Tag Archives: commercial

#435683 How High Fives Help Us Get in Touch With ...

The human sense of touch is so naturally ingrained in our everyday lives that we often don’t notice its presence. Even so, touch is a crucial sensing ability that helps people to understand the world and connect with others. As the market for robots grows, and as robots become more ingrained into our environments, people will expect robots to participate in a wide variety of social touch interactions. At Oregon State University’s Collaborative Robotics and Intelligent Systems (CoRIS) Institute, I research how to equip everyday robots with better social-physical interaction skills—from playful high-fives to challenging physical therapy routines.

Some commercial robots already possess certain physical interaction skills. For example, the videoconferencing feature of mobile telepresence robots can keep far-away family members connected with one another. These robots can also roam distant spaces and bump into people, chairs, and other remote objects. And my Roomba occasionally tickles my toes before turning to vacuum a different area of the room. As a human being, I naturally interpret this (and other Roomba behaviors) as social, even if they were not intended as such. At the same time, for both of these systems, social perceptions of the robots’ physical interaction behaviors are not well understood, and these social touch-like interactions cannot be controlled in nuanced ways.

Before joining CoRIS early this year, I was a postdoc at the University of Southern California’s Interaction Lab, and prior to that, I completed my doctoral work at the GRASP Laboratory’s Haptics Group at the University of Pennsylvania. My dissertation focused on improving the general understanding of how robot control and planning strategies influence perceptions of social touch interactions. As part of that research, I conducted a study of human-robot hand-to-hand contact, focusing on an interaction somewhere between a high five and a hand-clapping game. I decided to study this particular interaction because people often high five, and they will likely expect robots in everyday spaces to high five as well!

I conducted a study of human-robot hand-to-hand contact, focusing on an interaction somewhere between a high five and a hand-clapping game. I decided to study this particular interaction because people often high five, and they will likely expect robots to high five as well!

The implications of motion and planning on the social touch experience in these interactions is also crucial—think about a disappointingly wimpy (or triumphantly amazing) high five that you’ve experienced in the past. This great or terrible high-fiving experience could be fleeting, but it could also influence who you interact with, who you’re friends with, and even how you perceive the character or personalities of those around you. This type of perception, judgement, and response could extend to personal robots, too!

An investigation like this requires a mixture of more traditional robotics research (e.g., understanding how to move and control a robot arm, developing models of the desired robot motion) along with techniques from design and psychology (e.g., performing interviews with research participants, using best practices from experimental methods in perception). Enabling robots with social touch abilities also comes with many challenges, and even skilled humans can have trouble anticipating what another person is about to do. Think about trying to make satisfying hand contact during a high five—you might know the classic adage “watch the elbow,” but if you’re like me, even this may not always work.

I conducted a research study involving eight different types of human-robot hand contact, with different combinations of the following: interactions with a facially reactive or non-reactive robot, a physically reactive or non-reactive planning strategy, and a lower or higher robot arm stiffness. My robotic system could become facially reactive by changing its facial expression in response to hand contact, or physically reactive by updating its plan of where to move next after sensing hand contact. The stiffness of the robot could be adjusted by changing a variable that controlled how quickly the robot’s motors tried to pull its arm to the desired position. I knew from previous research that fine differences in touch interactions can have a big impact on perceived robot character. For example, if a robot grips an object too tightly or for too long while handing an object to a person, it might be perceived as greedy, possessive, or perhaps even Sméagol-like. A robot that lets go too soon might appear careless or sloppy.

In the example cases of robot grip, it’s clear that understanding people’s perceptions of robot characteristics and personality can help roboticists choose the right robot design based on the proposed operating environment of the robot. I likewise wanted to learn how the facial expressions, physical reactions, and stiffness of a hand-clapping robot would influence human perceptions of robot pleasantness, energeticness, dominance, and safety. Understanding this relationship can help roboticists to equip robots with personalities appropriate for the task at hand. For example, a robot assisting people in a grocery store may need to be designed with a high level of pleasantness and only moderate energy, while a maximally effective robot for comedy roast battles may need high degrees of energy and dominance above all else.

