Feed aggregator



With Boston Dynamics’ recent(ish) emphasis on making robots that can do things that are commercially useful, it’s always good to be gently reminded that the company is still at the cutting edge of dynamic humanoid robotics. Or in this case, forcefully reminded. In its latest video, Boston Dynamics demonstrates some spectacular new capabilities with Atlas focusing on perception and manipulation, and the Atlas team lead answers some of our questions about how they pulled it off.

One of the highlights here is Atlas’s ability to move and interact dynamically with objects, and especially with objects that have significant mass to them. The 180 while holding the plank is impressive, since Atlas has to account for all that added momentum. Same with the spinning bag toss: As soon as the robot releases the bag in midair, its momentum changes, which it has to compensate for on landing. And shoving that box over has to be done by leaning into it, but carefully, so that Atlas doesn’t topple off the platform after it.

While the physical capabilities that Atlas demonstrates here are impressive (to put it mildly), this demonstration also highlights just how much work remains to be done to teach robots to be useful like this in an autonomous, or even a semi-autonomous, way. For example, environmental modification is something that humans do all the time, but we rely heavily on our knowledge of the world to do it effectively. I’m pretty sure that Atlas doesn’t have the capability to see a nontraversable gap, consider what kind of modification would be required to render the gap traversable, locate the necessary resources (without being told where they are first), and then make the appropriate modification autonomously in the way a human would—the video shows advances in manipulation rather than decision making. This certainly isn’t a criticism of what Boston Dynamics is showing in this video; it’s just to emphasize there is still a lot of work to be done on the world understanding and reasoning side before robots will be able to leverage these impressive physical skills on their own in a productive way.

There’s a lot more going on in this video, and Boston Dynamics has helpfully put together a bit of a behind-the-scenes explainer:

And for a bit more on this, we sent a couple of questions over to Boston Dynamics, and Atlas Team Lead Scott Kuindersma was kind enough to answer them for us.

How much does Atlas know in advance about the objects that it will be manipulating, and how important is this knowledge for real-world manipulation?

Scott Kuindersma: In this video, the robot has a high-level map that includes where we want it to go, what we want it to pick up, and what stunts it should do along the way. This map is not an exact geometric match for the real environment; it is an approximate description containing obstacle templates and annotated actions that is adapted online by the robot’s perception system. The robot has object-relative grasp targets that were computed offline, and the model-predictive controller (MPC) has access to approximate mass properties.

We think that real-world robots will similarly leverage priors about their tasks and environments, but what form these priors take and how much information they provide could vary a lot based on the application. The requirements for a video like this lead naturally to one set of choices—and maybe some of those requirements will align with some early commercial applications—but we’re also building capabilities that allow Atlas to operate at other points on this spectrum.

How often is what you want to do with Atlas constrained by its hardware capabilities? At this point, how much of a difference does improving hardware make, relative to improving software?

Kuindersma: Not frequently. When we occasionally spend time on something like the inverted 540, we are intentionally pushing boundaries and coming at it from a place of playful exploration. Aside from being really fun for us and (hopefully) inspiring to others, these activities nearly always bear enduring fruit and leave us with more capable software for approaching other problems.

The tight integration between our hardware and software groups—and our ability to design, iterate, and learn from each other—is one of the things that makes our team special. This occasionally leads to behavior-enabling hardware upgrades and, less often, major redesigns. But from a software perspective, we continuously feel like we’re just scratching the surface on what we can do with Atlas.

Can you elaborate on the troubleshooting process you used to make sure that Atlas could successfully execute that final trick?

Kuindersma: The controller works by using a model of the robot to predict and optimize its future states. The improvement made in this case was an extension to this model to include the geometric shape of the robot’s limbs and constraints to prevent them from intersecting. In other words, rather than specifically tuning this one behavior to avoid self-collisions, we added more model detail to the controller to allow it to better avoid infeasible configurations. This way, the benefits carry forward to all of Atlas’s behaviors.

Is the little hop at the end of the 540 part of the planned sequence, or is Atlas able to autonomously use motions like that to recover from dynamic behaviors that don’t end up exactly as expected? How important will this kind of capability be for real-world robots?

Kuindersma: The robot has the ability to autonomously take steps, lean, and/or wave its limbs around to recover balance, which we leverage on pretty much a daily basis in our experimental work. The hop jump after the inverted 540 was part of the behavior sequence in the sense that it was told that it should jump after landing, but where it jumped to and how it landed came from the controller (and generally varied between individual robots and runs).

Our experience with deploying Spot all over the world has reinforced the importance for mobile robots to be able to adjust and recover if they get bumped, slip, fall, or encounter unexpected obstacles. We expect the same will be true for future robots doing work in the real world.

What else can you share with us about what went into making the video?

Kuindersma: A few fun facts:

The core new technologies around MPC and manipulation were developed throughout this year, but the time between our whiteboard sketch for the video and completing filming was six weeks.

The tool bag throw and spin jump with the 2- by 12-inch plank are online generalizations of the same 180 jump behavior that was created two years ago as part of our mobility work. The only differences in the controller inputs are the object model and the desired object motion.

Although the robot has a good understanding of throwing mechanics, the real-world performance was sensitive to the precise timing of the release and whether the bag cloth happened to get caught on the finger during release. These details weren’t well represented by our simulation tools, so we relied primarily on hardware experiments to refine the behavior until it worked every time.



With Boston Dynamics’ recent(ish) emphasis on making robots that can do things that are commercially useful, it’s always good to be gently reminded that the company is still at the cutting edge of dynamic humanoid robotics. Or in this case, forcefully reminded. In its latest video, Boston Dynamics demonstrates some spectacular new capabilities with Atlas focusing on perception and manipulation, and the Atlas team lead answers some of our questions about how they pulled it off.

One of the highlights here is Atlas’s ability to move and interact dynamically with objects, and especially with objects that have significant mass to them. The 180 while holding the plank is impressive, since Atlas has to account for all that added momentum. Same with the spinning bag toss: As soon as the robot releases the bag in midair, its momentum changes, which it has to compensate for on landing. And shoving that box over has to be done by leaning into it, but carefully, so that Atlas doesn’t topple off the platform after it.

While the physical capabilities that Atlas demonstrates here are impressive (to put it mildly), this demonstration also highlights just how much work remains to be done to teach robots to be useful like this in an autonomous, or even a semi-autonomous, way. For example, environmental modification is something that humans do all the time, but we rely heavily on our knowledge of the world to do it effectively. I’m pretty sure that Atlas doesn’t have the capability to see a nontraversable gap, consider what kind of modification would be required to render the gap traversable, locate the necessary resources (without being told where they are first), and then make the appropriate modification autonomously in the way a human would—the video shows advances in manipulation rather than decision making. This certainly isn’t a criticism of what Boston Dynamics is showing in this video; it’s just to emphasize there is still a lot of work to be done on the world understanding and reasoning side before robots will be able to leverage these impressive physical skills on their own in a productive way.

There’s a lot more going on in this video, and Boston Dynamics has helpfully put together a bit of a behind-the-scenes explainer:

And for a bit more on this, we sent a couple of questions over to Boston Dynamics, and Atlas Team Lead Scott Kuindersma was kind enough to answer them for us.

How much does Atlas know in advance about the objects that it will be manipulating, and how important is this knowledge for real-world manipulation?

Scott Kuindersma: In this video, the robot has a high-level map that includes where we want it to go, what we want it to pick up, and what stunts it should do along the way. This map is not an exact geometric match for the real environment; it is an approximate description containing obstacle templates and annotated actions that is adapted online by the robot’s perception system. The robot has object-relative grasp targets that were computed offline, and the model-predictive controller (MPC) has access to approximate mass properties.

We think that real-world robots will similarly leverage priors about their tasks and environments, but what form these priors take and how much information they provide could vary a lot based on the application. The requirements for a video like this lead naturally to one set of choices—and maybe some of those requirements will align with some early commercial applications—but we’re also building capabilities that allow Atlas to operate at other points on this spectrum.

How often is what you want to do with Atlas constrained by its hardware capabilities? At this point, how much of a difference does improving hardware make, relative to improving software?

