Tag Archives: Most Advanced

#436220 How Boston Dynamics Is Redefining Robot ...

Gif: Bob O’Connor/IEEE Spectrum

With their jaw-dropping agility and animal-like reflexes, Boston Dynamics’ bioinspired robots have always seemed to have no equal. But that preeminence hasn’t stopped the company from pushing its technology to new heights, sometimes literally. Its latest crop of legged machines can trudge up and down hills, clamber over obstacles, and even leap into the air like a gymnast. There’s no denying their appeal: Every time Boston Dynamics uploads a new video to YouTube, it quickly racks up millions of views. These are probably the first robots you could call Internet stars.


Photo: Bob O’Connor

84 cm HEIGHT

25 kg WEIGHT

5.76 km/h SPEED

SENSING: Stereo cameras, inertial measurement unit, position/force sensors

ACTUATION: 12 DC motors

POWER: Battery (90 minutes per charge)

Boston Dynamics, once owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, and now by the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, has long been secretive about its designs. Few publications have been granted access to its Waltham, Mass., headquarters, near Boston. But one morning this past August, IEEE Spectrum got in. We were given permission to do a unique kind of photo shoot that day. We set out to capture the company’s robots in action—running, climbing, jumping—by using high-speed cameras coupled with powerful strobes. The results you see on this page: freeze-frames of pure robotic agility.

We also used the photos to create interactive views, which you can explore online on our Robots Guide. These interactives let you spin the robots 360 degrees, or make them walk and jump on your screen.

Boston Dynamics has amassed a minizoo of robotic beasts over the years, with names like BigDog, SandFlea, and WildCat. When we visited, we focused on the two most advanced machines the company has ever built: Spot, a nimble quadruped, and Atlas, an adult-size humanoid.

Spot can navigate almost any kind of terrain while sensing its environment. Boston Dynamics recently made it available for lease, with plans to manufacture something like a thousand units per year. It envisions Spot, or even packs of them, inspecting industrial sites, carrying out hazmat missions, and delivering packages. And its YouTube fame has not gone unnoticed: Even entertainment is a possibility, with Cirque du Soleil auditioning Spot as a potential new troupe member.

“It’s really a milestone for us going from robots that work in the lab to these that are hardened for work out in the field,” Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert says in an interview.


Photo: Bob O’Connor

150 cm HEIGHT

80 kg WEIGHT

5.4 km/h SPEED

SENSING: Lidar and stereo vision

ACTUATION: 28 hydraulic actuators

POWER: Battery

Our other photographic subject, Atlas, is Boston Dynamics’ biggest celebrity. This 150-centimeter-tall (4-foot-11-inch-tall) humanoid is capable of impressive athletic feats. Its actuators are driven by a compact yet powerful hydraulic system that the company engineered from scratch. The unique system gives the 80-kilogram (176-pound) robot the explosive strength needed to perform acrobatic leaps and flips that don’t seem possible for such a large humanoid to do. Atlas has inspired a string of parody videos on YouTube and more than a few jokes about a robot takeover.

While Boston Dynamics excels at making robots, it has yet to prove that it can sell them. Ever since its founding in 1992 as a spin-off from MIT, the company has been an R&D-centric operation, with most of its early funding coming from U.S. military programs. The emphasis on commercialization seems to have intensified after the acquisition by SoftBank, in 2017. SoftBank’s founder and CEO, Masayoshi Son, is known to love robots—and profits.

The launch of Spot is a significant step for Boston Dynamics as it seeks to “productize” its creations. Still, Raibert says his long-term goals have remained the same: He wants to build machines that interact with the world dynamically, just as animals and humans do. Has anything changed at all? Yes, one thing, he adds with a grin. In his early career as a roboticist, he used to write papers and count his citations. Now he counts YouTube views.

