Tag Archives: exist

#436215 Help Rescuers Find Missing Persons With ...

There’s a definite sense that robots are destined to become a critical part of search and rescue missions and disaster relief efforts, working alongside humans to help first responders move faster and more efficiently. And we’ve seen all kinds of studies that include the claim “this robot could potentially help with disaster relief,” to varying degrees of plausibility.

But it takes a long time, and a lot of extra effort, for academic research to actually become anything useful—especially for first responders, where there isn’t a lot of financial incentive for further development.

It turns out that if you actually ask first responders what they most need for disaster relief, they’re not necessarily interested in the latest and greatest robotic platform or other futuristic technology. They’re using commercial off-the-shelf drones, often consumer-grade ones, because they’re simple and cheap and great at surveying large areas. The challenge is doing something useful with all of the imagery that these drones collect. Computer vision algorithms could help with that, as long as those algorithms are readily accessible and nearly effortless to use.

The IEEE Robotics and Automation Society and the Center for Robotic-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University have launched a contest to bridge this gap between the kinds of tools that roboticists and computer vision researchers might call “basic” and a system that’s useful to first responders in the field. It’s a simple and straightforward idea, and somewhat surprising that no one had thought of it before now. And if you can develop such a system, it’s worth some cash.

CRASAR does already have a Computer Vision Emergency Response Toolkit (created right after Hurricane Harvey), which includes a few pixel filters and some edge and corner detectors. Through this contest, you can get paid your share of a $3,000 prize pool for adding some other excessively basic tools, including:

Image enhancement through histogram equalization, which can be applied to electro-optical (visible light cameras) and thermal imagery

Color segmentation for a range

Grayscale segmentation for a range in a thermal image

If it seems like this contest is really not that hard, that’s because it isn’t. “The first thing to understand about this contest is that strictly speaking, it’s really not that hard,” says Robin Murphy, director of CRASAR. “This contest isn’t necessarily about coming up with algorithms that are brand new, or even state-of-the-art, but rather algorithms that are functional and reliable and implemented in a way that’s immediately [usable] by inexperienced users in the field.”

Murphy readily admits that some of what needs to be done is not particularly challenging at all, but that’s not the point—the point is to make these functionalities accessible to folks who have better things to do than solve these problems themselves, as Murphy explains.

“A lot of my research is driven by problems that I’ve seen in the field that you’d think somebody would have solved, but apparently not. More than half of this is available in OpenCV, but who’s going to find it, download it, learn Python, that kind of thing? We need to get these tools into an open framework. We’re happy if you take libraries that already exist (just don’t steal code)—not everything needs to be rewritten from scratch. Just use what’s already there. Some of it may seem too simple, because it IS that simple. It already exists and you just need to move some code around.”

If you want to get very slightly more complicated, there’s a second category that involves a little bit of math:

Coders must provide a system that does the following for each nadir image in a set:

Reads the geotag embedded in the .jpg
Overlays a USNG grid for a user-specified interval (e.g., every 50, 100, or 200 meters)
Gives the GPS coordinates of each pixel if a cursor is rolled over the image
Given a set of images with the GPS or USNG coordinate and a bounding box, finds all images in the set that have a pixel intersecting that location

The final category awards prizes to anyone who comes up with anything else that turns out to be useful. Or, more specifically, “entrants can submit any algorithm they believe will be of value.” Whether or not it’s actually of value will be up to a panel of judges that includes both first responders and computer vision experts. More detailed rules can be found here, along with sample datasets that you can use for testing.

The contest deadline is 16 December, so you’ve got about a month to submit an entry. Winners will be announced at the beginning of January. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436065 From Mainframes to PCs: What Robot ...

This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.

Autonomous robots are coming around slowly. We already got autonomous vacuum cleaners, autonomous lawn mowers, toys that bleep and blink, and (maybe) soon autonomous cars. Yet, generation after generation, we keep waiting for the robots that we all know from movies and TV shows. Instead, businesses seem to get farther and farther away from the robots that are able to do a large variety of tasks using general-purpose, human anatomy-inspired hardware.