Kuindersma: Not frequently. When we occasionally spend time on something like the inverted 540, we are intentionally pushing boundaries and coming at it from a place of playful exploration. Aside from being really fun for us and (hopefully) inspiring to others, these activities nearly always bear enduring fruit and leave us with more capable software for approaching other problems.

The tight integration between our hardware and software groups—and our ability to design, iterate, and learn from each other—is one of the things that makes our team special. This occasionally leads to behavior-enabling hardware upgrades and, less often, major redesigns. But from a software perspective, we continuously feel like we’re just scratching the surface on what we can do with Atlas.

Can you elaborate on the troubleshooting process you used to make sure that Atlas could successfully execute that final trick?

Kuindersma: The controller works by using a model of the robot to predict and optimize its future states. The improvement made in this case was an extension to this model to include the geometric shape of the robot’s limbs and constraints to prevent them from intersecting. In other words, rather than specifically tuning this one behavior to avoid self-collisions, we added more model detail to the controller to allow it to better avoid infeasible configurations. This way, the benefits carry forward to all of Atlas’s behaviors.

Is the little hop at the end of the 540 part of the planned sequence, or is Atlas able to autonomously use motions like that to recover from dynamic behaviors that don’t end up exactly as expected? How important will this kind of capability be for real-world robots?

Kuindersma: The robot has the ability to autonomously take steps, lean, and/or wave its limbs around to recover balance, which we leverage on pretty much a daily basis in our experimental work. The hop jump after the inverted 540 was part of the behavior sequence in the sense that it was told that it should jump after landing, but where it jumped to and how it landed came from the controller (and generally varied between individual robots and runs).

Our experience with deploying Spot all over the world has reinforced the importance for mobile robots to be able to adjust and recover if they get bumped, slip, fall, or encounter unexpected obstacles. We expect the same will be true for future robots doing work in the real world.

What else can you share with us about what went into making the video?

Kuindersma: A few fun facts:

The core new technologies around MPC and manipulation were developed throughout this year, but the time between our whiteboard sketch for the video and completing filming was six weeks.

The tool bag throw and spin jump with the 2- by 12-inch plank are online generalizations of the same 180 jump behavior that was created two years ago as part of our mobility work. The only differences in the controller inputs are the object model and the desired object motion.

Although the robot has a good understanding of throwing mechanics, the real-world performance was sensitive to the precise timing of the release and whether the bag cloth happened to get caught on the finger during release. These details weren’t well represented by our simulation tools, so we relied primarily on hardware experiments to refine the behavior until it worked every time.



Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.

IEEE RO-MAN 2023: 28–31 August 2023, BUSAN, KOREARoboCup 2023: 4–10 July 2023, BORDEAUX, FRANCECLAWAR 2023: 2–4 October 2023, FLORIANOPOLIS, BRAZILRSS 2023: 10–14 July 2023, DAEGU, KOREAICRA 2023: 29 May–2 June 2023, LONDONRobotics Summit & Expo: 10–11 May 2023, BOSTON

Enjoy today’s videos!

With the historic Kunming-Montreal Agreement of 18 December 2022, more than 200 countries agreed to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. But becoming nature-positive is an ambitious goal, also held back by the lack of efficient and accurate tools to capture snapshots of global biodiversity. This is a task where robots, in combination with environmental DNA (eDNA) technologies, can make a difference.

Our recent findings show a new way to sample surface eDNA with a drone, which could be helpful in monitoring biodiversity in terrestrial ecosystems. The eDrone can land on branches and collect eDNA from the bark using a sticky surface. The eDrone collected surface eDNA from the bark of seven different trees, and by sequencing the collected eDNA we were able to identify 21 taxa, including insects, mammals, and birds.

[ ETH Zurich ]

Thanks, Stefano!

How can we bring limbed robots into real-world environments to complete challenging tasks? Dr. Dimitrios Kanoulas and the team at UCL Computer Science’s Robot Perception and Learning Lab are exploring how we can use autonomous and semi-autonomous robots to work in environments that humans cannot.

[ RPL UCL ]

Thanks, Dimitrios!

Bidirectional design, four-wheel steering, and a compact length give our robotaxi unique agility and freedom of movement in dense urban environments—or in games of tic-tac-toe. May the best robot win.

Okay, but how did they not end this video with one of the cars drawing a “Z” off to the left side of the middle row?

[ Zoox ]

Thanks, Whitney!

DEEP Robotics wishes y’all happy, good health in the year of the rabbit!

Binkies!

[ Deep Robotics ]

This work presents a safety-critical locomotion-control framework for quadrupedal robots. Our goal is to enable quadrupedal robots to safely navigate in cluttered environments.

[ Hybrid Robotics ]

At 360.50 kilometers per hour, this is the world speed record for a quadrotor.

[ Quad Star Drones ] via [ Gizmodo ]

When it rains, it pours—and we’re designing the Waymo Driver to handle it. See how shower tests, thermal chambers, and rugged tracks at our closed-course facilities ensure our system can navigate safely, no matter the forecast.

[ Waymo ]

You know what’s easier than picking blueberries? Picking greenberries, which are much less squishy.

[ Sanctuary AI ]

The Official Wrap-Up of ABU ROBOCON 2022 New Delhi, India.

[ ROBOCON ]



Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.

IEEE RO-MAN 2023: 28–31 August 2023, BUSAN, KOREARoboCup 2023: 4–10 July 2023, BORDEAUX, FRANCECLAWAR 2023: 2–4 October 2023, FLORIANOPOLIS, BRAZILRSS 2023: 10–14 July 2023, DAEGU, KOREAICRA 2023: 29 May–2 June 2023, LONDONRobotics Summit & Expo: 10–11 May 2023, BOSTON

Enjoy today’s videos!

With the historic Kunming-Montreal Agreement of 18 December 2022, more than 200 countries agreed to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. But becoming nature-positive is an ambitious goal, also held back by the lack of efficient and accurate tools to capture snapshots of global biodiversity. This is a task where robots, in combination with environmental DNA (eDNA) technologies, can make a difference.

Our recent findings show a new way to sample surface eDNA with a drone, which could be helpful in monitoring biodiversity in terrestrial ecosystems. The eDrone can land on branches and collect eDNA from the bark using a sticky surface. The eDrone collected surface eDNA from the bark of seven different trees, and by sequencing the collected eDNA we were able to identify 21 taxa, including insects, mammals, and birds.

[ ETH Zurich ]

Thanks, Stefano!

How can we bring limbed robots into real-world environments to complete challenging tasks? Dr. Dimitrios Kanoulas and the team at UCL Computer Science’s Robot Perception and Learning Lab are exploring how we can use autonomous and semi-autonomous robots to work in environments that humans cannot.

[ RPL UCL ]

Thanks, Dimitrios!

Bidirectional design, four-wheel steering, and a compact length give our robotaxi unique agility and freedom of movement in dense urban environments—or in games of tic-tac-toe. May the best robot win.

Okay, but how did they not end this video with one of the cars drawing a “Z” off to the left side of the middle row?

[ Zoox ]

Thanks, Whitney!

DEEP Robotics wishes y’all happy, good health in the year of the rabbit!

Binkies!

[ Deep Robotics ]

This work presents a safety-critical locomotion-control framework for quadrupedal robots. Our goal is to enable quadrupedal robots to safely navigate in cluttered environments.

[ Hybrid Robotics ]

At 360.50 kilometers per hour, this is the world speed record for a quadrotor.

[ Quad Star Drones ] via [ Gizmodo ]

When it rains, it pours—and we’re designing the Waymo Driver to handle it. See how shower tests, thermal chambers, and rugged tracks at our closed-course facilities ensure our system can navigate safely, no matter the forecast.

[ Waymo ]

You know what’s easier than picking blueberries? Picking greenberries, which are much less squishy.

[ Sanctuary AI ]

The Official Wrap-Up of ABU ROBOCON 2022 New Delhi, India.

