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#435742 This ‘Useless’ Social Robot ...

The recent high profile failures of some home social robots (and the companies behind them) have made it even more challenging than it was before to develop robots in that space. And it was challenging enough to begin with—making a robot that can autonomous interact with random humans in their homes over a long period of time for a price that people can afford is extraordinarily difficult. However, the massive amount of initial interest in robots like Jibo, Kuri, Vector, and Buddy prove that people do want these things, or at least think they do, and while that’s the case, there’s incentive for other companies to give social home robots a try.

One of those companies is Zoetic, founded in 2107 by Mita Yun and Jitu Das, both ex-Googlers. Their robot, Kiki, is more or less exactly what you’d expect from a social home robot: It’s cute, white, roundish, has big eyes, promises that it will be your “robot sidekick,” and is not cheap: It’s on Kicksterter for $800. Kiki is among what appears to be a sort of tentative second wave of social home robots, where designers have (presumably) had a chance to take everything that they learned from the social home robot pioneers and use it to make things better this time around.

Kiki’s Kickstarter video is, again, more or less exactly what you’d expect from a social home robot crowdfunding campaign:

We won’t get into all of the details on Kiki in this article (the Kickstarter page has tons of information), but a few distinguishing features:

Each Kiki will develop its own personality over time through its daily interactions with its owner, other people, and other Kikis.
Interacting with Kiki is more abstract than with most robots—it can understand some specific words and phrases, and will occasionally use a few specific words or two, but otherwise it’s mostly listening to your tone of voice and responding with sounds rather than speech.
Kiki doesn’t move on its own, but it can operate for up to two hours away from its charging dock.
Depending on how your treat Kiki, it can get depressed or neurotic. It also needs to be fed, which you can do by drawing different kinds of food in the app.
Everything Kiki does runs on-board the robot. It has Wi-Fi connectivity for updates, but doesn’t rely on the cloud for anything in real-time, meaning that your data stays on the robot and that the robot will continue to function even if its remote service shuts down.

It’s hard to say whether features like these are unique enough to help Kiki be successful where other social home robots haven’t been, so we spoke with Zoetic co-founder Mita Yun and asked her why she believes that Kiki is going to be the social home robot that makes it.

IEEE Spectrum: What’s your background?

Mita Yun: I was an only child growing up, and so I always wanted something like Doraemon or Totoro. Something that when you come home it’s there to greet you, not just because it’s programmed to do that but because it’s actually actively happy to see you, and only you. I was so interested in this that I went to study robotics at CMU and then after I graduated I joined Google and worked there for five years. I tended to go for the more risky and more fun projects, but they always got cancelled—the first project I joined was called Android at Home, and then I joined Google Glass, and then I joined a team called Robots for Kids. That project was building educational robots, and then I just realized that when we’re adding technology to something, to a product, we’re actually taking the life away somehow, and the kids were more connected with stuffed animals compared to the educational robots we were building. That project was also cancelled, and in 2017, I left with a coworker of mine (Jitu Das) to bring this dream into reality. And now we’re building Kiki.

“Jibo was Alexa plus cuteness equals $800, and I feel like that equation doesn’t work for most people, and that eventually killed the company. So, for Kiki, we are actually building something very different. We’re building something that’s completely useless”
—Mita Yun, Zoetic

You started working on Kiki in 2017, when things were already getting challenging for Jibo—why did you decide to start developing a social home robot at that point?

I thought Jibo was great. It had a special magical way of moving, and it was such a new idea that you could have this robot with embodiment and it can actually be your assistant. The problem with Jibo, in my opinion, was that it took too long to fulfill the orders. It took them three to four years to actually manufacture, because it was a very complex piece of hardware, and then during that period of time Alexa and Google Home came out, and they started selling these voice systems for $30 and then you have Jibo for $800. Jibo was Alexa plus cuteness equals $800, and I feel like that equation doesn’t work for most people, and that eventually killed the company. So, for Kiki, we are actually building something very different. We’re building something that’s completely useless.

Can you elaborate on “completely useless?”

I feel like people are initially connected with robots because they remind them of a character. And it’s the closest we can get to a character other than an organic character like an animal. So we’re connected to a character like when we have a robot in a mall that’s roaming around, even if it looks really ugly, like if it doesn’t have eyes, people still take selfies with it. Why? Because they think it’s a character. And humans are just hardwired to love characters and love stories. With Kiki, we just wanted to build a character that’s alive, we don’t want to have a character do anything super useful.

