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Jerky mechanical robots are staples of science fiction, but to seamlessly integrate into everyday life they’ll need the precise yet powerful motor control of humans. Now scientists have created a new class of artificial muscles that could soon make that a reality.
The advance is the latest breakthrough in the field of soft robotics. Scientists are increasingly designing robots using soft materials that more closely resemble biological systems, which can be more adaptable and better suited to working in close proximity to humans.
One of the main challenges has been creating soft components that match the power and control of the rigid actuators that drive mechanical robots—things like motors and pistons. Now researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have built a series of low-cost artificial muscles—as little as 10 cents per device—using soft plastic pouches filled with electrically insulating liquids that contract with the force and speed of mammalian skeletal muscles when a voltage is applied to them.
Three different designs of the so-called hydraulically amplified self-healing electrostatic (HASEL) actuators were detailed in two papers in the journals Science and Science Robotics last week. They could carry out a variety of tasks, from gently picking up delicate objects like eggs or raspberries to lifting objects many times their own weight, such as a gallon of water, at rapid repetition rates.
“We draw our inspiration from the astonishing capabilities of biological muscle,” Christoph Keplinger, an assistant professor at UC Boulder and senior author of both papers, said in a press release. “Just like biological muscle, HASEL actuators can reproduce the adaptability of an octopus arm, the speed of a hummingbird and the strength of an elephant.”
The artificial muscles work by applying a voltage to hydrogel electrodes on either side of pouches filled with liquid insulators, which can be as simple as canola oil. This creates an attraction between the two electrodes, pulling them together and displacing the liquid. This causes a change of shape that can push or pull levers, arms or any other articulated component.
The design is essentially a synthesis of two leading approaches to actuating soft robots. Pneumatic and hydraulic actuators that pump fluids around have been popular due to their high forces, easy fabrication and ability to mimic a variety of natural motions. But they tend to be bulky and relatively slow.
Dielectric elastomer actuators apply an electric field across a solid insulating layer to make it flex. These can mimic the responsiveness of biological muscle. But they are not very versatile and can also fail catastrophically, because the high voltages required can cause a bolt of electricity to blast through the insulator, destroying it. The likelihood of this happening increases in line with the size of their electrodes, which makes it hard to scale them up. By combining the two approaches, researchers get the best of both worlds, with the power, versatility and easy fabrication of a fluid-based system and the responsiveness of electrically-powered actuators.
One of the designs holds particular promise for robotics applications, as it behaves a lot like biological muscle. The so-called Peano-HASEL actuators are made up of multiple rectangular pouches connected in series, which allows them to contract linearly, just like real muscle. They can lift more than 200 times their weight, but being electrically powered, they exceed the flexing speed of human muscle.
As the name suggests, the HASEL actuators are also self-healing. They are still prone to the same kind of electrical damage as dielectric elastomer actuators, but the liquid insulator is able to immediately self-heal by redistributing itself and regaining its insulating properties.
The muscles can even monitor the amount of strain they’re under to provide the same kind of feedback biological systems would. The muscle’s capacitance—its ability to store an electric charge—changes as the device stretches, which makes it possible to power the arm while simultaneously measuring what position it’s in.
The researchers say this could imbue robots with a similar sense of proprioception or body-awareness to that found in plants and animals. “Self-sensing allows for the development of closed-loop feedback controllers to design highly advanced and precise robots for diverse applications,” Shane Mitchell, a PhD student in Keplinger’s lab and an author on both papers, said in an email.
The researchers say the high voltages required are an ongoing challenge, though they’ve already designed devices in the lab that use a fifth of the voltage of those features in the recent papers.
In most of their demonstrations, these soft actuators were being used to power rigid arms and levers, pointing to the fact that future robots are likely to combine both rigid and soft components, much like animals do. The potential applications for the technology range from more realistic prosthetics to much more dextrous robots that can work easily alongside humans.