After many a late night at the GRASP Lab clapping hands with a big red robot, I was ready to conduct the study. Twenty participants visited the lab to clap hands with our Baxter Research Robot and help me begin to understand how characteristics of this humanoid robot’s social touch influenced its pleasantness, energeticness, dominance, and apparent safety. Baxter interacted with participants using a custom 3D-printed hand that was inlaid with silicone inserts.

The study showed that a facially reactive robot seemed more pleasant and energetic. A physically reactive robot seemed less pleasant, energetic, and dominant for this particular study design and interaction. I thought contact with a stiffer robot would seem harder (and therefore more dominant and less safe), but counter to my expectations, a stiffer-armed robot seemed safer and less dominant to participants. This may be because the stiffer robot was more precise in following its pre-programmed trajectory, therefore seeming more predictable and less free-spirited.

Safety ratings of the robot were generally high, and several participants commented positively on the robot’s facial expressions. Some participants attributed inventive (and non-existent) intelligences to the robot—I used neither computer vision nor the Baxter robot’s cameras in this study, but more than one participant complimented me on how well the robot tracked their hand position. While interacting with the robot, participants displayed happy facial expressions more than any other analyzed type of expression.

Photo: Naomi Fitter

Participants were asked to clap hands with Baxter and describe how they perceived the robot in terms of its pleasantness, energeticness, dominance, and apparent safety.

Circling back to the idea of how people might interpret even rudimentary and practical robot behaviors as social, these results show that this type of social perception isn’t just true for my lovable (but sometimes dopey) Roomba, but also for collaborative industrial robots, and generally, any robot capable of physical human-robot interaction. In designing the motion of Baxter, the adjustment of a single number in the equation that controls joint stiffness can flip the robot from seeming safe and docile to brash and commanding. These implications are sometimes predictable, but often unexpected.

The results of this particular study give us a partial guide to manipulating the emotional experience of robot users by adjusting aspects of robot control and planning, but future work is needed to fully understand the design space of social touch. Will materials play a major role? How about personalized machine learning? Do results generalize over all robot arms, or even a specialized subset like collaborative industrial robot arms? I’m planning to continue answering these questions, and when I finally solve human-robot social touch, I’ll high five all my robots to celebrate.

Naomi Fitter is an assistant professor in the Collaborative Robotics and Intelligent Systems (CoRIS) Institute at Oregon State University, where her Social Haptics, Assistive Robotics, and Embodiment (SHARE) research group aims to equip robots with the ability to engage and empower people in interactions from playful high-fives to challenging physical therapy routines. She completed her doctoral work in the GRASP Laboratory’s Haptics Group and was a postdoctoral scholar in the University of Southern California’s Interaction Lab from 2017 to 2018. Naomi’s not-so-secret pastime is performing stand-up and improv comedy. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435621 ANYbotics Introduces Sleek New ANYmal C ...

Quadrupedal robots are making significant advances lately, and just in the past few months we’ve seen Boston Dynamics’ Spot hauling a truck, IIT’s HyQReal pulling a plane, MIT’s MiniCheetah doing backflips, Unitree Robotics’ Laikago towing a van, and Ghost Robotics’ Vision 60 exploring a mine. Robot makers are betting that their four-legged machines will prove useful in a variety of applications in construction, security, delivery, and even at home.

ANYbotics has been working on such applications for years, testing out their ANYmal robot in places where humans typically don’t want to go (like offshore platforms) as well as places where humans really don’t want to go (like sewers), and they have a better idea than most companies what can make quadruped robots successful.

This week, ANYbotics is announcing a completely new quadruped platform, ANYmal C, a major upgrade from the really quite research-y ANYmal B. The new quadruped has been optimized for ruggedness and reliability in industrial environments, with a streamlined body painted a color that lets you know it means business.

