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In Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” made world-famous by its adaptation in Disney’s Fantasia, a lazy apprentice, left to fetch water, uses magic to bewitch a broom into performing his chores for him. Now, new research from Yale has opened up the possibility of being able to animate—and automate—household objects by fitting them with a robotic skin.
Yale’s Soft Robotics lab, the Faboratory, is led by Professor Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio, and has long investigated the possibilities associated with new kinds of manufacturing. While the typical image of a robot is hard, cold steel and rigid movements, soft robotics aims to create something more flexible and versatile. After all, the human body is made up of soft, flexible surfaces, and the world is designed for us. Soft, deformable robots could change shape to adapt to different tasks.
When designing a robot, key components are the robot’s sensors, which allow it to perceive its environment, and its actuators, the electrical or pneumatic motors that allow the robot to move and interact with its environment.
Consider your hand, which has temperature and pressure sensors, but also muscles as actuators. The omni-skins, as the Science Robotics paper dubs them, combine sensors and actuators, embedding them into an elastic sheet. The robotic skins are moved by pneumatic actuators or memory alloy that can bounce back into shape. If this is then wrapped around a soft, deformable object, moving the skin with the actuators can allow the object to crawl along a surface.
The key to the design here is flexibility: rather than adding chips, sensors, and motors into every household object to turn them into individual automatons, the same skin can be used for many purposes. “We can take the skins and wrap them around one object to perform a task—locomotion, for example—and then take them off and put them on a different object to perform a different task, such as grasping and moving an object,” said Kramer-Bottiglio. “We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device.”
The task is then to dream up applications for the omni-skins. Initially, you might imagine demanding a stuffed toy to fetch the remote control for you, or animating a sponge to wipe down kitchen surfaces—but this is just the beginning. The scientists attached the skins to a soft tube and camera, creating a worm-like robot that could compress itself and crawl into small spaces for rescue missions. The same skins could then be worn by a person to sense their posture. One could easily imagine this being adapted into a soft exoskeleton for medical or industrial purposes: for example, helping with rehabilitation after an accident or injury.
The initial motivating factor for creating the robots was in an environment where space and weight are at a premium, and humans are forced to improvise with whatever’s at hand: outer space. Kramer-Bottoglio originally began the work after NASA called out for soft robotics systems for use by astronauts. Instead of wasting valuable rocket payload by sending up a heavy metal droid like ATLAS to fetch items or perform repairs, soft robotic skins with modular sensors could be adapted for a range of different uses spontaneously.
By reassembling components in the soft robotic skin, a crumpled ball of paper could provide the chassis for a robot that performs repairs on the spaceship, or explores the lunar surface. The dynamic compression provided by the robotic skin could be used for g-suits to protect astronauts when they rapidly accelerate or decelerate.
“One of the main things I considered was the importance of multi-functionality, especially for deep space exploration where the environment is unpredictable. The question is: How do you prepare for the unknown unknowns? … Given the design-on-the-fly nature of this approach, it’s unlikely that a robot created using robotic skins will perform any one task optimally,” Kramer-Bottiglio said. “However, the goal is not optimization, but rather diversity of applications.”
There are still problems to resolve. Many of the videos of the skins indicate that they can rely on an external power supply. Creating new, smaller batteries that can power wearable devices has been a focus of cutting-edge materials science research for some time. Much of the lab’s expertise is in creating flexible, stretchable electronics that can be deformed by the actuators without breaking the circuitry. In the future, the team hopes to work on streamlining the production process; if the components could be 3D printed, then the skins could be created when needed.
In addition, robotic hardware that’s capable of performing an impressive range of precise motions is quite an advanced technology. The software to control those robots, and enable them to perform a variety of tasks, is quite another challenge. With soft robots, it can become even more complex to design that control software, because the body itself can change shape and deform as the robot moves. The same set of programmed motions, then, can produce different results depending on the environment.
“Let’s say I have a soft robot with four legs that crawls along the ground, and I make it walk up a hard slope,” Dr. David Howard, who works on robotics at CSIRO in Australia, explained to ABC.
“If I make that slope out of gravel and I give it the same control commands, the actual body is going to deform in a different way, and I’m not necessarily going to know what that is.”
Despite these and other challenges, research like that at the Faboratory still hopes to redefine how we think of robots and robotics. Instead of a robot that imitates a human and manipulates objects, the objects themselves will become programmable matter, capable of moving autonomously and carrying out a range of tasks. Futurists speculate about a world where most objects are automated to some degree and can assemble and repair themselves, or are even built entirely of tiny robots.
The tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice was first written in 1797, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, over a century before the word “robot” was even coined. Yet more and more roboticists aim to prove Arthur C Clarke’s maxim: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Image Credit: Joran Booth, The Faboratory Continue reading
I don’t have to open the doors of AImotive’s white 2015 Prius to see that it’s not your average car. This particular Prius has been christened El Capitan, the name written below the rear doors, and two small cameras are mounted on top of the car. Bundles of wire snake out from them, as well as from the two additional cameras on the car’s hood and trunk.
Inside is where things really get interesting, though. The trunk holds a computer the size of a microwave, and a large monitor covers the passenger glove compartment and dashboard. The center console has three switches labeled “Allowed,” “Error,” and “Active.”
Budapest-based AImotive is working to provide scalable self-driving technology alongside big players like Waymo and Uber in the autonomous vehicle world. On a highway test ride with CEO Laszlo Kishonti near the company’s office in Mountain View, California, I got a glimpse of just how complex that world is.
