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Picture a robot. In all likelihood, you just pictured a sleek metallic or chrome-white humanoid. Yet the vast majority of robots in the world around us are nothing like this; instead, they’re specialized for specific tasks. Our cultural conception of what robots are dates back to the coining of the term robots in the Czech play, Rossum’s Universal Robots, which originally envisioned them as essentially synthetic humans.
The vision of a humanoid robot is tantalizing. There are constant efforts to create something that looks like the robots of science fiction. Recently, an old competitor in this field returned with a new model: Toyota has released what they call the T-HR3. As humanoid robots go, it appears to be pretty dexterous and have a decent grip, with a number of degrees of freedom making the movements pleasantly human.
This humanoid robot operates mostly via a remote-controlled system that allows the user to control the robot’s limbs by exerting different amounts of pressure on a framework. A VR headset completes the picture, allowing the user to control the robot’s body and teleoperate the machine. There’s no word on a price tag, but one imagines a machine with a control system this complicated won’t exactly be on your Christmas list, unless you’re a billionaire.
Toyota is no stranger to robotics. They released a series of “Partner Robots” that had a bizarre affinity for instrument-playing but weren’t often seen doing much else. Given that they didn’t seem to have much capability beyond the automaton that Leonardo da Vinci made hundreds of years ago, they promptly vanished. If, as the name suggests, the T-HR3 is a sequel to these robots, which came out shortly after ASIMO back in 2003, it’s substantially better.
Slightly less humanoid (and perhaps the more useful for it), Toyota’s HSR-2 is a robot base on wheels with a simple mechanical arm. It brings to mind earlier machines produced by dream-factory startup Willow Garage like the PR-2. The idea of an affordable robot that could simply move around on wheels and pick up and fetch objects, and didn’t harbor too-lofty ambitions to do anything else, was quite successful.
So much so that when Robocup, the international robotics competition, looked for a platform for their robot-butler competition @Home, they chose HSR-2 for its ability to handle objects. HSR-2 has been deployed in trial runs to care for the elderly and injured, but has yet to be widely adopted for these purposes five years after its initial release. It’s telling that arguably the most successful multi-purpose humanoid robot isn’t really humanoid at all—and it’s curious that Toyota now seems to want to return to a more humanoid model a decade after they gave up on the project.
What’s unclear, as is often the case with humanoid robots, is what, precisely, the T-HR3 is actually for. The teleoperation gets around the complex problem of control by simply having the machine controlled remotely by a human. That human then handles all the sensory perception, decision-making, planning, and manipulation; essentially, the hardest problems in robotics.
There may not be a great deal of autonomy for the T-HR3, but by sacrificing autonomy, you drastically cut down the uses of the robot. Since it can’t act alone, you need a convincing scenario where you need a teleoperated humanoid robot that’s less precise and vastly more expensive than just getting a person to do the same job. Perhaps someday more autonomy will be developed for the robot, and the master maneuvering system that allows humans to control it will only be used in emergencies to control the robot if it gets stuck.
Toyota’s press release says it is “a platform with capabilities that can safely assist humans in a variety of settings, such as the home, medical facilities, construction sites, disaster-stricken areas and even outer space.” In reality, it’s difficult to see such a robot being affordable or even that useful in the home or in medical facilities (unless it’s substantially stronger than humans). Equally, it certainly doesn’t seem robust enough to be deployed in disaster zones or outer space. These tasks have been mooted for robots for a very long time and few have proved up to the challenge.
Toyota’s third generation humanoid robot, the T-HR3. Image Credit: Toyota
Instead, the robot seems designed to work alongside humans. Its design, standing 1.5 meters tall, weighing 75 kilograms, and possessing 32 degrees of freedom in its body, suggests it is built to closely mimic a person, rather than a robot like ATLAS which is robust enough that you can imagine it being useful in a war zone. In this case, it might be closer to the model of the collaborative robots or co-bots developed by Rethink Robotics, whose tons of safety features, including force-sensitive feedback for the user, reduce the risk of terrible PR surrounding killer robots.
Instead the emphasis is on graceful precision engineering: in the promo video, the robot can be seen balancing on one leg before showing off a few poised, yoga-like poses. This perhaps suggests that an application in elderly care, which Toyota has ventured into before and which was the stated aim of their simple HSR-2, might be more likely than deployment to a disaster zone.
The reason humanoid robots remain so elusive and so tempting is probably because of a simple cognitive mistake. We make two bad assumptions. First, we assume that if you build a humanoid robot, give its joints enough flexibility, throw in a little AI and perhaps some pre-programmed behaviors, then presto, it will be able to do everything humans can. When you see a robot that moves well and looks humanoid, it seems like the hardest part is done; surely this robot could do anything. The reality is never so simple.
We also make the reverse assumption: we assume that when we are finally replaced, it will be by perfect replicas of our own bodies and brains that can fulfill all the functions we used to fulfill. Perhaps, in reality, the future of robots and AI is more like its present: piecemeal, with specialized algorithms and specialized machines gradually learning to outperform humans at every conceivable task without ever looking convincingly human.
It may well be that the T-HR3 is angling towards this concept of machine learning as a platform for future research. Rather than trying to program an omni-capable robot out of the box, it will gradually learn from its human controllers. In this way, you could see the platform being used to explore the limits of what humans can teach robots to do simply by having them mimic sequences of our bodies’ motion, in the same way the exploitation of neural networks is testing the limits of training algorithms on data. No one machine will be able to perform everything a human can, but collectively, they will vastly outperform us at anything you’d want one to do.
So when you see a new android like Toyota’s, feel free to marvel at its technical abilities and indulge in the speculation about whether it’s a PR gimmick or a revolutionary step forward along the road to human replacement. Just remember that, human-level bots or not, we’re already strolling down that road.
Image Credit: Toyota Continue reading
Many manufacturing jobs require a physical presence to operate machinery. But what if such jobs could be done remotely? This week researchers from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) presented a virtual-reality (VR) system that lets you teleoperate a robot using an Oculus Rift headset. Continue reading
As Dorothy famously said in The Wizard of Oz, there’s no place like home. Home is where we go to rest and recharge. It’s familiar, comfortable, and our own. We take care of our homes by cleaning and maintaining them, and fixing things that break or go wrong.
What if our homes, on top of giving us shelter, could also take care of us in return?
According to Chris Arkenberg, this could be the case in the not-so-distant future. As part of Singularity University’s Experts On Air series, Arkenberg gave a talk called “How the Intelligent Home of The Future Will Care For You.”
Arkenberg is a research and strategy lead at Orange Silicon Valley, and was previously a research fellow at the Deloitte Center for the Edge and a visiting researcher at the Institute for the Future.
Arkenberg told the audience that there’s an evolution going on: homes are going from being smart to being connected, and will ultimately become intelligent.
Intelligent home technologies are just now budding, but broader trends point to huge potential for their growth. We as consumers already expect continuous connectivity wherever we go—what do you mean my phone won’t get reception in the middle of Yosemite? What do you mean the smart TV is down and I can’t stream Game of Thrones?
As connectivity has evolved from a privilege to a basic expectation, Arkenberg said, we’re also starting to have a better sense of what it means to give up our data in exchange for services and conveniences. It’s so easy to click a few buttons on Amazon and have stuff show up at your front door a few days later—never mind that data about your purchases gets recorded and aggregated.
“Right now we have single devices that are connected,” Arkenberg said. “Companies are still trying to show what the true value is and how durable it is beyond the hype.”
Connectivity is the basis of an intelligent home. To take a dumb object and make it smart, you get it online. Belkin’s Wemo, for example, lets users control lights and appliances wirelessly and remotely, and can be paired with Amazon Echo or Google Home for voice-activated control.
Speaking of voice-activated control, Arkenberg pointed out that physical interfaces are evolving, too, to the point that we’re actually getting rid of interfaces entirely, or transitioning to ‘soft’ interfaces like voice or gesture.
Drivers of change
Consumers are open to smart home tech and companies are working to provide it. But what are the drivers making this tech practical and affordable? Arkenberg said there are three big ones:
Computation: Computers have gotten exponentially more powerful over the past few decades. If it wasn’t for processors that could handle massive quantities of information, nothing resembling an Echo or Alexa would even be possible. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are powering these devices, and they hinge on computing power too.
Sensors: “There are more things connected now than there are people on the planet,” Arkenberg said. Market research firm Gartner estimates there are 8.4 billion connected things currently in use. Wherever digital can replace hardware, it’s doing so. Cheaper sensors mean we can connect more things, which can then connect to each other.
Data: “Data is the new oil,” Arkenberg said. “The top companies on the planet are all data-driven giants. If data is your business, though, then you need to keep finding new ways to get more and more data.” Home assistants are essentially data collection systems that sit in your living room and collect data about your life. That data in turn sets up the potential of machine learning.
Colonizing the Living Room
Alexa and Echo can turn lights on and off, and Nest can help you be energy-efficient. But beyond these, what does an intelligent home really look like?
Arkenberg’s vision of an intelligent home uses sensing, data, connectivity, and modeling to manage resource efficiency, security, productivity, and wellness.
Autonomous vehicles provide an interesting comparison: they’re surrounded by sensors that are constantly mapping the world to build dynamic models to understand the change around itself, and thereby predict things. Might we want this to become a model for our homes, too? By making them smart and connecting them, Arkenberg said, they’d become “more biological.”