ANYmal C’s physical specs are pretty impressive for a production quadruped. It can move at 1 meter per second, manage 20-degree slopes and 45-degree stairs, cross 25-centimeter gaps, and squeeze through passages just 60 centimeters wide. It’s packed with cameras and 3D sensors, including a lidar for 3D mapping and simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM). All these sensors (along with the vast volume of gait research that’s been done with ANYmal) make this one of the most reliably autonomous quadrupeds out there, with real-time motion planning and obstacle avoidance.

Image: ANYbotics

ANYmal can autonomously attach itself to a cone-shaped docking station to recharge.

ANYmal C is also one of the ruggedest legged robots in existence. The 50-kilogram robot is IP67 rated, meaning that it’s completely impervious to dust and can withstand being submerged in a meter of water for an hour. If it’s submerged for longer than that, you’re absolutely doing something wrong. The robot will run for over 2 hours on battery power, and if that’s not enough endurance, don’t worry, because ANYmal can autonomously impale itself on a weird cone-shaped docking station to recharge.

Photo: ANYbotics

ANYmal C’s sensor payload includes cameras and a lidar for 3D mapping and SLAM.

As far as what ANYmal C is designed to actually do, it’s mostly remote inspection tasks where you need to move around through a relatively complex environment, but where for whatever reason you’d be better off not sending a human. ANYmal C has a sensor payload that gives it lots of visual options, like thermal imaging, and with the ability to handle a 10-kilogram payload, the robot can be adapted to many different environments.

Over the next few months, we’re hoping to see more examples of ANYmal C being deployed to do useful stuff in real-world environments, but for now, we do have a bit more detail from ANYbotics CTO Christian Gehring.

IEEE Spectrum: Can you tell us about the development process for ANYmal C?

Christian Gehring: We tested the previous generation of ANYmal (B) in a broad range of environments over the last few years and gained a lot of insights. Based on our learnings, it became clear that we would have to re-design the robot to meet the requirements of industrial customers in terms of safety, quality, reliability, and lifetime. There were different prototype stages both for the new drives and for single robot assemblies. Apart from electrical tests, we thoroughly tested the thermal control and ingress protection of various subsystems like the depth cameras and actuators.

What can ANYmal C do that the previous version of ANYmal can’t?

ANYmal C was redesigned with a focus on performance increase regarding actuation (new drives), computational power (new hexacore Intel i7 PCs), locomotion and navigation skills, and autonomy (new depth cameras). The new robot additionally features a docking system for autonomous recharging and an inspection payload as an option. The design of ANYmal C is far more integrated than its predecessor, which increases both performance and reliability.

How much of ANYmal C’s development and design was driven by your experience with commercial or industry customers?

Tests (such as the offshore installation with TenneT) and discussions with industry customers were important to get the necessary design input in terms of performance, safety, quality, reliability, and lifetime. Most customers ask for very similar inspection tasks that can be performed with our standard inspection payload and the required software packages. Some are looking for a robot that can also solve some simple manipulation tasks like pushing a button. Overall, most use cases customers have in mind are realistic and achievable, but some are really tough for the robot, like climbing 50° stairs in hot environments of 50°C.

Can you describe how much autonomy you expect ANYmal C to have in industrial or commercial operations?

ANYmal C is primarily developed to perform autonomous routine inspections in industrial environments. This autonomy especially adds value for operations that are difficult to access, as human operation is extremely costly. The robot can naturally also be operated via a remote control and we are working on long-distance remote operation as well.

Do you expect that researchers will be interested in ANYmal C? What research applications could it be useful for?

ANYmal C has been designed to also address the needs of the research community. The robot comes with two powerful hexacore Intel i7 computers and can additionally be equipped with an NVIDIA Jetson Xavier graphics card for learning-based applications. Payload interfaces enable users to easily install and test new sensors. By joining our established ANYmal Research community, researchers get access to simulation tools and software APIs, which boosts their research in various areas like control, machine learning, and navigation.

