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

IROS 2020 – October 25-25, 2020 – [Online] ROS World 2020 – November 12, 2020 – [Online] CYBATHLON 2020 – November 13-14, 2020 – [Online] ICSR 2020 – November 14-16, 2020 – Golden, Colo., USA

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

Happy Halloween from HEBI Robotics!

Thanks Hardik!

[ HEBI Robotics ]

Happy Halloween from Berkshire Grey!

[ Berkshire Grey ]

These are some preliminary results of our lab’s new work on using reinforcement learning to train neural networks to imitate common bipedal gait behaviors, without using any motion capture data or reference trajectories. Our method is described in an upcoming submission to ICRA 2021. Work by Jonah Siekmann and Yesh Godse.

[ OSU DRL ]

The northern goshawk is a fast, powerful raptor that flies effortlessly through forests. This bird was the design inspiration for the next-generation drone developed by scientifics of the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems of EPFL led by Dario Floreano. They carefully studied the shape of the bird’s wings and tail and its flight behavior, and used that information to develop a drone with similar characteristics.

The engineers already designed a bird-inspired drone with morphing wing back in 2016. In a step forward, their new model can adjust the shape of its wing and tail thanks to its artificial feathers. Flying this new type of drone isn’t easy, due to the large number of wing and tail configurations possible. To take full advantage of the drone’s flight capabilities, Floreano’s team plans to incorporate artificial intelligence into the drone’s flight system so that it can fly semi-automatically. The team’s research has been published in Science Robotics.

[ EPFL ]

Oopsie.

[ Roborace ]

We’ve covered MIT’s Roboats in the past, but now they’re big enough to keep a couple of people afloat.

Self-driving boats have been able to transport small items for years, but adding human passengers has felt somewhat intangible due to the current size of the vessels. Roboat II is the “half-scale” boat in the growing body of work, and joins the previously developed quarter-scale Roboat, which is 1 meter long. The third installment, which is under construction in Amsterdam and is considered to be “full scale,” is 4 meters long and aims to carry anywhere from four to six passengers.

[ MIT ]

With a training technique commonly used to teach dogs to sit and stay, Johns Hopkins University computer scientists showed a robot how to teach itself several new tricks, including stacking blocks. With the method, the robot, named Spot, was able to learn in days what typically takes a month.

[ JHU ]

Exyn, a pioneer in autonomous aerial robot systems for complex, GPS-denied industrial environments, today announced the first dog, Kody, to successfully fly a drone at Number 9 Coal Mine, in Lansford, PA. Selected to carry out this mission was the new autonomous aerial robot, the ExynAero.

Yes, this is obviously a publicity stunt, and Kody is only flying the drone in the sense that he’s pushing the launch button and then taking a nap. But that’s also the point— drone autonomy doesn’t get much fuller than this, despite the challenge of the environment.

[ Exyn ]

In this video object instance segmentation and shape completion are combined with classical regrasp planning to perform pick-place of novel objects. It is demonstrated with a UR5, Robotiq 85 parallel-jaw gripper, and Structure depth sensor with three rearrangement tasks: bin packing (minimize the height of the packing), placing bottles onto coasters, and arrange blocks from tallest to shortest (according to the longest edge). The system also accounts for uncertainty in the segmentation/completion by avoiding grasping or placing on parts of the object where perceptual uncertainty is predicted to be high.

[ Paper ] via [ Northeastern ]

Thanks Marcus!

U can’t touch this!

[ University of Tokyo ]

We introduce a way to enable more natural interaction between humans and robots through Mixed Reality, by using a shared coordinate system. Azure Spatial Anchors, which already supports colocalizing multiple HoloLens and smartphone devices in the same space, has now been extended to support robots equipped with cameras. This allows humans and robots sharing the same space to interact naturally: humans can see the plan and intention of the robot, while the robot can interpret commands given from the person’s perspective. We hope that this can be a building block in the future of humans and robots being collaborators and coworkers.

[ Microsoft ]

Some very high jumps from the skinniest quadruped ever.

[ ODRI ]

In this video we present recent efforts to make our humanoid robot LOLA ready for multi-contact locomotion, i.e. additional hand-environment support for extra stabilization during walking.

[ TUM ]

Classic bike moves from Dr. Guero.

[ Dr. Guero ]

For a robotics company, iRobot is OLD.

[ iRobot ]

The Canadian Space Agency presents Juno, a preliminary version of a rover that could one day be sent to the Moon or Mars. Juno can navigate autonomously or be operated remotely. The Lunar Exploration Analogue Deployment (LEAD) consisted in replicating scenarios of a lunar sample return mission.

[ CSA ]

How exactly does the Waymo Driver handle a cat cutting across its driving path? Jonathan N., a Product Manager on our Perception team, breaks it all down for us.

Now do kangaroos.

[ Waymo ]

Jibo is hard at work at MIT playing games with kids.

Children’s creativity plummets as they enter elementary school. Social interactions with peers and playful environments have been shown to foster creativity in children. Digital pedagogical tools often lack the creativity benefits of co-located social interaction with peers. In this work, we leverage a social embodied robot as a playful peer and designed Escape!Bot, a game involving child-robot co-play, where the robot is a social agent that scaffolds for creativity during gameplay.

[ Paper ]

It’s nice when convenience stores are convenient even for the folks who have to do the restocking.

Who’s moving the crates around, though?

[ Telexistence ]

Hi, fans ! Join the ROS World 2020, opening November 12th , and see the footage of ROBOTIS’ ROS platform robots :)

[ ROS World 2020 ]

ML/RL methods are often viewed as a magical black box, and while that’s not true, learned policies are nonetheless a valuable tool that can work in conjunction with the underlying physics of the robot. In this video, Agility CTO Jonathan Hurst - wearing his professor hat at Oregon State University - presents some recent student work on using learned policies as a control method for highly dynamic legged robots.

[ Agility Robotics ]

Here’s an ICRA Legged Robots workshop talk from Marco Hutter at ETH Zürich, on Autonomy for ANYmal.

Recent advances in legged robots and their locomotion skills has led to systems that are skilled and mature enough for real-world deployment. In particular, quadrupedal robots have reached a level of mobility to navigate complex environments, which enables them to take over inspection or surveillance jobs in place like offshore industrial plants, in underground areas, or on construction sites. In this talk, I will present our research work with the quadruped ANYmal and explain some of the underlying technologies for locomotion control, environment perception, and mission autonomy. I will show how these robots can learn and plan complex maneuvers, how they can navigate through unknown environments, and how they are able to conduct surveillance, inspection, or exploration scenarios.

[ RSL ]

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

IROS 2020 – October 25-25, 2020 – [Online] ROS World 2020 – November 12, 2020 – [Online] CYBATHLON 2020 – November 13-14, 2020 – [Online] ICSR 2020 – November 14-16, 2020 – Golden, Colo., USA

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

Happy Halloween from HEBI Robotics!

Thanks Hardik!

[ HEBI Robotics ]

Happy Halloween from Berkshire Grey!

[ Berkshire Grey ]

These are some preliminary results of our lab’s new work on using reinforcement learning to train neural networks to imitate common bipedal gait behaviors, without using any motion capture data or reference trajectories. Our method is described in an upcoming submission to ICRA 2021. Work by Jonah Siekmann and Yesh Godse.

[ OSU DRL ]

The northern goshawk is a fast, powerful raptor that flies effortlessly through forests. This bird was the design inspiration for the next-generation drone developed by scientifics of the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems of EPFL led by Dario Floreano. They carefully studied the shape of the bird’s wings and tail and its flight behavior, and used that information to develop a drone with similar characteristics.

The engineers already designed a bird-inspired drone with morphing wing back in 2016. In a step forward, their new model can adjust the shape of its wing and tail thanks to its artificial feathers. Flying this new type of drone isn’t easy, due to the large number of wing and tail configurations possible. To take full advantage of the drone’s flight capabilities, Floreano’s team plans to incorporate artificial intelligence into the drone’s flight system so that it can fly semi-automatically. The team’s research has been published in Science Robotics.