It will take some work before these devices appear in commercial robots. But the combination of high-performance with simple and inexpensive fabrication methods mean other researchers are likely to jump in, so innovation could be rapid.
Image Credit: Keplinger Research Group/University of Colorado Continue reading
By helping rubber and plastic stick together under pressure, University of Nebraska-Lincoln chemists have simplified the production of small fluid-carrying channels that can drive movement in soft robotics and enable chemical analyses on microscopic scales. Continue reading
Millions of years of evolution have allowed animals to develop some elegant and highly efficient solutions to problems like locomotion, flight, and dexterity. As Boston Dynamics unveils its latest mechanical animals, here’s a rundown of nine recent robots that borrow from nature and why.
SpotMini – Boston Dynamics
Starting with BigDog in 2005, the US company has built a whole stable of four-legged robots in recent years. Their first product was designed to be a robotic packhorse for soldiers that borrowed the quadrupedal locomotion of animals to travel over terrain too rough for conventional vehicles.
The US Army ultimately rejected the robot for being too noisy, according to the Guardian, but since then the company has scaled down its design, first to the Spot, then a first edition of the SpotMini that came out last year.
The latter came with a robotic arm where its head should be and was touted as a domestic helper, but a sleeker second edition without the arm was released earlier this month. There’s little detail on what the new robot is designed for, but the more polished design suggests a more consumer-focused purpose.
OctopusGripper – Festo
Festo has released a long line of animal-inspired machines over the years, from a mechanical kangaroo to robotic butterflies. Its latest creation isn’t a full animal—instead it’s a gripper based on an octopus tentacle that can be attached to the end of a robotic arm.
The pneumatically-powered device is made of soft silicone and features two rows of suction cups on its inner edge. By applying compressed air the tentacle can wrap around a wide variety of differently shaped objects, just like its natural counterpart, and a vacuum can be applied to the larger suction cups to grip the object securely. Because it’s soft, it holds promise for robots required to operate safely in collaboration with humans.
CRAM – University of California, Berkeley
Cockroaches are renowned for their hardiness and ability to disappear down cracks that seem far too small for them. Researchers at UC Berkeley decided these capabilities could be useful for search and rescue missions and so set about experimenting on the insects to find out their secrets.
They found the bugs can squeeze into gaps a fifth of their normal standing height by splaying their legs out to the side without significantly slowing themselves down. So they built a palm-sized robot with a jointed plastic shell that could do the same to squeeze into crevices half its normal height.
Snake Robot – Carnegie Mellon University
Search and rescue missions are a common theme for animal-inspired robots, but the snake robot built by CMU researchers is one of the first to be tested in a real disaster.
A team of roboticists from the university helped Mexican Red Cross workers search collapsed buildings for survivors after the 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck Mexico City in September. The snake design provides a small diameter and the ability to move in almost any direction, which makes the robot ideal for accessing tight spaces, though the team was unable to locate any survivors.
The snake currently features a camera on the front, but researchers told IEEE Spectrum that the experience helped them realize they should also add a microphone to listen for people trapped under the rubble.
Bio-Hybrid Stingray – Harvard University
Taking more than just inspiration from the animal kingdom, a group from Harvard built a robotic stingray out of silicone and rat heart muscle cells.
The robot uses the same synchronized undulations along the edge of its fins to propel itself as a ray does. But while a ray has two sets of muscles to pull the fins up and down, the new device has only one that pulls them down, with a springy gold skeleton that pulls them back up again. The cells are also genetically modified to be activated by flashes of light.
The project’s leader eventually hopes to engineer a human heart, and both his stingray and an earlier jellyfish bio-robot are primarily aimed at better understanding how that organ works.
Bat Bot – Caltech
Most recent advances in drone technology have come from quadcopters, but Caltech engineers think rigid devices with rapidly spinning propellers are probably not ideal for use in close quarters with humans.