[ ANYmal C ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435619 Video Friday: Watch This Robot Dog ...

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!):

IEEE Africon 2019 – September 25-27, 2019 – Accra, Ghana
RoboBusiness 2019 – October 1-3, 2019 – Santa Clara, CA, USA
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.

Team PLUTO (University of Pennsylvania, Ghost Robotics, and Exyn Technologies) put together this video giving us a robot’s-eye-view (or whatever they happen to be using for eyes) of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge tunnel circuits.

[ PLUTO ]

Zhifeng Huang has been improving his jet-stepping humanoid robot, which features new hardware and the ability to take larger and more complex steps.

This video reported the last progress of an ongoing project utilizing ducted-fan propulsion system to improve humanoid robot’s ability in stepping over large ditches. The landing point of the robot’s swing foot can be not only forward but also side direction. With keeping quasi-static balance, the robot was able to step over a ditch with 450mm in width (up to 97% of the robot’s leg’s length) in 3D stepping.

[ Paper ]

Thanks Zhifeng!

These underacuated hands from Matei Ciocarlie’s lab at Columbia are magically able to reconfigure themselves to grasp different object types with just one or two motors.

[ Paper ] via [ ROAM Lab ]

This is one reason we should pursue not “autonomous cars” but “fully autonomous cars” that never require humans to take over. We can’t be trusted.

During our early days as the Google self-driving car project, we invited some employees to test our vehicles on their commutes and weekend trips. What we were testing at the time was similar to the highway driver assist features that are now available on cars today, where the car takes over the boring parts of the driving, but if something outside its ability occurs, the driver has to take over immediately.

What we saw was that our testers put too much trust in that technology. They were doing things like texting, applying makeup, and even falling asleep that made it clear they would not be ready to take over driving if the vehicle asked them to. This is why we believe that nothing short of full autonomy will do.

[ Waymo ]

Buddy is a DIY and fetchingly minimalist social robot (of sorts) that will be coming to Kickstarter this month.

We have created a new arduino kit. His name is Buddy. He is a DIY social robot to serve as a replacement for Jibo, Cozmo, or any of the other bots that are no longer available. Fully 3D printed and supported he adds much more to our series of Arduino STEM robotics kits.

Buddy is able to look around and map his surroundings and react to changes within them. He can be surprised and he will always have a unique reaction to changes. The kit can be built very easily in less than an hour. It is even robust enough to take the abuse that kids can give it in a classroom.

[ Littlebots ]

The android Mindar, based on the Buddhist deity of mercy, preaches sermons at Kodaiji temple in Kyoto, and its human colleagues predict that with artificial intelligence it could one day acquire unlimited wisdom. Developed at a cost of almost $1 million (¥106 million) in a joint project between the Zen temple and robotics professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, the robot teaches about compassion and the dangers of desire, anger and ego.

[ Japan Times ]

I’m not sure whether it’s the sound or what, but this thing scares me for some reason.

[ BIRL ]

This gripper uses magnets as a sort of adjustable spring for dynamic stiffness control, which seems pretty clever.

[ Buffalo ]

What a package of medicine sees while being flown by drone from a hospital to a remote clinic in the Dominican Republic. The drone flew 11 km horizontally and 800 meters vertically, and I can’t even imagine what it would take to make that drive.

[ WeRobotics ]

My first ride in a fully autonomous car was at Stanford in 2009. I vividly remember getting in the back seat of a descendant of Junior, and watching the steering wheel turn by itself as the car executed a perfect parking maneuver. Ten years later, it’s still fun to watch other people have that experience.