I understand why other robotics companies are adding Alexa integration to their robots, and I think that’s great. But the dream I had, and the understanding I have about robotics technology, is that for a consumer robot especially, it is very very difficult for the robot to justify its price through usefulness. And then there’s also research showing that the more useless something is, the easier it is to have an emotional connection, so that’s why we want to keep Kiki very useless.

What kind of character are you creating with Kiki?

The whole design principle around Kiki is we want to make it a very vulnerable character. In terms of its status at home, it’s not going to be higher or equal status as the owner, but slightly lower status than the human, and it’s vulnerable and needs you to take care of it in order to grow up into a good personality robot.

We don’t let Kiki speak full English sentences, because whenever it does that, people are going to think it’s at least as intelligent as a baby, which is impossible for robots at this point. And we also don’t let it move around, because when you have it move around, people are going to think “I’m going to call Kiki’s name, and then Kiki is will come to me.” But that is actually very difficult to build. And then also we don’t have any voice integration so it doesn’t tell you about the stock market price and so on.

Photo: Zoetic

Kiki is designed to be “vulnerable,” and it needs you to take care of it so it can “grow up into a good personality robot,” according to its creators.

That sounds similar to what Mayfield did with Kuri, emphasizing an emotional connection rather than specific functionality.

It is very similar, but one of the key differences from Kuri, I think, is that Kuri started with a Kobuki base, and then it’s wrapped into a cute shell, and they added sounds. So Kuri started with utility in mind—navigation is an important part of Kuri, so they started with that challenge. For Kiki, we started with the eyes. The entire thing started with the character itself.

How will you be able to convince your customers to spend $800 on a robot that you’ve described as “useless” in some ways?

Because it’s useless, it’s actually easier to convince people, because it provides you with an emotional connection. I think Kiki is not a utility-driven product, so the adoption cycle is different. For a functional product, it’s very easy to pick up, because you can justify it by saying “I’m going to pay this much and then my life can become this much more efficient.” But it’s also very easy to be replaced and forgotten. For an emotional-driven product, it’s slower to pick up, but once people actually pick it up, they’re going to be hooked—they get be connected with it, and they’re willing to invest more into taking care of the robot so it will grow up to be smarter.

Maintaining value over time has been another challenge for social home robots. How will you make sure that people don’t get bored with Kiki after a few weeks?

Of course Kiki has limits in what it can do. We can combine the eyes, the facial expression, the motors, and lights and sounds, but is it going to be constantly entertaining? So we think of this as, imagine if a human is actually puppeteering Kiki—can Kiki stay interesting if a human is puppeteering it and interacting with the owner? So I think what makes a robot interesting is not just in the physical expressions, but the part in between that and the robot conveying its intentions and emotions.

For example, if you come into the room and then Kiki decides it will turn the other direction, ignore you, and then you feel like, huh, why did the robot do that to me? Did I do something wrong? And then maybe you will come up to it and you will try to figure out why it did that. So, even though Kiki can only express in four different dimensions, it can still make things very interesting, and then when its strategies change, it makes it feel like a new experience.

There’s also an explore and exploit process going on. Kiki wants to make you smile, and it will try different things. It could try to chase its tail, and if you smile, Kiki learns that this works and will exploit it. But maybe after doing it three times, you no longer find it funny, because you’re bored of it, and then Kiki will observe your reactions and be motivated to explore a new strategy.

Photo: Zoetic

Kiki’s creators are hoping that, with an emotionally engaging robot, it will be easier for people to get attached to it and willing to spend time taking care of it.

A particular risk with crowdfunding a robot like this is setting expectations unreasonably high. The emphasis on personality and emotional engagement with Kiki seems like it may be very difficult for the robot to live up to in practice.

I think we invested more than most robotics companies into really building out Kiki’s personality, because that is the single most important thing to us. For Jibo a lot of the focus was in the assistant, and for Kuri, it’s more in the movement. For Kiki, it’s very much in the personality.

I feel like when most people talk about personality, they’re mainly talking about expression. With Kiki, it’s not just in the expression itself, not just in the voice or the eyes or the output layer, it’s in the layer in between—when Kiki receives input, how will it make decisions about what to do? We actually don’t think the personality of Kiki is categorizable, which is why I feel like Kiki has a deeper implementation of how personalities should work. And you’re right, Kiki doesn’t really understand why you’re feeling a certain way, it just reads your facial expressions. It’s maybe not your best friend, but maybe closer to your little guinea pig robot.