In the Spotlight

Photo: Bob O’Connor

Boston Dynamics designed Spot as a versatile mobile machine suitable for a variety of applications. The company has not announced how much Spot will cost, saying only that it is being made available to select customers, which will be able to lease the robot. A payload bay lets you add up to 14 kilograms of extra hardware to the robot’s back. One of the accessories that Boston Dynamics plans to offer is a 6-degrees-of-freedom arm, which will allow Spot to grasp objects and open doors.

Super Senses

Photo: Bob O’Connor

Spot’s hardware is almost entirely custom-designed. It includes powerful processing boards for control as well as sensor modules for perception. The ­sensors are located on the front, rear, and sides of the robot’s body. Each module consists of a pair of stereo cameras, a wide-angle camera, and a texture projector, which enhances 3D sensing in low light. The sensors allow the robot to use the navigation method known as SLAM, or simultaneous localization and mapping, to get around autonomously.

Stepping Up

Photo: Bob O’Connor

In addition to its autonomous behaviors, Spot can also be steered by a remote operator with a game-style controller. But even when in manual mode, the robot still exhibits a high degree of autonomy. If there’s an obstacle ahead, Spot will go around it. If there are stairs, Spot will climb them. The robot goes into these operating modes and then performs the related actions completely on its own, without any input from the operator. To go down a flight of stairs, Spot walks backward, an approach Boston Dynamics says provides greater stability.

Funky Feet

Gif: Bob O’Connor/IEEE Spectrum

Spot’s legs are powered by 12 custom DC motors, each geared down to provide high torque. The robot can walk forward, sideways, and backward, and trot at a top speed of 1.6 meters per second. It can also turn in place. Other gaits include crawling and pacing. In one wildly popular YouTube video, Spot shows off its fancy footwork by dancing to the pop hit “Uptown Funk.”

Robot Blood

Photo: Bob O’Connor

Atlas is powered by a hydraulic system consisting of 28 actuators. These actuators are basically cylinders filled with pressurized fluid that can drive a piston with great force. Their high performance is due in part to custom servo valves that are significantly smaller and lighter than the aerospace models that Boston Dynamics had been using in earlier designs. Though not visible from the outside, the innards of an Atlas are filled with these hydraulic actuators as well as the lines of fluid that connect them. When one of those lines ruptures, Atlas bleeds the hydraulic fluid, which happens to be red.

Next Generation

Gif: Bob O’Connor/IEEE Spectrum

The current version of Atlas is a thorough upgrade of the original model, which was built for the DARPA Robotics Challenge in 2015. The newest robot is lighter and more agile. Boston Dynamics used industrial-grade 3D printers to make key structural parts, giving the robot greater strength-to-weight ratio than earlier designs. The next-gen Atlas can also do something that its predecessor, famously, could not: It can get up after a fall.

Walk This Way

Photo: Bob O’Connor

To control Atlas, an operator provides general steering via a manual controller while the robot uses its stereo cameras and lidar to adjust to changes in the environment. Atlas can also perform certain tasks autonomously. For example, if you add special bar-code-type tags to cardboard boxes, Atlas can pick them up and stack them or place them on shelves.

Biologically Inspired

Photos: Bob O’Connor

Atlas’s control software doesn’t explicitly tell the robot how to move its joints, but rather it employs mathematical models of the underlying physics of the robot’s body and how it interacts with the environment. Atlas relies on its whole body to balance and move. When jumping over an obstacle or doing acrobatic stunts, the robot uses not only its legs but also its upper body, swinging its arms to propel itself just as an athlete would.

This article appears in the December 2019 print issue as “By Leaps and Bounds.” Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436209 Video Friday: Robotic Endoscope Travels ...

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here's what we have so far (send us your events!):

DARPA SubT Urban Circuit – February 18-27, 2020 – Olympia, WA, USA
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today's videos.

