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Ever wished you could be in two places at the same time? The XPRIZE Foundation wants to make that a reality with a $10 million competition to build robot avatars that can be controlled from at least 100 kilometers away.
The competition was announced by XPRIZE founder Peter Diamandis at the SXSW conference in Austin last week, with an ambitious timeline of awarding the grand prize by October 2021. Teams have until October 31st to sign up, and they need to submit detailed plans to a panel of judges by the end of next January.
The prize, sponsored by Japanese airline ANA, has given contestants little guidance on how they expect them to solve the challenge other than saying their solutions need to let users see, hear, feel, and interact with the robot’s environment as well as the people in it.
XPRIZE has also not revealed details of what kind of tasks the robots will be expected to complete, though they’ve said tasks will range from “simple” to “complex,” and it should be possible for an untrained operator to use them.
That’s a hugely ambitious goal that’s likely to require teams to combine multiple emerging technologies, from humanoid robotics to virtual reality high-bandwidth communications and high-resolution haptics.
If any of the teams succeed, the technology could have myriad applications, from letting emergency responders enter areas too hazardous for humans to helping people care for relatives who live far away or even just allowing tourists to visit other parts of the world without the jet lag.
“Our ability to physically experience another geographic location, or to provide on-the-ground assistance where needed, is limited by cost and the simple availability of time,” Diamandis said in a statement.
“The ANA Avatar XPRIZE can enable creation of an audacious alternative that could bypass these limitations, allowing us to more rapidly and efficiently distribute skill and hands-on expertise to distant geographic locations where they are needed, bridging the gap between distance, time, and cultures,” he added.
Interestingly, the technology may help bypass an enduring hand break on the widespread use of robotics: autonomy. By having a human in the loop, you don’t need nearly as much artificial intelligence analyzing sensory input and making decisions.
Robotics software is doing a lot more than just high-level planning and strategizing, though. While a human moves their limbs instinctively without consciously thinking about which muscles to activate, controlling and coordinating a robot’s components requires sophisticated algorithms.
The DARPA Robotics Challenge demonstrated just how hard it was to get human-shaped robots to do tasks humans would find simple, such as opening doors, climbing steps, and even just walking. These robots were supposedly semi-autonomous, but on many tasks they were essentially tele-operated, and the results suggested autonomy isn’t the only problem.
There’s also the issue of powering these devices. You may have noticed that in a lot of the slick web videos of humanoid robots doing cool things, the machine is attached to the roof by a large cable. That’s because they suck up huge amounts of power.
Possibly the most advanced humanoid robot—Boston Dynamics’ Atlas—has a battery, but it can only run for about an hour. That might be fine for some applications, but you don’t want it running out of juice halfway through rescuing someone from a mine shaft.
When it comes to the link between the robot and its human user, some of the technology is probably not that much of a stretch. Virtual reality headsets can create immersive audio-visual environments, and a number of companies are working on advanced haptic suits that will let people “feel” virtual environments.
Motion tracking technology may be more complicated. While even consumer-grade devices can track peoples’ movements with high accuracy, you will probably need to don something more like an exoskeleton that can both pick up motion and provide mechanical resistance, so that when the robot bumps into an immovable object, the user stops dead too.
How hard all of this will be is also dependent on how the competition ultimately defines subjective terms like “feel” and “interact.” Will the user need to be able to feel a gentle breeze on the robot’s cheek or be able to paint a watercolor? Or will simply having the ability to distinguish a hard object from a soft one or shake someone’s hand be enough?
Whatever the fidelity they decide on, the approach will require huge amounts of sensory and control data to be transmitted over large distances, most likely wirelessly, in a way that’s fast and reliable enough that there’s no lag or interruptions. Fortunately 5G is launching this year, with a speed of 10 gigabits per second and very low latency, so this problem should be solved by 2021.
And it’s worth remembering there have already been some tentative attempts at building robotic avatars. Telepresence robots have solved the seeing, hearing, and some of the interacting problems, and MIT has already used virtual reality to control robots to carry out complex manipulation tasks.
South Korean company Hankook Mirae Technology has also unveiled a 13-foot-tall robotic suit straight out of a sci-fi movie that appears to have made some headway with the motion tracking problem, albeit with a human inside the robot. Toyota’s T-HR3 does the same, but with the human controlling the robot from a “Master Maneuvering System” that marries motion tracking with VR.
Combining all of these capabilities into a single machine will certainly prove challenging. But if one of the teams pulls it off, you may be able to tick off trips to the Seven Wonders of the World without ever leaving your house.
Image Credit: ANA Avatar XPRIZE Continue reading
We’re no stranger to robotics in the medical field. Robot-assisted surgery is becoming more and more common. Many training programs are starting to include robotic and virtual reality scenarios to provide hands-on training for students without putting patients at risk.
With all of these advances in medical robotics, three niches stand out above the rest: surgery, medical imaging, and drug discovery. How have robotics already begun to exert their influence on these practices, and how will they change them for good?
Robot-assisted surgery was first documented in 1985, when it was used for a neurosurgical biopsy. This led to the use of robotics in a number of similar surgeries, both laparoscopic and traditional operations. The FDA didn’t approve robotic surgery tools until 2000, when the da Vinci Surgery system hit the market.
