as close to people's cars as you can.

Now do it from orbit!

[ Squishy Robotics ]

An autonomous robot that is able to physically guide humans through narrow and cluttered spaces could be a big boon to the visually-impaired. Most prior robotic guiding systems are based on wheeled platforms with large bases with actuated rigid guiding canes. The large bases and the actuated arms limit these prior approaches from operating in narrow and cluttered environments. We propose a method that introduces a quadrupedal robot with a leash to enable the robot-guiding-human system to change its intrinsic dimension (by letting the leash go slack) in order to fit into narrow spaces.

[ Hybrid Robotics ]

How to prove that your drone is waterproof.

[ UNL ]

Well this ought to be pretty good once it gets out of simulation.

[ Hybrid Robotics ]

MIDAS is Aurora’s AI-enabled, multi-rotor sUAV outfitted with optical sensors and a customized payload that can defeat multiple small UAVs per flight with low-collateral effects.

[ Aurora ]

The robots​ of the DFKI have the advantage of being able to reach extreme environments: they can be used for decontamination purposes in high-risk areas or inspect and maintain underwater​ structures, for which they are tested in the North Sea near Heligoland​.

[ DFKI ]

After years of trying, 60 Minutes cameras finally get a peek inside the workshop at Boston Dynamics, where robots move in ways once only thought possible in movies. Anderson Cooper reports.

[ 60 Minutes ]

In 2007, Noel Sharky stated that “we are sleepwalking into a brave new world where robots decide who, where and when to kill.” Since then thousands of AI and robotics researchers have joined his calls to regulate “killer robots.” But sometime this year, Turkey will deploy fully autonomous home-built kamikaze drones on its border with Syria. What are the ethical choices we need to consider? Will we end up in an episode of Black Mirror? Or is the UN listening to calls and starting the process of regulating this space? Prof. Toby Walsh will discuss this important issue, consider where we are at and where we need to go.

[ ICRA 2020 ]

In the second session of HAI's spring conference, artists and technologists discussed how technology can enhance creativity, reimagine meaning, and support racial and social justice. The conference, called “Intelligence Augmentation: AI Empowering People to Solve Global Challenges,” took place on 25 March 2021.

[ Stanford HAI ]

This spring 2021 GRASP SFI comes from Monroe Kennedy III at Stanford University, on “Considerations for Human-Robot Collaboration.”

The field of robotics has evolved over the past few decades. We’ve seen robots progress from the automation of repetitive tasks in manufacturing to the autonomy of mobilizing in unstructured environments to the cooperation of swarm robots that are centralized or decentralized. These abilities have required advances in robotic hardware, modeling, and artificial intelligence. The next frontier is robots collaborating in complex tasks with human teammates, in environments traditionally configured for humans. While solutions to this challenge must utilize all the advances of robotics, the human element adds a unique aspect that must be addressed. Collaborating with a human teammate means that the robot must have a contextual understanding of the task as well as all participant’s roles. We will discuss what constitutes an effective teammate and how we can capture this behavior in a robotic collaborator.

[ UPenn ]

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

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

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

Festo's Bionic Learning Network for 2021 presents a flock of BionicSwifts.

To execute the flight maneuvers as true to life as possible, the wings are modeled on the plumage of birds. The individual lamellae are made of an ultralight, flexible but very robust foam and lie on top of each other like shingles. Connected to a carbon quill, they are attached to the actual hand and arm wings as in the natural model.

During the wing upstroke, the individual lamellae fan out so that air can flow through the wing. This means that the birds need less force to pull the wing up. During the downstroke, the lamellae close up so that the birds can generate more power to fly. Due to this close-to-nature replica of the wings, the BionicSwifts have a better flight profile than previous wing-beating drives.

[ Festo ]

While we've seen a wide variety of COVID-motivated disinfecting robots, they're usually using either ultraviolet light or a chemical fog. This isn't the way that humans clean—we wipe stuff down, which gets rid of surface dirt and disinfects at the same time. Fraunhofer has been working on a mobile manipulator that can clean in the same ways that we do.

It's quite the technical challenge, but it has the potential to be both more efficient and more effective.

[ Fraunhofer ]

In recent years, robots have gained artificial vision, touch, and even smell. “Researchers have been giving robots human-like perception,” says MIT Associate Professor Fadel Adib. In a new paper, Adib’s team is pushing the technology a step further. “We’re trying to give robots superhuman perception,” he says. The researchers have developed a robot that uses radio waves, which can pass through walls, to sense occluded objects. The robot, called RF-Grasp, combines this powerful sensing with more traditional computer vision to locate and grasp items that might otherwise be blocked from view.

[ MIT ]

Ingenuity is now scheduled to fly on April 11.

[ JPL ]

The legendary Zenta is back after a two year YouTube hiatus with "a kind of freaky furry hexapod bunny creature."

[ Zenta ]

It is with great pride and excitement that the South Australia Police announce a new expansion to their kennel by introducing three new Police Dog (PD) recruits. These dogs have been purposely targeted to bring a whole new range of dog operational capabilities known as the ‘small area urban search and guided evacuation’ dogs. Police have been working closely with specialist vets and dog trainers to ascertain if the lightweight dogs could be transported safely by drones and released into hard-to-access areas where at the moment the larger PDs just simply cannot get in due to their size.

[ SA Police ]

SoftBank may not have Spot cheerleading robots for their baseball team anymore, but they've more than made up for it with a full century of Peppers. And one dude doing the robot.

[ SoftBank ]

MAB Robotics is a Polish company developing walking robots for inspection, and here's a prototype they've been working on.

[ MAB Robotics ]

Thanks Jakub!

DoraNose: Smell your way to a better tomorrow.

[ Dorabot ]

Our robots need to learn how to cope with their new neighbors, and we have just the solution for this, the egg detector! Using cutting-edge AI, it provides incredible precision in detecting a vast variety of eggs. We have deployed this new feature on Boston Dynamics Spot, one of our fleet's robots. It can now detect eggs with its cameras and avoid them on his autonomous missions.

[ Energy Robotics ]

When dropping a squishy robot from an airplane 1,000 feet up, make sure that you land as close to people's cars as you can.

Now do it from orbit!

[ Squishy Robotics ]

An autonomous robot that is able to physically guide humans through narrow and cluttered spaces could be a big boon to the visually-impaired. Most prior robotic guiding systems are based on wheeled platforms with large bases with actuated rigid guiding canes. The large bases and the actuated arms limit these prior approaches from operating in narrow and cluttered environments. We propose a method that introduces a quadrupedal robot with a leash to enable the robot-guiding-human system to change its intrinsic dimension (by letting the leash go slack) in order to fit into narrow spaces.

[ Hybrid Robotics ]

How to prove that your drone is waterproof.

[ UNL ]

Well this ought to be pretty good once it gets out of simulation.

[ Hybrid Robotics ]

MIDAS is Aurora’s AI-enabled, multi-rotor sUAV outfitted with optical sensors and a customized payload that can defeat multiple small UAVs per flight with low-collateral effects.

[ Aurora ]

The robots​ of the DFKI have the advantage of being able to reach extreme environments: they can be used for decontamination purposes in high-risk areas or inspect and maintain underwater​ structures, for which they are tested in the North Sea near Heligoland​.

[ DFKI ]

After years of trying, 60 Minutes cameras finally get a peek inside the workshop at Boston Dynamics, where robots move in ways once only thought possible in movies. Anderson Cooper reports.

[ 60 Minutes ]

In 2007, Noel Sharky stated that “we are sleepwalking into a brave new world where robots decide who, where and when to kill.” Since then thousands of AI and robotics researchers have joined his calls to regulate “killer robots.” But sometime this year, Turkey will deploy fully autonomous home-built kamikaze drones on its border with Syria. What are the ethical choices we need to consider? Will we end up in an episode of Black Mirror? Or is the UN listening to calls and starting the process of regulating this space? Prof. Toby Walsh will discuss this important issue, consider where we are at and where we need to go.