[ EPFL ]

Oopsie.

[ Roborace ]

We’ve covered MIT’s Roboats in the past, but now they’re big enough to keep a couple of people afloat.

Self-driving boats have been able to transport small items for years, but adding human passengers has felt somewhat intangible due to the current size of the vessels. Roboat II is the “half-scale” boat in the growing body of work, and joins the previously developed quarter-scale Roboat, which is 1 meter long. The third installment, which is under construction in Amsterdam and is considered to be “full scale,” is 4 meters long and aims to carry anywhere from four to six passengers.

[ MIT ]

With a training technique commonly used to teach dogs to sit and stay, Johns Hopkins University computer scientists showed a robot how to teach itself several new tricks, including stacking blocks. With the method, the robot, named Spot, was able to learn in days what typically takes a month.

[ JHU ]

Exyn, a pioneer in autonomous aerial robot systems for complex, GPS-denied industrial environments, today announced the first dog, Kody, to successfully fly a drone at Number 9 Coal Mine, in Lansford, PA. Selected to carry out this mission was the new autonomous aerial robot, the ExynAero.

Yes, this is obviously a publicity stunt, and Kody is only flying the drone in the sense that he’s pushing the launch button and then taking a nap. But that’s also the point— drone autonomy doesn’t get much fuller than this, despite the challenge of the environment.

[ Exyn ]

In this video object instance segmentation and shape completion are combined with classical regrasp planning to perform pick-place of novel objects. It is demonstrated with a UR5, Robotiq 85 parallel-jaw gripper, and Structure depth sensor with three rearrangement tasks: bin packing (minimize the height of the packing), placing bottles onto coasters, and arrange blocks from tallest to shortest (according to the longest edge). The system also accounts for uncertainty in the segmentation/completion by avoiding grasping or placing on parts of the object where perceptual uncertainty is predicted to be high.

[ Paper ] via [ Northeastern ]

Thanks Marcus!

U can’t touch this!

[ University of Tokyo ]

We introduce a way to enable more natural interaction between humans and robots through Mixed Reality, by using a shared coordinate system. Azure Spatial Anchors, which already supports colocalizing multiple HoloLens and smartphone devices in the same space, has now been extended to support robots equipped with cameras. This allows humans and robots sharing the same space to interact naturally: humans can see the plan and intention of the robot, while the robot can interpret commands given from the person’s perspective. We hope that this can be a building block in the future of humans and robots being collaborators and coworkers.

[ Microsoft ]

Some very high jumps from the skinniest quadruped ever.

[ ODRI ]

In this video we present recent efforts to make our humanoid robot LOLA ready for multi-contact locomotion, i.e. additional hand-environment support for extra stabilization during walking.

[ TUM ]

Classic bike moves from Dr. Guero.

[ Dr. Guero ]

For a robotics company, iRobot is OLD.

[ iRobot ]

The Canadian Space Agency presents Juno, a preliminary version of a rover that could one day be sent to the Moon or Mars. Juno can navigate autonomously or be operated remotely. The Lunar Exploration Analogue Deployment (LEAD) consisted in replicating scenarios of a lunar sample return mission.

[ CSA ]

How exactly does the Waymo Driver handle a cat cutting across its driving path? Jonathan N., a Product Manager on our Perception team, breaks it all down for us.

Now do kangaroos.

[ Waymo ]

Jibo is hard at work at MIT playing games with kids.

Children’s creativity plummets as they enter elementary school. Social interactions with peers and playful environments have been shown to foster creativity in children. Digital pedagogical tools often lack the creativity benefits of co-located social interaction with peers. In this work, we leverage a social embodied robot as a playful peer and designed Escape!Bot, a game involving child-robot co-play, where the robot is a social agent that scaffolds for creativity during gameplay.

[ Paper ]

It’s nice when convenience stores are convenient even for the folks who have to do the restocking.

Who’s moving the crates around, though?

[ Telexistence ]

Hi, fans ! Join the ROS World 2020, opening November 12th , and see the footage of ROBOTIS’ ROS platform robots :)

[ ROS World 2020 ]

ML/RL methods are often viewed as a magical black box, and while that’s not true, learned policies are nonetheless a valuable tool that can work in conjunction with the underlying physics of the robot. In this video, Agility CTO Jonathan Hurst - wearing his professor hat at Oregon State University - presents some recent student work on using learned policies as a control method for highly dynamic legged robots.

[ Agility Robotics ]

Here’s an ICRA Legged Robots workshop talk from Marco Hutter at ETH Zürich, on Autonomy for ANYmal.

Recent advances in legged robots and their locomotion skills has led to systems that are skilled and mature enough for real-world deployment. In particular, quadrupedal robots have reached a level of mobility to navigate complex environments, which enables them to take over inspection or surveillance jobs in place like offshore industrial plants, in underground areas, or on construction sites. In this talk, I will present our research work with the quadruped ANYmal and explain some of the underlying technologies for locomotion control, environment perception, and mission autonomy. I will show how these robots can learn and plan complex maneuvers, how they can navigate through unknown environments, and how they are able to conduct surveillance, inspection, or exploration scenarios.

[ RSL ]

Swarms of modular, self-reconfigurable robots have a lot going for them, at least in theory— they’re resilient and easy to scale, since big robots can be made on demand from lots of little robots. One of the trickiest bits about modular robots is figuring out a simple and reliable way of getting them to connect to each other, without having to rely on some kind of dedicated connectivity system.

This week at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots (IROS), a research team at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, led by Tin Lun Lam is presenting a new kind of modular robot that solves this problem by using little robotic vehicles inside of iron spheres that can stick together wherever you need them to.

Typically, modular robots are relatively complicated and finicky things, because the connections between them have to combine power, communications, and physical support, leading to robot-to-robot interfaces that are relatively complicated. And we usually see modular robots that emphasize reconfigurability as opposed to any kind of inherent single-module capability. Swarm robots, on the other hand, do emphasize single robot capability, although the single robots are intended to be most useful as part of a large swarm.

Photo: Chinese University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen The internal mechanism that FreeBOT uses to move includes a motor and a magnet.

FreeBOT is a sort of hybrid between these two robotic concepts. Each FreeBOT module consists of an iron sphere, inside of which is a little vehicle of sorts with two motorized wheels and a permanent magnet. The magnet keeps the vehicle stuck to the inside of the sphere, and when the wheels spin, it causes the shell to roll forward or backward. Driving the wheels independently turns the shell. If this looks familiar, it could be because the popular Sphero robots have the same basic design. A single module can do a fair amount on its own, with good mobility and some neat tricks around ferromagnetic surfaces. 

Photo: Chinese University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen

How two FreeBOTs connect to one another and separate from each other.

Since each robot has a ferromagnetic shell plus an internal permanent magnet, attaching one robot to another robot is relatively simple. Two robots can touch each other without connecting, since the iron shells are not permanent magnets. To make the attachment, the permanent magnet on the bottom of the little internal vehicle has to get close to the point at which the two spheres are touching, and when it does, the permanent magnet excites a magnetic field in the shells of both robots, causing them to stick together. The exact alignment is very forgiving, and the connection can happen absolutely anywhere on each robot, which is far more versatile than just about any other modular robotic system. Disconnecting simply involves moving the internal vehicle away from the connection point, which removes the magnetic field. Combining multiple FreeBOTs is where things get interesting, since it’s possible to create blobs of robots or chains of robots or use a small pile of robots to help one module overcome obstacles. Ferromagnetic surfaces can be leveraged even more by a swarm than by a single module.

There are some constraints to the current generation of FreeBOTs; most significantly, they’re remote controlled, without much in the way of onboard sensors (or any obvious way of adding them). Recharging the batteries also seems like it might be difficult. The researchers are working on ways of making the swarm of FreeBOTs at least somewhat autonomous, though, and they say that they plan to make a whole bunch more of them “to fully demonstrate the enormous potential of FreeBOT.” Here’s a peek of what a bunch of FreeBOTs can do:

“FreeBOT: A Freeform Modular Self-reconfigurable Robot with Arbitrary Connection Point - Design and Implementation,” by Guanqi Liang, Haobo Luo, Ming Li, Huihuan Qian, and Tin Lun Lam from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, will be presented at IROS 2020.