Photo: Zoetic

The team behind Kiki paid particular attention to its eyes, and designed the robot to always face the person that it is interacting with.

Is that where you’d put Kiki on the scale of human to pet?

Kiki is definitely not human, we want to keep it very far away from human. And it’s also not a dog or cat. When we were designing Kiki, we took inspiration from mammals because humans are deeply connected to mammals since we’re mammals ourselves. And specifically we’re connected to predator animals. With prey animals, their eyes are usually on the sides of their heads, because they need to see different angles. A predator animal needs to hunt, they need to focus. Cats and dogs are predator animals. So with Kiki, that’s why we made sure the eyes are on one side of the face and the head can actuate independently from the body and the body can turn so it’s always facing the person that it’s paying attention to.

I feel like Kiki is probably does more than a plant. It does more than a fish, because a fish doesn’t look you in the eyes. It’s not as smart as a cat or a dog, so I would just put it in this guinea pig kind of category.

What have you found so far when running user studies with Kiki?

When we were first designing Kiki we went through a whole series of prototypes. One of the earlier prototypes of Kiki looked like a CRT, like a very old monitor, and when we were testing that with people they didn’t even want to touch it. Kiki’s design inspiration actually came from an airplane, with a very angular, futuristic look, but based on user feedback we made it more round and more friendly to the touch. The lights were another feature request from the users, which adds another layer of expressivity to Kiki, and they wanted to see multiple Kikis working together with different personalities. Users also wanted different looks for Kiki, to make it look like a deer or a unicorn, for example, and we actually did take that into consideration because it doesn’t look like any particular mammal. In the future, you’ll be able to have different ears to make it look like completely different animals.

There has been a lot of user feedback that we didn’t implement—I believe we should observe the users reactions and feedback but not listen to their advice. The users shouldn’t be our product designers, because if you test Kiki with 10 users, eight of them will tell you they want Alexa in it. But we’re never going to add Alexa integration to Kiki because that’s not what it’s meant to do.

While it’s far too early to tell whether Kiki will be a long-term success, the Kickstarter campaign is currently over 95 percent funded with 8 days to go, and 34 robots are still available for a May 2020 delivery.

[ Kickstarter ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435738 Boing Goes the Trampoline Robot

There are a handful of quadrupedal robots out there that are highly dynamic, with the ability to run and jump, but those robots tend to be rather expensive and complicated, requiring powerful actuators and legs with elasticity. Boxing Wang, a Ph.D. student in the College of Control Science and Engineering at Zhejiang University in China, contacted us to share a project he’s been working to investigate quadruped jumping with simple, affordable hardware.

“The motivation for this project is quite simple,” Boxing says. “I wanted to study quadrupedal jumping control, but I didn’t have custom-made powerful actuators, and I didn’t want to have to design elastic legs. So I decided to use a trampoline to make a normal servo-driven quadruped robot to jump.”

Boxing and his colleagues had wanted to study quadrupedal running and jumping, so they built this robot with the most powerful servos they had access to: Kondo KRS6003RHV actuators, which have a maximum torque of 6 Nm. After some simple testing, it became clear that the servos were simply not fast or powerful enough to get the robot to jump, and that an elastic element was necessary to store energy to help the robot get off the ground.

“Normally, people would choose elastic legs,” says Boxing. “But nobody in my lab knew for sure how to design them. If we tried making elastic legs and we failed to make the robot jump, we couldn’t be sure whether the problem was the legs or the control algorithms. For hardware, we decided that it’s better to start with something reliable, something that definitely won’t be the source of the problem.”

As it turns out, all you need is a trampoline, an inertial measurement unit (IMU), and little tactile switches on the end of each foot to detect touch-down and lift-off events, and you can do some useful jumping research without a jumping robot. And the trampoline has other benefits as well—because it’s stiffer at the edges than at the center, for example, the robot will tend to center itself on the trampoline, and you get some warning before things go wrong.

“I can’t say that it’s a breakthrough to make a quadruped robot jump on a trampoline,” Boxing tells us. “But I believe this is useful for prototype testing, especially for people who are interested in quadrupedal jumping control but without a suitable robot at hand.”

