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Small robots are appealing because they’re simple, cheap, and it’s easy to make a lot of them. Unfortunately, being simple and cheap means that each robot individually can’t do a whole lot. To make up for this, you can do what insects do—leverage that simplicity and low-cost to just make a huge swarm of simple robots, and together, they can cooperate to carry out relatively complex tasks.
Using insects as an example does set a bit of an unfair expectation for the poor robots, since insects are (let’s be honest) generally smarter and much more versatile than a robot on their scale could ever hope to be. Most robots with insect-like capabilities (like DASH and its family) are really too big and complex to be turned into swarms, because to make a vast amount of small robots, things like motors aren’t going to work because they’re too expensive.
The question, then, is to how to make a swarm of inexpensive small robots with insect-like mobility that don’t need motors to get around, and Jamie Paik’s Reconfigurable Robotics Lab at EPFL has an answer, inspired by trap-jaw ants.
Let’s talk about trap-jaw ants for just a second, because they’re insane. You can read this 2006 paper about them if you’re particularly interested in insane ants (and who isn’t!), but if you just want to hear the insane bit, it’s that trap-jaw ants can fire themselves into the air by biting the ground (!). In just 0.06 millisecond, their half-millimeter long mandibles can close at a top speed of 64 meters per second, which works out to an acceleration of about 100,000 g’s. Biting the ground causes the ant’s head to snap back with a force of 300 times the body weight of the ant itself, which launches the ant upwards. The ants can fly 8 centimeters vertically, and up to 15 cm horizontally—this is a lot, for an ant that’s just a few millimeters long.
Trap-jaw ants can fire themselves into the air by biting the ground, causing the ant’s head to snap back with a force of 300 times the body weight of the ant itself
EPFL’s robots, called Tribots, look nothing at all like trap-jaw ants, which personally I am fine with. They’re about 5 cm tall, weighing 10 grams each, and can be built on a flat sheet, and then folded into a tripod shape, origami-style. Or maybe it’s kirigami, because there’s some cutting involved. The Tribots are fully autonomous, meaning they have onboard power and control, including proximity sensors that allow them to detect objects and avoid them.
Photo: Marc Delachaux/EPFL
EPFL researchers Zhenishbek Zhakypov and Jamie Paik.
Avoiding objects is where the trap-jaw ants come in. Using two different shape-memory actuators (a spring and a latch, similar to how the ant’s jaw works), the Tribots can move around using a bunch of different techniques that can adapt to the terrain that they’re on, including:
Vertical jumping for height
Horizontal jumping for distance
Somersault jumping to clear obstacles
Walking on textured terrain with short hops (called “flic-flac” walking)
Crawling on flat surfaces
Here’s the robot in action:
Tribot’s maximum vertical jump is 14 cm (2.5 times its height), and horizontally it can jump about 23 cm (almost 4 times its length). Tribot is actually quite efficient in these movements, with a cost of transport much lower than similarly-sized robots, on par with insects themselves.
Working together, small groups of Tribots can complete tasks that a single robot couldn’t do alone. One example is pushing a heavy object a set distance. It turns out that you need five Tribots for this task—a leader robot, two worker robots, a monitor robot to measure the distance that the object has been pushed, and then a messenger robot to relay communications around the obstacle.
Five Tribots collaborate to move an object to a desired position, using coordination between a leader, two workers, a monitor, and a messenger robot. The leader orders the two worker robots to push the object while the monitor measures the relative position of the object. As the object blocks the two-way link between the leader and the monitor, the messenger maintains the communication link.
The researchers acknowledge that the current version of the hardware is limited in pretty much every way (mobility, sensing, and computation), but it does a reasonable job of demonstrating what’s possible with the concept. The plan going forward is to automate fabrication in order to “enable on-demand, ’push-button-manufactured’” robots.
“Designing minimal and scalable insect-inspired multi-locomotion millirobots,” by Zhenishbek Zhakypov, Kazuaki Mori, Koh Hosoda, and Jamie Paik from EPFL and Osaka University, is published in the current issue of Nature.
[ RRL ] via [ EPFL ] Continue reading
Soft robots are getting more and more popular for some very good reasons. Their relative simplicity is one. Their relative low cost is another. And for their simplicity and low cost, they’re generally able to perform very impressively, leveraging the unique features inherent to their design and construction to move themselves and interact with their environment. The other significant reason why soft robots are so appealing is that they’re durable. Without the constraints of rigid parts, they can withstand the sort of abuse that would make any roboticist cringe.
In the current issue of Science Robotics, a group of researchers from Tsinghua University in China and University of California, Berkeley, present a new kind of soft robot that’s both higher performance and much more robust than just about anything we’ve seen before. The deceptively simple robot looks like a bent strip of paper, but it’s able to move at 20 body lengths per second and survive being stomped on by a human wearing tennis shoes. Take that, cockroaches.
This prototype robot measures just 3 centimeters by 1.5 cm. It takes a scanning electron microscope to actually see what the robot is made of—a thermoplastic layer is sandwiched by palladium-gold electrodes, bonded with adhesive silicone to a structural plastic at the bottom. When an AC voltage (as low as 8 volts but typically about 60 volts) is run through the electrodes, the thermoplastic extends and contracts, causing the robot’s back to flex and the little “foot” to shuffle. A complete step cycle takes just 50 milliseconds, yielding a 200 hertz gait. And technically, the robot “runs,” since it does have a brief aerial phase.
Image: Science Robotics
Photos from a high-speed camera show the robot’s gait (A to D) as it contracts and expands its body.
To put the robot’s top speed of 20 body lengths per second in perspective, have a look at this nifty chart, which shows where other animals relative running speeds of some animals and robots versus body mass:
Image: Science Robotics
This chart shows the relative running speeds of some mammals (purple area), arthropods (orange area), and soft robots (blue area) versus body mass. For both mammals and arthropods, relative speeds show a strong negative scaling law with respect to the body mass: speeds increase as body masses decrease. However, for soft robots, the relationship appears to be the opposite: speeds decrease as the body mass decrease. For the little soft robots created by the researchers from Tsinghua University and UC Berkeley (red stars), the scaling law is similar to that of living animals: Higher speed was attained as the body mass decreased.
If you were wondering, like we were, just what that number 39 is on that chart (top left corner), it’s a species of tiny mite that was discovered underneath a rock in California in 1916. The mite is just under 1 mm in size, but it can run at 0.8 kilometer per hour, which is 322 body lengths per second, making it by far (like, by a factor of two at least) the fastest land animal on Earth relative to size. If a human was to run that fast relative to our size, we’d be traveling at a little bit over 2,000 kilometers per hour. It’s not a coincidence that pretty much everything in the upper left of the chart is an insect—speed scales favorably with decreasing mass, since actuators have a proportionally larger effect.
Other notable robots on the chart with impressive speed to mass ratios are number 27, which is this magnetically driven quadruped robot from UMD, and number 86, UC Berkeley’s X2-VelociRoACH.
Anyway, back to this robot. Some other cool things about it:
You can step on it, squishing it flat with a load about 1 million times its own body weight, and it’ll keep on crawling, albeit only half as fast.
Even climbing a slope of 15 degrees, it can still manage to move at 1 body length per second.
It carries peanuts! With a payload of six times its own weight, it moves a sixth as fast, but still, it’s not like you need your peanuts delivered all that quickly anyway, do you?
Image: Science Robotics
The researchers also put together a prototype with two legs instead of one, which was able to demonstrate a potentially faster galloping gait by spending more time in the air. They suggest that robots like these could be used for “environmental exploration, structural inspection, information reconnaissance, and disaster relief,” which are the sorts of things that you suggest that your robot could be used for when you really have no idea what it could be used for. But this work is certainly impressive, with speed and robustness that are largely unmatched by other soft robots. An untethered version seems possible due to the relatively low voltages required to drive the robot, and if they can put some peanut-sized sensors on there as well, practical applications might actually be forthcoming sometime soon.
“Insect-scale Fast Moving and Ultrarobust Soft Robot,” by Yichuan Wu, Justin K. Yim, Jiaming Liang, Zhichun Shao, Mingjing Qi, Junwen Zhong, Zihao Luo, Xiaojun Yan, Min Zhang, Xiaohao Wang, Ronald S. Fearing, Robert J. Full, and Liwei Lin from Tsinghua University and UC Berkeley, is published in Science Robotics. Continue reading
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!):
DARPA SubT Tunnel Circuit – August 15-22, 2019 – Pittsburgh, Pa., USA
CLAWAR 2019 – August 26-28, 2019 – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
IEEE Africon 2019 – September 25-27, 2019 – Accra, Ghana
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.
Lakshmi Nair from Georgia Tech describes some fascinating research towards robots that can create their own tools, as presented at ICRA this year:
Using a novel capability to reason about shape, function, and attachment of unrelated parts, researchers have for the first time successfully trained an intelligent agent to create basic tools by combining objects.
The breakthrough comes from Georgia Tech’s Robot Autonomy and Interactive Learning (RAIL) research lab and is a significant step toward enabling intelligent agents to devise more advanced tools that could prove useful in hazardous – and potentially life-threatening – environments.
[ Lakshmi Nair ]
Victor Barasuol, from the Dynamic Legged Systems Lab at IIT, wrote in to share some new research on their HyQ quadruped that enables sensorless shin collision detection. This helps the robot navigate unstructured environments, and also mitigates all those painful shin strikes, because ouch.
This will be presented later this month at the International Conference on Climbing and Walking Robots (CLAWAR) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
[ IIT ]
You used to have a tail, you know—as an embryo, about a month in to your development. All mammals used to have tails, and now we just have useless tailbones, which don’t help us with balancing even a little bit. BRING BACK THE TAIL!
The tail, created by Junichi Nabeshima, Kouta Minamizawa, and MHD Yamen Saraiji from Keio University’s Graduate School of Media Design, was presented at SIGGRAPH 2019 Emerging Technologies.
[ Paper ] via [ Gizmodo ]
The noises in this video are fantastic.
[ ESA ]
Apparently the industrial revolution wasn’t a thorough enough beatdown of human knitting, because the robots are at it again.
[ MIT CSAIL ]
Skydio’s drones just keep getting more and more impressive. Now if only they’d make one that I can afford…
[ Skydio ]
The only thing more fun than watching robots is watching people react to robots.
[ SEER ]
There aren’t any robots in this video, but it’s robotics-related research, and very soothing to watch.
[ Stanford ]
In case it wasn’t clear, which it wasn’t, this is a Roboy project. And if you didn’t understand that first video, you definitely won’t understand this second one:
Whatever that t-shirt is at the end (Roboy in sunglasses puking rainbows…?) I need one.
[ Roboy ]
By adding electronics and computation technology to a simple cane that has been around since ancient times, a team of researchers at Columbia Engineering have transformed it into a 21st century robotic device that can provide light-touch assistance in walking to the aged and others with impaired mobility.
The light-touch robotic cane, called CANINE, acts as a cane-like mobile assistant. The device improves the individual’s proprioception, or self-awareness in space, during walking, which in turn improves stability and balance.
[ ROAR Lab ]
During the second field experiment for DARPA’s OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) program, which took place at Fort Benning, Georgia, teams of autonomous air and ground robots tested tactics on a mission to isolate an urban objective. Similar to the way a firefighting crew establishes a boundary around a burning building, they first identified locations of interest and then created a perimeter around the focal point.
[ DARPA ]
I think there’s a bit of new footage here of Ghost Robotics’ Vision 60 quadruped walking around without sensors on unstructured terrain.
[ Ghost Robotics ]
If you’re as tired of passenger drone hype as I am, there’s absolutely no need to watch this video of NEC’s latest hover test.
[ AP ]
As researchers teach robots to perform more and more complex tasks, the need for realistic simulation environments is growing. Existing techniques for closing the reality gap by approximating real-world physics often require extensive real world data and/or thousands of simulation samples. This paper presents TuneNet, a new machine learning-based method to directly tune the parameters of one model to match another using an iterative residual tuning technique. TuneNet estimates the parameter difference between two models using a single observation from the target and minimal simulation, allowing rapid, accurate and sample-efficient parameter estimation.
The system can be trained via supervised learning over an auto-generated simulated dataset. We show that TuneNet can perform system identification, even when the true parameter values lie well outside the distribution seen during training, and demonstrate that simulators tuned with TuneNet outperform existing techniques for predicting rigid body motion. Finally, we show that our method can estimate real-world parameter values, allowing a robot to perform sim-to-real task transfer on a dynamic manipulation task unseen during training. We are also making a baseline implementation of our code available online.
[ Paper ]
Here’s an update on what GITAI has been up to with their telepresence astronaut-replacement robot.
[ GITAI ]
Curiosity captured this 360-degree panorama of a location on Mars called “Teal Ridge” on June 18, 2019. This location is part of a larger region the rover has been exploring called the “clay-bearing unit” on the side of Mount Sharp, which is inside Gale Crater. The scene is presented with a color adjustment that approximates white balancing to resemble how the rocks and sand would appear under daytime lighting conditions on Earth.
[ MSL ]
Some updates (in English) on ROS from ROSCon France. The first is a keynote from Brian Gerkey:
And this second video is from Omri Ben-Bassat, about how to keep your Anki Vector alive using ROS:
All of the ROSCon FR talks are available on Vimeo.
[ ROSCon FR ] Continue reading
We’re very familiar with a wide variety of transforming robots—whether for submarines or drones, transformation is a way of making a single robot adaptable to different environments or tasks. Usually, these robots are restricted to a discrete number of configurations—perhaps two or three different forms—because of the constraints imposed by the rigid structures that robots are typically made of.
Soft robotics has the potential to change all this, with robots that don’t have fixed forms but instead can transform themselves into whatever shape will enable them to do what they need to do. At ICRA in Montreal earlier this year, researchers from Yale University demonstrated a creative approach toward a transforming robot powered by string and air, with a body made primarily out of clay.
Photo: Evan Ackerman
The robot is actuated by two different kinds of “skin,” one layered on top of another. There’s a locomotion skin, made of a pattern of pneumatic bladders that can roll the robot forward or backward when the bladders are inflated sequentially. On top of that is the morphing skin, which is cable-driven, and can sculpt the underlying material into a variety of shapes, including spheres, cylinders, and dumbbells. The robot itself consists of both of those skins wrapped around a chunk of clay, with the actuators driven by offboard power and control. Here it is in action:
The Yale researchers have been experimenting with morphing robots that use foams and tensegrity structures for their bodies, but that stuff provides a “restoring force,” springing back into its original shape once the actuation stops. Clay is different because it holds whatever shape it’s formed into, making the robot more energy efficient. And if the dumbbell shape stops being useful, the morphing layer can just squeeze it back into a cylinder or a sphere.
While this robot, and the sample transformation shown in the video, are relatively simplistic, the researchers suggest some ways in which a more complex version could be used in the future:
Photo: IEEE Xplore
This robot’s morphing skin sculpts its clay body into different shapes.
Applications where morphing and locomotion might serve as complementary functions are abundant. For the example skins presented in this work, a search-and-rescue operation could use the clay as a medium to hold a payload such as sensors or transmitters. More broadly, applications include resource-limited conditions where supply chains for materiel are sparse. For example, the morphing sequence shown in Fig. 4 [above] could be used to transform from a rolling sphere to a pseudo-jointed robotic arm. With such a morphing system, it would be possible to robotically morph matter into different forms to perform different functions.
Read this article for free on IEEE Xplore until 5 September 2019
Morphing Robots Using Robotic Skins That Sculpt Clay, by Dylan S. Shah, Michelle C. Yuen, Liana G. Tilton, Ellen J. Yang, and Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio from Yale University, was presented at ICRA 2019 in Montreal.
[ Yale Faboratory ]
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