[ Waymo ]

Flirtey, the pioneer of the commercial drone delivery industry, has unveiled the much-anticipated first video of its next-generation delivery drone, the Flirtey Eagle. The aircraft designer and manufacturer also unveiled the Flirtey Portal, a sophisticated take off and landing platform that enables scalable store-to-door operations; and an autonomous software platform that enables drones to deliver safely to homes.

[ Flirtey ]

EPFL scientists are developing new approaches for improved control of robotic hands – in particular for amputees – that combines individual finger control and automation for improved grasping and manipulation. This interdisciplinary proof-of-concept between neuroengineering and robotics was successfully tested on three amputees and seven healthy subjects.

[ EPFL ]

This video is a few years old, but we’ll take any excuse to watch the majestic sage-grouse be majestic in all their majesticness.

[ UC Davis ]

I like the idea of a game of soccer (or, football to you weirdos in the rest of the world) where the ball has a mind of its own.

[ Sphero ]

Looks like the whole delivery glider idea is really taking off! Or, you know, not taking off.

Weird that they didn’t show the landing, because it sure looked like it was going to plow into the side of the hill at full speed.

[ Yates ] via [ sUAS News ]

This video is from a 2018 paper, but it’s not like we ever get tired of seeing quadrupeds do stuff, right?

[ MIT ]

Founder and Head of Product, Ian Bernstein, and Head of Engineering, Morgan Bell, have been involved in the Misty project for years and they have learned a thing or two about building robots. Hear how and why Misty evolved into a robot development platform, learn what some of the earliest prototypes did (and why they didn’t work for what we envision), and take a deep dive into the technology decisions that form the Misty II platform.

[ Misty Robotics ]

Lex Fridman interviews Vijay Kumar on the Artifiical Intelligence Podcast.

[ AI Podcast ]

This week’s CMU RI Seminar is from Ross Knepper at Cornell, on Formalizing Teamwork in Human-Robot Interaction.

Robots out in the world today work for people but not with people. Before robots can work closely with ordinary people as part of a human-robot team in a home or office setting, robots need the ability to acquire a new mix of functional and social skills. Working with people requires a shared understanding of the task, capabilities, intentions, and background knowledge. For robots to act jointly as part of a team with people, they must engage in collaborative planning, which involves forming a consensus through an exchange of information about goals, capabilities, and partial plans. Often, much of this information is conveyed through implicit communication. In this talk, I formalize components of teamwork involving collaboration, communication, and representation. I illustrate how these concepts interact in the application of social navigation, which I argue is a first-class example of teamwork. In this setting, participants must avoid collision by legibly conveying intended passing sides via nonverbal cues like path shape. A topological representation using the braid groups enables the robot to reason about a small enumerable set of passing outcomes. I show how implicit communication of topological group plans achieves rapid covergence to a group consensus, and how a robot in the group can deliberately influence the ultimate outcome to maximize joint performance, yielding pedestrian comfort with the robot.

[ CMU RI ]

In this week’s episode of Robots in Depth, Per speaks with Julien Bourgeois about Claytronics, a project from Carnegie Mellon and Intel to develop “programmable matter.”

Julien started out as a computer scientist. He was always interested in robotics privately but then had the opportunity to get into micro robots when his lab was merged into the FEMTO-ST Institute. He later worked with Seth Copen Goldstein at Carnegie Mellon on the Claytronics project.

Julien shows an enlarged mock-up of the small robots that make up programmable matter, catoms, and speaks about how they are designed. Currently he is working on a unit that is one centimeter in diameter and he shows us the very small CPU that goes into that model.

[ Robots in Depth ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435601 New Double 3 Robot Makes Telepresence ...

Today, Double Robotics is announcing Double 3, the latest major upgrade to its line of consumer(ish) telepresence robots. We had a (mostly) fantastic time testing out Double 2 back in 2016. One of the things that we found out back then was that it takes a lot of practice to remotely drive the robot around. Double 3 solves this problem by leveraging the substantial advances in 3D sensing and computing that have taken place over the past few years, giving their new robot a level of intelligence that promises to make telepresence more accessible for everyone.