Although these are the droids we have been looking for, anything that came close, such as Willow Garage’s PR2 or Rethink Robotics’ Baxter has bitten the dust. With building a robotic company being particularly hard, compounding business risk with technological risk, the trend goes from selling robots to selling actual services like mowing your lawn, provide taxi rides, fulfilling retail orders, or picking strawberries by the pound. Unfortunately for fans of R2-D2 and C-3PO, these kind of business models emphasize specialized, room- or fridge-sized hardware that is optimized for one very specific task, but does not contribute to a general-purpose robotic platform.

We have actually seen something very similar in the personal computer (PC) industry. In the 1950s, even though computers could be as big as an entire room and were only available to a selected few, the public already had a good idea of what computers would look like. A long list of fictional computers started to populate mainstream entertainment during that time. In a 1962 New York Times article titled “Pocket Computer to Replace Shopping List,” visionary scientist John Mauchly stated that “there is no reason to suppose the average boy or girl cannot be master of a personal computer.”

In 1968, Douglas Engelbart gave us the “mother of all demos,” browsing hypertext on a graphical screen and a mouse, and other ideas that have become standard only decades later. Now that we have finally seen all of this, it might be helpful to examine what actually enabled the computing revolution to learn where robotics is really at and what we need to do next.

The parallels between computers and robots

In the 1970s, mainframes were about to be replaced by the emerging class of mini-computers, fridge-sized devices that cost less than US $25,000 ($165,000 in 2019 dollars). These computers did not use punch-cards, but could be programmed in Fortran and BASIC, dramatically expanding the ease with which potential applications could be created. Yet it was still unclear whether mini-computers could ever replace big mainframes in applications that require fast and efficient processing of large amounts of data, let alone enter every living room. This is very similar to the robotics industry right now, where large-scale factory robots (mainframes) that have existed since the 1960s are seeing competition from a growing industry of collaborative robots that can safely work next to humans and can easily be installed and programmed (minicomputers). As in the ’70s, applications for these devices that reach system prices comparable to that of a luxury car are quite limited, and it is hard to see how they could ever become a consumer product.

Yet, as in the computer industry, successful architectures are quickly being cloned, driving prices down, and entirely new approaches on how to construct or program robotic arms are sprouting left and right. Arm makers are joined by manufacturers of autonomous carts, robotic grippers, and sensors. These components can be combined, paving the way for standard general purpose platforms that follow the model of the IBM PC, which built a capable, open architecture relying as much on commodity parts as possible.

General purpose robotic systems have not been successful for similar reasons that general purpose, also known as “personal,” computers took decades to emerge. Mainframes were custom-built for each application, while typewriters got smarter and smarter, not really leaving room for general purpose computers in between. Indeed, given the cost of hardware and the relatively little abilities of today’s autonomous robots, it is almost always smarter to build a special purpose machine than trying to make a collaborative mobile manipulator smart.

A current example is e-commerce grocery fulfillment. The current trend is to reserve underutilized parts of a brick-and-mortar store for a micro-fulfillment center that stores goods in little crates with an automated retrieval system and a (human) picker. A number of startups like Alert Innovation, Fabric, Ocado Technology, TakeOff Technologies, and Tompkins Robotics, to just name a few, have raised hundreds of millions of venture capital recently to build mainframe equivalents of robotic fulfillment centers. This is in contrast with a robotic picker, which would drive through the aisles to restock and pick from shelves. Such a robotic store clerk would come much closer to our vision of a general purpose robot, but would require many copies of itself that crowd the aisles to churn out hundreds of orders per hour as a microwarehouse could. Although eventually more efficient, the margins in retail are already low and make it unlikely that this industry will produce the technological jump that we need to get friendly C-3POs manning the aisles.

Startups have raised hundreds of millions of venture capital recently to build mainframe equivalents of robotic fulfillment centers. This is in contrast with a robotic picker, which would drive through the aisles to restock and pick from shelves, and would come much closer to our vision of a general purpose robot.

Mainframes were also attacked from the bottom. Fascination with the new digital technology has led to a hobbyist movement to create microcomputers that were sold via mail order or at RadioShack. Initially, a large number of small businesses was selling tens, at most hundreds, of devices, usually as a kit and with wooden enclosures. This trend culminated into the “1977 Trinity” in the form of the Apple II, the Commodore PET, and the Tandy TRS-80, complete computers that were sold for prices around $2500 (TRS) to $5000 (Apple) in today’s dollars. The main application of these computers was their programmability (in BASIC), which would enable consumers to “learn to chart your biorhythms, balance your checking account, or even control your home environment,” according to an original Apple advertisement. Similarly, there exists a myriad of gadgets that explore different aspects of robotics such as mobility, manipulation, and entertainment.

