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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!):
ISRR 2019 – October 6-10, 2019 – Hanoi, Vietnam
Ro-Man 2019 – October 14-18, 2019 – New Delhi, India
Humanoids 2019 – October 15-17, 2019 – Toronto, Canada
ARSO 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Beijing, China
ROSCon 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Macau
IROS 2019 – November 4-8, 2019 – Macau
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.
Caltech has been making progress on LEONARDO (LEg ON Aerial Robotic DrOne), their leggy thruster powered humanoid-thing. It can now balance and walk, which is quite impressive to see.
We’ll circle back again when they’ve got it jumping and floating around.
[ Caltech ]
Turn the subtitles on to learn how robots became experts at slicing bubbly, melty, delicious cheese.
These robots learned how to do the traditional Swiss raclette from demonstration. The Robot Learning & Interaction group at the Idiap Research Institute has developed an imitation learning technique allowing the robot to acquire new skills by considering position and force information, with an automatic adaptation to new situations. The range of applications is wide, including industrial robots, service robots, and assistive robots.
[ Idiap ]
Some amazing news this week from Skydio, with the announcement of their better in every single way Skydio 2 autonomous drone. Read our full article for details, but here’s a getting started video that gives you an overview of what the drone can do.
The first batch sold out in 36 hours, but you can put down a $100 deposit to reserve the $999 drone for 2020 delivery.
[ Skydio ]
UBTECH is introducing a couple new robot kits for the holidays: ChampBot and FireBot.
$130 each, available on October 20.
[ Ubtech ]
NASA’s InSight lander on Mars is trying to use its robotic arm to get the mission’s heat flow probe, or mole, digging again. InSight team engineer Ashitey Trebbi-Ollennu, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, explains what has been attempted and the game plan for the coming weeks. The next tactic they’ll try will be “pinning” the mole against the hole it’s in.
[ NASA ]
We introduce shape-changing swarm robots. A swarm of self-transformable robots can both individually and collectively change their configuration to display information, actuate objects, act as tangible controllers, visualize data, and provide physical affordances. ShapeBots is a concept prototype of shape-changing swarm robots. Each robot can change its shape by leveraging small linear actuators that are thin (2.5 cm) and highly extendable (up to 20cm) in both horizontal and vertical directions.
[ Ryo Suzuki ]
Vision 60 legged robot managing unstructured terrain without vision or force sensors in its legs. Using only high-transparency actuators and 2kHz algorithmic stability control… 4-limbs and 12-motors with only a velocity command.
[ Ghost Robotics ]
We asked real people to bring in real products they needed picked for their application. In MINUTES, we assembled the right tool.
This is a cool idea, but for a real challenge they should try it outside a supermarket. Or a pet store.
[ Soft Robotics ]
Good water quality is important to humans and to nature. In a country with as much water as the Netherlands has, ensuring water quality is a very labour-intensive undertaking. To address this issue, researchers from TU Delft have developed a ‘pelican drone’: a drone capable of taking water samples quickly, in combination with a measuring instrument that immediately analyses the water quality. The drone was tested this week at the new Marker Wadden nature area ‘Living Lab’.
[ MAVLab ]
In an international collaboration led by scientists in Switzerland, three amputees merge with their bionic prosthetic legs as they climb over various obstacles without having to look. The amputees report using and feeling their bionic leg as part of their own body, thanks to sensory feedback from the prosthetic leg that is delivered to nerves in the leg’s stump.
[ EPFL ]
It’s a little hard to see, but this is one way of testing out asteroid imaging spacecraft without actually going into space: a fake asteroid and a 2D microgravity simulator.
[ Caltech ]
Drones can help filmmakers do the kinds of shots that would be otherwise impossible.
[ DJI ]
Two long interviews this week from Lex Fridman’s AI Podcast, and both of them are worth watching: Gary Marcus, and Peter Norvig.
[ AI Podcast ]
This week’s CMU RI Seminar comes from Tucker Hermans at the University of Utah, on “Improving Multi-fingered Robot Manipulation by Unifying Learning and Planning.”
Multi-fingered hands offer autonomous robots increased dexterity, versatility, and stability over simple two-fingered grippers. Naturally, this increased ability comes with increased complexity in planning and executing manipulation actions. As such, I propose combining model-based planning with learned components to improve over purely data-driven or purely-model based approaches to manipulation. This talk examines multi-fingered autonomous manipulation when the robot has only partial knowledge of the object of interest. I will first present results on planning multi-fingered grasps for novel objects using a learned neural network. I will then present our approach to planning in-hand manipulation tasks when dynamic properties of objects are not known. I will conclude with a discussion of our ongoing and future research to further unify these two approaches.
[ CMU RI ] Continue reading
Implementing machine learning in the real world isn’t easy. The tools are available and the road is well-marked—but the speed bumps are many.
That was the conclusion of panelists wrapping up a day of discussions at the IEEE AI Symposium 2019, held at Cisco’s San Jose, Calif., campus last week.
The toughest problem, says Ben Irving, senior manager of Cisco’s strategy innovations group, is people.
It’s tough to find data scientist expertise, he indicated, so companies are looking into non-traditional sources of personnel, like political science. “There are some untapped areas with a lot of untapped data science expertise,” Irving says.
Lazard’s artificial intelligence manager Trevor Mottl agreed that would-be data scientists don’t need formal training or experience to break into the field. “This field is changing really rapidly,” he says. “There are new language models coming out every month, and new tools, so [anyone should] expect to not know everything. Experiment, try out new tools and techniques, read, study, spend time; there aren’t any true experts at this point because the foundational elements are shifting so rapidly.”
“It is a wonderful time to get into a field,” he reasons, noting that it doesn’t take long to catch up because there aren’t 20 years of history.”
Confusion about what different kinds of machine learning specialists do doesn’t help the personnel situation. An audience member asked panelists to explain the difference between data scientist, data analyst, and data engineer. Darrin Johnson, Nvidia global director of technical marketing for enterprise, admitted it’s hard to sort out, and any two companies could define the positions differently. “Sometimes,” he says, particularly at smaller companies, “a data scientist plays all three roles. But as companies grow, there are different groups that ingest data, clean data, and use data. At some companies, training and inference are separate. It really depends, which is a challenge when you are trying to hire someone.”
Mitigating the risks of a hot job market
The competition to hire data scientists, analysts, engineers, or whatever companies call them requires that managers make sure any work being done is structured and comprehensible at all times, the panelists cautioned.
“We need to remember that our data scientists go home every day and sometimes they don’t come back because they go home and then go to a different company,” says Lazard’s Mottl. “That’s a fact of life. If you give people choice on [how they do development], and have a successful person who gets poached by competitor, you have to either hire a team to unwrap what that person built or jettison their work and rebuild it.”
By contrast, he says, “places that have structured coding and structured commits and organized constructions of software have done very well.”
But keeping all of a company’s engineers working with the same languages and on the same development paths is not easy to do in a field that moves as fast as machine learning. Zongjie Diao, Cisco director of product management for machine learning, quipped: “I have a data scientist friend who says the speed at which he changes girlfriends is less than speed at which he changes languages.”
The data scientist/IT manager clash
Once a company finds the data engineers and scientists they need and get them started on the task of applying machine learning to that company’s operations, one of the first obstacles they face just might be the company’s IT department, the panelists suggested.
“IT is process oriented,” Mottl says. The IT team “knows how to keep data secure, to set up servers. But when you bring in a data science team, they want sandboxes, they want freedom, they want to explore and play.”
Also, Nvidia’s Johnson pointed out, “There is a language barrier.” The AI world, he says, is very different from networking or storage, and data scientists find it hard to articulate their requirements to IT.
On the ground or in the cloud?
And then there is the decision of where exactly machine learning should happen—on site, or in the cloud? At Lazard, Mottl says, the deep learning engineers do their experimentation on premises; that’s their sandbox. “But when we deploy, we deploy in the cloud,” he says.
Nvidia, Johnson says, thinks the opposite approach is better. We see the cloud as “the sandbox,” he says. “So you can run as many experiments as possible, fail fast, and learn faster.”
For Cisco’s Irving, the “where” of machine learning depends on the confidentiality of the data.
Mottl, who says rolling machine learning technology into operation can hit resistance from all across the company, had one last word of caution for those aiming to implement AI:
Data scientists are building things that might change the ways other people in the organization work, like sales and even knowledge workers. [You need to] think about the internal stakeholders and prepare them, because the last thing you want to do is to create a valuable new thing that nobody likes and people take potshots against.
The AI Symposium was organized by the Silicon Valley chapters of the IEEE Young Professionals, the IEEE Consultants’ Network, and IEEE Women in Engineering and supported by Cisco. Continue reading
It’s been nearly six years since NASA unveiled Valkyrie, a state-of-the-art full-size humanoid robot. After the DARPA Robotics Challenge, NASA has continued to work with Valkyrie at Johnson Space Center, and has also provided Valkyrie robots to several different universities. Although it’s not a new platform anymore (six years is a long time in robotics), Valkyrie is still very capable, with plenty of potential for robotics research.
With that in mind, we were caught by surprise when over the last several months, Jacobs, a Dallas-based engineering company that appears to provide a wide variety of technical services to anyone who wants them, has posted several open jobs in need of roboticists in the Houston, Texas, area who are interested in working with NASA on “the next generation of humanoid robot.”
Here are the relevant bullet points from the one of the job descriptions (which you can view at this link):
Work directly with NASA Johnson Space Center in designing the next generation of humanoid robot.
Join the Valkyrie humanoid robot team in NASA’s Robotic Systems Technology Branch.
Build on the success of the existing Valkyrie and Robonaut 2 humanoid robots and advance NASA’s ability to project a remote human presence and dexterous manipulation capability into challenging, dangerous, and distant environments both in space and here on earth.
The question is, why is NASA developing its own humanoid robot (again) when it could instead save a whole bunch of time and money by using a platform that already exists, whether it’s Atlas, Digit, Valkyrie itself, or one of the small handful of other humanoids that are more or less available? The only answer that I can come up with is that no existing platforms meet NASA’s requirements, whatever those may be. And if that’s the case, what kind of requirements are we talking about? The obvious one would be the ability to work in the kinds of environments that NASA specializes in—space, the Moon, and Mars.
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Valkyrie humanoid robot working on the surface of Mars.
NASA’s existing humanoid robots, including Robonaut 2 and Valkyrie, were designed to operate on Earth. Robonaut 2 ended up going to space anyway (it’s recently returned to Earth for repairs), but its hardware was certainly never intended to function outside of the International Space Station. Working in a vacuum involves designing for a much more rigorous set of environmental challenges, and things get even worse on the Moon or on Mars, where highly abrasive dust gets everywhere.
We know that it’s possible to design robots for long term operation in these kinds of environments because we’ve done it before. But if you’re not actually going to send your robot off-world, there’s very little reason to bother making sure that it can operate through (say) 300° Celsius temperature swings like you’d find on the Moon. In the past, NASA has quite sensibly focused on designing robots that can be used as platforms for the development of software and techniques that could one day be applied to off-world operations, without over-engineering those specific robots to operate in places that they would almost certainly never go. As NASA increasingly focuses on a return to the Moon, though, maybe it’s time to start thinking about a humanoid robot that could actually do useful stuff on the lunar surface.
Artist’s concept of the Gateway moon-orbiting space station (seen on the right) with an Orion crew vehicle approaching.
The other possibility that I can think of, and perhaps the more likely one, is that this next humanoid robot will be a direct successor to Robonaut 2, intended for NASA’s Gateway space station orbiting the Moon. Some of the robotics folks at NASA that we’ve talked to recently have emphasized how important robotics will be for Gateway:
Trey Smith, NASA Ames: Everybody at NASA is really excited about work on the Gateway space station that would be in near lunar space. We don’t have definite plans for what would happen on the Gateway yet, but there’s a general recognition that intra-vehicular robots are important for space stations. And so, it would not be surprising to see a mobile manipulator like Robonaut, and a free flyer like Astrobee, on the Gateway.
If you have an un-crewed cargo vehicle that shows up stuffed to the rafters with cargo bags and it docks with the Gateway when there’s no crew there, it would be very useful to have intra-vehicular robots that can pull all those cargo bags out, unpack them, stow all the items, and then even allow the cargo vehicle to detach before the crew show up so that the crew don’t have to waste their time with that.
Julia Badger, NASA JSC: One of the systems on board Gateway is going to be intravehicular robots. They’re not going to necessarily look like Robonaut, but they’ll have some of the same functionality as Robonaut—being mobile, being able to carry payloads from one part of the module to another, doing some dexterous manipulation tasks, inspecting behind panels, those sorts of things.
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Valkyrie humanoid robot working inside a spacecraft.
Since Gateway won’t be crewed by humans all of the time, it’ll be important to have a permanent robotic presence to keep things running while nobody is home while saving on resources by virtue of the fact that robots aren’t always eating food, drinking water, consuming oxygen, demanding that the temperature stays just so, and producing a variety of disgusting kinds of waste. Obviously, the robot won’t be as capable as humans, but if they can manage to do even basic continuing maintenance tasks (most likely through at least partial teleoperation), that would be very useful.
Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum
NASA’s Robonaut team plans to perform a variety of mobility and motion-planning experiments using the robot’s new legs, which can grab handrails on the International Space Station.
As for whether robots designed for Gateway would really fall into the “humanoid” category, it’s worth considering that Gateway is designed for humans, implying that an effective robotic system on Gateway would need to be able to interact with the station in similar ways to how a human astronaut would. So, you’d expect to see arms with end-effectors that can grip things as well as push buttons, and some kind of mobility system—the legged version of Robonaut 2 seems like a likely template, but redesigned from the ground up to work in space, incorporating all the advances in robotics hardware and computing that have taken place over the last decade.
We’ve been pestering NASA about this for a little bit now, and they’re not ready to comment on this project, or even to confirm it. And again, everything in this article (besides the job post, which you should totally check out and consider applying for) is just speculation on our part, and we could be wrong about absolutely all of it. As soon as we hear more, we’ll definitely let you know. Continue reading
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