Kuka has just announced the results of its annual Innovation Award. From an initial batch of 30 applicants, five teams reached the finals (we were part of the judging committee). The five finalists worked for nearly a year on their applications, which they demonstrated this week at the Medica trade show in Düsseldorf, Germany. And the winner of the €20,000 prize is…Team RoboFORCE, led by the STORM Lab in the U.K., which developed a “robotic magnetic flexible endoscope for painless colorectal cancer screening, surveillance, and intervention.”

The system could improve colonoscopy procedures by reducing pain and discomfort as well as other risks such as bleeding and perforation, according to the STORM Lab researchers. It uses a magnetic field to control the endoscope, pulling rather than pushing it through the colon.

The other four finalists also presented some really interesting applications—you can see their videos below.

“Because we were so please with the high quality of the submissions, we will have next year’s finals again at the Medica fair, and the challenge will be named ‘Medical Robotics’,” says Rainer Bischoff, vice president for corporate research at Kuka. He adds that the selected teams will again use Kuka’s LBR Med robot arm, which is “already certified for integration into medical products and makes it particularly easy for startups to use a robot as the main component for a particular solution.”

Applications are now open for Kuka’s Innovation Award 2020. You can find more information on how to enter here. The deadline is 5 January 2020.

[ Kuka ]

Oh good, Aibo needs to be fed now.

You know what comes next, right?

[ Aibo ]

Your cat needs this robot.

It's about $200 on Kickstarter.

[ Kickstarter ]

Enjoy this tour of the Skydio offices courtesy Skydio 2, which runs into not even one single thing.

If any Skydio employees had important piles of papers on their desks, well, they don’t anymore.

[ Skydio ]

Artificial intelligence is everywhere nowadays, but what exactly does it mean? We asked a group MIT computer science grad students and post-docs how they personally define AI.

“When most people say AI, they actually mean machine learning, which is just pattern recognition.” Yup.

[ MIT ]

Using event-based cameras, this drone control system can track attitude at 1600 degrees per second (!).

[ UZH ]

Introduced at CES 2018, Walker is an intelligent humanoid service robot from UBTECH Robotics. Below are the latest features and technologies used during our latest round of development to make Walker even better.

[ Ubtech ]

Introducing the Alpha Prime by #VelodyneLidar, the most advanced lidar sensor on the market! Alpha Prime delivers an unrivaled combination of field-of-view, range, high-resolution, clarity and operational performance.

Performance looks good, but don’t expect it to be cheap.

[ Velodyne ]

Ghost Robotics’ Spirit 40 will start shipping to researchers in January of next year.

[ Ghost Robotics ]

Unitree is about to ship the first batch of their AlienGo quadrupeds as well:

[ Unitree ]

Mechanical engineering’s Sarah Bergbreiter discusses her work on micro robotics, how they draw inspiration from insects and animals, and how tiny robots can help humans in a variety of fields.

[ CMU ]

Learning contact-rich, robotic manipulation skills is a challenging problem due to the high-dimensionality of the state and action space as well as uncertainty from noisy sensors and inaccurate motor control. To combat these factors and achieve more robust manipulation, humans actively exploit contact constraints in the environment. By adopting a similar strategy, robots can also achieve more robust manipulation. In this paper, we enable a robot to autonomously modify its environment and thereby discover how to ease manipulation skill learning. Specifically, we provide the robot with fixtures that it can freely place within the environment. These fixtures provide hard constraints that limit the outcome of robot actions. Thereby, they funnel uncertainty from perception and motor control and scaffold manipulation skill learning.

[ Stanford ]

Since 2016, Verity's drones have completed more than 200,000 flights around the world. Completely autonomous, client-operated and designed for live events, Verity is making the magic real by turning drones into flying lights, characters, and props.

[ Verity ]

To monitor and stop the spread of wildfires, University of Michigan engineers developed UAVs that could find, map and report fires. One day UAVs like this could work with disaster response units, firefighters and other emergency teams to provide real-time accurate information to reduce damage and save lives. For their research, the University of Michigan graduate students won first place at a competition for using a swarm of UAVs to successfully map and report simulated wildfires.