There are already several products on the market that fit this description. RainMachine uses weather forecasts to adjust home landscape watering schedules. Neurio monitors energy usage, identifies areas where waste is happening, and makes recommendations for improvement.
These are small steps in connecting our homes with knowledge systems and giving them the ability to understand and act on that knowledge.
He sees the homes of the future being equipped with digital ears (in the form of home assistants, sensors, and monitoring devices) and digital eyes (in the form of facial recognition technology and machine vision to recognize who’s in the home). “These systems are increasingly able to interrogate emotions and understand how people are feeling,” he said. “When you push more of this active intelligence into things, the need for us to directly interface with them becomes less relevant.”
Could our homes use these same tools to benefit our health and wellness? FREDsense uses bacteria to create electrochemical sensors that can be applied to home water systems to detect contaminants. If that’s not personal enough for you, get a load of this: ClinicAI can be installed in your toilet bowl to monitor and evaluate your biowaste. What’s the point, you ask? Early detection of colon cancer and other diseases.
What if one day, your toilet’s biowaste analysis system could link up with your fridge, so that when you opened it it would tell you what to eat, and how much, and at what time of day?
Roadblocks to intelligence
“The connected and intelligent home is still a young category trying to establish value, but the technological requirements are now in place,” Arkenberg said. We’re already used to living in a world of ubiquitous computation and connectivity, and we have entrained expectations about things being connected. For the intelligent home to become a widespread reality, its value needs to be established and its challenges overcome.
One of the biggest challenges will be getting used to the idea of continuous surveillance. We’ll get convenience and functionality if we give up our data, but how far are we willing to go? Establishing security and trust is going to be a big challenge moving forward,” Arkenberg said.
There’s also cost and reliability, interoperability and fragmentation of devices, or conversely, what Arkenberg called ‘platform lock-on,’ where you’d end up relying on only one provider’s system and be unable to integrate devices from other brands.
Ultimately, Arkenberg sees homes being able to learn about us, manage our scheduling and transit, watch our moods and our preferences, and optimize our resource footprint while predicting and anticipating change.
“This is the really fascinating provocation of the intelligent home,” Arkenberg said. “And I think we’re going to start to see this play out over the next few years.”
Sounds like a home Dorothy wouldn’t recognize, in Kansas or anywhere else.
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PITTSBURGH, PA – June 21, 2017 – RE2 Robotics announced today that the Company was selected by the Air Force to develop a drop-in robotic system to rapidly convert a variety of traditionally manned aircraft to robotically piloted, autonomous aircraft under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. This robotic system, named “Common Aircraft Retrofit for Novel Autonomous Control” (CARNAC), will operate the aircraft similarly to a human pilot and will not require any modifications to the aircraft.
Automation and autonomy have broad value to the Department of Defense with the potential to enhance system performance of existing platforms, reduce costs, and enable new missions and capabilities, especially with reduced human exposure to dangerous or life-threatening situations. The CARNAC project leverages existing aviation assets and advances in vehicle automation technologies to develop a cutting-edge drop-in robotic flight system.
During the program, RE2 Robotics will demonstrate system architecture feasibility, humanoid-like robotic manipulation capabilities, vision-based flight-status recognition, and cognitive architecture-based decision making.
“Our team is excited to incorporate the Company’s robotic manipulation expertise with proven technologies in applique systems, vision processing algorithms, and decision making to create a customized application that will allow a wide variety of existing aircraft to be outfitted with a robotic pilot,” stated Jorgen Pedersen, president and CEO of RE2 Robotics. “By creating a drop-in robotic pilot, we have the ability to insert autonomy into and expand the capabilities of not only traditionally manned air vehicles, but ground and underwater vehicles as well. This application will open up a whole new market for our mobile robotic manipulator systems.”
About RE2 RoboticsRE2 Robotics develops mobile robotic technologies that enable robot users to remotely interact with their world from a safe distance — whether on the ground, in the air, or underwater. RE2 creates interoperable robotic manipulator arms with human-like performance, intuitive human robot interfaces, and advanced autonomy software for mobile robotics. For more information, please visit www.resquared.com or call 412.681.6382.
Media Contact: RE2 Public Relations, email@example.com, 412.681.6382.
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Fusion for Energy signs multi-million deal with Airbus Safran Launchers, Nuvia Limited and Cegelec CEM to develop robotics equipment for ITER
The contract for a value of nearly 100 million EUR is considered to be the single biggest robotics deal to date in the field of fusion energy. The state of the art equipment will form part of ITER, the world’s largest experimental fusion facility and the first in history to produce 500 MW. The prestigious project brings together seven parties (China, Europe, Japan, India, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation and the USA) which represent 50% of the world’s population and 80% of the global GDP.