[ ICRA 2020 ]

In the second session of HAI's spring conference, artists and technologists discussed how technology can enhance creativity, reimagine meaning, and support racial and social justice. The conference, called “Intelligence Augmentation: AI Empowering People to Solve Global Challenges,” took place on 25 March 2021.

[ Stanford HAI ]

This spring 2021 GRASP SFI comes from Monroe Kennedy III at Stanford University, on “Considerations for Human-Robot Collaboration.”

The field of robotics has evolved over the past few decades. We’ve seen robots progress from the automation of repetitive tasks in manufacturing to the autonomy of mobilizing in unstructured environments to the cooperation of swarm robots that are centralized or decentralized. These abilities have required advances in robotic hardware, modeling, and artificial intelligence. The next frontier is robots collaborating in complex tasks with human teammates, in environments traditionally configured for humans. While solutions to this challenge must utilize all the advances of robotics, the human element adds a unique aspect that must be addressed. Collaborating with a human teammate means that the robot must have a contextual understanding of the task as well as all participant’s roles. We will discuss what constitutes an effective teammate and how we can capture this behavior in a robotic collaborator.

[ UPenn ]

Most humans are bipeds, but even the best of us are really only bipeds until things get tricky. While our legs may be our primary mobility system, there are lots of situations in which we leverage our arms as well, either passively to keep balance or actively when we put out a hand to steady ourselves on a nearby object. And despite how unstable bipedal robots tend to be, using anything besides legs for mobility has been a challenge in both software and hardware, a significant limitation in highly unstructured environments.

Roboticists from TUM in Germany (with support from the German Research Foundation) have recently given their humanoid robot LOLA some major upgrades to make this kind of multi-contact locomotion possible. While it’s still in the early stages, it’s already some of the most human-like bipedal locomotion we’ve seen.

It’s certainly possible for bipedal robots to walk over challenging terrain without using limbs for support, but I’m sure you can think of lots of times where using your arms to assist with your own bipedal mobility was a requirement. It’s not a requirement because your leg strength or coordination or sense of balance is bad, necessarily. It’s just that sometimes, you might find yourself walking across something that’s highly unstable or in a situation where the consequences of a stumble are exceptionally high. And it may not even matter how much sensing you do beforehand, and how careful you are with your footstep planning: there are limits to how much you can know about your environment beforehand, and that can result in having a really bad time of it. This is why using multi-contact locomotion, whether it’s planned in advance or not, is a useful skill for humans, and should be for robots, too.

As the video notes (and props for being explicit up front about it), this isn’t yet fully autonomous behavior, with foot positions and arm contact points set by hand in advance. But it’s not much of a stretch to see how everything could be done autonomously, since one of the really hard parts (using multiple contact points to dynamically balance a moving robot) is being done onboard and in real time. 

Getting LOLA to be able to do this required a major overhaul in hardware as well as software. And Philipp Seiwald, who works with LOLA at TUM, was able to tell us more about it.

IEEE Spectrum: Can you summarize the changes to LOLA’s hardware that are required for multi-contact locomotion?

Philipp Seiwald: The original version of LOLA has been designed for fast biped walking. Although it had two arms, they were not meant to get into contact with the environment but rather to compensate for the dynamic effects of the feet during fast walking. Also, the torso had a relatively simple design that was fine for its original purpose; however, it was not conceived to withstand the high loads coming from the hands during multi-contact maneuvers. Thus, we redesigned the complete upper body of LOLA from scratch. Starting from the pelvis, the strength and stiffness of the torso have been increased. We used the finite element method to optimize critical parts to obtain maximum strength at minimum weight. Moreover, we added additional degrees of freedom to the arms to increase the hands' reachable workspace. The kinematic topology of the arms, i.e., the arrangement of joints and link lengths, has been obtained from an optimization that takes typical multi-contact scenarios into account.

Why is this an important problem for bipedal humanoid robots?

Maintaining balance during locomotion can be considered the primary goal of legged robots. Naturally, this task is more challenging for bipeds when compared to robots with four or even more legs. Although current high-end prototypes show impressive progress, humanoid robots still do not have the robustness and versatility they need for most real-world applications. With our research, we try to contribute to this field and help to push the limits further. Recently, we showed our latest work on walking over uneven terrain without multi-contact support. Although the robustness is already high, there still exist scenarios, such as walking on loose objects, where the robot's stabilization fails when using only foot contacts. The use of additional hand-environment support during this (comparatively) fast walking allows a further significant increase in robustness, i.e., the robot's capability to compensate disturbances, modeling errors, or inaccurate sensor input. Besides stabilization on uneven terrain, multi-contact locomotion also enables more complex motions, e.g., stepping over a tall obstacle or toe-only contacts, as shown in our latest multi-contact video.

How can LOLA decide whether a surface is suitable for multi-contact locomotion?

LOLA’s visual perception system is currently developed by our project partners from the Chair for Computer Aided Medical Procedures & Augmented Reality at the TUM. This system relies on a novel semantic Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) pipeline that can robustly extract the scene's semantic components (like floor, walls, and objects therein) by merging multiple observations from different viewpoints and by inferring therefrom the underlying scene graph. This provides a reliable estimate of which scene parts can be used to support the locomotion, based on the assumption that certain structural elements such as walls are fixed, while chairs, for example, are not.

Also, the team plans to develop a specific dataset with annotations further describing the attributes of the object (such as roughness of the surface or its softness) and that will be used to master multi-contact locomotion in even more complex scenes. As of today, the vision and navigation system is not finished yet; thus, in our latest video, we used pre-defined footholds and contact points for the hands. However, within our collaboration, we are working towards a fully integrated and autonomous system.

Is LOLA capable of both proactive and reactive multi-contact locomotion?

The software framework of LOLA has a hierarchical structure. On the highest level, the vision system generates an environment model and estimates the 6D-pose of the robot in the scene. The walking pattern generator then uses this information to plan a dynamically feasible future motion that will lead LOLA to a target position defined by the user. On a lower level, the stabilization module modifies this plan to compensate for model errors or any kind of disturbance and keep overall balance. So our approach currently focuses on proactive multi-contact locomotion. However, we also plan to work on a more reactive behavior such that additional hand support can also be triggered by an unexpected disturbance instead of being planned in advance.

What are some examples of unique capabilities that you are working towards with LOLA?

One of the main goals for the research with LOLA remains fast, autonomous, and robust locomotion on complex, uneven terrain. We aim to reach a walking speed similar to humans. Currently, LOLA can do multi-contact locomotion and cross uneven terrain at a speed of 1.8 km/h, which is comparably fast for a biped robot but still slow for a human. On flat ground, LOLA's high-end hardware allows it to walk at a relatively high maximum speed of 3.38 km/h.

Fully autonomous multi-contact locomotion for a life-sized humanoid robot is a tough task. As algorithms get more complex, computation time increases, which often results in offline motion planning methods. For LOLA, we restrict ourselves to gaited multi-contact locomotion, which means that we try to preserve the core characteristics of bipedal gait and use the arms only for assistance. This allows us to use simplified models of the robot which lead to very efficient algorithms running in real-time and fully onboard. 

A long-term scientific goal with LOLA is to understand essential components and control policies of human walking. LOLA's leg kinematics is relatively similar to the human body. Together with scientists from kinesiology, we try to identify similarities and differences between observed human walking and LOLA’s “engineered” walking gait. We hope this research leads, on the one hand, to new ideas for the control of bipeds, and on the other hand, shows via experiments on bipeds if biomechanical models for the human gait are correctly understood. For a comparison of control policies on uneven terrain, LOLA must be able to walk at comparable speeds, which also motivates our research on fast and robust walking.

While it makes sense why the researchers are using LOLA’s arms primarily to assist with a conventional biped gait, looking ahead a bit it’s interesting to think about how robots that we typically consider to be bipeds could potentially leverage their limbs for mobility in decidedly non-human ways.