That’s why they turned to soft-winged bats for inspiration. That’s no easy feat, though, considering bats use more than 40 joints with each flap of their wings, so the team had to optimize down to nine joints to avoid it becoming too bulky. The simplified bat can’t ascend yet, but its onboard computer and sensors let it autonomously carry out glides, turns, and dives.
Salto – UC Berkeley
While even the most advanced robots tend to plod around, tree-dwelling animals have the ability to spring from branch to branch to clear obstacles and climb quickly. This could prove invaluable for search and rescue robots by allowing them to quickly traverse disordered rubble.
UC Berkeley engineers turned to the Senegal bush baby for inspiration after determining it scored highest in “vertical jumping agility”—a combination of how high and how frequently an animal can jump. They recreated its ability to get into a super-low crouch that stores energy in its tendons to create a robot that could carry out parkour-style double jumps off walls to quickly gain height.
Pleurobot – École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
Normally robots are masters of air, land, or sea, but the robotic salamander built by researchers at EPFL can both walk and swim.
Its designers used X-ray videos to carefully study how the amphibians move before using this to build a true-to-life robotic version using 3D printed bones, motorized joints, and a synthetic nervous system made up of electronic circuitry.
The robot’s low center of mass and segmented legs make it great at navigating rough terrain without losing balance, and the ability to swim gives added versatility. They also hope it will help paleontologists gain a better understanding of the movements of the first tetrapods to transition from water to land, which salamanders are the best living analog of.
Eelume – Eelume
A snakelike body isn’t only useful on land—eels are living proof it’s an efficient way to travel underwater, too. Norwegian robotics company Eelume has borrowed these principles to build a robot capable of sub-sea inspection, maintenance, and repair.
The modular design allows operators to put together their own favored configuration of joints and payloads such as sensors and tools. And while an early version of the robot used the same method of locomotion as an eel, the latest version undergoing sea trials has added a variety of thrusters for greater speeds and more maneuverability.
Image Credit: Boston Dynamics / YouTube Continue reading
The multiverse of science fiction is populated by robots that are indistinguishable from humans. They are usually smarter, faster, and stronger than us. They seem capable of doing any job imaginable, from piloting a starship and battling alien invaders to taking out the trash and cooking a gourmet meal.
The reality, of course, is far from fantasy. Aside from industrial settings, robots have yet to meet The Jetsons. The robots the public are exposed to seem little more than over-sized plastic toys, pre-programmed to perform a set of tasks without the ability to interact meaningfully with their environment or their creators.
To paraphrase PayPal co-founder and tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, we wanted cool robots, instead we got 140 characters and Flippy the burger bot. But scientists are making progress to empower robots with the ability to see and respond to their surroundings just like humans.
Some of the latest developments in that arena were presented this month at the annual Robotics: Science and Systems Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The papers drilled down into topics that ranged from how to make robots more conversational and help them understand language ambiguities to helping them see and navigate through complex spaces.
Ben Burchfiel, a graduate student at Duke University, and his thesis advisor George Konidaris, an assistant professor of computer science at Brown University, developed an algorithm to enable machines to see the world more like humans.
In the paper, Burchfiel and Konidaris demonstrate how they can teach robots to identify and possibly manipulate three-dimensional objects even when they might be obscured or sitting in unfamiliar positions, such as a teapot that has been tipped over.
The researchers trained their algorithm by feeding it 3D scans of about 4,000 common household items such as beds, chairs, tables, and even toilets. They then tested its ability to identify about 900 new 3D objects just from a bird’s eye view. The algorithm made the right guess 75 percent of the time versus a success rate of about 50 percent for other computer vision techniques.
In an email interview with Singularity Hub, Burchfiel notes his research is not the first to train machines on 3D object classification. How their approach differs is that they confine the space in which the robot learns to classify the objects.
“Imagine the space of all possible objects,” Burchfiel explains. “That is to say, imagine you had tiny Legos, and I told you [that] you could stick them together any way you wanted, just build me an object. You have a huge number of objects you could make!”