Swarms of modular, self-reconfigurable robots have a lot going for them, at least in theory— they’re resilient and easy to scale, since big robots can be made on demand from lots of little robots. One of the trickiest bits about modular robots is figuring out a simple and reliable way of getting them to connect to each other, without having to rely on some kind of dedicated connectivity system.

This week at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots (IROS), a research team at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, led by Tin Lun Lam is presenting a new kind of modular robot that solves this problem by using little robotic vehicles inside of iron spheres that can stick together wherever you need them to.

Typically, modular robots are relatively complicated and finicky things, because the connections between them have to combine power, communications, and physical support, leading to robot-to-robot interfaces that are relatively complicated. And we usually see modular robots that emphasize reconfigurability as opposed to any kind of inherent single-module capability. Swarm robots, on the other hand, do emphasize single robot capability, although the single robots are intended to be most useful as part of a large swarm.

Photo: Chinese University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen The internal mechanism that FreeBOT uses to move includes a motor and a magnet.

FreeBOT is a sort of hybrid between these two robotic concepts. Each FreeBOT module consists of an iron sphere, inside of which is a little vehicle of sorts with two motorized wheels and a permanent magnet. The magnet keeps the vehicle stuck to the inside of the sphere, and when the wheels spin, it causes the shell to roll forward or backward. Driving the wheels independently turns the shell. If this looks familiar, it could be because the popular Sphero robots have the same basic design. A single module can do a fair amount on its own, with good mobility and some neat tricks around ferromagnetic surfaces. 

Photo: Chinese University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen

How two FreeBOTs connect to one another and separate from each other.

Since each robot has a ferromagnetic shell plus an internal permanent magnet, attaching one robot to another robot is relatively simple. Two robots can touch each other without connecting, since the iron shells are not permanent magnets. To make the attachment, the permanent magnet on the bottom of the little internal vehicle has to get close to the point at which the two spheres are touching, and when it does, the permanent magnet excites a magnetic field in the shells of both robots, causing them to stick together. The exact alignment is very forgiving, and the connection can happen absolutely anywhere on each robot, which is far more versatile than just about any other modular robotic system. Disconnecting simply involves moving the internal vehicle away from the connection point, which removes the magnetic field. Combining multiple FreeBOTs is where things get interesting, since it’s possible to create blobs of robots or chains of robots or use a small pile of robots to help one module overcome obstacles. Ferromagnetic surfaces can be leveraged even more by a swarm than by a single module.

There are some constraints to the current generation of FreeBOTs; most significantly, they’re remote controlled, without much in the way of onboard sensors (or any obvious way of adding them). Recharging the batteries also seems like it might be difficult. The researchers are working on ways of making the swarm of FreeBOTs at least somewhat autonomous, though, and they say that they plan to make a whole bunch more of them “to fully demonstrate the enormous potential of FreeBOT.” Here’s a peek of what a bunch of FreeBOTs can do:

“FreeBOT: A Freeform Modular Self-reconfigurable Robot with Arbitrary Connection Point - Design and Implementation,” by Guanqi Liang, Haobo Luo, Ming Li, Huihuan Qian, and Tin Lun Lam from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, will be presented at IROS 2020.

The emergent interest in artificial nanostructures that can be remotely navigated a specific location in a fluidic environment is motivated by the enormous potential this technology offers to biomedical applications. Originally, bio-inspired micro-/nanohelices driven by a rotating magnetic field were proposed. However, fabrication of 3D helical nanostructures is complicated. One idea to circumvent complex microfabrication is to use 1D soft magnetic nanowires that acquire chiral shape when actuated by a rotating field. The paper describes the comprehensive numerical approach for modeling propulsion of externally actuated soft magnetic nanowires. The proposed bead-spring model allows for arbitrary filament geometry and flexibility and takes rigorous account of intra-filament hydrodynamic interactions. The comparison of the numerical predictions with the previous experimental results on propulsion of composite two-segment (Ni-Ag) nanowires shows an excellent agreement. Using our model we could substantiate and rationalize important and previously unexplained details, such as bidirectional propulsion of three-segment (Ni-Ag-Au) nanowires.

We all know how robots are great at going to places where you can’t (or shouldn’t) send a human. We also know how robots are great at doing repetitive tasks. These characteristics have the potential to make robots ideal for setting up wireless sensor networks in hazardous environments—that is, they could deploy a whole bunch of self-contained sensor nodes that create a network that can monitor a very large area for a very long time.

When it comes to using drones to set up sensor networks, you’ve generally got two options: A drone that just drops sensors on the ground (easy but inaccurate and limited locations), or using a drone with some sort of manipulator on it to stick sensors in specific places (complicated and risky). A third option, under development by researchers at Imperial College London’s Aerial Robotics Lab, provides the accuracy of direct contact with the safety and ease of use of passive dropping by instead using the drone as a launching platform for laser-aimed, sensor-equipped darts. 

These darts (which the researchers refer to as aerodynamically stabilized, spine-equipped sensor pods) can embed themselves in relatively soft targets from up to 4 meters away with an accuracy of about 10 centimeters after being fired from a spring-loaded launcher. They’re not quite as accurate as a drone with a manipulator, but it’s pretty good, and the drone can maintain a safe distance from the surface that it’s trying to add a sensor to. Obviously, the spine is only going to work on things like wood, but the researchers point out that there are plenty of attachment mechanisms that could be used, including magnets, adhesives, chemical bonding, or microspines.

Indoor tests using magnets showed the system to be quite reliable, but at close range (within a meter of the target) the darts sometimes bounced off rather than sticking. From between 1 and 4 meters away, the darts stuck between 90 and 100 percent of the time. Initial outdoor tests were also successful, although the system was under manual control. The researchers say that “regular and safe operations should be carried out autonomously,” which, yeah, you’d just have to deal with all of the extra sensing and hardware required to autonomously fly beneath the canopy of a forest. That’s happening next, as the researchers plan to add “vision state estimation and positioning, as well as a depth sensor” to avoid some trees and fire sensors into others.

And if all of that goes well, they’ll consider trying to get each drone to carry multiple darts. Look out, trees: You’re about to be pierced for science.

“Unmanned Aerial Sensor Placement for Cluttered Environments,” by André Farinha, Raphael Zufferey, Peter Zheng, Sophie F. Armanini, and Mirko Kovac from Imperial College London, was published in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters.

Back to IEEE Journal Watch

We all know how robots are great at going to places where you can’t (or shouldn’t) send a human. We also know how robots are great at doing repetitive tasks. These characteristics have the potential to make robots ideal for setting up wireless sensor networks in hazardous environments—that is, they could deploy a whole bunch of self-contained sensor nodes that create a network that can monitor a very large area for a very long time.

When it comes to using drones to set up sensor networks, you’ve generally got two options: A drone that just drops sensors on the ground (easy but inaccurate and limited locations), or using a drone with some sort of manipulator on it to stick sensors in specific places (complicated and risky). A third option, under development by researchers at Imperial College London’s Aerial Robotics Lab, provides the accuracy of direct contact with the safety and ease of use of passive dropping by instead using the drone as a launching platform for laser-aimed, sensor-equipped darts. 

These darts (which the researchers refer to as aerodynamically stabilized, spine-equipped sensor pods) can embed themselves in relatively soft targets from up to 4 meters away with an accuracy of about 10 centimeters after being fired from a spring-loaded launcher. They’re not quite as accurate as a drone with a manipulator, but it’s pretty good, and the drone can maintain a safe distance from the surface that it’s trying to add a sensor to. Obviously, the spine is only going to work on things like wood, but the researchers point out that there are plenty of attachment mechanisms that could be used, including magnets, adhesives, chemical bonding, or microspines.