We’re used to legged robots being one particular morphology, I guess because associating them with either humans or dogs or whatever is just a comfortable way to do it, but there’s no particular reason why a robot with four limbs has to choose between being a quadruped and being a biped with arms, or some hybrid between the two, depending on what its task is. The research being done with LOLA could be a step in that direction, and maybe a hand on the wall in that direction, too.

Most humans are bipeds, but even the best of us are really only bipeds until things get tricky. While our legs may be our primary mobility system, there are lots of situations in which we leverage our arms as well, either passively to keep balance or actively when we put out a hand to steady ourselves on a nearby object. And despite how unstable bipedal robots tend to be, using anything besides legs for mobility has been a challenge in both software and hardware, a significant limitation in highly unstructured environments.

Roboticists from TUM in Germany (with support from the German Research Foundation) have recently given their humanoid robot LOLA some major upgrades to make this kind of multi-contact locomotion possible. While it’s still in the early stages, it’s already some of the most human-like bipedal locomotion we’ve seen.

It’s certainly possible for bipedal robots to walk over challenging terrain without using limbs for support, but I’m sure you can think of lots of times where using your arms to assist with your own bipedal mobility was a requirement. It’s not a requirement because your leg strength or coordination or sense of balance is bad, necessarily. It’s just that sometimes, you might find yourself walking across something that’s highly unstable or in a situation where the consequences of a stumble are exceptionally high. And it may not even matter how much sensing you do beforehand, and how careful you are with your footstep planning: there are limits to how much you can know about your environment beforehand, and that can result in having a really bad time of it. This is why using multi-contact locomotion, whether it’s planned in advance or not, is a useful skill for humans, and should be for robots, too.

As the video notes (and props for being explicit up front about it), this isn’t yet fully autonomous behavior, with foot positions and arm contact points set by hand in advance. But it’s not much of a stretch to see how everything could be done autonomously, since one of the really hard parts (using multiple contact points to dynamically balance a moving robot) is being done onboard and in real time. 

Getting LOLA to be able to do this required a major overhaul in hardware as well as software. And Philipp Seiwald, who works with LOLA at TUM, was able to tell us more about it.

IEEE Spectrum: Can you summarize the changes to LOLA’s hardware that are required for multi-contact locomotion?

Philipp Seiwald: The original version of LOLA has been designed for fast biped walking. Although it had two arms, they were not meant to get into contact with the environment but rather to compensate for the dynamic effects of the feet during fast walking. Also, the torso had a relatively simple design that was fine for its original purpose; however, it was not conceived to withstand the high loads coming from the hands during multi-contact maneuvers. Thus, we redesigned the complete upper body of LOLA from scratch. Starting from the pelvis, the strength and stiffness of the torso have been increased. We used the finite element method to optimize critical parts to obtain maximum strength at minimum weight. Moreover, we added additional degrees of freedom to the arms to increase the hands' reachable workspace. The kinematic topology of the arms, i.e., the arrangement of joints and link lengths, has been obtained from an optimization that takes typical multi-contact scenarios into account.

Why is this an important problem for bipedal humanoid robots?

Maintaining balance during locomotion can be considered the primary goal of legged robots. Naturally, this task is more challenging for bipeds when compared to robots with four or even more legs. Although current high-end prototypes show impressive progress, humanoid robots still do not have the robustness and versatility they need for most real-world applications. With our research, we try to contribute to this field and help to push the limits further. Recently, we showed our latest work on walking over uneven terrain without multi-contact support. Although the robustness is already high, there still exist scenarios, such as walking on loose objects, where the robot's stabilization fails when using only foot contacts. The use of additional hand-environment support during this (comparatively) fast walking allows a further significant increase in robustness, i.e., the robot's capability to compensate disturbances, modeling errors, or inaccurate sensor input. Besides stabilization on uneven terrain, multi-contact locomotion also enables more complex motions, e.g., stepping over a tall obstacle or toe-only contacts, as shown in our latest multi-contact video.

How can LOLA decide whether a surface is suitable for multi-contact locomotion?

LOLA’s visual perception system is currently developed by our project partners from the Chair for Computer Aided Medical Procedures & Augmented Reality at the TUM. This system relies on a novel semantic Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) pipeline that can robustly extract the scene's semantic components (like floor, walls, and objects therein) by merging multiple observations from different viewpoints and by inferring therefrom the underlying scene graph. This provides a reliable estimate of which scene parts can be used to support the locomotion, based on the assumption that certain structural elements such as walls are fixed, while chairs, for example, are not.

Also, the team plans to develop a specific dataset with annotations further describing the attributes of the object (such as roughness of the surface or its softness) and that will be used to master multi-contact locomotion in even more complex scenes. As of today, the vision and navigation system is not finished yet; thus, in our latest video, we used pre-defined footholds and contact points for the hands. However, within our collaboration, we are working towards a fully integrated and autonomous system.

Is LOLA capable of both proactive and reactive multi-contact locomotion?

The software framework of LOLA has a hierarchical structure. On the highest level, the vision system generates an environment model and estimates the 6D-pose of the robot in the scene. The walking pattern generator then uses this information to plan a dynamically feasible future motion that will lead LOLA to a target position defined by the user. On a lower level, the stabilization module modifies this plan to compensate for model errors or any kind of disturbance and keep overall balance. So our approach currently focuses on proactive multi-contact locomotion. However, we also plan to work on a more reactive behavior such that additional hand support can also be triggered by an unexpected disturbance instead of being planned in advance.

What are some examples of unique capabilities that you are working towards with LOLA?

One of the main goals for the research with LOLA remains fast, autonomous, and robust locomotion on complex, uneven terrain. We aim to reach a walking speed similar to humans. Currently, LOLA can do multi-contact locomotion and cross uneven terrain at a speed of 1.8 km/h, which is comparably fast for a biped robot but still slow for a human. On flat ground, LOLA's high-end hardware allows it to walk at a relatively high maximum speed of 3.38 km/h.

Fully autonomous multi-contact locomotion for a life-sized humanoid robot is a tough task. As algorithms get more complex, computation time increases, which often results in offline motion planning methods. For LOLA, we restrict ourselves to gaited multi-contact locomotion, which means that we try to preserve the core characteristics of bipedal gait and use the arms only for assistance. This allows us to use simplified models of the robot which lead to very efficient algorithms running in real-time and fully onboard. 

A long-term scientific goal with LOLA is to understand essential components and control policies of human walking. LOLA's leg kinematics is relatively similar to the human body. Together with scientists from kinesiology, we try to identify similarities and differences between observed human walking and LOLA’s “engineered” walking gait. We hope this research leads, on the one hand, to new ideas for the control of bipeds, and on the other hand, shows via experiments on bipeds if biomechanical models for the human gait are correctly understood. For a comparison of control policies on uneven terrain, LOLA must be able to walk at comparable speeds, which also motivates our research on fast and robust walking.

While it makes sense why the researchers are using LOLA’s arms primarily to assist with a conventional biped gait, looking ahead a bit it’s interesting to think about how robots that we typically consider to be bipeds could potentially leverage their limbs for mobility in decidedly non-human ways.

We’re used to legged robots being one particular morphology, I guess because associating them with either humans or dogs or whatever is just a comfortable way to do it, but there’s no particular reason why a robot with four limbs has to choose between being a quadruped and being a biped with arms, or some hybrid between the two, depending on what its task is. The research being done with LOLA could be a step in that direction, and maybe a hand on the wall in that direction, too.

Millions of industrial robots are used across manufacturing and research applications worldwide. Handfuls of these robots have been used in dance, installation, and theatrical art works as tools and performers. OUTPUT, a collaborative artwork presented here, employs an industrial robot as choreographic source material and dancing body in order to reframe these robots as performers and bring them into closer proximity with the general public. This OUTPUT work has existed as a performance, installation, and augmented reality application. All three formats of the work include improvisational components, where a human can dance with a representation of themselves alongside an industrial robot, facilitating an embodied and creative experience next to these sequestered machines.