[ University of Michigan ]

Here’s an important issue that I haven’t heard talked about all that much: How first responders should interact with self-driving cars.

“To put the car in manual mode, you must call Waymo.” Huh.

[ Waymo ]

Here’s what Gitai has been up to recently, from a Humanoids 2019 workshop talk.

[ Gitai ]

The latest CMU RI seminar comes from Girish Chowdhary at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on “Autonomous and Intelligent Robots in Unstructured Field Environments.”

What if a team of collaborative autonomous robots grew your food for you? In this talk, I will discuss some key advances in robotics, machine learning, and autonomy that will one day enable teams of small robots to grow food for you in your backyard in a fundamentally more sustainable way than modern mega-farms! Teams of small aerial and ground robots could be a potential solution to many of the serious problems that modern agriculture is facing. However, fully autonomous robots that operate without supervision for weeks, months, or entire growing season are not yet practical. I will discuss my group’s theoretical and practical work towards the underlying challenging problems in robotic systems, autonomy, sensing, and learning. I will begin with our lightweight, compact, and autonomous field robot TerraSentia and the recent successes of this type of undercanopy robots for high-throughput phenotyping with deep learning-based machine vision. I will also discuss how to make a team of autonomous robots learn to coordinate to weed large agricultural farms under partial observability. These direct applications will help me make the case for the type of reinforcement learning and adaptive control that are necessary to usher in the next generation of autonomous field robots that learn to solve complex problems in harsh, changing, and dynamic environments. I will then end with an overview of our new MURI, in which we are working towards developing AI and control that leverages neurodynamics inspired by the Octopus brain.

[ CMU RI ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435098 Coming of Age in the Age of AI: The ...

The first generation to grow up entirely in the 21st century will never remember a time before smartphones or smart assistants. They will likely be the first children to ride in self-driving cars, as well as the first whose healthcare and education could be increasingly turned over to artificially intelligent machines.

Futurists, demographers, and marketers have yet to agree on the specifics of what defines the next wave of humanity to follow Generation Z. That hasn’t stopped some, like Australian futurist Mark McCrindle, from coining the term Generation Alpha, denoting a sort of reboot of society in a fully-realized digital age.

“In the past, the individual had no power, really,” McCrindle told Business Insider. “Now, the individual has great control of their lives through being able to leverage this world. Technology, in a sense, transformed the expectations of our interactions.”

No doubt technology may impart Marvel superhero-like powers to Generation Alpha that even tech-savvy Millennials never envisioned over cups of chai latte. But the powers of machine learning, computer vision, and other disciplines under the broad category of artificial intelligence will shape this yet unformed generation more definitively than any before it.

What will it be like to come of age in the Age of AI?

The AI Doctor Will See You Now
Perhaps no other industry is adopting and using AI as much as healthcare. The term “artificial intelligence” appears in nearly 90,000 publications from biomedical literature and research on the PubMed database.

AI is already transforming healthcare and longevity research. Machines are helping to design drugs faster and detect disease earlier. And AI may soon influence not only how we diagnose and treat illness in children, but perhaps how we choose which children will be born in the first place.

A study published earlier this month in NPJ Digital Medicine by scientists from Weill Cornell Medicine used 12,000 photos of human embryos taken five days after fertilization to train an AI algorithm on how to tell which in vitro fertilized embryo had the best chance of a successful pregnancy based on its quality.

Investigators assigned each embryo a grade based on various aspects of its appearance. A statistical analysis then correlated that grade with the probability of success. The algorithm, dubbed Stork, was able to classify the quality of a new set of images with 97 percent accuracy.

“Our algorithm will help embryologists maximize the chances that their patients will have a single healthy pregnancy,” said Dr. Olivier Elemento, director of the Caryl and Israel Englander Institute for Precision Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, in a press release. “The IVF procedure will remain the same, but we’ll be able to improve outcomes by harnessing the power of artificial intelligence.”