As in the fledgling personal computing industry, the advertised functionality was at best a model of the real deal. A now-famous milestone in entertainment robotics was the original Sony’s Aibo, a robotic dog that was advertised to have many properties that a real dog has such as develop its own personality, play with a toy, and interact with its owner. Released in 1999, and re-launched in 2018, the platform has a solid following among hobbyists and academics who like its programmability, but probably only very few users who accept the device as a pet stand-in.

There also exist countless “build-your-own-robotic-arm” kits. One of the more successful examples is the uArm, which sells for around $800, and is advertised to perform pick and place, assembly, 3D printing, laser engraving, and many other things that sound like high value applications. Using compelling videos of the robot actually doing these things in a constrained environment has led to two successful crowd-funding campaigns, and have established the robot as a successful educational tool.

Finally, there exist platforms that allow hobbyist programmers to explore mobility to construct robots that patrol your house, deliver items, or provide their users with telepresence abilities. An example of that is the Misty II. Much like with the original Apple II, there remains a disconnect between the price of the hardware and the fidelity of the applications that were available.

For computers, this disconnect began to disappear with the invention of the first electronic spreadsheet software VisiCalc that spun out of Harvard in 1979 and prompted many people to buy an entire microcomputer just to run the program. VisiCalc was soon joined by WordStar, a word processing application, that sold for close to $2000 in today’s dollars. WordStar, too, would entice many people to buy the entire hardware just to use the software. The two programs are early examples of what became known as “killer application.”

With factory automation being mature, and robots with the price tag of a minicomputer being capable of driving around and autonomously carrying out many manipulation tasks, the robotics industry is somewhere where the PC industry was between 1973—the release of the Xerox Alto, the first computer with a graphical user interface, mouse, and special software—and 1979—when microcomputers in the under $5000 category began to take off.

Killer apps for robots
So what would it take for robotics to continue to advance like computers did? The market itself already has done a good job distilling what the possible killer apps are. VCs and customers alike push companies who have set out with lofty goals to reduce their offering to a simple value proposition. As a result, companies that started at opposite ends often converge to mirror images of each other that offer very similar autonomous carts, (bin) picking, palletizing, depalletizing, or sorting solutions. Each of these companies usually serves a single application to a single vertical—for example bin-picking clothes, transporting warehouse goods, or picking strawberries by the pound. They are trying to prove that their specific technology works without spreading themselves too thin.

Very few of these companies have really taken off. One example is Kiva Systems, which turned into the logistic robotics division of Amazon. Kiva and others are structured around sound value propositions that are grounded in well-known user needs. As these solutions are very specialized, however, it is unlikely that they result into any economies of scale of the same magnitude that early computer users who bought both a spreadsheet and a word processor application for their expensive minicomputer could enjoy. What would make these robotic solutions more interesting is when functionality becomes stackable. Instead of just being able to do bin picking, palletizing, and transportation with the same hardware, these three skills could be combined to model entire processes.

A skill that is yet little addressed by startups and is historically owned by the mainframe equivalent of robotics is assembly of simple mechatronic devices. The ability to assemble mechatronic parts is equivalent to other tasks such as changing a light bulb, changing the batteries in a remote control, or tending machines like a lever-based espresso machine. These tasks would involve the autonomous execution of complete workflows possible using a single machine, eventually leading to an explosion of industrial productivity across all sectors. For example, picking up an item from a bin, arranging it on the robot, moving it elsewhere, and placing it into a shelf or a machine is a process that equally applies to a manufacturing environment, a retail store, or someone’s kitchen.

Image: Robotic Materials Inc.

Autonomous, vision and force-based assembly of the
Siemens robot learning challenge.

Even though many of the above applications are becoming possible, it is still very hard to get a platform off the ground without added components that provide “killer app” value of their own. Interesting examples are Rethink Robotics or the Robot Operating System (ROS). Rethink Robotics’ Baxter and Sawyer robots pioneered a great user experience (like the 1973 Xerox Alto, really the first PC), but its applications were difficult to extend beyond simple pick-and-place and palletizing and depalletizing items.

ROS pioneered interprocess communication software that was adapted to robotic needs (multiple computers, different programming languages) and the idea of software modularity in robotics, but—in the absence of a common hardware platform—hasn’t yet delivered a single application, e.g. for navigation, path planning, or grasping, that performs beyond research-grade demonstration level and won’t get discarded once developers turn to production systems. At the same time, an increasing number of robotic devices, such as robot arms or 3D perception systems that offer intelligent functionality, provide other ways to wire them together that do not require an intermediary computer, while keeping close control over the real-time aspects of their hardware.

Image: Robotic Materials Inc.

Robotic Materials GPR-1 combines a MIR-100 autonomous cart with an UR-5 collaborative robotic arm, an onRobot force/torque sensor and Robotic Materials’ SmartHand to perform out-of-the-box mobile assembly, bin picking, palletizing, and depalletizing tasks.

At my company, Robotic Materials Inc., we have made strides to identify a few applications such as bin picking and assembly, making them configurable with a single click by combining machine learning and optimization with an intuitive user interface. Here, users can define object classes and how to grasp them using a web browser, which then appear as first-class objects in a robot-specific graphical programming language. We have also done this for assembly, allowing users to stack perception-based picking and force-based assembly primitives by simply dragging and dropping appropriate commands together.

While such an approach might answer the question of a killer app for robots priced in the “minicomputer” range, it is unclear how killer app-type value can be generated with robots in the less-than-$5000 category. A possible answer is two-fold: First, with low-cost arms, mobility platforms, and entertainment devices continuously improving, a confluence of technology readiness and user innovation, like with the Apple II and VisiCalc, will eventually happen. For example, there is not much innovation needed to turn Misty into a home security system; the uArm into a low-cost bin-picking system; or an Aibo-like device into a therapeutic system for the elderly or children with autism.

Second, robots and their components have to become dramatically cheaper. Indeed, computers have seen an exponential reduction in price accompanied by an exponential increase in computational power, thanks in great part to Moore’s Law. This development has helped robotics too, allowing us to reach breakthroughs in mobility and manipulation due to the ability to process massive amounts of image and depth data in real-time, and we can expect it to continue to do so.

Is there a Moore’s Law for robots?
One might ask, however, how a similar dynamics might be possible for robots as a whole, including all their motors and gears, and what a “Moore’s Law” would look like for the robotics industry. Here, it helps to remember that the perpetuation of Moore’s Law is not the reason, but the result of the PC revolution. Indeed, the first killer apps for bookkeeping, editing, and gaming were so good that they unleashed tremendous consumer demand, beating the benchmark on what was thought to be physically possible over and over again. (I vividly remember 56 kbps to be the absolute maximum data rate for copper phone lines until DSL appeared.)

That these economies of scale are also applicable to mechatronics is impressively demonstrated by the car industry. A good example is the 2020 Prius Prime, a highly computerized plug-in hybrid, that is available for one third of the cost of my company’s GPR-1 mobile manipulator while being orders of magnitude more complex, sporting an electrical motor, a combustion engine, and a myriad of sensors and computers. It is therefore very well conceivable to produce a mobile manipulator that retails at one tenth of the cost of a modern car, once robotics enjoy similar mass-market appeal. Given that these robots are part of the equation, actively lowering cost of production, this might happen as fast as never before in the history of industrialization.

It is therefore very well conceivable to produce a mobile manipulator that retails at one tenth of the cost of a modern car, once robotics enjoy similar mass-market appeal.

There is one more driver that might make robots exponentially more capable: the cloud. Once a general purpose robot has learned or was programmed with a new skill, it could share it with every other robot. At some point, a grocer who buys a robot could assume that it already knows how to recognize and handle 99 percent of the retail items in the store. Likewise, a manufacturer can assume that the robot can handle and assemble every item available from McMaster-Carr and Misumi. Finally, families could expect a robot to know every kitchen item that Ikea and Pottery Barn is selling. Sounds like a labor intense problem, but probably more manageable than collecting footage for Google’s Street View using cars, tricycles, and snowmobiles, among other vehicles.

Strategies for robot startups
While we are waiting for these two trends—better and better applications and hardware with decreasing cost—to converge, we as a community have to keep exploring what the canonical robotic applications beyond mobility, bin picking, palletizing, depalletizing, and assembly are. We must also continue to solve the fundamental challenges that stand in the way of making these solutions truly general and robust.