This paper presents methods for placing length sensors on a soft continuum robot joint as well as a novel configuration estimation method that drastically minimizes configuration estimation error. The methods utilized for placing sensors along the length of the joint include a single joint length sensor, sensors lined end-to-end, sensors that overlap according to a heuristic, and sensors that are placed by an optimization that we describe in this paper. The methods of configuration estimation include directly relating sensor length to a segment of the joint's angle, using an equal weighting of overlapping sensors that cover a joint segment, and using a weighted linear combination of all sensors on the continuum joint. The weights for the linear combination method are determined using robust linear regression. Using a kinematic simulation we show that placing three or more overlapping sensors and estimating the configuration with a linear combination of sensors resulted in a median error of 0.026% of the max range of motion or less. This is over a 500 times improvement as compared to using a single sensor to estimate the joint configuration. This error was computed across 80 simulated robots of different lengths and ranges of motion. We also found that the fully optimized sensor placement performed only marginally better than the placement of sensors according to the heuristic. This suggests that the use of a linear combination of sensors, with weights found using linear regression is more important than the placement of the overlapping sensors. Further, using the heuristic significantly simplifies the application of these techniques when designing for hardware.

This paper introduces the development of an anthropomorphic soft robotic hand integrated with multiple flexible force sensors in the fingers. By leveraging on the integrated force sensing mechanism, grip state estimation networks have been developed. The robotic hand was tasked to hold the given object on the table for 1.5 s and lift it up within 1 s. The object manipulation experiment of grasping and lifting the given objects were conducted with various pneumatic pressure (50, 80, and 120 kPa). Learning networks were developed to estimate occurrence of object instability and slippage due to acceleration of the robot or insufficient grasp strength. Hence the grip state estimation network can potentially feedback object stability status to the pneumatic control system. This would allow the pneumatic system to use suitable pneumatic pressure to efficiently handle different objects, i.e., lower pneumatic pressure (50 kPa) for lightweight objects which do not require high grasping strength. The learning process of the soft hand is made challenging by curating a diverse selection of daily objects, some of which displays dynamic change in shape upon grasping. To address the cost of collecting extensive training datasets, we adopted one-shot learning (OSL) technique with a long short-term memory (LSTM) recurrent neural network. OSL aims to allow the networks to learn based on limited training data. It also promotes the scalability of the network to accommodate more grasping objects in the future. Three types of LSTM-based networks have been developed and their performance has been evaluated in this study. Among the three LSTM networks, triplet network achieved overall stability estimation accuracy at 89.96%, followed by LSTM network with 88.00% and Siamese LSTM network with 85.16%.

Today, Boston Dynamics is announcing Stretch, a mobile robot designed to autonomously move boxes around warehouses. At first glance, you might be wondering why the heck this is a Boston Dynamics robot at all, since the dynamic mobility that we associate with most of their platforms is notably absent. The combination of strength and speed in Stretch’s arm is something we haven’t seen before in a mobile robot, and it’s what makes this a unique and potentially exciting entry into the warehouse robotics space. 

Useful mobile manipulation in any environment that’s not almost entirely structured is still a significant challenge in robotics, and it requires a very difficult combination of sensing, intelligence, and dynamic motion, all of which are classic Boston Dynamics. But also classic Boston Dynamics is building really cool platforms, and only later trying to figure out a way of making them commercially viable. So why Stretch, why boxes, why now, and (the real question) why not Handle? We talk with Boston Dynamics’ Vice President of Product Engineering Kevin Blankespoor to find out.

Stretch is very explicitly a box-handling mobile robot for relatively well structured warehouses. It’s in no way designed to be a generalist that many of Boston Dynamics’ other robots are. And to be fair, this is absolutely how to make a robot that’s practical and cost effective right out of the crate: Identify a task that is dull or dirty or dangerous for humans, design a robot to do that task safely and efficiently, and deploy it with the expectation that it’ll be really good at that task but not necessarily much else. This is a very different approach than a robot like Spot, where the platform came first and the practical applications came later—with Stretch, it’s all about that specific task in a specific environment.

There are already robotic solutions for truck unloading, palletizing, and depalletizing, but Stretch seems to be uniquely capable. For truck unloading, the highest performance systems that I’m aware of are monstrous things (here’s one example from Honeywell) that use a ton of custom hardware to just sort of ingest the cargo within a trailer all at once. In a highly structured and predictable warehouse, this sort of thing may pay off over the long term, but it’s going to be extremely expensive and not very versatile at all.

Palletizing and depalletizing robots are much more common in warehouses today. They’re almost always large industrial arms surrounded by a network of custom conveyor belts and whatnot, suffering from the same sorts of constraints as a truck unloader— very capable in some situations, but generally high cost and low flexibility.

Photo: Boston Dynamics

Stretch is probably not going to be able to compete with either of these types of dedicated systems when it comes to sheer speed, but it offers lots of other critical advantages: It’s fast and easy to deploy, easy to use, and adaptable to a variety of different tasks without costly infrastructure changes. It’s also very much not Handle, which was Boston Dynamics’ earlier (although not that much earlier) attempt at a box-handling robot for warehouses, and (let’s be honest here) a much more Boston Dynamics-y thing than Stretch seems to be. To learn more about why the answer is Stretch rather than Handle, and how Stretch will fit into the warehouse of the very near future, we spoke with Kevin Blankespoor, Boston Dynamics’ VP of Product Engineering and chief engineer for both Handle and Stretch.

IEEE Spectrum: Tell me about Stretch!

Kevin Blankespoor: Stretch is the first mobile robot that we’ve designed specifically for the warehouse. It’s all about moving boxes. Stretch is a flexible robot that can move throughout the warehouse and do different tasks. During a typical day in the life of Stretch in the future, it might spend the morning on the inbound side of the warehouse unloading boxes from trucks. It might spend the afternoon in the aisles of the warehouse building up pallets to go to retailers and e-commerce facilities, and it might spend the evening on the outbound side of the warehouse loading boxes into the trucks. So, it really goes to where the work is.

There are already other robots that include truck unloading robots, palletizing and depalletizing robots, and mobile bases with arms on them. What makes Boston Dynamics the right company to introduce a new robot in this space?

We definitely thought through this, because there are already autonomous mobile robots [AMRs] out there. Most of them, though, are more like pallet movers or tote movers—they don't have an arm, and most of them are really just about moving something from point A to point B without manipulation capability. We've seen some experiments where people put arms on AMRs, but nothing that's made it very far in the market. And so when we started looking at Stretch, we realized we really needed to make a custom robot, and that it was something we could do quickly. 

“We got a lot of interest from people who wanted to put Atlas to work in the warehouse, but we knew that we could build a simpler robot to do some of those same tasks.”

Stretch is built with pieces from Spot and Atlas and that gave us a big head start. For example, if you look at Stretch’s vision system, it's 2D cameras, depth sensors, and software that allows it to do obstacle detection, box detection, and localization. Those are all the same sensors and software that we've been using for years on our legged robots. And if you look closely at Stretch’s wrist joints, they're actually the same as Spot’s hips. They use the same electric motors, the same gearboxes, the same sensors, and they even have the same closed-loop controller controlling the joints. 

If you were to buy an existing industrial robot arm with this kind of performance, it would be about four times heavier than the arm we built, and it's really hard to make that into a mobile robot. A lot of this came from our leg technology because it’s so important for our leg designs to be lightweight for the robots to balance. We took that same strength to weight advantage that we have, and built it into this arm. We're able to rapidly piece together things from our other robots to get us out of the gate quickly, so even though this looks like a totally different robot, we think we have a good head start going into this market. 

At what point did you decide to go with an arm on a statically stable base on Stretch, rather than something more, you know, dynamic-y?