Indoor tests using magnets showed the system to be quite reliable, but at close range (within a meter of the target) the darts sometimes bounced off rather than sticking. From between 1 and 4 meters away, the darts stuck between 90 and 100 percent of the time. Initial outdoor tests were also successful, although the system was under manual control. The researchers say that “regular and safe operations should be carried out autonomously,” which, yeah, you’d just have to deal with all of the extra sensing and hardware required to autonomously fly beneath the canopy of a forest. That’s happening next, as the researchers plan to add “vision state estimation and positioning, as well as a depth sensor” to avoid some trees and fire sensors into others.

And if all of that goes well, they’ll consider trying to get each drone to carry multiple darts. Look out, trees: You’re about to be pierced for science.

“Unmanned Aerial Sensor Placement for Cluttered Environments,” by André Farinha, Raphael Zufferey, Peter Zheng, Sophie F. Armanini, and Mirko Kovac from Imperial College London, was published in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters.

Back to IEEE Journal Watch

MLPerf, a consortium of AI experts and computing companies, has released a new set of machine learning records. The records were set on a series of benchmarks that measure the speed of inferencing: how quickly an already-trained neural network can accomplish its task with new data. For the first time, benchmarks for mobiles and tablets were contested. According to David Kanter, executive director of MLPerf’s parent organization, a downloadable app is in the works that will allow anyone to test the AI capabilities of their own smartphone or tablet.

MLPerf’s goal is to present a fair and straightforward way to compare AI systems. Twenty-three organizations—including Dell, Intel, and Nvidia—submitted a total of 1200 results, which were peer reviewed and subjected to random third-party audits. (Google was conspicuously absent this round.) As with the MLPerf records for training AIs released over the summer, Nvidia was the dominant force, besting what competition there was in all six categories for both datacenter and edge computing systems. Including submissions by partners like Cisco and Fujitsu, 1029 results, or 85 percent of the total for edge and data center categories, used Nvidia chips, according to the company.

“Nvidia outperforms by a wide range on every test,” says Paresh Kharaya, senior director of product management, accelerated computing at Nvidia. Nvidia’s A100 GPUs powered its wins in the datacenter categories, while its Xavier was behind the GPU-maker’s edge-computing victories. According to Kharaya, on one of the new MLPerf benchmarks, Deep Learning Recommendation Model (DLRM), a single DGX A100 system was the equivalent of 1000 CPU-based servers.

There were four new inferencing benchmarks introduced this year, adding to the two carried over from the previous round:

  • BERT, for Bi-directional Encoder Representation from Transformers, is a natural language processing AI contributed by Google. Given a question input, BERT predicts a suitable answer.
  • DLRM, for Deep Learning Recommendation Model is a recommender system that is trained to optimize click-through rates. It’s used to recommend items for online shopping and rank search results and social media content. Facebook was the major contributor of the DLRM code.
  • 3D U-Net is used in medical imaging systems to tell which 3D voxel in an MRI scan are parts of a tumor and which are healthy tissue. It’s trained on a dataset of brain tumors.
  • RNN-T, for Recurrent Neural Network Transducer, is a speech recognition model. Given a sequence of speech input, it predicts the corresponding text.

In addition to those new metrics, MLPerf put together the first set of benchmarks for mobile devices, which were used to test smartphone and tablet platforms from MediaTek, Qualcomm, and Samsung as well as a notebook from Intel. The new benchmarks included:

  • MobileNetEdgeTPU, an image classification benchmark that is considered the most ubiquitous task in computer vision. It’s representative of how a photo app might be able pick out the faces of you or your friends.
  • SSD-MobileNetV2, for Single Shot multibox Detection with MobileNetv2, is trained to detect 80 different object categories in input frames with 300x300 resolution. It’s commonly used to identify and track people and objects in photography and live video.
  • DeepLabv3+ MobileNetV2: This is used to understand a scene for things like VR and navigation, and it plays a role in computational photography apps. 
  • MobileBERT is a mobile-optimized variant of the larger natural language processing BERT model that is fine-tuned for question answering. Given a question input, the MobileBERT generates an answer.
  Image: NVIDIA Nvidia’s A100 swept the board in AI inferencing tasks where the data was available all at once (offline) or delivered as it would be in online (server).

The benchmarks were run on a purpose-built app that should be available to everyone within months, according to Kanter. “We want something people can put into their hands for newer phones,” he says.

The results released this week were dubbed version 0.7, as the consortium is still ramping up. Version 1.0 is likely to be complete in 2021.

Long-range, high-altitude Unoccupied Aerial System (UAS) operations now enable in-situ measurements of volcanic gas chemistry at globally-significant active volcanoes. However, the extreme environments encountered within volcanic plumes present significant challenges for both air frame development and in-flight control. As part of a multi-disciplinary field deployment in May 2019, we flew fixed wing UAS Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) over Manam volcano, Papua New Guinea, to measure real-time gas concentrations within the volcanic plume. By integrating aerial gas measurements with ground- and satellite-based sensors, our aim was to collect data that would constrain the emission rate of environmentally-important volcanic gases, such as carbon dioxide, whilst providing critical insight into the state of the subsurface volcanic system. Here, we present a detailed analysis of three BVLOS flights into the plume of Manam volcano and discuss the challenges involved in operating in highly turbulent volcanic plumes. Specifically, we report a detailed description of the system, including ground and air components, and flight plans. We present logged flight data for two successful flights to evaluate the aircraft performance under the atmospheric conditions experienced during plume traverses. Further, by reconstructing the sequence of events that led to the failure of the third flight, we identify a number of lessons learned and propose appropriate recommendations to reduce risk in future flight operations.

The 2020 International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) was originally going to be held in Las Vegas this week. Like ICRA last spring, IROS has transitioned to a completely online conference, which is wonderful news: Now everyone everywhere can participate in IROS without having to spend a dime on travel.

IROS officially opened yesterday, and the best news is that registration is entirely free! We’ll take a quick look at what IROS has on offer this year, which includes some stuff that’s brand news to IROS.

Registration for IROS is super easy, and did we mention that it’s free? To register, just go here and fill out a quick and easy form. You don’t even have to be an IEEE Member or anything like that, although in our unbiased opinion, an IEEE membership is well worth it. Once you get the confirmation email, go to https://www.iros2020.org/ondemand/, put in the email address you used to register, and that’s it, you’ve got IROS!

Here are some highlights:

Plenaries and Keynotes

Without the normal space and time constraints, you won’t have to pick and choose between any of the three plenaries or 10 keynotes. Some of them are fancier than others, but we’re used to that sort of thing by now. It’s worth noting that all three plenaries (and three of the 10 keynotes) are given by extraordinarily talented women, which is excellent to see.

Technical Tracks

There are over 1,400 technical talks, divided up into 12 categories of 20 sessions each. Note that each of the 12 categories that you see on the main page can be scrolled through to show all 20 of the sessions; if there’s a bright red arrow pointing left or right you can scroll, and if the arrow is transparent, you’ve reached the end.

On the session page, you’ll see an autoplaying advertisement (that you can mute but not stop), below which each talk has a preview slide, a link to a ~15 minute presentation video, and another link to a PDF of the paper. No supplementary videos are available, which is a bit disappointing. While you can leave a comment on the video, there’s no way of interacting with the author(s) directly through the IROS site, so you’ll have to check the paper for an email address if you want to ask a question.

Award Finalists

IROS has thoughtfully grouped all of the paper award finalists together into nine sessions. These are some truly outstanding papers, and it’s worth watching these sessions even if you’re not interested in specific subject matter.

Workshops and Tutorials

This stuff is a little more impacted by asynchronicity and on-demandedness, and some of the workshops and tutorials have already taken place. But IROS has done a good job at collecting videos of everything and making them easy to access, and the dedicated websites for the workshops and tutorials themselves sometimes have more detailed info. If you’re having trouble finding where the workshops and tutorial section is, try the “Entrance” drop-down menu up at the top.