[ ROBOCON ]

Robots that work in unstructured scenarios are often subjected to collisions with the environment or external agents. Accordingly, recently, researchers focused on designing robust and resilient systems. This work presents a framework that quantitatively assesses the balancing resilience of self-stabilizing robots subjected to external perturbations. Our proposed framework consists of a set of novel Performance Indicators (PIs), experimental protocols for the reliable and repeatable measurement of the PIs, and a novel testbed to execute the protocols. The design of the testbed, the control structure, the post-processing software, and all the documentation related to the performance indicators and protocols are provided as open-source material so that other institutions can replicate the system. As an example of the application of our method, we report a set of experimental tests on a two-wheeled humanoid robot, with an experimental campaign of more than 1100 tests. The investigation demonstrates high repeatability and efficacy in executing reliable and precise perturbations.

Novel technologies, fabrication methods, controllers and computational methods are rapidly advancing the capabilities of soft robotics. This is creating the need for design techniques and methodologies that are suited for the multi-disciplinary nature of soft robotics. These are needed to provide a formalized and scientific approach to design. In this paper, we formalize the scientific questions driving soft robotic design; what motivates the design of soft robots, and what are the fundamental challenges when designing soft robots? We review current methods and approaches to soft robot design including bio-inspired design, computational design and human-driven design, and highlight the implications that each design methods has on the resulting soft robotic systems. To conclude, we provide an analysis of emerging methods which could assist robot design, and we present a review some of the necessary technologies that may enable these approaches.

Using human tools can significantly benefit robots in many application domains. Such ability would allow robots to solve problems that they were unable to without tools. However, robot tool use is a challenging task. Tool use was initially considered to be the ability that distinguishes human beings from other animals. We identify three skills required for robot tool use: perception, manipulation, and high-level cognition skills. While both general manipulation tasks and tool use tasks require the same level of perception accuracy, there are unique manipulation and cognition challenges in robot tool use. In this survey, we first define robot tool use. The definition highlighted the skills required for robot tool use. The skills coincide with an affordance model which defined a three-way relation between actions, objects, and effects. We also compile a taxonomy of robot tool use with insights from animal tool use literature. Our definition and taxonomy lay a theoretical foundation for future robot tool use studies and also serve as practical guidelines for robot tool use applications. We first categorize tool use based on the context of the task. The contexts are highly similar for the same task (e.g., cutting) in non-causal tool use, while the contexts for causal tool use are diverse. We further categorize causal tool use based on the task complexity suggested in animal tool use studies into single-manipulation tool use and multiple-manipulation tool use. Single-manipulation tool use are sub-categorized based on tool features and prior experiences of tool use. This type of tool may be considered as building blocks of causal tool use. Multiple-manipulation tool use combines these building blocks in different ways. The different combinations categorize multiple-manipulation tool use. Moreover, we identify different skills required in each sub-type in the taxonomy. We then review previous studies on robot tool use based on the taxonomy and describe how the relations are learned in these studies. We conclude with a discussion of the current applications of robot tool use and open questions to address future robot tool use.



Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.

ICRA 2023: 29 May–2 June 2023, LONDONRoboCup 2023: 4–10 July 2023, BORDEAUX, FRANCERSS 2023: 10–14 July 2023, DAEGU, KOREAIEEE RO-MAN 2023: 28–31 August 2023, BUSAN, KOREACLAWAR 2023: 2–4 October 2023, FLORIANOPOLIS, BRAZIL

Enjoy today’s videos!

I don’t know what your robots do at night, but at Fraunhofer, this is what they get up to.

[ Fraunhofer IPA ]

This choreorobotics dance is part atavistic ceremony, part celestial conjuring, and part ecstatic romping. It features three human dancers and two Boston Dynamics Spot robots with original music, choreography, and video. It was the first robot-human dance performed at any Smithsonian building in its history and premiered on July 6th, 2022. This work was created as the culmination of Catie Cuan’s Futurist-in-Residence appointment at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building.

[ Catie Cuan ]

Several soft-bodied crawling animals in nature such as inchworms, caterpillars, etc., have remarkable locomotion abilities for complex navigation across a variety of substrates....We have developed a bio-inspired soft robotic model (driven by only a single source of pressure) that unveils the fundamental aspects of frictional anisotropic locomotion in crawling animals. This breakthrough is interesting from an animal biomechanics point of view and crucial for the development of inspection and exploration robots.

A paper on this work, titled “Frictional Anisotropic Locomotion and Adaptive Neural Control for a Soft Crawling Robot,” has been published in Soft Robotics.

[ VISTEC ]

Thanks, Poramate!

Quadrotors are deployed to more and more applications nowadays. Yet quadrotors’ flight performance is subject to various uncertainties and disturbances, e.g., ground effect, slosh payload, damaged propeller, downwash, and sudden weight change, just to name a few. The researchers from the Advanced Controls Research Laboratory at UIUC bring up L1Quad: an L1 adaptive augmentation for compensating for the uncertainties and disturbances experienced by the quadrotor. The video below shows the superior performance of L1Quad in various challenging scenarios without retuning the controller parameters case by case.

[ Illinois ]

Thanks, Sheng!

These robots can handle my muffins anytime.

[ Fanuc ]

This is maybe the most specific gripper I’ve ever seen.

[ PRISMA Lab ]

A little weird that this video from MIT is titled “Behind MIT’s Robot Dog” while featuring a Unitree robot dog rather than a Mini Cheetah.

[ MIT CSAIL ]

When you spend years training a system for the full gamut of driving scenarios, unexpected situations become mere possibilities. See how we consistently put the Waymo Driver to the test in our closed-course facilities, ensuring we’ve built a Driver that’s ready for anything.

[ Waymo ]

Robots attend valves
Opening and closing with grace
Steady and precise

[ Sanctuary AI ]

REInvest Robotics in conversation with Brian Gerkey, cofounder and now former CEO of Open Robotics on his wishlist for robotics.

[ REInvest Robotics ]

This Stanford Seminar is from Aaron Edsinger of Hello Robot, on humanizing robot design.

We are at the beginning of a transformation where robots and humans cohabitate and collaborate in everyday life. From caring for older adults to supporting workers in service industries, collaborative robots hold incredible potential to improve the quality of life for millions of people. These robots need to be safe, intuitive, and simple to use. They need to be affordable enough to allow widespread access and adoption. Ultimately, acceptance of these robots in society will require that the human experience is at the center of their design. In this presentation I will highlight some of my work to humanize robot design over the last two decades. This work includes compliant and safe actuation for humanoids, low-cost collaborative robot arms, and assistive mobile manipulators. Our recent work at Hello Robot has been to commercialize a mobile manipulator named Stretch that can assist older adults and people with disabilities. I’ll detail the human-centered research and development process behind Stretch and present recent work to allow an individual with quadriplegia to control Stretch for everyday tasks. Finally I’ll highlight some of the results by the growing community of researchers working with Stretch.

[ Hello Robot ] via [ Stanford ]



Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.

ICRA 2023: 29 May–2 June 2023, LONDONRoboCup 2023: 4–10 July 2023, BORDEAUX, FRANCERSS 2023: 10–14 July 2023, DAEGU, KOREAIEEE RO-MAN 2023: 28–31 August 2023, BUSAN, KOREACLAWAR 2023: 2–4 October 2023, FLORIANOPOLIS, BRAZIL

Enjoy today’s videos!

I don’t know what your robots do at night, but at Fraunhofer, this is what they get up to.

[ Fraunhofer IPA ]

This choreorobotics dance is part atavistic ceremony, part celestial conjuring, and part ecstatic romping. It features three human dancers and two Boston Dynamics Spot robots with original music, choreography, and video. It was the first robot-human dance performed at any Smithsonian building in its history and premiered on July 6th, 2022. This work was created as the culmination of Catie Cuan’s Futurist-in-Residence appointment at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building.

[ Catie Cuan ]

Several soft-bodied crawling animals in nature such as inchworms, caterpillars, etc., have remarkable locomotion abilities for complex navigation across a variety of substrates....We have developed a bio-inspired soft robotic model (driven by only a single source of pressure) that unveils the fundamental aspects of frictional anisotropic locomotion in crawling animals. This breakthrough is interesting from an animal biomechanics point of view and crucial for the development of inspection and exploration robots.

A paper on this work, titled “Frictional Anisotropic Locomotion and Adaptive Neural Control for a Soft Crawling Robot,” has been published in Soft Robotics.