Stretch looks really different than the robots that Boston Dynamics has done in the past. But you'd be surprised how much similarity there is between our legged robots and Stretch under the hood. Looking back, we actually got our start on moving boxes with Atlas, and at that point it was just research and development. We were really trying to do force control for box grasping. We were picking up heavy boxes and maintaining balance and working on those fundamentals. We released a video of that as our first next-gen Atlas video, and it was interesting. We got a lot of interest from people who wanted to put Atlas to work in the warehouse, but we knew that we could build a simpler robot to do some of those same tasks. 

So at this point we actually came up with Handle. The intent of Handle was to do a couple things—one was, we thought we could build a simpler robot that had Atlas’ attributes. Handle has a small footprint so it can fit in tight spaces, but it can pick up heavy boxes. And in addition to that, we had always really wanted to combine wheels and legs. We’d been talking about doing that for a decade and so Handle was a chance for us to try it. 

We built a couple versions of Handle, and the first one was really just a prototype to kind of explore the morphology. But the second one was more purpose-built for warehouse tasks, and we started building pallets with that one and it looked pretty good. And then we started doing truck unloading with Handle, which was the pivotal moment. Handle could do it, but it took too long. Every time Handle grasped a box, it would have to roll back and then get to a place where it could spin itself to face forward and place the box, and trucks are very tight for a robot this size, so there's not a lot of room to maneuver. We knew the whole time that there was a robot like Stretch that was another alternative, but that's really when it became clear that Stretch would have a lot of advantages, and we started working on it about a year ago. 

Stretch is certainly impressive in a practical way, but I’ll admit to really hoping that something like Handle could have turned out to be a viable warehouse robot.

I love the Handle project as well, and I’m very passionate about that robot. And there was a stage before we built Stretch where we thought, “this would be pretty standard looking compared to Handle, is it going to capture enough of the Boston Dynamics secret sauce?” But when you actually dissect all the problems within Stretch that you have to tackle, there are a lot of cool robotics problems left in there—the vision system, the planning, the manipulation, the grasping of the boxes—it's a lot harder to solve than it looks, and we're excited that we're actually getting fairly far down that road now.

What happens to Handle now?

Stretch has really taken over our team as far as warehouse products go. Handle we still use occasionally as a research robot, but it’s not actively under development. Stretch is really Handle’s descendent. Handle’s not retired, exactly, but we’re just using it for things like the dance video

There’s still potential to do cool stuff with Handle. I do think that combining wheels with legs is very cool, and largely unexplored compared to its potential. So I still think that you're gonna see versions of robots combining wheels and legs like Handle, and maybe a version of Handle in the future that does more of that. But because we're switching this thread from research into product, Stretch is really the main focus now.

How autonomous is Stretch?

Stretch is semi-autonomous, and that means it really needs to work with people to tap into its full potential. With truck unloading, for example, a person will drive Stretch into the back of the truck and then basically point Stretch in the right direction and say go. And from that point on, everything’s autonomous. Stretch has its vision system and its mobility and it can detect all the boxes, grasp all boxes, and move them onto a conveyor all autonomously. This is something that takes people hours to do manually, and Stretch can go all the way until it gets to the last box, and the truck is empty.  There are some parts of the truck unloading task that do require people, like verifying that the truck is in the right place and opening the doors. But this takes a person just a few minutes, and then the robot can spend hours or as long as it takes to do its job autonomously. 

There are also other tasks in the warehouse where the autonomy will increase in the future. After truck unloading, the second thing we’ll take on is order building, which will be more in the aisles of a warehouse. For that, Stretch will be navigating around the warehouse, finding the right pallet it needs to take a box from, and loading it onto a new pallet. This will be a different model with more autonomy; you’ll still have people involved to some degree, but the robot will have a higher percentage of the time where it can work independently. 

What kinds of constraints is Stretch operating under? Do the boxes all have to be stacked neatly in the back of the truck, do they have to be the same size, the same color, etc?

“This will be a different model with more autonomy. You’ll still have people involved to some degree, but the robot will have a higher percentage of the time where it can work independently.”

If you think about manufacturing, where there's been automation for decades, you can go into a modern manufacturing facility and there are robot arms and conveyors and other machines. But if you look at the actual warehouse space, 90+ percent is manually operated, and that's because of what you just asked about—  things that are less structured, where there’s more variety, and it's more challenging for a robot. But this is starting to change. This is really, really early days, and you’re going to be seeing a lot more robots in the warehouse space.

The warehouse robotics industry is going to grow a lot over the next decade, and a lot of that boils down to vision—the ability for robots to navigate and to understand what they’re seeing. Actually seeing boxes in real world scenarios is challenging, especially when there's a lot of variety. We've been testing our machine learning-based box detection system on Pick for a few years now, and it's gotten far enough that we know it’s one of the technical hurdles you need to overcome to succeed in the warehouse.

Can you compare the performance of Stretch to the performance of a human in a box-unloading task?

Stretch can move cases up to 50 pounds which is the OSHA limit for how much a single person's allowed to move. The peak case rate for Stretch is 800 cases per hour. You really need to keep up with the flow of goods throughout the warehouse, and 800 cases per hour should be enough for most applications. This is similar to a really good human; most humans are probably slower, and it’s hard for a human to sustain that rate, and one of the big issues with people doing this jobs is injury rates. Imagine moving really heavy boxes all day, and having to reach up high or bend down to get them—injuries are really common in this area. Truck unloading is one of the hardest jobs in a warehouse, and that’s one of the reasons we’re starting there with Stretch.

Is Stretch safe for humans to be around?

We looked at using collaborative robot arms for Stretch, but they don’t have the combination of strength and speed and reach to do this task. That’s partially just due to the laws of physics—if you want to move a 50lb box really fast, that’s a lot of energy there. So, Stretch does need to maintain separation from humans, but it’s pretty safe when it’s operating in the back of a truck.

In the middle of a warehouse, Stretch will have a couple different modes. When it's traveling around it'll be kind of like an AMR, and use a safety-rated lidar making sure that it slows down or stops as people get closer. If it's parked and the arm is moving, it'll do the same thing, monitoring anyone getting close and either slow down or stop.

How do you see Stretch interacting with other warehouse robots?

For building pallet orders, we can do that in a couple of different ways, and we’re experimenting with partners in the AMR space. So you might have an AMR that moves the pallet around and then rendezvous with Stretch, and Stretch does the manipulation part and moves boxes onto the pallet, and then the AMR scuttles off to the next rendezvous point where maybe a different Stretch meets it. We’re developing prototypes of that behavior now with a few partners. Another way to do it is Stretch can actually pull the pallet around itself and do both tasks. There are two fundamental things that happen in the warehouse: there's movement of goods, and there's manipulation of goods, and Stretch can do both.

You’re aware that Hello Robot has a mobile manipulator called Stretch, right?

Great minds think alike! We know Aaron [Edsinger] from the Google days; we all used to be in the same company, and he’s a great guy. We’re in very different applications and spaces, though— Aaron’s robot is going into research and maybe a little bit into the consumer space, while this robot is on a much bigger scale aimed at industrial applications, so I think there’s actually a lot of space between our robots, in terms of how they’ll be used. 

Editor’s Note: We did check in with Aaron Edsinger at Hello Robot, and he sees things a little bit differently. “We're disappointed they chose our name for their robot,” Edsinger told us. “We're seriously concerned about it and considering our options.” We sincerely hope that Boston Dynamics and Hello Robot can come to an amicable solution on this.

What’s the timeline for commercial deployment of Stretch?

This is a prototype of the Stretch robot, and anytime we design a new robot, we always like to build a prototype as quickly as possible so we can figure out what works and what doesn't work. We did that with our bipeds and quadrupeds as well. So, we get an early look at what we need to iterate, because any time you build the first thing, it's not the right thing, and you always need to make changes to get to the final version. We've got about six of those Stretch prototypes operating now. In parallel, our hardware team is finishing up the design of the productized version of Stretch. That version of Stretch looks a lot like the prototype, but every component has been redesigned from the ground up to be manufacturable, to be reliable, and to be higher performance. 

For the productized version of Stretch, we’ll build up the first units this summer, and then it’ll go on sale next year. So this is kind of a sneak peak into what the final product will be.

How much does it cost, and will you be selling Stretch, or offering it as a service?

We’re not quite ready to talk about cost yet, but it’ll be cost effective, and similar in cost to existing systems if you were to combine an industrial robot arm, custom gripper, and mobile base. We’re considering both selling and leasing as a service, but we’re not quite ready to narrow it down yet. 

Photo: Boston Dynamics

As with all mobile manipulators, what Stretch can do long-term is constrained far more by software than by hardware. With a fast and powerful arm, a mobile base, a solid perception system, and 16 hours of battery life, you can imagine how different grippers could enable all kinds of different capabilities. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, because it’s a long, long way from getting a prototype to work pretty well to getting robots into warehouses in a way that’s commercially viable long-term, even when the use case is as clear as it seems to be for Stretch.

Stretch also could signal a significant shift in focus for Boston Dynamics. While Blankespoor’s comments about Stretch leveraging Boston Dynamics’ expertise with robots like Spot and Atlas are well taken, Stretch is arguably the most traditional robot that the company has designed, and they’ve done so specifically to be able to sell robots into industry. This is what you do if you’re a robotics company who wants to make money by selling robots commercially, which (historically) has not been what Boston Dynamics is all about. Despite its bonkers valuation, Boston Dynamics ultimately needs to make money, and robots like Stretch are a good way to do it. With that in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more robots like this from Boston Dynamics—robots that leverage the company’s unique technology, but that are designed to do commercially useful tasks in a somewhat less flashy way. And if this strategy keeps Boston Dynamics around (while funding some occasional creative craziness), then I’m all for it.

Today, Boston Dynamics is announcing Stretch, a mobile robot designed to autonomously move boxes around warehouses. At first glance, you might be wondering why the heck this is a Boston Dynamics robot at all, since the dynamic mobility that we associate with most of their platforms is notably absent. The combination of strength and speed in Stretch’s arm is something we haven’t seen before in a mobile robot, and it’s what makes this a unique and potentially exciting entry into the warehouse robotics space. 

Useful mobile manipulation in any environment that’s not almost entirely structured is still a significant challenge in robotics, and it requires a very difficult combination of sensing, intelligence, and dynamic motion, all of which are classic Boston Dynamics. But also classic Boston Dynamics is building really cool platforms, and only later trying to figure out a way of making them commercially viable. So why Stretch, why boxes, why now, and (the real question) why not Handle? We talk with Boston Dynamics’ Vice President of Product Engineering Kevin Blankespoor to find out.

Stretch is very explicitly a box-handling mobile robot for relatively well structured warehouses. It’s in no way designed to be a generalist that many of Boston Dynamics’ other robots are. And to be fair, this is absolutely how to make a robot that’s practical and cost effective right out of the crate: Identify a task that is dull or dirty or dangerous for humans, design a robot to do that task safely and efficiently, and deploy it with the expectation that it’ll be really good at that task but not necessarily much else. This is a very different approach than a robot like Spot, where the platform came first and the practical applications came later—with Stretch, it’s all about that specific task in a specific environment.

There are already robotic solutions for truck unloading, palletizing, and depalletizing, but Stretch seems to be uniquely capable. For truck unloading, the highest performance systems that I’m aware of are monstrous things (here’s one example from Honeywell) that use a ton of custom hardware to just sort of ingest the cargo within a trailer all at once. In a highly structured and predictable warehouse, this sort of thing may pay off over the long term, but it’s going to be extremely expensive and not very versatile at all.

Palletizing and depalletizing robots are much more common in warehouses today. They’re almost always large industrial arms surrounded by a network of custom conveyor belts and whatnot, suffering from the same sorts of constraints as a truck unloader— very capable in some situations, but generally high cost and low flexibility.

Photo: Boston Dynamics

Stretch is probably not going to be able to compete with either of these types of dedicated systems when it comes to sheer speed, but it offers lots of other critical advantages: It’s fast and easy to deploy, easy to use, and adaptable to a variety of different tasks without costly infrastructure changes. It’s also very much not Handle, which was Boston Dynamics’ earlier (although not that much earlier) attempt at a box-handling robot for warehouses, and (let’s be honest here) a much more Boston Dynamics-y thing than Stretch seems to be. To learn more about why the answer is Stretch rather than Handle, and how Stretch will fit into the warehouse of the very near future, we spoke with Kevin Blankespoor, Boston Dynamics’ VP of Product Engineering and chief engineer for both Handle and Stretch.

IEEE Spectrum: Tell me about Stretch!

Kevin Blankespoor: Stretch is the first mobile robot that we’ve designed specifically for the warehouse. It’s all about moving boxes. Stretch is a flexible robot that can move throughout the warehouse and do different tasks. During a typical day in the life of Stretch in the future, it might spend the morning on the inbound side of the warehouse unloading boxes from trucks. It might spend the afternoon in the aisles of the warehouse building up pallets to go to retailers and e-commerce facilities, and it might spend the evening on the outbound side of the warehouse loading boxes into the trucks. So, it really goes to where the work is.

There are already other robots that include truck unloading robots, palletizing and depalletizing robots, and mobile bases with arms on them. What makes Boston Dynamics the right company to introduce a new robot in this space?

We definitely thought through this, because there are already autonomous mobile robots [AMRs] out there. Most of them, though, are more like pallet movers or tote movers—they don't have an arm, and most of them are really just about moving something from point A to point B without manipulation capability. We've seen some experiments where people put arms on AMRs, but nothing that's made it very far in the market. And so when we started looking at Stretch, we realized we really needed to make a custom robot, and that it was something we could do quickly. 

“We got a lot of interest from people who wanted to put Atlas to work in the warehouse, but we knew that we could build a simpler robot to do some of those same tasks.”

Stretch is built with pieces from Spot and Atlas and that gave us a big head start. For example, if you look at Stretch’s vision system, it's 2D cameras, depth sensors, and software that allows it to do obstacle detection, box detection, and localization. Those are all the same sensors and software that we've been using for years on our legged robots. And if you look closely at Stretch’s wrist joints, they're actually the same as Spot’s hips. They use the same electric motors, the same gearboxes, the same sensors, and they even have the same closed-loop controller controlling the joints. 

If you were to buy an existing industrial robot arm with this kind of performance, it would be about four times heavier than the arm we built, and it's really hard to make that into a mobile robot. A lot of this came from our leg technology because it’s so important for our leg designs to be lightweight for the robots to balance. We took that same strength to weight advantage that we have, and built it into this arm. We're able to rapidly piece together things from our other robots to get us out of the gate quickly, so even though this looks like a totally different robot, we think we have a good head start going into this market. 

At what point did you decide to go with an arm on a statically stable base on Stretch, rather than something more, you know, dynamic-y?

Stretch looks really different than the robots that Boston Dynamics has done in the past. But you'd be surprised how much similarity there is between our legged robots and Stretch under the hood. Looking back, we actually got our start on moving boxes with Atlas, and at that point it was just research and development. We were really trying to do force control for box grasping. We were picking up heavy boxes and maintaining balance and working on those fundamentals. We released a video of that as our first next-gen Atlas video, and it was interesting. We got a lot of interest from people who wanted to put Atlas to work in the warehouse, but we knew that we could build a simpler robot to do some of those same tasks. 

So at this point we actually came up with Handle. The intent of Handle was to do a couple things—one was, we thought we could build a simpler robot that had Atlas’ attributes. Handle has a small footprint so it can fit in tight spaces, but it can pick up heavy boxes. And in addition to that, we had always really wanted to combine wheels and legs. We’d been talking about doing that for a decade and so Handle was a chance for us to try it. 