For both questions, it might help to look at the strategies that have been critical in the development of the personal computer, which might equally well apply to robotics:

Start with a solution to a problem your customers have. Unfortunately, their problem is almost never that they need your sensor, widget, or piece of code, but something that already costs them money or negatively affects them in some other way. Example: There are many more people who had a problem calculating their taxes (and wanted to buy VisiCalc) than writing their own solution in BASIC.

Build as little of your own hardware as necessary. Your business model should be stronger than the margin you can make on the hardware. Why taking the risk? Example: Why build your own typewriter if you can write the best typewriting application that makes it worth buying a computer just for that?

If your goal is a platform, make sure it comes with a killer application, which alone justifies the platform cost. Example: Microcomputer companies came and went until the “1977 Trinity” intersected with the killer apps spreadsheet and word processors. Corollary: You can also get lucky.

Use an open architecture, which creates an ecosystem where others compete on creating better components and peripherals, while allowing others to integrate your solution into their vertical and stack it with other devices. Example: Both the Apple II and the IBM PC were completely open architectures, enabling many clones, thereby growing the user and developer base.

It’s worthwhile pursuing this. With most business processes already being digitized, general purpose robots will allow us to fill in gaps in mobility and manipulation, increasing productivity at levels only limited by the amount of resources and energy that are available, possibly creating a utopia in which creativity becomes the ultimate currency. Maybe we’ll even get R2-D2.

Nikolaus Correll is an associate professor of computer science at the University of Colorado at Boulder where he works on mobile manipulation and other robotics applications. He’s co-founder and CTO of Robotic Materials Inc., which is supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology via their Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) programs. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435816 This Light-based Nervous System Helps ...

Last night, way past midnight, I stumbled onto my porch blindly grasping for my keys after a hellish day of international travel. Lights were low, I was half-asleep, yet my hand grabbed the keychain, found the lock, and opened the door.

If you’re rolling your eyes—yeah, it’s not exactly an epic feat for a human. Thanks to the intricate wiring between our brain and millions of sensors dotted on—and inside—our skin, we know exactly where our hand is in space and what it’s touching without needing visual confirmation. But this combined sense of the internal and the external is completely lost to robots, which generally rely on computer vision or surface mechanosensors to track their movements and their interaction with the outside world. It’s not always a winning strategy.

What if, instead, we could give robots an artificial nervous system?

This month, a team led by Dr. Rob Shepard at Cornell University did just that, with a seriously clever twist. Rather than mimicking the electric signals in our nervous system, his team turned to light. By embedding optical fibers inside a 3D printed stretchable material, the team engineered an “optical lace” that can detect changes in pressure less than a fraction of a pound, and pinpoint the location to a spot half the width of a tiny needle.

The invention isn’t just an artificial skin. Instead, the delicate fibers can be distributed both inside a robot and on its surface, giving it both a sense of tactile touch and—most importantly—an idea of its own body position in space. Optical lace isn’t a superficial coating of mechanical sensors; it’s an entire platform that may finally endow robots with nerve-like networks throughout the body.

Eventually, engineers hope to use this fleshy, washable material to coat the sharp, cold metal interior of current robots, transforming C-3PO more into the human-like hosts of Westworld. Robots with a “bodily” sense could act as better caretakers for the elderly, said Shepard, because they can assist fragile people without inadvertently bruising or otherwise harming them. The results were published in Science Robotics.

An Unconventional Marriage
The optical lace is especially creative because it marries two contrasting ideas: one biological-inspired, the other wholly alien.

The overarching idea for optical lace is based on the animal kingdom. Through sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and other senses, we’re able to interpret the outside world—something scientists call exteroception. Thanks to our nervous system, we perform these computations subconsciously, allowing us to constantly “perceive” what’s going on around us.

Our other perception is purely internal. Proprioception (sorry, it’s not called “inception” though it should be) is how we know where our body parts are in space without having to look at them, which lets us perform complex tasks when blind. Although less intuitive than exteroception, proprioception also relies on stretching and other deformations within the muscles and tendons and receptors under the skin, which generate electrical currents that shoot up into the brain for further interpretation.

In other words, in theory it’s possible to recreate both perceptions with a single information-carrying system.