Double 2’s iPad has been replaced by “a fully integrated solution”—which is a fancy way of saying a dedicated 9.7-inch touchscreen and a whole bunch of other stuff. That other stuff includes an NVIDIA Jetson TX2 AI computing module, a beamforming six-microphone array, an 8-watt speaker, a pair of 13-megapixel cameras (wide angle and zoom) on a tilting mount, five ultrasonic rangefinders, and most excitingly, a pair of Intel RealSense D430 depth sensors.

It’s those new depth sensors that really make Double 3 special. The D430 modules each uses a pair of stereo cameras with a pattern projector to generate 1280 x 720 depth data with a range of between 0.2 and 10 meters away. The Double 3 robot uses all of this high quality depth data to locate obstacles, but at this point, it still doesn’t drive completely autonomously. Instead, it presents the remote operator with a slick, augmented reality view of drivable areas in the form of a grid of dots. You just click where you want the robot to go, and it will skillfully take itself there while avoiding obstacles (including dynamic obstacles) and related mishaps along the way.

This effectively offloads the most stressful part of telepresence—not running into stuff—from the remote user to the robot itself, which is the way it should be. That makes it that much easier to encourage people to utilize telepresence for the first time. The way the system is implemented through augmented reality is particularly impressive, I think. It looks like it’s intuitive enough for an inexperienced user without being restrictive, and is a clever way of mitigating even significant amounts of lag.

Otherwise, Double 3’s mobility system is exactly the same as the one featured on Double 2. In fact, that you can stick a Double 3 head on a Double 2 body and it instantly becomes a Double 3. Double Robotics is thoughtfully offering this to current Double 2 owners as a significantly more affordable upgrade option than buying a whole new robot.

For more details on all of Double 3's new features, we spoke with the co-founders of Double Robotics, Marc DeVidts and David Cann.

IEEE Spectrum: Why use this augmented reality system instead of just letting the user click on a regular camera image? Why make things more visually complicated, especially for new users?

Marc DeVidts and David Cann: One of the things that we realized about nine months ago when we got this whole thing working was that without the mixed reality for driving, it was really too magical of an experience for the customer. Even us—we had a hard time understanding whether the robot could really see obstacles and understand where the floor is and that kind of thing. So, we said “What would be the best way of communicating this information to the user?” And the right way to do it ended up drawing the graphics directly onto the scene. It’s really awesome—we have a full, real time 3D scene with the depth information drawn on top of it. We’re starting with some relatively simple graphics, and we’ll be adding more graphics in the future to help the user understand what the robot is seeing.

How robust is the vision system when it comes to obstacle detection and avoidance? Does it work with featureless surfaces, IR absorbent surfaces, in low light, in direct sunlight, etc?

We’ve looked at all of those cases, and one of the reasons that we’re going with the RealSense is the projector that helps us to see blank walls. We also found that having two sensors—one facing the floor and one facing forward—gives us a great coverage area. Having ultrasonic sensors in there as well helps us to detect anything that we can't see with the cameras. They're sort of a last safety measure, especially useful for detecting glass.

It seems like there’s a lot more that you could do with this sensing and mapping capability. What else are you working on?

We're starting with this semi-autonomous driving variant, and we're doing a private beta of full mapping. So, we’re going to do full SLAM of your environment that will be mapped by multiple robots at the same time while you're driving, and then you'll be able to zoom out to a map and click anywhere and it will drive there. That's where we're going with it, but we want to take baby steps to get there. It's the obvious next step, I think, and there are a lot more possibilities there.

Do you expect developers to be excited for this new mapping capability?

We're using a very powerful computer in the robot, a NVIDIA Jetson TX2 running Ubuntu. There's room to grow. It’s actually really exciting to be able to see, in real time, the 3D pose of the robot along with all of the depth data that gets transformed in real time into one view that gives you a full map. Having all of that data and just putting those pieces together and getting everything to work has been a huge feat in of itself.

We have an extensive API for developers to do custom implementations, either for telepresence or other kinds of robotics research. Our system isn't running ROS, but we're going to be adding ROS adapters for all of our hardware components.

Telepresence robots depend heavily on wireless connectivity, which is usually not something that telepresence robotics companies like Double have direct control over. Have you found that connectivity has been getting significantly better since you first introduced Double?

When we started in 2013, we had a lot of customers that didn’t have WiFi in their hallways, just in the conference rooms. We very rarely hear about customers having WiFi connectivity issues these days. The bigger issue we see is when people are calling into the robot from home, where they don't have proper traffic management on their home network. The robot doesn't need a ton of bandwidth, but it does need consistent, low latency bandwidth. And so, if someone else in the house is watching Netflix or something like that, it’s going to saturate your connection. But for the most part, it’s gotten a lot better over the last few years, and it’s no longer a big problem for us.

Do you think 5G will make a significant difference to telepresence robots?

We’ll see. We like the low latency possibilities and the better bandwidth, but it's all going to be a matter of what kind of reception you get. LTE can be great, if you have good reception; it’s all about where the tower is. I’m pretty sure that WiFi is going to be the primary thing for at least the next few years.

DeVidts also mentioned that an unfortunate side effect of the new depth sensors is that hanging a t-shirt on your Double to give it some personality will likely render it partially blind, so that's just something to keep in mind. To make up for this, you can switch around the colorful trim surrounding the screen, which is nowhere near as fun.

When the Double 3 is ready for shipping in late September, US $2,000 will get you the new head with all the sensors and stuff, which seamlessly integrates with your Double 2 base. Buying Double 3 straight up (with the included charging dock) will run you $4,ooo. This is by no means an inexpensive robot, and my impression is that it’s not really designed for individual consumers. But for commercial, corporate, healthcare, or education applications, $4k for a robot as capable as the Double 3 is really quite a good deal—especially considering the kinds of use cases for which it’s ideal.

[ Double Robotics ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435583 Soft Self-Healing Materials for Robots ...

If there’s one thing we know about robots, it’s that they break. They break, like, literally all the time. The software breaks. The hardware breaks. The bits that you think could never, ever, ever possibly break end up breaking just when you need them not to break the most, and then you have to try to explain what happened to your advisor who’s been standing there watching your robot fail and then stay up all night fixing the thing that seriously was not supposed to break.

While most of this is just a fundamental characteristic of robots that can’t be helped, the European Commission is funding a project called SHERO (Self HEaling soft RObotics) to try and solve at least some of those physical robot breaking problems through the use of structural materials that can autonomously heal themselves over and over again.

SHERO is a three year, €3 million collaboration between Vrije Universiteit Brussel, University of Cambridge, École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la ville de Paris (ESPCI-Paris), and Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa). As the name SHERO suggests, the goal of the project is to develop soft materials that can completely recover from the kinds of damage that robots are likely to suffer in day to day operations, as well as the occasional more extreme accident.

Most materials, especially soft materials, are fixable somehow, whether it’s with super glue or duct tape. But fixing things involves a human first identifying when they’re broken, and then performing a potentially skill, labor, time, and money intensive task. SHERO’s soft materials will, eventually, make this entire process autonomous, allowing robots to self-identify damage and initiate healing on their own.

Photos: SHERO Project

The damaged robot finger [top] can operate normally after healing itself.

How the self-healing material works
What these self-healing materials can do is really pretty amazing. The researchers are actually developing two different types—the first one heals itself when there’s an application of heat, either internally or externally, which gives some control over when and how the healing process starts. For example, if the robot is handling stuff that’s dirty, you’d want to get it cleaned up before healing it so that dirt doesn’t become embedded in the material. This could mean that the robot either takes itself to a heating station, or it could activate some kind of embedded heating mechanism to be more self-sufficient.