We built a couple versions of Handle, and the first one was really just a prototype to kind of explore the morphology. But the second one was more purpose-built for warehouse tasks, and we started building pallets with that one and it looked pretty good. And then we started doing truck unloading with Handle, which was the pivotal moment. Handle could do it, but it took too long. Every time Handle grasped a box, it would have to roll back and then get to a place where it could spin itself to face forward and place the box, and trucks are very tight for a robot this size, so there's not a lot of room to maneuver. We knew the whole time that there was a robot like Stretch that was another alternative, but that's really when it became clear that Stretch would have a lot of advantages, and we started working on it about a year ago. 

Stretch is certainly impressive in a practical way, but I’ll admit to really hoping that something like Handle could have turned out to be a viable warehouse robot.

I love the Handle project as well, and I’m very passionate about that robot. And there was a stage before we built Stretch where we thought, “this would be pretty standard looking compared to Handle, is it going to capture enough of the Boston Dynamics secret sauce?” But when you actually dissect all the problems within Stretch that you have to tackle, there are a lot of cool robotics problems left in there—the vision system, the planning, the manipulation, the grasping of the boxes—it's a lot harder to solve than it looks, and we're excited that we're actually getting fairly far down that road now.

What happens to Handle now?

Stretch has really taken over our team as far as warehouse products go. Handle we still use occasionally as a research robot, but it’s not actively under development. Stretch is really Handle’s descendent. Handle’s not retired, exactly, but we’re just using it for things like the dance video

There’s still potential to do cool stuff with Handle. I do think that combining wheels with legs is very cool, and largely unexplored compared to its potential. So I still think that you're gonna see versions of robots combining wheels and legs like Handle, and maybe a version of Handle in the future that does more of that. But because we're switching this thread from research into product, Stretch is really the main focus now.

How autonomous is Stretch?

Stretch is semi-autonomous, and that means it really needs to work with people to tap into its full potential. With truck unloading, for example, a person will drive Stretch into the back of the truck and then basically point Stretch in the right direction and say go. And from that point on, everything’s autonomous. Stretch has its vision system and its mobility and it can detect all the boxes, grasp all boxes, and move them onto a conveyor all autonomously. This is something that takes people hours to do manually, and Stretch can go all the way until it gets to the last box, and the truck is empty.  There are some parts of the truck unloading task that do require people, like verifying that the truck is in the right place and opening the doors. But this takes a person just a few minutes, and then the robot can spend hours or as long as it takes to do its job autonomously. 

There are also other tasks in the warehouse where the autonomy will increase in the future. After truck unloading, the second thing we’ll take on is order building, which will be more in the aisles of a warehouse. For that, Stretch will be navigating around the warehouse, finding the right pallet it needs to take a box from, and loading it onto a new pallet. This will be a different model with more autonomy; you’ll still have people involved to some degree, but the robot will have a higher percentage of the time where it can work independently. 

What kinds of constraints is Stretch operating under? Do the boxes all have to be stacked neatly in the back of the truck, do they have to be the same size, the same color, etc?

“This will be a different model with more autonomy. You’ll still have people involved to some degree, but the robot will have a higher percentage of the time where it can work independently.”

If you think about manufacturing, where there's been automation for decades, you can go into a modern manufacturing facility and there are robot arms and conveyors and other machines. But if you look at the actual warehouse space, 90+ percent is manually operated, and that's because of what you just asked about—  things that are less structured, where there’s more variety, and it's more challenging for a robot. But this is starting to change. This is really, really early days, and you’re going to be seeing a lot more robots in the warehouse space.

The warehouse robotics industry is going to grow a lot over the next decade, and a lot of that boils down to vision—the ability for robots to navigate and to understand what they’re seeing. Actually seeing boxes in real world scenarios is challenging, especially when there's a lot of variety. We've been testing our machine learning-based box detection system on Pick for a few years now, and it's gotten far enough that we know it’s one of the technical hurdles you need to overcome to succeed in the warehouse.

Can you compare the performance of Stretch to the performance of a human in a box-unloading task?

Stretch can move cases up to 50 pounds which is the OSHA limit for how much a single person's allowed to move. The peak case rate for Stretch is 800 cases per hour. You really need to keep up with the flow of goods throughout the warehouse, and 800 cases per hour should be enough for most applications. This is similar to a really good human; most humans are probably slower, and it’s hard for a human to sustain that rate, and one of the big issues with people doing this jobs is injury rates. Imagine moving really heavy boxes all day, and having to reach up high or bend down to get them—injuries are really common in this area. Truck unloading is one of the hardest jobs in a warehouse, and that’s one of the reasons we’re starting there with Stretch.

Is Stretch safe for humans to be around?

We looked at using collaborative robot arms for Stretch, but they don’t have the combination of strength and speed and reach to do this task. That’s partially just due to the laws of physics—if you want to move a 50lb box really fast, that’s a lot of energy there. So, Stretch does need to maintain separation from humans, but it’s pretty safe when it’s operating in the back of a truck.

In the middle of a warehouse, Stretch will have a couple different modes. When it's traveling around it'll be kind of like an AMR, and use a safety-rated lidar making sure that it slows down or stops as people get closer. If it's parked and the arm is moving, it'll do the same thing, monitoring anyone getting close and either slow down or stop.

How do you see Stretch interacting with other warehouse robots?

For building pallet orders, we can do that in a couple of different ways, and we’re experimenting with partners in the AMR space. So you might have an AMR that moves the pallet around and then rendezvous with Stretch, and Stretch does the manipulation part and moves boxes onto the pallet, and then the AMR scuttles off to the next rendezvous point where maybe a different Stretch meets it. We’re developing prototypes of that behavior now with a few partners. Another way to do it is Stretch can actually pull the pallet around itself and do both tasks. There are two fundamental things that happen in the warehouse: there's movement of goods, and there's manipulation of goods, and Stretch can do both.

You’re aware that Hello Robot has a mobile manipulator called Stretch, right?

Great minds think alike! We know Aaron [Edsinger] from the Google days; we all used to be in the same company, and he’s a great guy. We’re in very different applications and spaces, though— Aaron’s robot is going into research and maybe a little bit into the consumer space, while this robot is on a much bigger scale aimed at industrial applications, so I think there’s actually a lot of space between our robots, in terms of how they’ll be used. 

Editor’s Note: We did check in with Aaron Edsinger at Hello Robot, and he sees things a little bit differently. “We're disappointed they chose our name for their robot,” Edsinger told us. “We're seriously concerned about it and considering our options.” We sincerely hope that Boston Dynamics and Hello Robot can come to an amicable solution on this.

What’s the timeline for commercial deployment of Stretch?

This is a prototype of the Stretch robot, and anytime we design a new robot, we always like to build a prototype as quickly as possible so we can figure out what works and what doesn't work. We did that with our bipeds and quadrupeds as well. So, we get an early look at what we need to iterate, because any time you build the first thing, it's not the right thing, and you always need to make changes to get to the final version. We've got about six of those Stretch prototypes operating now. In parallel, our hardware team is finishing up the design of the productized version of Stretch. That version of Stretch looks a lot like the prototype, but every component has been redesigned from the ground up to be manufacturable, to be reliable, and to be higher performance. 

For the productized version of Stretch, we’ll build up the first units this summer, and then it’ll go on sale next year. So this is kind of a sneak peak into what the final product will be.

How much does it cost, and will you be selling Stretch, or offering it as a service?

We’re not quite ready to talk about cost yet, but it’ll be cost effective, and similar in cost to existing systems if you were to combine an industrial robot arm, custom gripper, and mobile base. We’re considering both selling and leasing as a service, but we’re not quite ready to narrow it down yet. 