Here’s where the alien factor comes in. Rather than using electrical properties, the team turned to light as their data carrier. They had good reason. “Compared with electricity, light carries information faster and with higher data densities,” the team explained. Light can also transmit in multiple directions simultaneously, and is less susceptible to electromagnetic interference. Although optical nervous systems don’t exist in the biological world, the team decided to improve on Mother Nature and give it a shot.

Optical Lace
The construction starts with engineering a “sheath” for the optical nerve fibers. The team first used an elastic polyurethane—a synthetic material used in foam cushioning, for example—to make a lattice structure filled with large pores, somewhat like a lattice pie crust. Thanks to rapid, high-resolution 3D printing, the scaffold can have different stiffness from top to bottom. To increase sensitivity to the outside world, the team made the top of the lattice soft and pliable, to better transfer force to mechanical sensors. In contrast, the “deeper” regions held their structure better, and kept their structure under pressure.

Now the fun part. The team next threaded stretchable “light guides” into the scaffold. These fibers transmit photons, and are illuminated with a blue LED light. One, the input light guide, ran horizontally across the soft top part of the scaffold. Others ran perpendicular to the input in a “U” shape, going from more surface regions to deeper ones. These are the output guides. The architecture loosely resembles the wiring in our skin and flesh.

Normally, the output guides are separated from the input by a small air gap. When pressed down, the input light fiber distorts slightly, and if the pressure is high enough, it contacts one of the output guides. This causes light from the input fiber to “leak” to the output one, so that it lights up—the stronger the pressure, the brighter the output.

“When the structure deforms, you have contact between the input line and the output lines, and the light jumps into these output loops in the structure, so you can tell where the contact is happening,” said study author Patricia Xu. “The intensity of this determines the intensity of the deformation itself.”

Double Perception
As a proof-of-concept for proprioception, the team made a cylindrical lace with one input and 12 output channels. They varied the stiffness of the scaffold along the cylinder, and by pressing down at different points, were able to calculate how much each part stretched and deformed—a prominent precursor to knowing where different regions of the structure are moving in space. It’s a very rudimentary sort of proprioception, but one that will become more sophisticated with increasing numbers of strategically-placed mechanosensors.

The test for exteroception was a whole lot stranger. Here, the team engineered another optical lace with 15 output channels and turned it into a squishy piano. When pressed down, an Arduino microcontroller translated light output signals into sound based on the position of each touch. The stronger the pressure, the louder the volume. While not a musical masterpiece, the demo proved their point: the optical lace faithfully reported the strength and location of each touch.

A More Efficient Robot
Although remarkably novel, the optical lace isn’t yet ready for prime time. One problem is scalability: because of light loss, the material is limited to a certain size. However, rather than coating an entire robot, it may help to add optical lace to body parts where perception is critical—for example, fingertips and hands.

The team sees plenty of potential to keep developing the artificial flesh. Depending on particular needs, both the light guides and scaffold can be modified for sensitivity, spatial resolution, and accuracy. Multiple optical fibers that measure for different aspects—pressure, pain, temperature—can potentially be embedded in the same region, giving robots a multitude of senses.

In this way, we hope to reduce the number of electronics and combine signals from multiple sensors without losing information, the authors said. By taking inspiration from biological networks, it may even be possible to use various inputs through an optical lace to control how the robot behaves, closing the loop from sensation to action.

Image Credit: Cornell Organic Robotics Lab. A flexible, porous lattice structure is threaded with stretchable optical fibers containing more than a dozen mechanosensors and attached to an LED light. When the lattice structure is pressed, the sensors pinpoint changes in the photon flow. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435775 Jaco Is a Low-Power Robot Arm That Hooks ...

We usually think of robots as taking the place of humans in various tasks, but robots of all kinds can also enhance human capabilities. This may be especially true for people with disabilities. And while the Cybathlon competition showed what's possible when cutting-edge research robotics is paired with expert humans, that competition isn't necessarily reflective of the kind of robotics available to most people today.

Kinova Robotics's Jaco arm is an assistive robotic arm designed to be mounted on an electric wheelchair. With six degrees of freedom plus a three-fingered gripper, the lightweight carbon fiber arm is frequently used in research because it's rugged and versatile. But from the start, Kinova created it to add autonomy to the lives of people with mobility constraints.

Earlier this year, Kinova shared the story of Mary Nelson, an 11-year-old girl with spinal muscular atrophy, who uses her Jaco arm to show her horse in competition. Spinal muscular atrophy is a neuromuscular disorder that impairs voluntary muscle movement, including muscles that help with respiration, and Mary depends on a power chair for mobility.