IROS Original Series

In place of social events and lab tours, IROS this year has come up with the “IROS Original Series,” which “hosts unique content that would be difficult to see at in-person events.” Right now, there are some interviews with a diverse group of interesting roboticists, and hopefully more will show up later on.

Enjoy!

Everything on the IROS On-Demand site should be available for at least the next month, so there’s no need to try and watch a thousand presentations over three days (which is what we normally have to do). So, relax, and enjoy yourself a bit by browsing all the options. And additional content will be made available over the next several weeks, so make sure to check back often to see what’s new.

[ IROS 2020 ]

The 2020 International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) was originally going to be held in Las Vegas this week. Like ICRA last spring, IROS has transitioned to a completely online conference, which is wonderful news: Now everyone everywhere can participate in IROS without having to spend a dime on travel.

IROS officially opened yesterday, and the best news is that registration is entirely free! We’ll take a quick look at what IROS has on offer this year, which includes some stuff that’s brand news to IROS.

Registration for IROS is super easy, and did we mention that it’s free? To register, just go here and fill out a quick and easy form. You don’t even have to be an IEEE Member or anything like that, although in our unbiased opinion, an IEEE membership is well worth it. Once you get the confirmation email, go to https://www.iros2020.org/ondemand/, put in the email address you used to register, and that’s it, you’ve got IROS!

Here are some highlights:

Plenaries and Keynotes

Without the normal space and time constraints, you won’t have to pick and choose between any of the three plenaries or 10 keynotes. Some of them are fancier than others, but we’re used to that sort of thing by now. It’s worth noting that all three plenaries (and three of the 10 keynotes) are given by extraordinarily talented women, which is excellent to see.

Technical Tracks

There are over 1,400 technical talks, divided up into 12 categories of 20 sessions each. Note that each of the 12 categories that you see on the main page can be scrolled through to show all 20 of the sessions; if there’s a bright red arrow pointing left or right you can scroll, and if the arrow is transparent, you’ve reached the end.

On the session page, you’ll see an autoplaying advertisement (that you can mute but not stop), below which each talk has a preview slide, a link to a ~15 minute presentation video, and another link to a PDF of the paper. No supplementary videos are available, which is a bit disappointing. While you can leave a comment on the video, there’s no way of interacting with the author(s) directly through the IROS site, so you’ll have to check the paper for an email address if you want to ask a question.

Award Finalists

IROS has thoughtfully grouped all of the paper award finalists together into nine sessions. These are some truly outstanding papers, and it’s worth watching these sessions even if you’re not interested in specific subject matter.

Workshops and Tutorials

This stuff is a little more impacted by asynchronicity and on-demandedness, and some of the workshops and tutorials have already taken place. But IROS has done a good job at collecting videos of everything and making them easy to access, and the dedicated websites for the workshops and tutorials themselves sometimes have more detailed info. If you’re having trouble finding where the workshops and tutorial section is, try the “Entrance” drop-down menu up at the top.

IROS Original Series

In place of social events and lab tours, IROS this year has come up with the “IROS Original Series,” which “hosts unique content that would be difficult to see at in-person events.” Right now, there are some interviews with a diverse group of interesting roboticists, and hopefully more will show up later on.

Enjoy!

Everything on the IROS On-Demand site should be available for at least the next month, so there’s no need to try and watch a thousand presentations over three days (which is what we normally have to do). So, relax, and enjoy yourself a bit by browsing all the options. And additional content will be made available over the next several weeks, so make sure to check back often to see what’s new.

[ IROS 2020 ]

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

IROS 2020 – October 25-29, 2020 – [Online] ROS World 2020 – November 12, 2020 – [Online] CYBATHLON 2020 – November 13-14, 2020 – [Online] ICSR 2020 – November 14-16, 2020 – Golden, Colo., USA

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

NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft unfurled its robotic arm Oct. 20, 2020, and in a first for the agency, briefly touched an asteroid to collect dust and pebbles from the surface for delivery to Earth in 2023.

[ NASA ]

New from David Zarrouk’s lab at BGU is AmphiSTAR, which Zarrouk describes as “a kind of a ground-water drone inspired by the cockroaches (sprawling) and by the Basilisk lizard (running over water). The robot hovers due to the collision of its propellers with the water (hydrodynamics not aerodynamics). The robot can crawl and swim at high and low speeds and smoothly transition between the two. It can reach 3.5 m/s on ground and 1.5m/s in water.”

AmphiSTAR will be presented at IROS, starting next week!

[ BGU ]

This is unfortunately not a great video of a video that was taken at a SoftBank Hawks baseball game in Japan last week, but it’s showing an Atlas robot doing an honestly kind of impressive dance routine to support the team.

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

— 福岡ソフトバンクホークス(公式) (@HAWKS_official) October 16, 2020

Editor’s Note: The tweet embed above is not working for some reason—see the video here.

[ SoftBank Hawks ]

Thanks Thomas!

Sarcos is working on a new robot, which looks to be the torso of their powered exoskeleton with the human relocated somewhere else.

[ Sarcos ]

The biggest holiday of the year, International Sloth Day, was on Tuesday! To celebrate, here’s Slothbot!

[ NSF ]

This is one of those simple-seeming tasks that are really difficult for robots.

I love self-resetting training environments.

[ MIT CSAIL ]

The Chiel lab collaborates with engineers at the Center for Biologically Inspired Robotics Research at Case Western Reserve University to design novel worm-like robots that have potential applications in search-and-rescue missions, endoscopic medicine, or other scenarios requiring navigation through narrow spaces.

[ Case Western ]

ANYbotics partnered with Losinger Marazzi to explore ANYmal’s potential of patrolling construction sites to identify and report safety issues. With such a complex environment, only a robot designed to navigate difficult terrain is able to bring digitalization to such a physically demanding industry.

[ ANYbotics ]

Happy 2018 Halloween from Clearpath Robotics!

[ Clearpath ]

Overcoming illumination variance is a critical factor in vision-based navigation. Existing methods tackled this radical illumination variance issue by proposing camera control or high dynamic range (HDR) image fusion. Despite these efforts, we have found that the vision-based approaches still suffer from overcoming darkness. This paper presents real-time image synthesizing from carefully controlled seed low dynamic range (LDR) image, to enable visual simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) in an extremely dark environment (less than 10 lux).

[ KAIST ]

What can MoveIt do? Who knows! Let's find out!

[ MoveIt ]

Thanks Dave!

Here we pick a cube from a starting point, manipulate it within the hand, and then put it back. To explore the capabilities of the hand, no sensors were used in this demonstration. The RBO Hand 3 uses soft pneumatic actuators made of silicone. The softness imparts considerable robustness against variations in object pose and size. This lets us design manipulation funnels that work reliably without needing sensor feedback. We take advantage of this reliability to chain these funnels into more complex multi-step manipulation plans.

[ TU Berlin ]

If this was a real solar array, King Louie would have totally cleaned it. Mostly.

[ BYU ]

Autonomous exploration is a fundamental problem for various applications of unmanned aerial vehicles(UAVs). Existing methods, however, were demonstrated to have low efficiency, due to the lack of optimality consideration, conservative motion plans and low decision frequencies. In this paper, we propose FUEL, a hierarchical framework that can support Fast UAV ExpLoration in complex unknown environments.

[ HKUST ]

Countless precise repetitions? This is the perfect task for a robot, thought researchers at the University of Liverpool in the Department of Chemistry, and without further ado they developed an automation solution that can carry out and monitor research tasks, making autonomous decisions about what to do next.

[ Kuka ]

This video shows a demonstration of central results of the SecondHands project. In the context of maintenance and repair tasks, in warehouse environments, the collaborative humanoid robot ARMAR-6 demonstrates a number of cognitive and sensorimotor abilities such as 1) recognition of the need of help based on speech, force, haptics and visual scene and action interpretation, 2) collaborative bimanual manipulation of large objects, 3) compliant mobile manipulation, 4) grasping known and unknown objects and tools, 5) human-robot interaction (object and tool handover) 6) natural dialog and 7) force predictive control.