To learn more about the project, we emailed him some additional questions.

IEEE Spectrum: Where did this idea come from?

Boxing Wang: The idea of the trampoline came while we were drinking milk tea. I don’t know why it came up, maybe someone saw a trampoline in a gym recently. And I don’t remember who proposed it exactly. It was just like someone said it unintentionally. But I realized that a trampoline would be a perfect choice. It’s reliable, easy to buy, and should have a similar dynamic model with the one of jumping with springy legs (we have briefly analyzed this in a paper). So I decided to try the trampoline.

How much do you think you can learn using a quadruped on a trampoline, instead of using a jumping quadruped?

Generally speaking, no contact surfaces are strictly rigid. They all have elasticity. So there are no essential differences between jumping on a trampoline and jumping on a rigid surface. However, using a quadruped on a trampoline can give you more information on how to make use of elasticity to make jumping easier and more efficient. You can use quadruped robots with springy legs to address the same problem, but that usually requires much more time on hardware design.

We prefer to treat the trampoline experiment as a kind of early test for further real jumping quadruped design. Unless you’re interested in designing an acrobatic robot on a trampoline, a real jumping quadruped is probably a more useful application, and that is our ultimate goal. The point of the trampoline tests is to develop the control algorithms first, and to examine the stability of the general hardware structure. Due to the similarity between jumping on a trampoline with rigid legs and jumping on hard surfaces with springy legs, the control algorithms you develop could be transferred to hard-surface jumping robots.

“Unless you’re interested in designing an acrobatic robot on a trampoline, a real jumping quadruped is probably a more useful application, and that is our ultimate goal. The point of the trampoline tests is to develop the control algorithms first, and to examine the stability of the general hardware structure”

Do you think that this idea can be beneficial for other kinds of robotics research?

Yes. For jumping quadrupeds with springy legs, the control algorithms could be first designed through trampoline tests using simple rigid legs. And the hardware design for elastic legs could be accelerated with the help of the control algorithms you design. In addition, we believe our work could be a good example of using a position-control robot to realize dynamic motions such as jumping, or even running.

Unlike other dynamic robots, every active joint in our robot is controlled through commercial position-control servos and not custom torque control motors. Most people don’t think that a position-control robot could perform highly dynamic motions such as jumping, because position-control motors usually mean high a gear ratio and slow response. However, our work indicates that, with the help of elasticity, stable jumping could be realized through position-control servos. So for those who already have a position-control robot at hand, they could explore the potential of their robot through trampoline tests.

Why is teaching a robot to jump important?

There are many scenarios where a jumping robot is needed. For example, a real jumping quadruped could be used to design a running quadruped. Both experience moments when all four legs are in the air, and it is easier to start from jumping and then move to running. Specifically, hopping or pronking can easily transform to bounding if the pitch angle is not strictly controlled. A bounding quadruped is similar to a running rabbit, so for now it can already be called a running quadruped.

To the best of our knowledge, a practical use of jumping quadrupeds could be planet exploration, just like what SpaceBok was designed for. In a low-gravity environment, jumping is more efficient than walking, and it’s easier to jump over obstacles. But if I had a jumping quadruped on Earth, I would teach it to catch a ball that I throw at it by jumping. It would be fantastic!

That would be fantastic.

Since the whole point of the trampoline was to get jumping software up and running with a minimum of hardware, the next step is to add some springy legs to the robot so that the control system the researchers developed can be tested on hard surfaces. They have a journal paper currently under revision, and Boxing Wang is joined as first author by his adviser Chunlin Zhou, undergrads Ziheng Duan and Qichao Zhu, and researchers Jun Wu and Rong Xiong. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435733 Robot Squid and Robot Scallop Showcase ...

Most underwater robots use one of two ways of getting around. Way one is with propellers, and way two is with fins. But animals have shown us that there are many more kinds of underwater locomotion, potentially offering unique benefits to robots. We’ll take a look at two papers from ICRA this year that showed bioinspired underwater robots moving in creative new ways: A jet-powered squid robot that can leap out of the water, plus a robotic scallop that moves just like the real thing.

Image: Beihang University

Prototype of the squid robot in (a) open and (b) folded states. The soft fins and arms are controlled by pneumatic actuators.