The second kind of self-healing material is autonomous, in that it will heal itself at room temperature without any additional input, and is probably more suitable for relatively minor scrapes and cracks. Here are some numbers about how well the healing works:

Autonomous self-healing polymers do not require heat. They can heal damage at room temperature. Developing soft robotic systems from autonomous self-healing polymers excludes the need of additional heating devices… The healing however takes some time. The healing efficiency after 3 days, 7 days and 14 days is respectively 62 percent, 91 percent and 97 percent.

This material was used to develop a healable soft pneumatic hand. Relevant large cuts can be healed entirely without the need of external heat stimulus. Depending on the size of the damage and even more on the location of damage, the healing takes only seconds or up to a week. Damage on locations on the actuator that are subjected to very small stresses during actuation was healed instantaneously. Larger damages, like cutting the actuator completely in half, took 7 days to heal. But even this severe damage could be healed completely without the need of any external stimulus.

Applications of self-healing robots
Both of these materials can be mixed together, and their mechanical properties can be customized so that the structure that they’re a part of can be tuned to move in different ways. The researchers also plan on introducing flexible conductive sensors into the material, which will help sense damage as well as providing position feedback for control systems. A lot of development will happen over the next few years, and for more details, we spoke with Bram Vanderborght at Vrije Universiteit in Brussels.

IEEE Spectrum: How easy or difficult or expensive is it to produce these materials? Will they add significant cost to robotic grippers?

Bram Vanderborght: They are definitely more expensive materials, but it’s also a matter of size of production. At the moment, we’ve made a few kilograms of the material (enough to make several demonstrators), and the price already dropped significantly from when we ordered 100 grams of the material in the first phase of the project. So probably the cost of the gripper will be higher [than a regular gripper], but you won’t need to replace the gripper as often as other grippers that need to be replaced due to wear, so it can be an advantage.

Moreover due to the method of 3D printing the material, the surface is smoother and airtight (so no post-processing is required to make it airtight). Also, the smooth surface is better to avoid contamination for food handling, for example.

In commercial or industrial applications, gradual fatigue seems to be a more common issue than more abrupt trauma like cuts. How well does the self-healing work to improve durability over long periods of time?

We did not test for gradual fatigue over very long times. But both macroscopic and microscopic damage can be healed. So hopefully it can provide an answer here as well.

Image: SHERO Project

After developing a self-healing robot gripper, the researchers plan to use similar materials to build parts that can be used as the skeleton of robots, allowing them to repair themselves on a regular basis.

How much does the self-healing capability restrict the material properties? What are the limits for softness or hardness or smoothness or other characteristics of the material?

Typically the mechanical properties of networked polymers are much better than thermoplastics. Our material is a networked polymer but in which the crosslinks are reversible. We can change quite a lot of parameters in the design of the materials. So we can develop very stiff (fracture strain at 1.24 percent) and very elastic materials (fracture strain at 450 percent). The big advantage that our material has is we can mix it to have intermediate properties. Moreover, at the interface of the materials with different mechanical properties, we have the same chemical bonds, so the interface is perfect. While other materials, they may need to glue it, which gives local stresses and a weak spot.

When the material heals itself, is it less structurally sound in that spot? Can it heal damage that happens to the same spot over and over again?

In theory we can heal it an infinite amount of times. When the wound is not perfectly aligned, of course in that spot it will become weaker. Also too high temperatures lead to irreversible bonds, and impurities lead to weak spots.

Besides grippers and skins, what other potential robotics applications would this technology be useful for?

Most of self healing materials available now are used for coatings. What we are developing are structural components, therefore the mechanical properties of the material need to be good for such applications. So maybe part of the skeleton of the robot can be developed with such materials to make it lighter, since can be designed for regular repair. And for exceptional loads, it breaks and can be repaired like our human body.

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