[ VISTEC ]

Thanks, Poramate!

Quadrotors are deployed to more and more applications nowadays. Yet quadrotors’ flight performance is subject to various uncertainties and disturbances, e.g., ground effect, slosh payload, damaged propeller, downwash, and sudden weight change, just to name a few. The researchers from the Advanced Controls Research Laboratory at UIUC bring up L1Quad: an L1 adaptive augmentation for compensating for the uncertainties and disturbances experienced by the quadrotor. The video below shows the superior performance of L1Quad in various challenging scenarios without retuning the controller parameters case by case.

[ Illinois ]

Thanks, Sheng!

These robots can handle my muffins anytime.

[ Fanuc ]

This is maybe the most specific gripper I’ve ever seen.

[ PRISMA Lab ]

A little weird that this video from MIT is titled “Behind MIT’s Robot Dog” while featuring a Unitree robot dog rather than a Mini Cheetah.

[ MIT CSAIL ]

When you spend years training a system for the full gamut of driving scenarios, unexpected situations become mere possibilities. See how we consistently put the Waymo Driver to the test in our closed-course facilities, ensuring we’ve built a Driver that’s ready for anything.

[ Waymo ]

Robots attend valves
Opening and closing with grace
Steady and precise

[ Sanctuary AI ]

REInvest Robotics in conversation with Brian Gerkey, cofounder and now former CEO of Open Robotics on his wishlist for robotics.

[ REInvest Robotics ]

This Stanford Seminar is from Aaron Edsinger of Hello Robot, on humanizing robot design.

We are at the beginning of a transformation where robots and humans cohabitate and collaborate in everyday life. From caring for older adults to supporting workers in service industries, collaborative robots hold incredible potential to improve the quality of life for millions of people. These robots need to be safe, intuitive, and simple to use. They need to be affordable enough to allow widespread access and adoption. Ultimately, acceptance of these robots in society will require that the human experience is at the center of their design. In this presentation I will highlight some of my work to humanize robot design over the last two decades. This work includes compliant and safe actuation for humanoids, low-cost collaborative robot arms, and assistive mobile manipulators. Our recent work at Hello Robot has been to commercialize a mobile manipulator named Stretch that can assist older adults and people with disabilities. I’ll detail the human-centered research and development process behind Stretch and present recent work to allow an individual with quadriplegia to control Stretch for everyday tasks. Finally I’ll highlight some of the results by the growing community of researchers working with Stretch.

[ Hello Robot ] via [ Stanford ]



Three days before astronauts left on Apollo 8, the first-ever flight around the moon, NASA’s safety chief, Jerome Lederer, gave a speech that was at once reassuring and chilling. Yes, he said, America’s moon program was safe and well-planned—but even so, “Apollo 8 has 5,600,000 parts and one and one half million systems, subsystems, and assemblies. Even if all functioned with 99.9 percent reliability, we could expect 5,600 defects.”

The mission, in December 1968, was nearly flawless—a prelude to the Apollo 11 landing the next summer. But even today, half a century later, engineers wrestle with the sheer complexity of the machines they build to go to space. NASA’s Artemis I, its Space Launch System rocket mandated by Congress in 2010, endured a host of delays before it finally launched in November 2022. And Elon Musk’s SpaceX may be lauded for its engineering acumen, but it struggled for six years before its first successful flight into orbit.

Relativity envisions 3D printing facilities someday on the Martian surface, fabricating much of what people from Earth would need to live there.

Is there a better way? An upstart company called Relativity Space is about to try one. Its Terran 1 rocket, it says, has about a tenth as many parts as comparable launch vehicles, because it is made through 3D printing. Instead of bending metal and milling and welding, engineers program a robot to deposit layers of metal alloy in place.

Relativity’s first rocket, the company says, is ready to go from Launch Complex 16 at Cape Canaveral in Florida. When it happens, possibly later this month, the company says it will stream the liftoff on YouTube.

Artist’s concept of Relativity’s planned Terran R rocket. The company says it should be able to carry a 20,000 kg payload into low Earth orbit.Relativity

“Over 85 percent of the rocket by mass is 3D printed,” said Scott Van Vliet, Relativity’s head of software engineering. “And what’s really cool is not only are we reducing the amount of parts and labor that go into building one of these vehicles over time, but we’re also reducing the complexity, we’re reducing the chance of failure when you reduce the part count, and you streamline the build process.”

Relativity says it can put together a Terran rocket in two months, compared to two years for some conventionally built ones. The speed and cost of making a prototype—say, for wind-tunnel testing—are reduced because you tell the printer to make a scaled-down model. There is less waste because the process is additive. And if something needs to be modified, you reprogram the 3D printer instead of slow, expensive retooling.

Investors have noticed. The company says financial backers have included BlackRock, Y Combinator and the entrepreneur Mark Cuban.

“If you walk into any rocket factory today other than ours,” said Josh Brost, the company’s head of business development, “you still will see hundreds of thousands of parts coming from thousands of vendors, and still being assembled using lots of touch labor and lots of big-fix tools.”

Terran 1 Nose Cone Timelapse Check out this timelapse of our nose cone build for Terran 1. This milestone marks the first time we’ve created this unique shape ...

Terran 1, rated as capable of putting a 1,250 kg payload in low Earth orbit, is mainly intended as a test bed. Relativity has signed up a variety of future customers for satellite launches, but the first Terran 1 (“Terran” is a word for earthling) will not carry a paying customer’s satellite. The first flight has been given the playful name “Good Luck, Have Fun”—GLHF for short. Eventually, if things are going well, Relativity will build larger boosters, called Terran R, which, it hopes, will compete with the SpaceX Falcon 9 for launches of up to 20,000 kg. Relativity says the Terran R should be fully reusable, including the upper stage—something that other commercial launch companies have not accomplished. In current renderings, the rocket is, as the company puts it, “inspired by nature,” shaped to slice through the atmosphere as it ascends and comes back for recovery.

A number of Relativity’s top people came from Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin, and, like Musk, they say their vision is a permanent presence on Mars. Brost calls it “the long-term North Star for us.” They say they can envision 3D printing facilities someday on the Martian surface, fabricating much of what people from Earth would need to live there.For that to happen,” says Brost, “you need to have manufacturing capabilities that are autonomous and incredibly flexible.”

Relativity’s fourth-generation Stargate 3D printer.Relativity

Just how Relativity will do all these things is a work in progress. It says its 3D technology will help it work iteratively—finding mistakes as it goes, then correcting them as it prints the next rocket, and the next, and so on.

“In traditional manufacturing, you have to do a ton of work up front and have a lot of the design features done well ahead of time,” says Van Vliet. “You have to invest in fixed tooling that can often take years to build before you’ve actually developed an article for your launch vehicle. With 3D printing, additive manufacturing, we get to building something very, very quickly.”

The next step is to get the first rocket off the pad. Will it succeed? Brost says a key test will be getting through max q—the point of maximum dynamic pressure on the rocket as it accelerates through the atmosphere before the air around it thins out.

“If you look at history, at new space companies doing large rockets, there’s not a single one that’s done their first rocket on their first try. It would be quite an achievement if we were able to achieve orbit on our inaugural launch,” says Brost.

“I’ve been to many launches in my career,” he says, “and it never gets less exciting or nerve wracking to me.”



Three days before astronauts left on Apollo 8, the first-ever flight around the moon, NASA’s safety chief, Jerome Lederer, gave a speech that was at once reassuring and chilling. Yes, he said, America’s moon program was safe and well-planned—but even so, “Apollo 8 has 5,600,000 parts and one and one half million systems, subsystems, and assemblies. Even if all functioned with 99.9 percent reliability, we could expect 5,600 defects.”

The mission, in December 1968, was nearly flawless—a prelude to the Apollo 11 landing the next summer. But even today, half a century later, engineers wrestle with the sheer complexity of the machines they build to go to space. NASA’s Artemis I, its Space Launch System rocket mandated by Congress in 2010, endured a host of delays before it finally launched in November 2022. And Elon Musk’s SpaceX may be lauded for its engineering acumen, but it struggled for six years before its first successful flight into orbit.

Relativity envisions 3D printing facilities someday on the Martian surface, fabricating much of what people from Earth would need to live there.