This “squid-like aquatic-aerial vehicle” from Beihang University in China is modeled after flying squids. Real squids, in addition to being tasty, propel themselves using water jets, and these jets are powerful enough that some squids can not only jump out of the water, but actually achieve controlled flight for a brief period by continuing to jet while in the air. The flight phase is extended through the use of fins as arms and wings to generate a little bit of lift. Real squids use this multimodal propulsion to escape predators, and it’s also much faster—a squid can double its normal swimming speed while in the air, flying at up to 50 body lengths per second.

The squid robot is powered primarily by compressed air, which it stores in a cylinder in its nose (do squids have noses?). The fins and arms are controlled by pneumatic actuators. When the robot wants to move through the water, it opens a value to release a modest amount of compressed air; releasing the air all at once generates enough thrust to fire the robot squid completely out of the water.

The jumping that you see at the end of the video is preliminary work; we’re told that the robot squid can travel between 10 and 20 meters by jumping, whereas using its jet underwater will take it just 10 meters. At the moment, the squid can only fire its jet once, but the researchers plan to replace the compressed air with something a bit denser, like liquid CO2, which will allow for extended operation and multiple jumps. There’s also plenty of work to do with using the fins for dynamic control, which the researchers say will “reveal the superiority of the natural flying squid movement.”

“Design and Experiments of a Squid-like Aquatic-aerial Vehicle With Soft Morphing Fins and Arms,” by Taogang Hou, Xingbang Yang, Haohong Su, Buhui Jiang, Lingkun Chen, Tianmiao Wang, and Jianhong Liang from Beihang University in China, was presented at ICRA 2019 in Montreal.

Image: EPFL

The EPFL researchers studied the morphology and function of a real scallop (a) to design their robot scallop (b), which consists of two shells connected at a hinge and enclosed by a flexible elastic membrane. The robot and animal both swim by rapidly, cyclicly opening and closing their shells to generate water jets for propulsion. When the robot shells open, water is drawn into the body through rear openings near the hinge. When the shells close rapidly, the water is forced out, propelling the robot forward (c).

RoboScallop, a “bivalve inspired swimming robot,” comes from EPFL’s Reconfigurable Robotics Laboratory, headed by Jamie Paik. Real scallops, in addition to being tasty, propel themselves by opening and closing their shells to generate jets of water out of their backsides. By repetitively opening their shells slowly and then closing quickly, scallops can generate forward thrust in a way that’s completely internal to their bodies. Relative to things like fins or spinning propellers, a scallop is simple and robust, especially as you scale down or start looking at large swarms of robots. The EPFL researchers describe their robotic scallop as representing “a unique combination of robust to hazards or sustained use, safe in delicate environments, and simple by design.”

And here’s how the real thing looks:

As you can see from the video, RoboScallop is safe to handle even while it’s operating, although a gentle nibbling is possible if you get too handsy with it. Since the robot sucks water in and then jets it out immediately, the design is resistant to fouling, which can be a significant problem in marine environments. The RoboScallop prototype weighs 65 grams, and tops out at a brisk 16 centimeters per second, while clapping (that’s the actual technical) at just over 2.5 Hz. While RoboScallop doesn’t yet steer, real scallops can change direction by jetting out more water on one side than the other, and RoboScallop should be able to do this as well. The researchers also suggest that RoboScallop itself could even double as a gripper, which as far as I know, is not something that real scallops can do.

“RoboScallop: A Bivalve-Inspired Swimming Robot,” by Matthew A. Robertson, Filip Efremov, and Jamie Paik, was presented at ICRA 2019 in Montreal. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435726 This Is the Most Powerful Robot Arm Ever ...

Last month, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory wrapped up the installation of the Mars 2020 rover’s 2.1-meter-long robot arm. This is the most powerful arm ever installed on a Mars rover. Even though the Mars 2020 rover shares much of its design with Curiosity, the new arm was redesigned to be able to do much more complex science, drilling into rocks to collect samples that can be stored for later recovery.

JPL is well known for developing robots that do amazing work in incredibly distant and hostile environments. The Opportunity Mars rover, to name just one example, had a 90-day planned mission but remained operational for 5,498 days in a robot unfriendly place full of dust and wild temperature swings where even the most basic maintenance or repair is utterly impossible. (Its twin rover, Spirit, operated for 2,269 days.)

To learn more about the process behind designing robotic systems that are capable of feats like these, we talked with Matt Robinson, one of the engineers who designed the Mars 2020 rover’s new robot arm.