Photo: Boston Dynamics

As with all mobile manipulators, what Stretch can do long-term is constrained far more by software than by hardware. With a fast and powerful arm, a mobile base, a solid perception system, and 16 hours of battery life, you can imagine how different grippers could enable all kinds of different capabilities. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, because it’s a long, long way from getting a prototype to work pretty well to getting robots into warehouses in a way that’s commercially viable long-term, even when the use case is as clear as it seems to be for Stretch.

Stretch also could signal a significant shift in focus for Boston Dynamics. While Blankespoor’s comments about Stretch leveraging Boston Dynamics’ expertise with robots like Spot and Atlas are well taken, Stretch is arguably the most traditional robot that the company has designed, and they’ve done so specifically to be able to sell robots into industry. This is what you do if you’re a robotics company who wants to make money by selling robots commercially, which (historically) has not been what Boston Dynamics is all about. Despite its bonkers valuation, Boston Dynamics ultimately needs to make money, and robots like Stretch are a good way to do it. With that in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more robots like this from Boston Dynamics—robots that leverage the company’s unique technology, but that are designed to do commercially useful tasks in a somewhat less flashy way. And if this strategy keeps Boston Dynamics around (while funding some occasional creative craziness), then I’m all for it.

The cricket is one of the model animals used to investigate the neuronal mechanisms underlying adaptive locomotion. An intact cricket walks mostly with a tripod gait, similar to other insects. The motor control center of the leg movements is located in the thoracic ganglia. In this study, we investigated the walking gait patterns of the crickets whose ventral nerve cords were surgically cut to gain an understanding of how the descending signals from the head ganglia and ascending signals from the abdominal nervous system into the thoracic ganglia mediate the initiation and coordination of the walking gait pattern. Crickets whose paired connectives between the brain and subesophageal ganglion (SEG) (circumesophageal connectives) were cut exhibited a tripod gait pattern. However, when one side of the circumesophageal connectives was cut, the crickets continued to turn in the opposite direction to the connective cut. Crickets whose paired connectives between the SEG and prothoracic ganglion were cut did not walk, whereas the crickets exhibited an ordinal tripod gait pattern when one side of the connectives was intact. Crickets whose paired connectives between the metathoracic ganglion and abdominal ganglia were cut initiated walking, although the gait was not a coordinated tripod pattern, whereas the crickets exhibited a tripod gait when one side of the connectives was intact. These results suggest that the brain plays an inhibitory role in initiating leg movements and that both the descending signals from the head ganglia and the ascending signals from the abdominal nervous system are important in initiating and coordinating insect walking gait patterns.

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

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

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

The Shadow Robot team couldn't resist! Our Operator, Joanna, is using the Shadow Teleoperation System which, fun and games aside, can help those in difficult, dangerous and distant jobs.

Shadow could challenge this MIT Jenga-playing robot, but I bet they wouldn't win:

[ Shadow Robot ]

Digit is gradually stomping the Agility Robotics logo into a big grassy field fully autonomously.

[ Agility Robotics ]

This is a pretty great and very short robotic magic show.

[ Mario the Magician ]

A research team at the Georgia Institute of Technology has developed a modular solution for drone delivery of larger packages without the need for a complex fleet of drones of varying sizes. By allowing teams of small drones to collaboratively lift objects using an adaptive control algorithm, the strategy could allow a wide range of packages to be delivered using a combination of several standard-sized vehicles.

[ GA Tech ]

I've seen this done using vision before, but Flexiv's Rizon 4s can keep a ball moving along a specific trajectory using only force sensing and control.

[ Flexiv ]

Thanks Yunfan!

This combination of a 3D aerial projection system and a sensing interface can be used as an interactive and intuitive control system for things like robot arms, but in this case, it's being used to make simulated pottery. Much less messy than the traditional way of doing it.

More details on Takafumi Matsumaru's work at the Bio-Robotics & Human-Mechatronics Laboratory at Waseda University at the link below.

[ BLHM ]

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris called astronauts Shannon Walker and Kate Rubins on the ISS, and they brought up Astrobee, at which point Shannon reaches over and rips Honey right off of her charging dock to get her on camera.

[ NASA ]

Here's a quick three minute update on Perseverance and Ingenuity from JPL.

[ Mars 2020 ]

Rigid grippers used in existing aerial manipulators require precise positioning to achieve successful grasps and transmit large contact forces that may destabilize the drone. This limits the speed during grasping and prevents “dynamic grasping,” where the drone attempts to grasp an object while moving. On the other hand, biological systems (e.g. birds) rely on compliant and soft parts to dampen contact forces and compensate for grasping inaccuracy, enabling impressive feats. This paper presents the first prototype of a soft drone—a quadrotor where traditional (i.e. rigid) landing gears are replaced with a soft tendon-actuated gripper to enable aggressive grasping.

[ MIT ]

In this video we present results from a field deployment inside the Løkken Mine underground pyrite mine in Norway. The Løkken mine was operative from 1654 to 1987 and contains narrow but long corridors, alongside vast rooms and challenging vertical stopes. In this field study we evaluated selected autonomous exploration and visual search capabilities of a subset of the aerial robots of Team CERBERUS towards the goal of complete subterranean autonomy.

[ Team CERBERUS ]

What you can do with a 1,000 FPS projector with a high speed tracking system.

[ Ishikawa Group ]

ANYbotics’ collaboration with BASF, one of the largest global chemical manufacturers, displays the efficiency, quality, and scalability of robotic inspection and data-collection capabilities in complex industrial environments.

[ ANYbotics ]

Does your robot arm need a stylish jacket?

[ Fraunhofer ]

Trossen Robotics unboxes a Unitree A1, and it's actually an unboxing where they have to figure out everything from scratch.

[ Trossen ]

Robots have learned to drive cars, assist in surgeries―and vacuum our floors. But can they navigate the unwritten rules of a busy sidewalk? Until they can, robotics experts Leila Takayama and Chris Nicholson believe, robots won’t be able to fulfill their immense potential. In this conversation, Chris and Leila explore the future of robotics and the role open source will play in it.

[ Red Hat ]

Christoph Bartneck's keynote at the 6th Joint UAE Symposium on Social Robotics, focusing on what roles robots can play during the Covid crisis and why so many social robots fail in the market.

[ HIT Lab ]

Decision-making based on arbitrary criteria is legal in some contexts, such as employment, and not in others, such as criminal sentencing. As algorithms replace human deciders, HAI-EIS fellow Kathleen Creel argues arbitrariness at scale is morally and legally problematic. In this HAI seminar, she explains how the heart of this moral issue relates to domination and a lack of sufficient opportunity for autonomy. It relates in interesting ways to the moral wrong of discrimination. She proposes technically informed solutions that can lessen the impact of algorithms at scale and so mitigate or avoid the moral harm identified.

[ Stanford HAI ]

Sawyer B. Fuller speaks on Autonomous Insect-Sized Robots at the UC Berkeley EECS Colloquium series.

Sub-gram (insect-sized) robots have enormous potential that is largely untapped. From a research perspective, their extreme size, weight, and power (SWaP) constraints also forces us to reimagine everything from how they compute their control laws to how they are fabricated. These questions are the focus of the Autonomous Insect Robotics Laboratory at the University of Washington. I will discuss potential applications for insect robots and recent advances from our group. These include the first wireless flights of a sub-gram flapping-wing robot that weighs barely more than a toothpick. I will describe efforts to expand its capabilities, including the first multimodal ground-flight locomotion, the first demonstration of steering control, and how to find chemical plume sources by integrating the smelling apparatus of a live moth. I will also describe a backpack for live beetles with a steerable camera and conceptual design of robots that could scale all the way down to the “gnat robots” first envisioned by Flynn & Brooks in the ‘80s.

[ UC Berkeley ]

Thanks Fan!

Joshua Vander Hook, Computer Scientist, NIAC Fellow, and Technical Group Supervisor at NASA JPL, presents an overview of the AI Group(s) at JPL, and recent work on single and multi-agent autonomous systems supporting space exploration, Earth science, NASA technology development, and national defense programs.

[ UMD ]

Pages