The collaboration between Fusion for Energy (F4E), the EU organisation managing Europe’s contribution to ITER, with a consortium of companies consisting of Airbus Safran Launchers (France-Germany), Nuvia Limited (UK) and Cegelec CEM (France), companies of the VINCI Group, will run for a period of seven years. The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UK), Instituto Superior Tecnico (Portugal), AVT Europe NV (Belgium) and Millennium (France) will also be part of this deal which will deliver remotely operated systems for the transportation and confinement of components located in the ITER vacuum vessel.
The contract carries also a symbolic importance marking the signature all procurement packages managed by Europe in the field of remote handling. Carlo Damiani, F4E’s Project Manager for ITER Remote Handling Systems, explained that “F4E’s stake in ITER offers an unparalleled opportunity to companies and laboratories to develop expertise and an industrial culture in fusion reactors’ maintenance.”
Cut-away image of the ITER machine showing the casks at the three levels of the ITER machine. ITER IO © (Remote1 web). Photo Credit: f4e.europa.euIllustration of lorry next to an ITER cask. F4E © (Remote 2 web). Photo Credit: f4e.europa.euAerial view of the ITER construction site, October 2016. F4E © (ITER site aerial Oct). Photo Credit: f4e.europa.eu
Why ITER requires Remote Handling?
Remote handling refers to the high-tech systems that will help us maintain and repair the ITER machine. The space where the bulky equipment will operate is limited and the exposure of some of the components to radioactivity, prohibit any manual intervention inside the vacuum vessel.
What will be delivered through this contract?
The transfer of components from the ITER vacuum vessel to the Hot Cell building, where they will be deposited for maintenance, will need to be carried out with the help of massive double-door containers known as casks. According to current estimates, 15 of these casks will need to be manufactured and in their largest configuration they will measure 8.5 m x 3.7 m x 2.6 m approaching 100 tonnes when transporting the heaviest components. These enormous “boxes”, resembling to a conventional lorry container, will be remotely operated as they move between the different levels and buildings of the machine. Apart from the transportation and confinement of components, the ITER Cask and Plug Remote Handling System will also ensure the installation of the remote handling equipment entering into the vacuum vessel to pick up the components to be removed. The technologies underpinning this system will encompass a variety of high-tech skills and comply with nuclear safety requirements. A proven manufacturing experience in similar fields and the development of bespoke systems to perform mechanical transfers will be essential.
MEMO: Fusion for Energy signs multi-million deal with Airbus Safran Launchers, Nuvia Limited and Cegelec CEM to develop robotics equipment for ITER
To see how the ITER Remote Handling System will operate click on clip 1 and clip 2
To see the progress of the ITER construction site click here
To take a virtual tour on the ITER construction site click here
Cut-away image of the ITER machine showing the casks at the three levels of the ITER machine. ITER IO © (Remote1 web)
Illustration of lorry next to an ITER cask. F4E © (Remote 2 web)
Aerial view of the ITER construction site, October 2016. F4E © (ITER site aerial Oct)
The consortium of companies
The consortium combines the space expertise of Airbus Safran Launchers, adapted to this extreme environment to ensure safe conditions for the ITER teams; with Nuvia comes a wealth of nuclear experience dating back to the beginnings of the UK Nuclear industry. Nuvia has delivered solutions to some of the world’s most complex nuclear challenges; and with Cegelec CEM as a specialist in mechanical projects for French nuclear sector, which contributes over 30 years in the nuclear arena, including turnkey projects for large scientific installations, as well as the realisation of complex mechanical systems.
Fusion for Energy
Fusion for Energy (F4E) is the European Union’s organisation for Europe’s contribution to ITER.
One of the main tasks of F4E is to work together with European industry, SMEs and research organisations to develop and provide a wide range of high technology components together with engineering, maintenance and support services for the ITER project.
F4E supports fusion R&D initiatives through the Broader Approach Agreement signed with Japan and prepares for the construction of demonstration fusion reactors (DEMO).
F4E was created by a decision of the Council of the European Union as an independent legal entity and was established in April 2007 for a period of 35 years.
Its offices are in Barcelona, Spain.
ITER is a first-of-a-kind global collaboration. It will be the world’s largest experimental fusion facility and is designed to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion power. It is expected to produce a significant amount of fusion power (500 MW) for about seven minutes. Fusion is the process which powers the sun and the stars. When light atomic nuclei fuse together form heavier ones, a large amount of energy is released. Fusion research is aimed at developing a safe, limitless and environmentally responsible energy source.
Europe will contribute almost half of the costs of its construction, while the other six parties to this joint international venture (China, Japan, India, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation and the USA), will contribute equally to the rest.
The site of the ITER project is in Cadarache, in the South of France.
For Fusion for Energy media enquiries contact:
Tel: + 34 93 3201833 + 34 649 179 42
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