The Mars 2020 rover (which will be officially named through a public contest which opens this fall) is scheduled to launch in July of 2020, landing in Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021. The overall design is similar to the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, named Curiosity, which has been exploring Gale Crater on Mars since August 2012, except Mars 2020 will be a bit bigger and capable of doing even more amazing science. It will outweigh Curiosity by about 150 kilograms, but it’s otherwise about the same size, and uses the same type of radioisotope thermoelectric generator for power. Upgraded aluminum wheels will be more durable than Curiosity’s wheels, which have suffered significant wear. Mars 2020 will land on Mars in the same way that Curiosity did, with a mildly insane descent to the surface from a rocket-powered hovering “skycrane.”

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Last month, engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory install the main robotic arm on the Mars 2020 rover. Measuring 2.1 meters long, the arm will allow the rover to work as a human geologist would: by holding and using science tools with its turret.

Mars 2020 really steps it up when it comes to science. The most interesting new capability (besides serving as the base station for a highly experimental autonomous helicopter) is that the rover will be able to take surface samples of rock and soil, put them into tubes, seal the tubes up, and then cache the tubes on the surface for later retrieval (and potentially return to Earth for analysis). Collecting the samples is the job of a drill on the end of the robot arm that can be equipped with a variety of interchangeable bits, but the arm holds a number of other instruments as well. A “turret” can swap between the drill, a mineral identification sensor suite called SHERLOC, and an X-ray spectrometer and camera called PIXL. Fundamentally, most of Mars 2020’s science work is going to depend on the arm and the hardware that it carries, both in terms of close-up surface investigations and collecting samples for caching.

Matt Robinson is the Deputy Delivery Manager for the Sample Caching System on the Mars 2020 rover, which covers the robotic arm itself, the drill at the end of the arm, and the sample caching system within the body of the rover that manages the samples. Robinson has been at JPL since 2001, and he’s worked on the Mars Phoenix Lander mission as the robotic arm flight software developer and robotic arm test and operations engineer, as well as on Curiosity as the robotic arm test and operations lead engineer.

We spoke with Robinson about how the Mars 2020 arm was designed, and what it’s like to be building robots for exploring other planets.

IEEE Spectrum: How’d you end up working on robots at JPL?

Matt Robinson: When I was a grad student, my focus was on vision-based robotics research, so the kinds of things they do at JPL, or that we do at JPL now, were right within my wheelhouse. One of my advisors in grad school had a former student who was out here at JPL, so that’s how I made the contact. But I was very excited to come to JPL—as a young grad student working in robotics, space robotics was where it’s at.

For a robotics engineer, working in space is kind of the gold standard. You’re working in a challenging environment and you have to be prepared for any time of eventuality that may occur. And when you send your robot out to space, there’s no getting it back.

Once the rover arrives on Mars and you receive pictures back from it operating, there’s no greater feeling. You’ve built something that is now working 200+ million miles away. It’s an awesome experience! I have to pinch myself sometimes with the job I do. Working at JPL on space robotics is the holy grail for a roboticist.

What’s different about designing an arm for a rover that will operate on Mars?

We spent over five years designing, manufacturing, assembling, and testing the arm. Scientists have defined the high-level goals for what the mission has to do—acquire core samples and process them for return, carry science instruments on the arm to help determine what rocks to sample, and so on. We, as engineers, define the next level of requirements that support those goals.

When you’re building a robotic arm for another planet, you want to design something that is robust to the environment as well as robust from fault-protection standpoint. On Mars, we’re talking about an environment where the temperature can vary 100 degrees Celsius over the course of the day, so it’s very challenging thermally. With force sensing for instance, that’s a major problem. Force sensors aren’t typically designed to operate or even survive in temperature ranges that we’re talking about. So a lot of effort has to go into force sensor design and testing.

And then there’s a do-no-harm aspect—you’re sending this piece of hardware 200 million miles away, and you can’t get it back, so you want to make sure your hardware and software are robust and cannot do any harm to the system. It’s definitely a change in mindset from a terrestrial robot, where if you make a mistake, you can repair it.

“Once the rover arrives on Mars and you receive pictures back from it, there’s no greater feeling . . . I have to pinch myself sometimes with the job I do.”
—Matt Robinson, NASA JPL

How do you decide how much redundancy is enough?