The robot-assisted surgery market is expected to grow steadily into 2023 and potentially beyond. The only thing that might stand in the way of this growth is the cost of the equipment. The initial investment may prevent small practices from purchasing the necessary devices.
The key to successful medical imaging isn’t the equipment itself. It’s being able to interpret the information in the images. Medical images are some of the most information-dense pieces of data in the medical field and can reveal so much more than a basic visual inspection can.
Robotics and, more specifically, artificial intelligence programs like IBM Watson can help interpret these images more efficiently and accurately. By allowing an AI or basic machine learning program to study the medical images, researchers can find patterns and make more accurate diagnoses than ever before.
Drug discovery is a long and often tedious process that includes years of testing and assessment. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive algorithms could help speed up this system.
Imagine if researchers could input the kind of medicine they’re trying to make and the kind of symptoms they’re trying to treat into a computer and let it do the rest. With robotics, that may someday be possible.
This isn’t a perfect solution yet—these systems require massive amounts of data before they can start making decisions or predictions. By feeding data into the cloud where these programs can access it, researchers can take the first steps towards setting up a functional database.
Another benefit of these AI programs is that they might see connections humans would never have thought of. People can make those leaps, but the chances are much lower, and it takes much longer if it happens at all. Simply put, we’re not capable of processing the sheer amount of data that computers can process.
This isn’t a field where we’re worrying about robots stealing jobs.
Quite the opposite, in fact—we want robots to become commonly-used tools that can help improve patient care and surgical outcomes.
A human surgeon might have intuition, but they’ll never have the steadiness that a pair of robotic hands can provide or the data-processing capabilities of a machine learning algorithm. If we let them, these tools could change the way we look at medicine.
Image Credit: Intuitive Surgical Continue reading
Today marks official launch of the second UK Robotics Week; entries now open in Surgical Robot, Autonomous Driving and School Robot Challenges
London, UK, 7th November 2016. – UK Robotics Week 2017 officially launches today, with a range of robotics activities and challenges open to schools, academic institutions and industry sectors. These activities culminate in a national week of celebration being held 24th – 30th June 2017. The second annual UK Robotics Week is set to be even bigger and better, building on the huge success of the inaugural event. Any institutions or organisations planning to hold their own robotics events – either in the run-up to and during the UK Robotics Week – can also apply now to be included in the official Programme of Activities (please visit www.roboticsweek.uk for details of how to register).
The first ever UK Robotics Week proved a huge success, encompassing a host of events up and down the UK, including public lectures, open labs, hackathons, tech weekends, conferences, and a state-of-the-art robotics showcase held on the last day. The UK Robotics Week initiative is jointly spearheaded by founding supporters, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), The Royal Academy of Engineering, the Institution of Engineering and Technology, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the UK-RAS Special Interest Group, and is being coordinated by the EPSRC UK-RAS network.
As part of the official launch, this year’s School Robot Challenge is now open for entries to all schools nationwide. The competition offers schoolchildren the opportunity to design their own virtual robot bug and teach it to move, with the option of printing their bug in 3D. The challenge aims to develop children’s interest and skills in digital technology, design, science, engineering and biology. This year’s competition has been split into two age group categories – 4-12 years and 13-18 years – with top prizes to be awarded in each. School are actively encouraged to register their interest on the website now to access the information packs and software at http://www.roboticsweek.uk/schoolrobotchallenge.htm
The first Surgical Robot Challenge attracted participation from the world’s leading institutions, with top robotics research teams travelling to the UK to demonstrate their outstanding innovations during last year’s competition finals. The 2017 competition is now open for entry, and any international researchers interested in participating in this prestigious challenge can download all the competition information at http://www.roboticsweek.uk/surgicalrobotchallenge.htm
The second Autonomous Driving Challenge is also launched today. This is an international competition to inspire the next generation of designers and engineers, and involves designing your own vehicle and teaching it to drive autonomously. The challenge is open to everyone: children and adults, amateurs and professionals.
Commenting on today’s official launch, Professor Guang-Zhong Yang PhD, FREng, Director and Co-founder of the Hamlyn Centre for Robotic Surgery, at Imperial College London and Chair of the UK-RAS Network, said: “We have been delighted with the response to UK Robotics Week, which looks set to become one of the key highlights in the science and technology calendar. This is a unique opportunity to celebrate the UK’s technology leadership in robotics and autonomous systems, and for individuals and institutions to get involved – hands-on – with robotics development.”
Professor Philip Nelson, Chief Executive of EPSRC, added: “From inspiring the nation’s budding engineers in STEM subjects to engaging people of all ages in a national debate about the contribution robotic technology can make to society and our economy, we’re looking forward to creating even more of a buzz with UK Robotics Week this year, and shining an even bigger spotlight on the fantastic robotics innovation being driven from the UK.”
For full information about all the activities planned for UK Robotics Week, please visit the website: www.roboticsweek.uk and follow UK Robotics Week on Twitter (@ukroboticsweek)
About the EPSRC UK-RAS Network (http://www.uk-ras.org) : The EPSRC UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems Network (UK-RAS Network) is dedicated to robotics innovation across the UK, with a mission to provide academic leadership in Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS), expand collaboration with industry, and integrate and coordinate activities at eight Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funded RAS capital facilities and Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) across the country.
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