Camera-Based Feedback System
AImotive’s approach to autonomous driving is a little different from that of some of the best-known systems. For starters, they’re using cameras, not lidar, as primary sensors. “The traffic system is visual and the cost of cameras is low,” Kishonti said. “A lidar can recognize when there are people near the car, but a camera can differentiate between, say, an elderly person and a child. Lidar’s resolution isn’t high enough to recognize the subtle differences of urban driving.”
Image Credit: AImotive
The company’s aiDrive software uses data from the camera sensors to feed information to its algorithms for hierarchical decision-making, grouped under four concurrent activities: recognition, location, motion, and control.
Kishonti pointed out that lidar has already gotten more cost-efficient, and will only continue to do so.
“Ten years ago, lidar was best because there wasn’t enough processing power to do all the calculations by AI. But the cost of running AI is decreasing,” he said. “In our approach, computer vision and AI processing are key, and for safety, we’ll have fallback sensors like radar or lidar.”
aiDrive currently runs on Nvidia chips, which Kishonti noted were originally designed for graphics, and are not terribly efficient given how power-hungry they are. “We’re planning to substitute lower-cost, lower-energy chips in the next six months,” he said.
Testing in Virtual Reality
Waymo recently announced its fleet has now driven four million miles autonomously. That’s a lot of miles, and hard to compete with. But AImotive isn’t trying to compete, at least not by logging more real-life test miles. Instead, the company is doing 90 percent of its testing in virtual reality. “This is what truly differentiates us from competitors,” Kishonti said.
He outlined the three main benefits of VR testing: it can simulate scenarios too dangerous for the real world (such as hitting something), too costly (not every company has Waymo’s funds to run hundreds of cars on real roads), or too time-consuming (like waiting for rain, snow, or other weather conditions to occur naturally and repeatedly).
“Real-world traffic testing is very skewed towards the boring miles,” he said. “What we want to do is test all the cases that are hard to solve.”
On a screen that looked not unlike multiple games of Mario Kart, he showed me the simulator. Cartoon cars cruised down winding streets, outfitted with all the real-world surroundings: people, trees, signs, other cars. As I watched, a furry kangaroo suddenly hopped across one screen. “Volvo had an issue in Australia,” Kishonti explained. “A kangaroo’s movement is different than other animals since it hops instead of running.” Talk about cases that are hard to solve.
AImotive is currently testing around 1,000 simulated scenarios every night, with a steadily-rising curve of successful tests. These scenarios are broken down into features, and the car’s behavior around those features fed into a neural network. As the algorithms learn more features, the level of complexity the vehicles can handle goes up.
On the Road
After Kishonti and his colleagues filled me in on the details of their product, it was time to test it out. A safety driver sat in the driver’s seat, a computer operator in the passenger seat, and Kishonti and I in back. The driver maintained full control of the car until we merged onto the highway. Then he flicked the “Allowed” switch, his copilot pressed the “Active” switch, and he took his hands off the wheel.
What happened next, you ask?
A few things. El Capitan was going exactly the speed limit—65 miles per hour—which meant all the other cars were passing us. When a car merged in front of us or cut us off, El Cap braked accordingly (if a little abruptly). The monitor displayed the feed from each of the car’s cameras, plus multiple data fields and a simulation where a blue line marked the center of the lane, measured by the cameras tracking the lane markings on either side.
I noticed El Cap wobbling out of our lane a bit, but it wasn’t until two things happened in a row that I felt a little nervous: first we went under a bridge, then a truck pulled up next to us, both bridge and truck casting a complete shadow over our car. At that point El Cap lost it, and we swerved haphazardly to the right, narrowly missing the truck’s rear wheels. The safety driver grabbed the steering wheel and took back control of the car.
What happened, Kishonti explained, was that the shadows made it hard for the car’s cameras to see the lane markings. This was a new scenario the algorithm hadn’t previously encountered. If we’d only gone under a bridge or only been next to the truck for a second, El Cap may not have had so much trouble, but the two events happening in a row really threw the car for a loop—almost literally.
“This is a new scenario we’ll add to our testing,” Kishonti said. He added that another way for the algorithm to handle this type of scenario, rather than basing its speed and positioning on the lane markings, is to mimic nearby cars. “The human eye would see that other cars are still moving at the same speed, even if it can’t see details of the road,” he said.
After another brief—and thankfully uneventful—hands-off cruise down the highway, the safety driver took over, exited the highway, and drove us back to the office.
Driving into the Future
I climbed out of the car feeling amazed not only that self-driving cars are possible, but that driving is possible at all. I squint when driving into a tunnel, swerve to avoid hitting a stray squirrel, and brake gradually at stop signs—all without consciously thinking to do so. On top of learning to steer, brake, and accelerate, self-driving software has to incorporate our brains’ and bodies’ unconscious (but crucial) reactions, like our pupils dilating to let in more light so we can see in a tunnel.
Despite all the progress of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and computing power, I have a wholly renewed appreciation for the thing that’s been in charge of driving up till now: the human brain.
Kishonti seemed to feel similarly. “I don’t think autonomous vehicles in the near future will be better than the best drivers,” he said. “But they’ll be better than the average driver. What we want to achieve is safe, good-quality driving for everyone, with scalability.”
AImotive is currently working with American tech firms and with car and truck manufacturers in Europe, China, and Japan.
Image Credit: Alex Oakenman / Shutterstock.com Continue reading