That’s always a big question. It comes down to a couple of things, typically: mass and volume. You have a certain amount of mass that’s allocated to the robotic arm and we have a volume that it has to fit within, so those are often the drivers of the amount of redundancy that you can fit. We also have a lot of experience with sending arms to other planets, and at the beginning of projects, we establish a number of requirements that the design has to meet, and that’s where the redundancy is captured.

How much is the design of the arm driven by this need for redundancy, as opposed to trying to pack in all of the instrumentation that you want to have on there to do as much science as possible?

The requirements were driven by a couple of things. We knew roughly how big the instruments on the end of the arm were going to be, so the arm design is partially driven by that, because as the instruments get bigger and heavier, the arm has to get bigger and stronger. We have our coring drill at the end of the arm, and coring requires a certain level of force, so the arm has to be strong enough to do that. Those all became requirements that drove the design of the arm. On top of that, there was also that this arm also has to operate within the Martian environment, so you have things like the temperature changes and thermal expansion—you have to design for that as well. It’s a combination of both, really.

You were a test engineer for the arm used on the MSL rover. What did you learn from Spirit and Opportunity that informed the design of the arm on Curiosity?

Spirit and Opportunity did not have any force-sensing on the robotic arm. We had contact sensors that were good enough. Spirit and Opportunity’s arms were used to place instruments, that’s all it had to do, primarily. When you’re talking about actually acquiring samples, it’s not a matter of just placing the tool—you also have to apply forces to the environment. And once you start doing that, you really need a force sensor to protect you, and also to determine how much load to apply. So that was a big theme, a big difference between MSL and Spirit and Opportunity.

The size grew a lot too. If you look at Spirit and Opportunity, they’re the size of a riding lawnmower. Curiosity and the Mars 2020 rovers are the size of a small car. The Spirit and Opportunity arm was under a meter long, and the 2020 arm is twice that, and it has to apply forces that are much higher than the Spirit and Opportunity arm. From Curiosity to 2020, the payload of the arm grew by 50 percent, but the mass of the arm did not grow a whole lot, because our mass budget was kind of tight. We had to design an arm that was stronger, that had more capability, without adding more mass. That was a big challenge. We were fairly efficient on Curiosity, but on 2020, we sharpened the pencil even more.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Three generations of Mars rovers developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Front and center: Sojourner rover, which landed on Mars in 1997 as part of the Mars Pathfinder Project. Left: Mars Exploration Rover Project rover (Spirit and Opportunity), which landed on Mars in 2004. Right: Mars Science Laboratory rover (Curiosity), which landed on Mars in August 2012.

MSL used its arm to drill into rocks like Mars 2020 will—how has the experience of operating MSL on Mars changed your thinking on how to make that work?

On MSL, the force sensor was used primarily for fault protection, just to protect the arm from being overloaded. [When drilling] we used a stiffness model of the arm to apply the force. The force sensor was only used in case you overloaded, and that’s very different from doing active force control, where you’re actually using the force sensor in a control loop.

On Mars 2020, we’re taking it to the next step, using the force sensor to actually actively control the level of force, both for pushing on the ground and for doing bit exchange. That’s a key point because fault protection to prevent damage usually has larger error bars. When you’re trying to actually push on the environment to apply force, and you’re doing active force control, the force sensor has to be significantly more accurate.

So a big thing that we learned on MSL—it was the first time we’d actually flown a force sensor, and we learned a lot about how to design and test force sensors to be used on the surface of Mars.

How do you effectively test the Mars 2020 arm on Earth?

That’s a good question. The arm was designed to operate on either Earth or Mars. It’s strong enough to do both. We also have a stiffness model of the arm which includes allows us to compensate for differences in gravity. For testing, we make two copies of the robotic arm. We have our copy that we’re going to fly to Mars, which is what we call our flight model, and we have our engineering model. They’re effectively duplicates of each other. The engineering arm stays on earth, so even once we’ve sent the flight model to Mars, we can continue to test. And if something were to happen, if say a drill bit got stuck in the ground on Mars, we could try to replicate those conditions on Earth with our engineering model arm, and use that to test out different scenarios to overcome the problem.

How much autonomy will the arm have?

We have different models of autonomy. We have pretty high levels flight software and, for instance, we have a command that just says “dock,” that moves the arm does all the force control to the dock the arm with the carousel. For surface interaction, we have stereo cameras on the rover, and those cameras allow us to generate 3D terrain models. Using those 3D terrain models, scientists can select a target on that surface, and then we can position the arm on the target.

Scientists like to select the particular sample targets, because they have very specific types of rocks they’re looking for to sample from. On 2020, we’re providing the ability for the next level of autonomy for the rover to drive up to an area and at least do the initial surveying of that area, so the scientists can select the specific target. So the way that that would happen is, if there’s an area off in the distance that the scientists find potentially interesting, the rover will autonomously drive up to it, and deploy the arm and take all the pictures so that we can generate those 3D terrain models and then the next day the scientists can pick the specific target they want. It’s really cool.

JPL is famous for making robots that operate for far longer than NASA necessarily plans for. What’s it like designing hardware and software for a system that will (hopefully) become part of that legacy?

The way that I look at it is, when you’re building an arm that’s going to go to another planet, all the things that could go wrong… You have to build something that’s robust and that can survive all that. It’s not that we’re trying to overdesign arms so that they’ll end up lasting much, much longer, it’s that, given all the things that you can encounter within a fairly unknown environment, and the level of robustness of the design you have to apply, it just so happens we end up with designs that end up lasting a lot longer than they do. Which is great, but we’re not held to that, although we’re very excited when we see them last that long. Without any calibration, without any maintenance, exactly, it’s amazing. They show their wear over time, but they still operate, it’s super exciting, it’s very inspirational to see.

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#435716 Watch This Drone Explode Into Maple Seed ...

As useful as conventional fixed-wing and quadrotor drones have become, they still tend to be relatively complicated, expensive machines that you really want to be able to use more than once. When a one-way trip is all that you have in mind, you want something simple, reliable, and cheap, and we’ve seen a bunch of different designs for drone gliders that more or less fulfill those criteria.

For an even simpler gliding design, you want to minimize both airframe mass and control surfaces, and the maple tree provides some inspiration in the form of samara, those distinctive seed pods that whirl to the ground in the fall. Samara are essentially just an unbalanced wing that spins, and while the natural ones don’t steer, adding an actuated flap to the robotic version and moving it at just the right time results in enough controllability to aim for a specific point on the ground.

Roboticists at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) have been experimenting with samara-inspired drones, and in a new paper in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters they explore what happens if you attach five of the drones together and then separate them in mid air.

Image: Singapore University of Technology and Design

The drone with all five wings attached (top left), and details of the individual wings: (a) smaller 44.9-gram wing for semi-indoor testing; (b) larger 83.4-gram wing able to carry a Pixracer, GPS, and magnetometer for directional control experiments.

Fundamentally, a samara design acts as a decelerator for an aerial payload. You can think of it like a parachute: It makes sure that whatever you toss out of an airplane gets to the ground intact rather than just smashing itself to bits on impact. Steering is possible, but you don’t get a lot of stability or precision control. The RA-L paper describes one solution to this, which is to collaboratively use five drones at once in a configuration that looks a bit like a helicopter rotor.

And once the multi-drone is right where you want it, the five individual samara drones can split off all at once, heading out on their own missions. It's quite a sight:

The concept features a collaborative autorotation in the initial stage of drop whereby several wings are attached to each other to form a rotor hub. The combined form achieves higher rotational energy and a collaborative control strategy is possible. Once closer to the ground, they can exit the collaborative form and continue to descend to unique destinations. A section of each wing forms a flap and a small actuator changes its pitch cyclically. Since all wing-flaps can actuate simultaneously in collaborative mode, better maneuverability is possible, hence higher resistance against environmental conditions. The vertical and horizontal speeds can be controlled to a certain extent, allowing it to navigate towards a target location and land softly.

The samara autorotating wing drones themselves could conceivably carry small payloads like sensors or emergency medical supplies, with these small-scale versions in the video able to handle an extra 30 grams of payload. While they might not have as much capacity as a traditional fixed-wing glider, they have the advantage of being able to descent vertically, and can perform better than a parachute due to their ability to steer. The researchers plan on improving the design of their little drones, with the goal of increasing the rotation speed and improving the control performance of both the individual drones and the multi-wing collaborative version.

“Dynamics and Control of a Collaborative and Separating Descent of Samara Autorotating Wings,” by Shane Kyi Hla Win, Luke Soe Thura Win, Danial Sufiyan, Gim Song Soh, and Shaohui Foong from Singapore University of Technology and Design, appears in the current issue of IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters.
[ SUTD ]

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