[ SecondHands ]

In celebration of Ada Lovelace Day, Silicon Valley Robotics hosted a panel of Women in Robotics.

[ Robohub ]

As part of the upcoming virtual IROS conference, HEBI robotics is putting together a tutorial on robotics actuation. While I’m sure HEBI would like you to take a long look at their own actuators, we’ve been assured that no matter what kind of actuators you use, this tutorial will still be informative and useful.

[ YouTube ] via [ HEBI Robotics ]

Thanks Dave!

This week’s UMD Lockheed Martin Robotics Seminar comes from Julie Shah at MIT, on “Enhancing Human Capability with Intelligent Machine Teammates.”

Every team has top performers- people who excel at working in a team to find the right solutions in complex, difficult situations. These top performers include nurses who run hospital floors, emergency response teams, air traffic controllers, and factory line supervisors. While they may outperform the most sophisticated optimization and scheduling algorithms, they cannot often tell us how they do it. Similarly, even when a machine can do the job better than most of us, it can’t explain how. In this talk I share recent work investigating effective ways to blend the unique decision-making strengths of humans and machines. I discuss the development of computational models that enable machines to efficiently infer the mental state of human teammates and thereby collaborate with people in richer, more flexible ways.

[ UMD ]

Matthew Piccoli gives a talk to the UPenn GRASP Lab on “Trading Complexities: Smart Motors and Dumb Vehicles.”

We will discuss my research journey through Penn making the world's smallest, simplest flying vehicles, and in parallel making the most complex brushless motors. What do they have in common? We'll touch on why the quadrotor went from an obscure type of helicopter to the current ubiquitous drone. Finally, we'll get into my life after Penn and what tools I'm creating to further drone and robot designs of the future.

[ UPenn ]

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

IROS 2020 – October 25-29, 2020 – [Online] ROS World 2020 – November 12, 2020 – [Online] CYBATHLON 2020 – November 13-14, 2020 – [Online] ICSR 2020 – November 14-16, 2020 – Golden, Colo., USA

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

NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft unfurled its robotic arm Oct. 20, 2020, and in a first for the agency, briefly touched an asteroid to collect dust and pebbles from the surface for delivery to Earth in 2023.

[ NASA ]

New from David Zarrouk’s lab at BGU is AmphiSTAR, which Zarrouk describes as “a kind of a ground-water drone inspired by the cockroaches (sprawling) and by the Basilisk lizard (running over water). The robot hovers due to the collision of its propellers with the water (hydrodynamics not aerodynamics). The robot can crawl and swim at high and low speeds and smoothly transition between the two. It can reach 3.5 m/s on ground and 1.5m/s in water.”

AmphiSTAR will be presented at IROS, starting next week!

[ BGU ]

This is unfortunately not a great video of a video that was taken at a SoftBank Hawks baseball game in Japan last week, but it’s showing an Atlas robot doing an honestly kind of impressive dance routine to support the team.

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

— 福岡ソフトバンクホークス(公式) (@HAWKS_official) October 16, 2020

Editor’s Note: The tweet embed above is not working for some reason—see the video here.

[ SoftBank Hawks ]

Thanks Thomas!

Sarcos is working on a new robot, which looks to be the torso of their powered exoskeleton with the human relocated somewhere else.

[ Sarcos ]

The biggest holiday of the year, International Sloth Day, was on Tuesday! To celebrate, here’s Slothbot!

[ NSF ]

This is one of those simple-seeming tasks that are really difficult for robots.

I love self-resetting training environments.

[ MIT CSAIL ]

The Chiel lab collaborates with engineers at the Center for Biologically Inspired Robotics Research at Case Western Reserve University to design novel worm-like robots that have potential applications in search-and-rescue missions, endoscopic medicine, or other scenarios requiring navigation through narrow spaces.

[ Case Western ]

ANYbotics partnered with Losinger Marazzi to explore ANYmal’s potential of patrolling construction sites to identify and report safety issues. With such a complex environment, only a robot designed to navigate difficult terrain is able to bring digitalization to such a physically demanding industry.

[ ANYbotics ]

Happy 2018 Halloween from Clearpath Robotics!

[ Clearpath ]

Overcoming illumination variance is a critical factor in vision-based navigation. Existing methods tackled this radical illumination variance issue by proposing camera control or high dynamic range (HDR) image fusion. Despite these efforts, we have found that the vision-based approaches still suffer from overcoming darkness. This paper presents real-time image synthesizing from carefully controlled seed low dynamic range (LDR) image, to enable visual simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) in an extremely dark environment (less than 10 lux).

[ KAIST ]

What can MoveIt do? Who knows! Let's find out!

[ MoveIt ]

Thanks Dave!

Here we pick a cube from a starting point, manipulate it within the hand, and then put it back. To explore the capabilities of the hand, no sensors were used in this demonstration. The RBO Hand 3 uses soft pneumatic actuators made of silicone. The softness imparts considerable robustness against variations in object pose and size. This lets us design manipulation funnels that work reliably without needing sensor feedback. We take advantage of this reliability to chain these funnels into more complex multi-step manipulation plans.

[ TU Berlin ]

If this was a real solar array, King Louie would have totally cleaned it. Mostly.

[ BYU ]

Autonomous exploration is a fundamental problem for various applications of unmanned aerial vehicles(UAVs). Existing methods, however, were demonstrated to have low efficiency, due to the lack of optimality consideration, conservative motion plans and low decision frequencies. In this paper, we propose FUEL, a hierarchical framework that can support Fast UAV ExpLoration in complex unknown environments.

[ HKUST ]

Countless precise repetitions? This is the perfect task for a robot, thought researchers at the University of Liverpool in the Department of Chemistry, and without further ado they developed an automation solution that can carry out and monitor research tasks, making autonomous decisions about what to do next.

[ Kuka ]

This video shows a demonstration of central results of the SecondHands project. In the context of maintenance and repair tasks, in warehouse environments, the collaborative humanoid robot ARMAR-6 demonstrates a number of cognitive and sensorimotor abilities such as 1) recognition of the need of help based on speech, force, haptics and visual scene and action interpretation, 2) collaborative bimanual manipulation of large objects, 3) compliant mobile manipulation, 4) grasping known and unknown objects and tools, 5) human-robot interaction (object and tool handover) 6) natural dialog and 7) force predictive control.

[ SecondHands ]

In celebration of Ada Lovelace Day, Silicon Valley Robotics hosted a panel of Women in Robotics.

[ Robohub ]

As part of the upcoming virtual IROS conference, HEBI robotics is putting together a tutorial on robotics actuation. While I’m sure HEBI would like you to take a long look at their own actuators, we’ve been assured that no matter what kind of actuators you use, this tutorial will still be informative and useful.

[ YouTube ] via [ HEBI Robotics ]

Thanks Dave!

This week’s UMD Lockheed Martin Robotics Seminar comes from Julie Shah at MIT, on “Enhancing Human Capability with Intelligent Machine Teammates.”

Every team has top performers- people who excel at working in a team to find the right solutions in complex, difficult situations. These top performers include nurses who run hospital floors, emergency response teams, air traffic controllers, and factory line supervisors. While they may outperform the most sophisticated optimization and scheduling algorithms, they cannot often tell us how they do it. Similarly, even when a machine can do the job better than most of us, it can’t explain how. In this talk I share recent work investigating effective ways to blend the unique decision-making strengths of humans and machines. I discuss the development of computational models that enable machines to efficiently infer the mental state of human teammates and thereby collaborate with people in richer, more flexible ways.

[ UMD ]

Matthew Piccoli gives a talk to the UPenn GRASP Lab on “Trading Complexities: Smart Motors and Dumb Vehicles.”

We will discuss my research journey through Penn making the world's smallest, simplest flying vehicles, and in parallel making the most complex brushless motors. What do they have in common? We'll touch on why the quadrotor went from an obscure type of helicopter to the current ubiquitous drone. Finally, we'll get into my life after Penn and what tools I'm creating to further drone and robot designs of the future.

[ UPenn ]

Soft robotics as a field of study incorporates different mechanisms, control schemes, as well as multifunctional materials to realize robots able to perform tasks inaccessible to traditional rigid robots. Conventional methods for controlling soft robots include pneumatic or hydraulic pressure sources, and some more recent methods involve temperature and voltage control to enact shape change. Magnetism was more recently introduced as a building block for soft robotic design and control, with recent publications incorporating magnetorheological fluids and magnetic particles in elastomers, to realize some of the same objectives present in more traditional soft robotics research. This review attempts to organize and emphasize the existing work with magnetism and soft robotics, specifically studies on magnetic elastomers, while highlighting potential avenues for further research enabled by these advances.

With the advent of computer technology, Virtual Reality (VR) became an integral part of design studios in architecture education. Researchers have been exploring how VR-enhanced design studios can be assessed from a student-centered perspective. This paper illustrates the role of teaching architectural design for developing a novel and contextual curriculum based on an analysis of student feedback. The background focuses on the development of VR-based architectural design education. The methodology frames two digital design ecosystems which are experimented in four undergraduate courses. With an ecosystem-based approach discussed in this paper, a medium-oriented and a content-oriented curriculum are offered for testing students' reaction to teaching design in VR. In both ecosystems, students are engaged with advanced digital design methods and techniques, which include 3D form-finding, building information modeling, visual programming, coding, and real-time rendering. The study screens the usage of software solutions for the creation of complex virtual environments, covering Blender, Rhinoceros, Unity, Grasshopper, and Revit. The implementation of a User Experience Questionnaire (UEQ) comparatively demonstrates the performative qualities of both digital design ecosystems. Results indicate that the intensity of interaction varied in two incomparable, but connate, levels of qualities. The findings suggest that the perspicuity aspects of student interaction bare the risk of “complicated” and “confusing” software. The results further demonstrate a conflict between task-related qualities and non-task related qualities. Additionally, interacting with VR tools in architecture design education is found attractive, stimulating, and original despite low scores on the pragmatic qualities of perspicuity, efficiency, and dependability. The data and results obtained from this study give insight into the planning of design studios in architecture education based on the use of VR and digital methods. Therefore, this study contributes to future research in the contextualization of the design teaching efforts.

Robots operating in the real world are starting to find themselves constrained by the amount of computing power they have available. Computers are certainly getting faster and more efficient, but they’re not keeping up with the potential of robotic systems, which have access to better sensors and more data, which in turn makes decision making more complex. A relatively new kind of computing device called a memristor could potentially help robotics smash through this barrier, through a combination of lower complexity, lower cost, and higher speed.

In a paper published today in Science Robotics, a team of researchers from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and the Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, N.Y., demonstrate a simple self-balancing robot that uses memristors to form a highly effective analog control system, inspired by the functional structure of the human brain.

First, we should go over just what the heck a memristor is. As the name suggests, it’s a type of memory that is resistance-based. That is, the resistance of a memristor can be programmed, and the memristor remembers that resistance even after it’s powered off (the resistance depends on the magnitude of the voltage applied to the memristor’s two terminals and the length of time that voltage has been applied). Memristors are potentially the ideal hybrid between RAM and flash memory, offering high speed, high density, non-volatile storage. So that’s cool, but what we’re most interested in as far as robot control systems go is that memristors store resistance, making them analog devices rather than digital ones.

By adding a memristor to an analog circuit with inputs from a gyroscope and an accelerometer, the researchers created a completely analog Kalman filter, which coupled to a second memristor functioned as a PD controller.

Nowadays, the word “analog” sounds like a bad thing, but robots are stuck in an analog world, and any physical interactions they have with the world (mediated through sensors) are fundamentally analog in nature. The challenge is that an analog signal is often “messy”—full of noise and non-linearities—and as such, the usual approach now is to get it converted to a digital signal and then processed to get anything useful out of it. This is fine, but it’s also not particularly fast or efficient. Where memristors come in is that they’re inherently analog, and in addition to storing data, they can also act as tiny analog computers, which is pretty wild.

By adding a memristor to an analog circuit with inputs from a gyroscope and an accelerometer, the researchers, led by Wei Wu, an associate professor of electrical engineering at USC, created a completely analog and completely physical Kalman filter to remove noise from the sensor signal. In addition, they used a second memristor can be used to turn that sensor data into a proportional-derivative (PD) controller. Next they put those two components together to build an analogy system that can do a bunch of the work required to keep an inverted pendulum robot upright far more efficiently than a traditional system. The difference in performance is readily apparent:

The shaking you see in the traditionally-controlled robot on the bottom comes from the non-linearity of the dynamic system, which changes faster than the on-board controller can keep up with. The memristors substantially reduce the cycle time, so the robot can balance much more smoothly. Specifically, cycle time is reduced from 3,034 microseconds to just 6 microseconds. 

Of course, there’s more going on here, like motor drivers and a digital computer to talk to them, so this robot is really a hybrid system. But guess what? As the researchers point out, so are we!

The human brain consists of the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the brainstem. The cerebrum is a major part of the brain in charge of vision, hearing, and thinking, whereas the cerebellum plays an important role in motion control. Through this cooperation of the cerebrum and the cerebellum, the human brain can conduct multiple tasks simultaneously with extremely low power consumption. Inspired by this, we developed a hybrid analog-digital computation platform, in which the digital component runs the high-level algorithm, whereas the analog component is responsible for sensor fusion and motion control.

By offloading a bunch of computation onto the memristors, the higher brain functions of the robot have more breathing room. Overall, you reduce power, space, and cost, while substantially improving performance. This has only become possible relatively recently due to memristor advances and availability, and the researchers expect that memristor-based hybrid computing will soon be able to “improve the robustness and the performance of mobile robotic systems with higher” degrees of freedom.

A memristor-based hybrid analog-digital computing platform for mobile robotics,” by Buyun Chen, Hao Yang, Boxiang Song, Deming Meng, Xiaodong Yan, Yuanrui Li, Yunxiang Wang, Pan Hu, Tse-Hsien Ou, Mark Barnell, Qing Wu, Han Wang, and Wei Wu, from USC Viterbi and AFRL, was published in Science Robotics.

Robots operating in the real world are starting to find themselves constrained by the amount of computing power they have available. Computers are certainly getting faster and more efficient, but they’re not keeping up with the potential of robotic systems, which have access to better sensors and more data, which in turn makes decision making more complex. A relatively new kind of computing device called a memristor could potentially help robotics smash through this barrier, through a combination of lower complexity, lower cost, and higher speed.

In a paper published today in Science Robotics, a team of researchers from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and the Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, N.Y., demonstrate a simple self-balancing robot that uses memristors to form a highly effective analog control system, inspired by the functional structure of the human brain.

First, we should go over just what the heck a memristor is. As the name suggests, it’s a type of memory that is resistance-based. That is, the resistance of a memristor can be programmed, and the memristor remembers that resistance even after it’s powered off (the resistance depends on the magnitude of the voltage applied to the memristor’s two terminals and the length of time that voltage has been applied). Memristors are potentially the ideal hybrid between RAM and flash memory, offering high speed, high density, non-volatile storage. So that’s cool, but what we’re most interested in as far as robot control systems go is that memristors store resistance, making them analog devices rather than digital ones.

By adding a memristor to an analog circuit with inputs from a gyroscope and an accelerometer, the researchers created a completely analog Kalman filter, which coupled to a second memristor functioned as a PD controller.

Nowadays, the word “analog” sounds like a bad thing, but robots are stuck in an analog world, and any physical interactions they have with the world (mediated through sensors) are fundamentally analog in nature. The challenge is that an analog signal is often “messy”—full of noise and non-linearities—and as such, the usual approach now is to get it converted to a digital signal and then processed to get anything useful out of it. This is fine, but it’s also not particularly fast or efficient. Where memristors come in is that they’re inherently analog, and in addition to storing data, they can also act as tiny analog computers, which is pretty wild.

By adding a memristor to an analog circuit with inputs from a gyroscope and an accelerometer, the researchers, led by Wei Wu, an associate professor of electrical engineering at USC, created a completely analog and completely physical Kalman filter to remove noise from the sensor signal. In addition, they used a second memristor can be used to turn that sensor data into a proportional-derivative (PD) controller. Next they put those two components together to build an analogy system that can do a bunch of the work required to keep an inverted pendulum robot upright far more efficiently than a traditional system. The difference in performance is readily apparent:

The shaking you see in the traditionally-controlled robot on the bottom comes from the non-linearity of the dynamic system, which changes faster than the on-board controller can keep up with. The memristors substantially reduce the cycle time, so the robot can balance much more smoothly. Specifically, cycle time is reduced from 3,034 microseconds to just 6 microseconds. 

Of course, there’s more going on here, like motor drivers and a digital computer to talk to them, so this robot is really a hybrid system. But guess what? As the researchers point out, so are we!

The human brain consists of the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the brainstem. The cerebrum is a major part of the brain in charge of vision, hearing, and thinking, whereas the cerebellum plays an important role in motion control. Through this cooperation of the cerebrum and the cerebellum, the human brain can conduct multiple tasks simultaneously with extremely low power consumption. Inspired by this, we developed a hybrid analog-digital computation platform, in which the digital component runs the high-level algorithm, whereas the analog component is responsible for sensor fusion and motion control.

By offloading a bunch of computation onto the memristors, the higher brain functions of the robot have more breathing room. Overall, you reduce power, space, and cost, while substantially improving performance. This has only become possible relatively recently due to memristor advances and availability, and the researchers expect that memristor-based hybrid computing will soon be able to “improve the robustness and the performance of mobile robotic systems with higher” degrees of freedom.

A memristor-based hybrid analog-digital computing platform for mobile robotics,” by Buyun Chen, Hao Yang, Boxiang Song, Deming Meng, Xiaodong Yan, Yuanrui Li, Yunxiang Wang, Pan Hu, Tse-Hsien Ou, Mark Barnell, Qing Wu, Han Wang, and Wei Wu, from UCLA and ARL, was published in Science Robotics.

Voluntary movements, like point-to-point or oscillatory human arm movements, are generated by the interaction of several structures. High-level neuronal circuits in the brain are responsible for planning and initiating a movement. Spinal circuits incorporate proprioceptive feedback to compensate for deviations from the desired movement. Muscle biochemistry and contraction dynamics generate movement driving forces and provide an immediate physical response to external forces, like a low-level decentralized controller. A simple central neuronal command like “initiate a movement” then recruits all these biological structures and processes leading to complex behavior, e.g., generate a stable oscillatory movement in resonance with an external spring-mass system. It has been discussed that the spinal feedback circuits, the biochemical processes, and the biomechanical muscle dynamics contribute to the movement generation, and, thus, take over some parts of the movement generation and stabilization which would otherwise have to be performed by the high-level controller. This contribution is termed morphological computation and can be quantified with information entropy-based approaches. However, it is unknown whether morphological computation actually differs between these different hierarchical levels of the control system. To investigate this, we simulated point-to-point and oscillatory human arm movements with a neuro-musculoskeletal model. We then quantify morphological computation on the different hierarchy levels. The results show that morphological computation is highest for the most central (highest) level of the modeled control hierarchy, where the movement initiation and timing are encoded. Furthermore, they show that the lowest neuronal control layer, the muscle stimulation input, exploits the morphological computation of the biochemical and biophysical muscle characteristics to generate smooth dynamic movements. This study provides evidence that the system's design in the mechanical as well as in the neurological structure can take over important contributions to control, which would otherwise need to be performed by the higher control levels.

Throwable or droppable robots seem like a great idea for a bunch of applications, including exploration and search and rescue. But such robots do come with some constraints—namely, if you’re going to throw or drop a robot, you should be prepared for that robot to not land the way you want it to land. While we’ve seen some creative approaches to this problem, or more straightforward self-righting devices, usually you’re in for significant trade-offs in complexity, mobility, and mass. 

What would be ideal is a robot that can be relied upon to just always land the right way up. A robotic cat, of sorts. And while we’ve seen this with a tail, for wheeled vehicles, it turns out that a tail isn’t necessary: All it takes is some wheel spin.

The reason that AGRO (Agile Ground RObot), developed at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, can do this is because each of its wheels is both independently driven and steerable. The wheels are essentially reaction wheels, which are a pretty common way to generate forces on all kinds of different robots, but typically you see such reaction wheels kludged onto these robots as sort of an afterthought—using the existing wheels of a wheeled robot is a more elegant way to do it.

Four steerable wheels with in-hub motors provide control in all three axes (yaw, pitch, and roll). You’ll notice that when the robot is tossed, the wheels all toe inwards (or outwards, I guess) by 45 degrees, positioning them orthogonal to the body of the robot. The front left and rear right wheels are spun together, as are the front right and rear left wheels. When one pair of wheels spins in the same direction, the body of the robot twists in the opposite way along an axis between those wheels, in a combination of pitch and roll. By combining different twisting torques from both pairs of wheels, pitch and roll along each axis can be adjusted independently. When the same pair of wheels spin in directions opposite to each other, the robot yaws, although yaw can also be derived by adjusting the ratio between pitch authority and roll authority. And lastly, if you want to sacrifice pitch control for more roll control (or vice versa) the wheel toe-in angle can be changed. Put all this together, and you get an enormous amount of mid-air control over your robot.

Image: Robotics Research Center/West Point The AGRO robot features four steerable wheels with in-hub motors, which provide control in all three axes (yaw, pitch, and roll).

According to a paper that the West Point group will present at the 2020 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), the overall objective here is for the robot to reach a state of zero pitch or roll by the time the robot impacts with the ground, to distribute the impact as much as possible. AGRO doesn’t yet have a suspension to make falling actually safe, so in the short term, it lands on a foam pad, but the mid-air adjustments it’s currently able to make result in a 20 percent reduction of impact force and a 100 percent reduction in being sideways or upside-down. 

The toss that you see in the video isn’t the most aggressive, but lead author Daniel J. Gonzalez tells us that AGRO can do much better, theoretically stabilizing from an initial condition of 22.5 degrees pitch and 22.5 degrees roll in a mere 250 milliseconds, with room for improvement beyond that through optimizing the angles of individual wheels in real time. The limiting factor is really the amount of time that AGRO has between the point at which it’s released and the point at which it hits the ground, since more time in the air gives the robot more time to change its orientation.

Given enough height, the current generation of AGRO can recover from any initial orientation as long as it’s spinning at 66 rpm or less. And the only reason this is a limitation at all is because of the maximum rotation speed of the in-wheel hub motors, which can be boosted by increasing the battery voltage, as Gonzalez and his colleagues, Mark C. Lesak, Andres H. Rodriguez, Joseph A. Cymerman, and Christopher M. Korpela from the Robotics Research Center at West Point, describe in the IROS paper, “Dynamics and Aerial Attitude Control for Rapid Emergency Deployment of the Agile Ground Robot AGRO.”

Image: Robotics Research Center/West Point AGRO 2 will include a new hybrid wheel-leg and non-pneumatic tire design that will allow it to hop up stairs and curbs.

While these particular experiments focus on a robot that’s being thrown, the concept is potentially effective (and useful) on any wheeled robot that’s likely to find itself in mid-air. You can imagine it improving the performance of robots doing all sorts of stunts, from driving off ramps or ledges to being dropped out of aircraft. And as it turns out, being able to self-stabilize during an airdrop is an important skill that some Humvees could use to keep themselves from getting tangled in their own parachute lines and avoid mishaps.

Before they move on to Humvees, though, the researchers are working on the next version of AGRO named AGRO 2. AGRO 2 will include a new hybrid wheel-leg and non-pneumatic tire design that will allow it to hop up stairs and curbs, which sounds like a lot of fun to us.

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