We wanted to learn more about how Kinova designs its Jaco arm, and what that means for folks like Mary, so we spoke with both Kinova and Mary's parents to find out how much of a difference a robot arm can make.

IEEE Spectrum: How did Mary interact with the world before having her arm, and what was involved in the decision to try a robot arm in general? And why then Kinova's arm specifically?

Ryan Nelson: Mary interacts with the world much like you and I do, she just uses different tools to do so. For example, she is 100 percent independent using her computer, iPad, and phone, and she prefers to use a mouse. However, she cannot move a standard mouse, so she connects her wheelchair to each device with Bluetooth to move the mouse pointer/cursor using her wheelchair joystick.

For years, we had a Manfrotto magic arm and super clamp attached to her wheelchair and she used that much like the robotic arm. We could put a baseball bat, paint brush, toys, etc. in the super clamp so that Mary could hold the object and interact as physically able children do. Mary has always wanted to be more independent, so we knew the robotic arm was something she must try. We had seen videos of the Kinova arm on YouTube and on their website, so we reached out to them to get a trial.

Can you tell us about the Jaco arm, and how the process of designing an assistive robot arm is different from the process of designing a conventional robot arm?

Nathaniel Swenson, Director of U.S. Operations — Assistive Technologies at Kinova: Jaco is our flagship robotic arm. Inspired by our CEO's uncle and its namesake, Jacques “Jaco” Forest, it was designed as assistive technology with power wheelchair users in mind.

The primary differences between Jaco and our other robots, such as the new Gen3, which was designed to meet the needs of academic and industry research teams, are speed and power consumption. Other robots such as the Gen3 can move faster and draw slightly more power because they aren't limited by the battery size of power wheelchairs. Depending on the use case, they might not interact directly with a human being in the research setting and can safely move more quickly. Jaco is designed to move at safe speeds and make direct contact with the end user and draw very little power directly from their wheelchair.

The most important consideration in the design process of an assistive robot is the safety of the end user. Jaco users operate their robots through their existing drive controls to assist them in daily activities such as eating, drinking, and opening doors and they don't have to worry about the robot draining their chair's batteries throughout the day. The elegant design that results from meeting the needs of our power chair users has benefited subsequent iterations, [of products] such as the Gen3, as well: Kinova's robots are lightweight, extremely efficient in their power consumption, and safe for direct human-robot interaction. This is not true of conventional industrial robots.

What was the learning process like for Mary? Does she feel like she's mastered the arm, or is it a continuous learning process?

Ryan Nelson: The learning process was super quick for Mary. However, she amazes us every day with the new things that she can do with the arm. Literally within minutes of installing the arm on her chair, Mary had it figured out and was shaking hands with the Kinova rep. The control of the arm is super intuitive and the Kinova reps say that SMA (Spinal Muscular Atrophy) children are perfect users because they are so smart—they pick it up right away. Mary has learned to do many fine motor tasks with the arm, from picking up small objects like a pencil or a ruler, to adjusting her glasses on her face, to doing science experiments.

Photo: The Nelson Family

Mary uses a headset microphone to amplify her voice, and she will use the arm and finger to adjust the microphone in front of her mouth after she is done eating (also a task she mastered quickly with the arm). Additionally, Mary will use the arms to reach down and adjust her feet or leg by grabbing them with the arm and moving them to a more comfortable position. All of these examples are things she never really asked us to do, but something she needed and just did on her own, with the help of the arm.

What is the most common feedback that you get from new users of the arm? How about from experienced users who have been using the arm for a while?

Nathaniel Swenson: New users always tell us how excited they are to see what they can accomplish with their new Jaco. From day one, they are able to do things that they have longed to do without assistance from a caregiver: take a drink of water or coffee, scratch an itch, push the button to open an “accessible” door or elevator, or even feed their baby with a bottle.

The most common feedback I hear from experienced users is that Jaco has changed their life. Our experienced users like Mary are rock stars: everywhere they go, people get excited to see what they'll do next. The difference between a new user and an experienced user could be as little as two weeks. People who operate power wheelchairs every day are already expert drivers and we just add a new “gear” to their chair: robot mode. It's fun to see how quickly new users master the intuitive Jaco control modes.

What changes would you like to see in the next generation of Jaco arm?

Ryan Nelson: Titanium fingers! Make it lift heavier objects, hold heavier items like a baseball bat, machine gun, flame thrower, etc., and Mary literally said this last night: “I wish the arm moved fast enough to play the piano.”

Nathaniel Swenson: I love the idea of titanium fingers! Jaco's fingers are made from a flexible polymer and designed to avoid harm. This allows the fingers to bend or dislocate, rather than break, but it also means they are not as durable as a material like titanium. Increased payload, the ability to manipulate heavier objects, requires increased power consumption. We've struck a careful balance between providing enough strength to accomplish most medically necessary Activities of Daily Living and efficient use of the power chair's batteries.

We take Isaac Asimov's Laws of Robotics pretty seriously. When we start to combine machine guns, flame throwers, and artificial intelligence with robots, I get very nervous!

I wish the arm moved fast enough to play the piano, too! I am also a musician and I share Mary's dream of an assistive robot that would enable her to make music. In the meantime, while we work on that, please enjoy this beautiful violin piece by Manami Ito and her one-of-a-kind violin prosthesis:

To what extent could more autonomy for the arm be helpful for users? What would be involved in implementing that?

Nathaniel Swenson: Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and deep learning will introduce greater autonomy in future iterations of assistive robots. This will enable them to perform more complex tasks that aren't currently possible, and enable them to accomplish routine tasks more quickly and with less input than the current manual control requires.

For assistive robots, implementation of greater autonomy involves a focus on end-user safety and improvements in the robot's awareness of its environment. Autonomous robots that work in close proximity with humans need vision. They must be able to see to avoid collisions and they use haptic feedback to tell the robot how much force is being exerted on objects. All of these technologies exist, but the largest obstacle to bringing them to the assistive technology market is to prove to the health insurance companies who will fund them that they are both safe and medically necessary. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435691 Squeezing Rocket Fuel From Moon Rocks

Illustration: John MacNeill

Engineers and Architects Are Already Designing Lunar Habitats
Squeezing Rocket Fuel From Moon Rocks
Robots Will Navigate the Moon With Maps They Make Themselves
Kim Stanley Robinson Built a Moon Base in His Mind

The most valuable natural resource on the moon may be water. In addition to sustaining lunar colonists, it could also be broken down into its constituent elements—hydrogen and oxygen—and used to make rocket propellant.

Although the ancients called the dark areas on the moon maria (Latin for “seas”), it has long been clear that liquid water can’t exist on the lunar surface, where it would swiftly evaporate. Since the 1960s, though, scientists have hypothesized that the moon indeed harbors water, in the form of ice. Because the moon has a very small axial tilt—just 1.5 degrees—the floors of many polar craters remain in perpetual darkness. Water could thus condense and survive in such polar “cold traps,” where it might one day be mined.

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Water Water Everywhere: Finding rich deposits of ice and extracting it should be possible but will be technically challenging for lunar settlers. Illustration: John MacNeill

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Mapping the Moon: Several lunar missions have produced strong evidence of water ice. A NASA instrument called the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) found indications of water ice on the permanently shadowed floors of some polar craters. However, the measurements suggest that only a small fraction of cold traps contain ice [colored areas], and that the ice is probably mixed with lunar regolith. Data source.

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Rover-Mounted Drill: The most straightforward strategy for extracting water from polar ice deposits uses a rover-mounted drill. Honeybee Robotics has designed a Planetary Volatiles Extractor with a heated auger, which would cause any water ice in the drilled regolith to vaporize. That vapor would then move through a tube to a condenser unit, where it would turn back into ice. Illustration: John MacNeill

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Thermal Mining: A more ambitious scheme for extracting water from the moon is “thermal mining.” Researchers at the Colorado School of Mines have proposed redirecting the sun’s rays , using heliostats mounted on a crater rim. Water trapped in the regolith would turn into vapor that would be collected in a large tent, then vented into refrigerated cold traps, where it would condense as pure water ice. Illustration: John MacNeill

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Compressed-Gas Transport: To produce rocket fuel from water ice would require an electrolyzer to break the water into hydrogen and oxygen, which would then be compressed and stored for later use. In situ production would also require vehicles to transport the processed fuel to rocket pads. Illustration: John MacNeill

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Posted in Human Robots