The infinite possibilities could result in an object no human or machine might recognize.
To address that problem, the researchers had their algorithm find a more restricted space that would host the objects it wants to classify. “By working in this restricted space—mathematically we call it a subspace—we greatly simplify our task of classification. It is the finding of this space that sets us apart from previous approaches.”
Meanwhile, a pair of undergraduate students at Brown University figured out a way to teach robots to understand directions better, even at varying degrees of abstraction.
The research, led by Dilip Arumugam and Siddharth Karamcheti, addressed how to train a robot to understand nuances of natural language and then follow instructions correctly and efficiently.
“The problem is that commands can have different levels of abstraction, and that can cause a robot to plan its actions inefficiently or fail to complete the task at all,” says Arumugam in a press release.
In this project, the young researchers crowdsourced instructions for moving a virtual robot through an online domain. The space consisted of several rooms and a chair, which the robot was told to manipulate from one place to another. The volunteers gave various commands to the robot, ranging from general (“take the chair to the blue room”) to step-by-step instructions.
The researchers then used the database of spoken instructions to teach their system to understand the kinds of words used in different levels of language. The machine learned to not only follow instructions but to recognize the level of abstraction. That was key to kickstart its problem-solving abilities to tackle the job in the most appropriate way.
The research eventually moved from virtual pixels to a real place, using a Roomba-like robot that was able to respond to instructions within one second 90 percent of the time. Conversely, when unable to identify the specificity of the task, it took the robot 20 or more seconds to plan a task about 50 percent of the time.
One application of this new machine-learning technique referenced in the paper is a robot worker in a warehouse setting, but there are many fields that could benefit from a more versatile machine capable of moving seamlessly between small-scale operations and generalized tasks.
“Other areas that could possibly benefit from such a system include things from autonomous vehicles… to assistive robotics, all the way to medical robotics,” says Karamcheti, responding to a question by email from Singularity Hub.
More to Come
These achievements are yet another step toward creating robots that see, listen, and act more like humans. But don’t expect Disney to build a real-life Westworld next to Toon Town anytime soon.
“I think we’re a long way off from human-level communication,” Karamcheti says. “There are so many problems preventing our learning models from getting to that point, from seemingly simple questions like how to deal with words never seen before, to harder, more complicated questions like how to resolve the ambiguities inherent in language, including idiomatic or metaphorical speech.”
Even relatively verbose chatbots can run out of things to say, Karamcheti notes, as the conversation becomes more complex.
The same goes for human vision, according to Burchfiel.
While deep learning techniques have dramatically improved pattern matching—Google can find just about any picture of a cat—there’s more to human eyesight than, well, meets the eye.
“There are two big areas where I think perception has a long way to go: inductive bias and formal reasoning,” Burchfiel says.
The former is essentially all of the contextual knowledge people use to help them reason, he explains. Burchfiel uses the example of a puddle in the street. People are conditioned or biased to assume it’s a puddle of water rather than a patch of glass, for instance.
“This sort of bias is why we see faces in clouds; we have strong inductive bias helping us identify faces,” he says. “While it sounds simple at first, it powers much of what we do. Humans have a very intuitive understanding of what they expect to see, [and] it makes perception much easier.”
Formal reasoning is equally important. A machine can use deep learning, in Burchfiel’s example, to figure out the direction any river flows once it understands that water runs downhill. But it’s not yet capable of applying the sort of human reasoning that would allow us to transfer that knowledge to an alien setting, such as figuring out how water moves through a plumbing system on Mars.
“Much work was done in decades past on this sort of formal reasoning… but we have yet to figure out how to merge it with standard machine-learning methods to create a seamless system that is useful in the actual physical world.”
Robots still have a lot to learn about being human, which should make us feel good that we’re still by far the most complex machines on the planet.
Image Credit: Alex Knight via Unsplash Continue reading