Is there a better way? An upstart company called Relativity Space is about to try one. Its Terran 1 rocket, it says, has about a tenth as many parts as comparable launch vehicles, because it is made through 3D printing. Instead of bending metal and milling and welding, engineers program a robot to deposit layers of metal alloy in place.

Relativity’s first rocket, the company says, is ready to go from Launch Complex 16 at Cape Canaveral in Florida. When it happens, possibly later this month, the company says it will stream the liftoff on YouTube.

Artist’s concept of Relativity’s planned Terran R rocket. The company says it should be able to carry a 20,000 kg payload into low Earth orbit.Relativity

“Over 85 percent of the rocket by mass is 3D printed,” said Scott Van Vliet, Relativity’s head of software engineering. “And what’s really cool is not only are we reducing the amount of parts and labor that go into building one of these vehicles over time, but we’re also reducing the complexity, we’re reducing the chance of failure when you reduce the part count, and you streamline the build process.”

Relativity says it can put together a Terran rocket in two months, compared to two years for some conventionally built ones. The speed and cost of making a prototype—say, for wind-tunnel testing—are reduced because you tell the printer to make a scaled-down model. There is less waste because the process is additive. And if something needs to be modified, you reprogram the 3D printer instead of slow, expensive retooling.

Investors have noticed. The company says financial backers have included BlackRock, Y Combinator and the entrepreneur Mark Cuban.

“If you walk into any rocket factory today other than ours,” said Josh Brost, the company’s head of business development, “you still will see hundreds of thousands of parts coming from thousands of vendors, and still being assembled using lots of touch labor and lots of big-fix tools.”

Terran 1 Nose Cone Timelapse Check out this timelapse of our nose cone build for Terran 1. This milestone marks the first time we’ve created this unique shape ...

Terran 1, rated as capable of putting a 1,250 kg payload in low Earth orbit, is mainly intended as a test bed. Relativity has signed up a variety of future customers for satellite launches, but the first Terran 1 (“Terran” is a word for earthling) will not carry a paying customer’s satellite. The first flight has been given the playful name “Good Luck, Have Fun”—GLHF for short. Eventually, if things are going well, Relativity will build larger boosters, called Terran R, which, it hopes, will compete with the SpaceX Falcon 9 for launches of up to 20,000 kg. Relativity says the Terran R should be fully reusable, including the upper stage—something that other commercial launch companies have not accomplished. In current renderings, the rocket is, as the company puts it, “inspired by nature,” shaped to slice through the atmosphere as it ascends and comes back for recovery.

A number of Relativity’s top people came from Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin, and, like Musk, they say their vision is a permanent presence on Mars. Brost calls it “the long-term North Star for us.” They say they can envision 3D printing facilities someday on the Martian surface, fabricating much of what people from Earth would need to live there.For that to happen,” says Brost, “you need to have manufacturing capabilities that are autonomous and incredibly flexible.”

Relativity’s fourth-generation Stargate 3D printer.Relativity

Just how Relativity will do all these things is a work in progress. It says its 3D technology will help it work iteratively—finding mistakes as it goes, then correcting them as it prints the next rocket, and the next, and so on.

“In traditional manufacturing, you have to do a ton of work up front and have a lot of the design features done well ahead of time,” says Van Vliet. “You have to invest in fixed tooling that can often take years to build before you’ve actually developed an article for your launch vehicle. With 3D printing, additive manufacturing, we get to building something very, very quickly.”

The next step is to get the first rocket off the pad. Will it succeed? Brost says a key test will be getting through max q—the point of maximum dynamic pressure on the rocket as it accelerates through the atmosphere before the air around it thins out.

“If you look at history, at new space companies doing large rockets, there’s not a single one that’s done their first rocket on their first try. It would be quite an achievement if we were able to achieve orbit on our inaugural launch,” says Brost.

“I’ve been to many launches in my career,” he says, “and it never gets less exciting or nerve wracking to me.”

Due to the complexity of autonomous mobile robot’s requirement and drastic technological changes, the safe and efficient path tracking development is becoming complex and requires intensive knowledge and information, thus the demand for advanced algorithm has rapidly increased. Analyzing unstructured gain data has been a growing interest among researchers, resulting in valuable information in many fields such as path planning and motion control. Among those, motion control is a vital part of a fast, secure operation. Yet, current approaches face problems in managing unstructured gain data and producing accurate local planning due to the lack of formulation in the knowledge on the gain optimization. Therefore, this research aims to design a new gain optimization approach to assist researcher in identifying the value of the gain’s product with a qualitative comparative study of the up-to-date controllers. Gains optimization in this context is to classify the near perfect value of the gain’s product and processes. For this, a domain controller will be developed based on the attributes of the Fuzzy-PID parameters. The development of the Fuzzy Logic Controller requires information on the PID controller parameters that will be fuzzified and defuzzied based on the resulting 49 fuzzy rules. Furthermore, this fuzzy inference will be optimized for its usability by a genetic algorithm (GA). It is expected that the domain controller will give a positive impact to the path planning position and angular PID controller algorithm that meet the autonomous demand.

Reinforcement Learning has been shown to have a great potential for robotics. It demonstrated the capability to solve complex manipulation and locomotion tasks, even by learning end-to-end policies that operate directly on visual input, removing the need for custom perception systems. However, for practical robotics applications, its scarce sample efficiency, the need for huge amounts of resources, data, and computation time can be an insurmountable obstacle. One potential solution to this sample efficiency issue is the use of simulated environments. However, the discrepancy in visual and physical characteristics between reality and simulation, namely the sim-to-real gap, often significantly reduces the real-world performance of policies trained within a simulator. In this work we propose a sim-to-real technique that trains a Soft-Actor Critic agent together with a decoupled feature extractor and a latent-space dynamics model. The decoupled nature of the method allows to independently perform the sim-to-real transfer of feature extractor and control policy, and the presence of the dynamics model acts as a constraint on the latent representation when finetuning the feature extractor on real-world data. We show how this architecture can allow the transfer of a trained agent from simulation to reality without retraining or finetuning the control policy, but using real-world data only for adapting the feature extractor. By avoiding training the control policy in the real domain we overcome the need to apply Reinforcement Learning on real-world data, instead, we only focus on the unsupervised training of the feature extractor, considerably reducing real-world experience collection requirements. We evaluate the method on sim-to-sim and sim-to-real transfer of a policy for table-top robotic object pushing. We demonstrate how the method is capable of adapting to considerable variations in the task observations, such as changes in point-of-view, colors, and lighting, all while substantially reducing the training time with respect to policies trained directly in the real.

Most motion planners generate trajectories as low-level control inputs, such as joint torque or interpolation of joint angles, which cannot be deployed directly in most industrial robot control systems. Some industrial robot systems provide interfaces to execute planned trajectories by an additional control loop with low-level control inputs. However, there is a geometric and temporal deviation between the executed and the planned motions due to the inaccurate estimation of the inaccessible robot dynamic behavior and controller parameters in the planning phase. This deviation can lead to collisions or dangerous situations, especially in heavy-duty industrial robot applications where high-speed and long-distance motions are widely used. When deploying the planned robot motion, the actual robot motion needs to be iteratively checked and adjusted to avoid collisions caused by the deviation between the planned and the executed motions. This process takes a lot of time and engineering effort. Therefore, the state-of-the-art methods no longer meet the needs of today’s agile manufacturing for robotic systems that should rapidly plan and deploy new robot motions for different tasks. We present a data-driven motion planning approach using a neural network structure to simultaneously learn high-level motion commands and robot dynamics from acquired realistic collision-free trajectories. The trained neural network can generate trajectory in the form of high-level commands, such as Point-to-Point and Linear motion commands, which can be executed directly by the robot control system. The result carried out in various experimental scenarios has shown that the geometric and temporal deviation between the executed and the planned motions by the proposed approach has been significantly reduced, even if without access to the “black box” parameters of the robot. Furthermore, the proposed approach can generate new collision-free trajectories up to 10 times faster than benchmark motion planners.

The safe and reliable operation of autonomous agricultural vehicles requires an advanced environment perception system. An important component of perception systems is vision-based algorithms for detecting objects and other structures in the fields. This paper presents an ensemble method for combining outputs of three scene understanding tasks: semantic segmentation, object detection and anomaly detection in the agricultural context. The proposed framework uses an object detector to detect seven agriculture-specific classes. The anomaly detector detects all other objects that do not belong to these classes. In addition, the segmentation map of the field is utilized to provide additional information if the objects are located inside or outside the field area. The detections of different algorithms are combined at inference time, and the proposed ensemble method is independent of underlying algorithms. The results show that combining object detection with anomaly detection can increase the number of detected objects in agricultural scene images.

Recent technological advances in micro-robotics have demonstrated their immense potential for biomedical applications. Emerging micro-robots have versatile sensing systems, flexible locomotion and dexterous manipulation capabilities that can significantly contribute to the healthcare system. Despite the appreciated and tangible benefits of medical micro-robotics, many challenges still remain. Here, we review the major challenges, current trends and significant achievements for developing versatile and intelligent micro-robotics with a focus on applications in early diagnosis and therapeutic interventions. We also consider some recent emerging micro-robotic technologies that employ synthetic biology to support a new generation of living micro-robots. We expect to inspire future development of micro-robots toward clinical translation by identifying the roadblocks that need to be overcome.

Background: Studies aiming to objectively quantify movement disorders during upper limb tasks using wearable sensors have recently increased, but there is a wide variety in described measurement and analyzing methods, hampering standardization of methods in research and clinics. Therefore, the primary objective of this review was to provide an overview of sensor set-up and type, included tasks, sensor features and methods used to quantify movement disorders during upper limb tasks in multiple pathological populations. The secondary objective was to identify the most sensitive sensor features for the detection and quantification of movement disorders on the one hand and to describe the clinical application of the proposed methods on the other hand.

Methods: A literature search using Scopus, Web of Science, and PubMed was performed. Articles needed to meet following criteria: 1) participants were adults/children with a neurological disease, 2) (at least) one sensor was placed on the upper limb for evaluation of movement disorders during upper limb tasks, 3) comparisons between: groups with/without movement disorders, sensor features before/after intervention, or sensor features with a clinical scale for assessment of the movement disorder. 4) Outcome measures included sensor features from acceleration/angular velocity signals.

Results: A total of 101 articles were included, of which 56 researched Parkinson’s Disease. Wrist(s), hand(s) and index finger(s) were the most popular sensor locations. Most frequent tasks were: finger tapping, wrist pro/supination, keeping the arms extended in front of the body and finger-to-nose. Most frequently calculated sensor features were mean, standard deviation, root-mean-square, ranges, skewness, kurtosis/entropy of acceleration and/or angular velocity, in combination with dominant frequencies/power of acceleration signals. Examples of clinical applications were automatization of a clinical scale or discrimination between a patient/control group or different patient groups.

Conclusion: Current overview can support clinicians and researchers in selecting the most sensitive pathology-dependent sensor features and methodologies for detection and quantification of upper limb movement disorders and objective evaluations of treatment effects. Insights from Parkinson’s Disease studies can accelerate the development of wearable sensors protocols in the remaining pathologies, provided that there is sufficient attention for the standardisation of protocols, tasks, feasibility and data analysis methods.



Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.

ICRA 2023: 29 May–2 June 2023, LONDONRoboCup 2023: 4–10 July 2023, BORDEAUX, FRANCERSS 2023: 10–14 July 2023, DAEGU, KOREAIEEE RO-MAN 2023: 28–31 August 2023, BUSAN, KOREA

Enjoy today’s videos!

Meet Dog-E, the One in a Million Robot Dog!

Uncrate this pup to reveal a unique combination of colorful lights, sounds and personality traits, so no two Dog-Es are ever the same! Unique movements, personality and sounds brings this robot dog to life, and Dog-E’s personality influences how it behaves and responds to you with over 200 sounds and reactions. Dog-E talks with its tail, using persistence of vision (POV) technology to communicate with you. Train your Dog-E to learn your name and do tricks, track its needs or even toss it a treat! Multiple people can mint, save and load unique profiles with the app, so Dog-E is a robot dog for the whole family!

[ WowWee ]

The average human spends 26 years sleeping and 30 years working. That leaves just 1–2 hours in a day to truly connect with family, elders, or pets—if we’re lucky. With all that time apart and no one there to supervise, there can be a lot of concern about the health and safety of our loved ones. This is why we created EBO X—not just for you but for ourselves as well.

[ Ebo X ]

Labrador Systems is at CES this week, demonstrating its Retriever robot, now with Amazon Echo integration.

[ Labrador ]

With a wrap-up of the main events that marked 2022 for us, the RSL team wishes you a happy and eventful 2023.

[ RSL ]

What if you could walk way faster without trying any harder? Moonwalkers basically put an electric moving sidewalk right under your feet. WIRED’s Brent Rose has some questions: Are they real? Are they safe? Are they actually any good? Brent goes inside Shift Robotics’ research and development lab to get some answers.

[ Wired ]

How Wing designs its delivery drones.

[ Wing ]

Breaking news: Robot passes mirror test.

[ Sanctuary AI ]

The Guardian XM intelligent manipulator offers speed, dexterity, precision, and strength in a compact, lightweight package. With six degrees of freedom, an optimized strength-to-weight ratio, embedded intelligence, and a sleek hardware design that can withstand extreme temperatures and environmental conditions (IP66), the Guardian robotic arm can be used for a variety of complex outdoor and indoor applications.

[ Sarcos ]

A custom, closed-course testing fortress and an urban, high-speed proving ground? Yeah, you could say we take our structured testing seriously. Experience how we put the WaymoDriver to the test at each of our state-of-the-art facilities.

[ Waymo ]

Skydio, the leading American drone manufacturer, believes the responsible use of drones is the core of any public safety mission and we bake responsible engagement into our DNA. We developed the Skydio Engagement and Responsible Use Principles—a groundbreaking set of policy and ethical principles to guide our work and drive the industry forward. We also partnered with DRONERESPONDERS—the leading association focused on first-responder drone programs—to develop the “Five C’s” of responsible drone use by public-safety agencies.

Of course, Skydio’s drones are a lot of fun for nonemergencies, too:

[ Skydio ]



Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.

ICRA 2023: 29 May–2 June 2023, LONDONRoboCup 2023: 4–10 July 2023, BORDEAUX, FRANCERSS 2023: 10–14 July 2023, DAEGU, KOREAIEEE RO-MAN 2023: 28–31 August 2023, BUSAN, KOREA

Enjoy today’s videos!

Meet Dog-E, the One in a Million Robot Dog!

Uncrate this pup to reveal a unique combination of colorful lights, sounds and personality traits, so no two Dog-Es are ever the same! Unique movements, personality and sounds brings this robot dog to life, and Dog-E’s personality influences how it behaves and responds to you with over 200 sounds and reactions. Dog-E talks with its tail, using persistence of vision (POV) technology to communicate with you. Train your Dog-E to learn your name and do tricks, track its needs or even toss it a treat! Multiple people can mint, save and load unique profiles with the app, so Dog-E is a robot dog for the whole family!

[ WowWee ]

The average human spends 26 years sleeping and 30 years working. That leaves just 1–2 hours in a day to truly connect with family, elders, or pets—if we’re lucky. With all that time apart and no one there to supervise, there can be a lot of concern about the health and safety of our loved ones. This is why we created EBO X—not just for you but for ourselves as well.

[ Ebo X ]

Labrador Systems is at CES this week, demonstrating its Retriever robot, now with Amazon Echo integration.

[ Labrador ]

With a wrap-up of the main events that marked 2022 for us, the RSL team wishes you a happy and eventful 2023.

[ RSL ]

What if you could walk way faster without trying any harder? Moonwalkers basically put an electric moving sidewalk right under your feet. WIRED’s Brent Rose has some questions: Are they real? Are they safe? Are they actually any good? Brent goes inside Shift Robotics’ research and development lab to get some answers.

[ Wired ]

How Wing designs its delivery drones.

[ Wing ]

Breaking news: Robot passes mirror test.

[ Sanctuary AI ]

The Guardian XM intelligent manipulator offers speed, dexterity, precision, and strength in a compact, lightweight package. With six degrees of freedom, an optimized strength-to-weight ratio, embedded intelligence, and a sleek hardware design that can withstand extreme temperatures and environmental conditions (IP66), the Guardian robotic arm can be used for a variety of complex outdoor and indoor applications.

[ Sarcos ]

A custom, closed-course testing fortress and an urban, high-speed proving ground? Yeah, you could say we take our structured testing seriously. Experience how we put the WaymoDriver to the test at each of our state-of-the-art facilities.

[ Waymo ]

Skydio, the leading American drone manufacturer, believes the responsible use of drones is the core of any public safety mission and we bake responsible engagement into our DNA. We developed the Skydio Engagement and Responsible Use Principles—a groundbreaking set of policy and ethical principles to guide our work and drive the industry forward. We also partnered with DRONERESPONDERS—the leading association focused on first-responder drone programs—to develop the “Five C’s” of responsible drone use by public-safety agencies.

Of course, Skydio’s drones are a lot of fun for nonemergencies, too:

[ Skydio ]



When we hear about manipulation robots in warehouses, it’s almost always in the context of picking. That is, about grasping a single item from a bin of items, and then dropping that item into a different bin, where it may go toward building a customer order. Picking a single item from a jumble of items can be tricky for robots (especially when the number of different items may be in the millions). While the problem’s certainly not solved, in a well-structured and optimized environment, robots are nevertheless still getting pretty good at this kind of thing.

Amazon has been on a path toward the kind of robots that can pick items since at least 2015, when the company sponsored the Amazon Picking Challenge at ICRA. And just a month ago, Amazon introduced Sparrow, which it describes as “the first robotic system in our warehouses that can detect, select, and handle individual products in our inventory.” What’s important to understand about Sparrow, however, is that like most practical and effective industrial robots, the system surrounding it is doing a lot of heavy lifting—Sparrow is being presented with very robot-friendly bins that makes its job far easier than it would be otherwise. This is not unique to Amazon, and in highly automated warehouses with robotic picking systems it’s typical to see bins that either include only identical items or have just a few different items to help the picking robot be successful.

Doing the picking task in reverse is called stowing, and it’s the way that items get into Amazon’s warehouse workflow in the first place.

But robot-friendly bins are simply not the reality for the vast majority of items in an Amazon warehouse, and a big part of the reason for this is (as per usual) humans making an absolute mess of things, in this case when they stow products into bins in the first place. Sidd Srinivasa, the director of Amazon Robotics AI, described the problem of stowing items as “a nightmare.... Stow fundamentally breaks all existing industrial robotic thinking.” But over the past few years, Amazon Robotics researchers have put some serious work into solving it.

First, it’s important to understand the difference between the robot-friendly workflows that we typically see with bin-picking robots, and the way that most Amazon warehouses are actually run. That is, with humans doing most of the complex manipulation.

You may already be familiar with Amazon’s drive units—the mobile robots with shelves on top (called pods) that autonomously drive themselves past humans who pick items off of the shelves to build up orders for customers. This is (obviously) the picking task, but doing the same task in reverse is called stowing, and it’s the way that items get into Amazon’s warehouse workflow in the first place. It turns out that humans who stow things on Amazon’s mobile shelves do so in what is essentially a random way in order to maximize space most efficiently. This sounds counterintuitive, but it actually makes a lot of sense.

When an Amazon warehouse gets a new shipment of stuff, let’s say Extremely Very Awesome Nuggets (EVANs), the obvious thing to do might be to call up a pod with enough empty shelves to stow all of the EVANs in at once. That way, when someone places an order for an EVAN, the pod full of EVANs shows up, and a human can pick an EVAN off one of the shelves. The problem with this method, however, is that if the pod full of EVANs gets stuck or breaks or is otherwise inaccessible, then nobody can get their EVANs, slowing the entire system down (demand for EVANs being very, very high). Amazon’s strategy is to instead distribute EVANs across multiple pods, so that some EVANs are always available.

The process for this distributed stow is random in the sense that a human stower might get a couple of EVANs to put into whatever pod shows up next. Each pod has an array shelves, some of which are empty. It’s up to the human to decide where the EVANs best fit, and Amazon doesn’t really care as long as human tells the inventory system where the EVANs ended up. Here’s what this process looks like:

Two things are immediately obvious from this video: First, the way that Amazon products are stowed at automated warehouses like this one is entirely incompatible with most current bin-picking robots. Second, it’s easy to see why this kind of stowing is “a nightmare” for robots. As if the need to carefully manipulate a jumble of objects to make room in a bin wasn’t a hard enough problem, you also have to deal with those elastic bins that get in the way of both manipulation and visualization, and you have to be able to grasp and manipulate the item that you’re trying to stow. Oof.

“For me, it’s hard, but it’s not too hard—it’s on the cutting edge of what’s feasible for robots,” says Aaron Parness, senior manager of applied science at Amazon Robotics & AI. “It’s crazy fun to work on.” Parness came to Amazon from Stanford and JPL, where he worked on robots like StickyBot and LEMUR and was responsible for this bonkers microspine gripper designed to grasp asteroids in microgravity. “Having robots that can interact in high-clutter and high-contact environments is superexciting because I think it unlocks a wave of applications,” continues Parness. “This is exactly why I came to Amazon; to work on that kind of a problem and try to scale it.”

What makes stowing at Amazon both cutting edge and nightmarish for robots is that it’s a task that has been highly optimized for humans. Amazon has invested heavily in human optimization, and (at least for now) the company is very reliant on humans. This means that any robotic solution that would have a significant impact on the human-centered workflow is probably not going to get very far. So Parness, along with Senior Applied Scientist Parker Owan, had to develop hardware and software that could solve the problem as is. Here’s what they came up with:

On the hardware side, there’s a hook system that lifts the elastic bands out of the way to provide access to each bin. But that’s the easy part; the hard part is embodied in the end-of-arm tool (EOAT), which consists of two long paddles that can gently squeeze an item to pick it up, with conveyor belts on their inner surfaces to shoot the item into the bin. An extendable thin metal spatula of sorts can go into the bin before the paddles and shift items around to make room when necessary.

To use all of this hardware requires some very complex software, since the system needs to be able to perceive the items in the bin (which may be occluding each other and also behind the elastic bands), estimate the characteristics of each item, consider ways in which those items could be safely shoved around to maximize available bin space based on the object to be stowed, and then execute the right motions to make all of that happen. By identifying and then chaining together a series of motion primitives, the Amazon researchers have been able to achieve stowing success rates (in the lab) of better than 90 percent.

After years of work, the system is functioning well enough that prototypes are stowing actual inventory items at an Amazon fulfillment center in Washington state. The goal is to be able to stow 85 percent of the products that Amazon stocks (millions of items), but since the system can be installed within the same workflow that humans use, there’s no need to hit 100 percent. If the system can’t handle it, it just passes it along to a human worker. This means that the system doesn’t even need to reach 85 percent before it can be useful, since if it can do even a small percentage of items, it can offload some of that basic stuff from humans. And if you’re a human who has to do a lot of basic stuff over and over, that seems like it might be nice. Thanks, robots!

But of course there’s a lot more going on here on the robotics side, and we spoke with Aaron Parness to learn more.

IEEE Spectrum: Stowing in an Amazon warehouse is a highly human-optimized task. Does this make things at lot more challenging for robots?

Aaron Parness, senior manager of applied science at Amazon Robotics & AIAmazon

Aaron Parness: In a home, in a hospital, on the space station, in these kinds of settings, you have these human-built environments. I don’t really think that’s a driver for us. The hard problem we’re trying to solve involves contact and also the reasoning. And that doesn’t change too much with the environment, I don’t think. Most of my team is not focused on questions of that nature, questions like, “If we could only make the bins this height,” or, “If we could only change this or that other small thing.” I don’t mean to say that Amazon won’t ever change processes or alter systems. Obviously, we are doing that all the time. It’s easier to do that in new buildings than in old buildings, but Amazon is still totally doing that. We just try to think about our product fitting into those existing environments.

I think there’s a general statement that you can make that when you take robots from the lab and put them into the real world, you’re always constrained by the environment that you put them into. With the stowing problem, that’s definitely true. These fabric pods are horizontal surfaces, so orientation with respect to gravity can be a factor. The elastic bands that block our view are a challenge. The stiffness of the environment also matters, because we’re doing this force-in-the-loop control, and the incredible diversity of items that Amazon sells means that some of the items are compressible. So those factors are part of our environment as well. So in our case, dealing with this unstructured contact, this unexpected contact, that’s the hardest part of the problem.

“Handling contact is a new thing for industrial robots, especially unexpected, unpredictable contact. It’s both a hard problem, and a worthy one.”
—Aaron Parness

What information do you have about what’s in each bin, and how much does that help you to stow items?

Parness: We have the inventory of what’s in the bins, and a bunch of information about each of those items. We also know all the information about the items in our buffer [to be stowed]. And we have a 3D representation from our perception system. But there’s also a quality-control thing where the inventory system says there’s four items in the bin, but in reality, there’s only three items in the bin, because there’s been a defect somewhere. At Amazon, because we’re talking about millions of items per day, that’s a regular occurrence for us.

The configuration of the items in each bin is one of the really challenging things. If you had the same five items: a soccer ball, a teddy bear, a T-shirt, a pair of jeans, and an SD card and you put them in a bin 100 times, they’re going to look different in each of those 100 cases. You also get things that can look very similar. If you have a red pair of jeans or a red T-shirt and red sweatpants, your perception system can’t necessarily tell which one is which. And we do have to think about potentially damaging items—our algorithm decides which items should go to which bins and what confidence we have that we would be successful in making that stow, along with what risk there is that we would damage an item if we flip things up or squish things.

“Contact and clutter are the two things that keep me up at night.”
—Aaron Parness

How do you make sure that you don’t damage anything when you may be operating with incomplete information about what’s in the bin?

Parness: There are two things to highlight there. One is the approach and how we make our decisions about what actions to take. And then the second is how to make sure you don’t damage items as you do those kinds of actions, like squishing as far as you can.

With the first thing, we use a decision tree. We use that item information to claim all the easy stuff—if the bin is empty, put the biggest thing you can in the bin. If there’s only one item in the bin, and you know that item is a book, you can make an assumption it’s incompressible, and you can manipulate it accordingly. As you work down that decision tree, you get to certain branches and leaves that are too complicated to have a set of heuristics, and that’s where we use machine learning to predict things like, if I sweep this point cloud, how much space am I likely to make in the bin?

And this is where the contact-based manipulation comes in because the other thing is, in a warehouse, you need to have speed. You can’t stow one item per hour and be efficient. This is where putting force and torque in the control loop makes a difference—we need to have a high rate, a couple of hundred hertz loop that’s closing around that sensor and a bunch of special sauce in our admittance controller and our motion-planning stack to make sure we can do those motions without damaging items.

An overhead view of Amazon’s new stowing robotAmazon

Since you’re operating in these human-optimized environments, how closely does your robotic approach mimic what a human would be doing?

Parness: We started by doing it ourselves. We also did it ourselves while holding a robotic end effector. And this matters a lot, because you don’t realize that you’re doing all these kinds of fine-control motions, and you have so many sensors on your hand, right? This is a thing. But when we did this task ourselves, when we observed experts doing it, this is where the idea of motion primitives kind of emerged, which made the problem a little more achievable.

What made you use the motion primitives approach as opposed to a more generalized learning technique?

Parness: I’ll give you an honest answer—I was never tempted by reinforcement learning. But there were some in my team that were tempted by that, and we had a debate, since I really believe in iterative design philosophy and in the value of prototyping. We did a bunch of early-stage prototypes, trying to make a data-driven decision, and the end-to-end reinforcement learning seemed intractable. But the motion-primitive strategy actually turned me from a bit of a skeptic about whether robots could even do this job, and made me think, “Oh, yeah, this is the thing. We got to go for this.” That was a turning point, getting those motion primitives and recognizing that that was a way to structure the problem to make it solvable, because they get you most of the way there—you can handle everything but the long tail. And with the tail, maybe sometimes a human is looking in, and saying, “Well, if I play Tetris and I do this incredibly complicated and slow thing I can make the perfect unicorn shaped hole to put this unicorn shaped object into.” The robot won’t do that, and doesn’t need to do that. It can handle the bulk.

You really didn’t think that the problem was solvable at all, originally?

Parness: Yes. Parker Owan, who’s one of the lead scientists on my team, went off into the corner of the lab and started to set up some experiments. And I would look over there while working on other stuff, and be like, “Oh, that young guy, how brave. This problem will show him.” And then I started to get interested. Ultimately, there were two things, like I said: it was discovering that you could use these motion primitives to accomplish the bulk of the in-bin manipulation, because really that’s the hardest part of the problem. The second thing was on the gripper, on the end-of-arm tool.

“If the robot is doing well, I’m like, ‘This is achievable!’ And when we have some new problems, and then all of a sudden I’m like, ‘This is the hardest thing in the world!’ ”
—Aaron Parness

The end effector looks pretty specialized—how did you develop that?

Parness: Looking around the industry, there’s a lot of suction cups, a lot of pinch grasps. And when you have those kinds of grippers, all of a sudden you’re trying to use the item you’re gripping to manipulate the other items that are in the bin, right? When we decided to go with the paddle approach and encapsulate the item, it both gave us six degrees of freedom control over the item, so to make sure it wasn’t going into spaces we didn’t want it to, while also giving us a known engineering surface on the gripper. Maybe I can only predict in a general way the stiffness or the contact properties or the items that are in the bin, but I know I’m touching it with the back of my paddle, which is aluminum.

But then we realized that the end effector actually takes up a lot of space in the bin, and the whole point is that we’re trying to fill these bins up so that we can have a lot of stuff for sale on Amazon.com. So we say, okay, well, we’re going to stay outside the bin, but we’ll have this spatula that will be our in-bin manipulator. It’s a super simple tool that you can use for pushing on stuff, flipping stuff, squashing stuff.... You’re definitely not doing 27-degree-of-freedom human-hand stuff, but because we have these motion primitives, the hardware complemented that.

However, the paddles presented a new problem, because when using them we basically had to drop the item and then try to push it in at the same time. It was this kind of dynamic—let go and shove—which wasn’t great. That’s what led to putting the conveyor belts onto the paddles, which took us to the moon in terms of being successful. I’m the biggest believer there is now! Parker Owan has to kind of slow me down sometimes because I’m so excited about it.

It must have been tempting to keep iterating on the end effector.

Parness: Yeah, it is tempting, especially when you have scientists and engineers on your team. They want everything. It’s always like, “I can make it better. I can make it better. I can make it better.” I have that in me too, for sure. There’s another phrase I really love which is just, “so simple, it might work.” Are we inventing and complexifying, or are we making an elegant solution? Are we making this easier? Because the other thing that’s different about the lab and an actual fulfillment center is that we’ve got to work with our operators. We need it to be serviceable. We need it to be accessible and easy to use. You can’t have four Ph.D.s around each of the robots constantly kind of tinkering and optimizing it. We really try to balance that, but is there a temptation? Yeah. I want to put every sensor known to man on the robot! That’s a temptation, but I know better.

To what extent is picking just stowing in reverse? Could you run your system backwards and have picking solved as well?

Parness: That’s a good question, because obviously I think about that too, but picking is a little harder. With stowing, it’s more about how you make space in a bin, and then how you fit an item into space. For picking, you need to identify the item—when that bin shows up, the machine learning, the computer vision, that system has to be able to find the right item in clutter. But once we can handle contact and we can handle clutter, pick is for sure an application that opens up.

When I think really long term, if Amazon were to deploy a bunch of these stowing robots, all of a sudden you can start to track items, and you can remember that this robot stowed this item in this place in this bin. You can start to build up container maps. Right now, though, the system doesn’t remember.

Regarding picking in particular, a nice thing Amazon has done in the last couple of years is start to engage with the academic community more. My team sponsors research at MIT and at the University of Washington. And the team at University of Washington is actually looking at picking. Stow and pick are both really hard and really appealing problems, and in time, I hope I get to solve both!

Pages