Other medical researchers see potential in applying AI to detect possible developmental issues in newborns. Scientists in Europe, working with a Finnish AI startup that creates seizure monitoring technology, have developed a technique for detecting movement patterns that might indicate conditions like cerebral palsy.

Published last month in the journal Acta Pediatrica, the study relied on an algorithm to extract the movements from a newborn, turning it into a simplified “stick figure” that medical experts could use to more easily detect clinically relevant data.

The researchers are continuing to improve the datasets, including using 3D video recordings, and are now developing an AI-based method for determining if a child’s motor maturity aligns with its true age. Meanwhile, a study published in February in Nature Medicine discussed the potential of using AI to diagnose pediatric disease.

AI Gets Classy
After being weaned on algorithms, Generation Alpha will hit the books—about machine learning.

China is famously trying to win the proverbial AI arms race by spending billions on new technologies, with one Chinese city alone pledging nearly $16 billion to build a smart economy based on artificial intelligence.

To reach dominance by its stated goal of 2030, Chinese cities are also incorporating AI education into their school curriculum. Last year, China published its first high school textbook on AI, according to the South China Morning Post. More than 40 schools are participating in a pilot program that involves SenseTime, one of the country’s biggest AI companies.

In the US, where it seems every child has access to their own AI assistant, researchers are just beginning to understand how the ubiquity of intelligent machines will influence the ways children learn and interact with their highly digitized environments.

Sandra Chang-Kredl, associate professor of the department of education at Concordia University, told The Globe and Mail that AI could have detrimental effects on learning creativity or emotional connectedness.

Similar concerns inspired Stefania Druga, a member of the Personal Robots group at the MIT Media Lab (and former Education Teaching Fellow at SU), to study interactions between children and artificial intelligence devices in order to encourage positive interactions.

Toward that goal, Druga created Cognimates, a platform that enables children to program and customize their own smart devices such as Alexa or even a smart, functional robot. The kids can also use Cognimates to train their own AI models or even build a machine learning version of Rock Paper Scissors that gets better over time.

“I believe it’s important to also introduce young people to the concepts of AI and machine learning through hands-on projects so they can make more informed and critical use of these technologies,” Druga wrote in a Medium blog post.

Druga is also the founder of Hackidemia, an international organization that sponsors workshops and labs around the world to introduce kids to emerging technologies at an early age.

“I think we are in an arms race in education with the advancement of technology, and we need to start thinking about AI literacy before patterns of behaviors for children and their families settle in place,” she wrote.

AI Goes Back to School
It also turns out that AI has as much to learn from kids. More and more researchers are interested in understanding how children grasp basic concepts that still elude the most advanced machine minds.

For example, developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik has written and lectured extensively about how studying the minds of children can provide computer scientists clues on how to improve machine learning techniques.

In an interview on Vox, she described that while DeepMind’s AlpahZero was trained to be a chessmaster, it struggles with even the simplest changes in the rules, such as allowing the bishop to move horizontally instead of vertically.

“A human chess player, even a kid, will immediately understand how to transfer that new rule to their playing of the game,” she noted. “Flexibility and generalization are something that even human one-year-olds can do but that the best machine learning systems have a much harder time with.”

Last year, the federal defense agency DARPA announced a new program aimed at improving AI by teaching it “common sense.” One of the chief strategies is to develop systems for “teaching machines through experience, mimicking the way babies grow to understand the world.”

Such an approach is also the basis of a new AI program at MIT called the MIT Quest for Intelligence.

The research leverages cognitive science to understand human intelligence, according to an article on the project in MIT Technology Review, such as exploring how young children visualize the world using their own innate 3D models.

“Children’s play is really serious business,” said Josh Tenenbaum, who leads the Computational Cognitive Science lab at MIT and his head of the new program. “They’re experiments. And that’s what makes humans the smartest learners in the known universe.”

In a world increasingly driven by smart technologies, it’s good to know the next generation will be able to keep up.

Image Credit: phoelixDE / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots