Tag Archives: scientist

#437697 These Underwater Drones Use Water ...

Yi Chao likes to describe himself as an “armchair oceanographer” because he got incredibly seasick the one time he spent a week aboard a ship. So it’s maybe not surprising that the former NASA scientist has a vision for promoting remote study of the ocean on a grand scale by enabling underwater drones to recharge on the go using his company’s energy-harvesting technology.

Many of the robotic gliders and floating sensor stations currently monitoring the world’s oceans are effectively treated as disposable devices because the research community has a limited number of both ships and funding to retrieve drones after they’ve accomplished their mission of beaming data back home. That’s not only a waste of money, but may also contribute to a growing assortment of abandoned lithium-ion batteries polluting the ocean with their leaking toxic materials—a decidedly unsustainable approach to studying the secrets of the underwater world.

“Our goal is to deploy our energy harvesting system to use renewable energy to power those robots,” says Chao, president and CEO of the startup Seatrec. “We're going to save one battery at a time, so hopefully we're going to not to dispose more toxic batteries in the ocean.”

Chao’s California-based startup claims that its SL1 Thermal Energy Harvesting System can already help save researchers money equivalent to an order of magnitude reduction in the cost of using robotic probes for oceanographic data collection. The startup is working on adapting its system to work with autonomous underwater gliders. And it has partnered with defense giant Northrop Grumman to develop an underwater recharging station for oceangoing drones that incorporates Northrop Grumman’s self-insulating electrical connector capable of operating while the powered electrical contacts are submerged.

Seatrec’s energy-harvesting system works by taking advantage of how certain substances transition from solid-to-liquid phase and liquid-to-gas phase when they heat up. The company’s technology harnesses the pressure changes that result from such phase changes in order to generate electricity.

Image: Seatrec

To make the phase changes happen, Seatrec’s solution taps the temperature differences between warmer water at the ocean surface and colder water at the ocean depths. Even a relatively simple robotic probe can generate additional electricity by changing its buoyancy to either float at the surface or sink down into the colder depths.

By attaching an external energy-harvesting module, Seatrec has already begun transforming robotic probes into assets that can be recharged and reused more affordably than sending out a ship each time to retrieve the probes. This renewable energy approach could keep such drones going almost indefinitely barring electrical or mechanical failures. “We just attach the backpack to the robots, we give them a cable providing power, and they go into the ocean,” Chao explains.

The early buyers of Seatrec’s products are primarily academic researchers who use underwater drones to collect oceanographic data. But the startup has also attracted military and government interest. It has already received small business innovation research contracts from both the U.S. Office of Naval Research and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Seatrec has also won two $10,000 prizes under the Powering the Blue Economy: Ocean Observing Prize administered by the U.S. Department of Energy and NOAA. The prizes awarded during the DISCOVER Competition phase back in March 2020 included one prize split with Northrop Grumman for the joint Mission Unlimited UUV Station concept. The startup and defense giant are currently looking for a robotics company to partner with for the DEVELOP Competition phase of the Ocean Observing Prize that will offer a total of $3 million in prizes.

In the long run, Seatrec hopes its energy-harvesting technology can support commercial ventures such as the aquaculture industry that operates vast underwater farms. The technology could also support underwater drones carrying out seabed surveys that pave the way for deep sea mining ventures, although those are not without controversy because of their projected environmental impacts.

Among all the possible applications Chao seems especially enthusiastic about the prospect of Seatrec’s renewable power technology enabling underwater drones and floaters to collect oceanographic data for much longer periods of time. He spent the better part of two decades working at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where he helped develop a satellite designed for monitoring the Earth’s oceans. But he and the JPL engineering team that developed Seatrec’s core technology believe that swarms of underwater drones can provide a continuous monitoring network to truly begin understanding the oceans in depth.

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed production and delivery of Seatrec’s products somewhat given local shutdowns and supply chain disruptions. Still, the startup has been able to continue operating in part because it’s considered to be a defense contractor that is operating an essential manufacturing facility. Seatrec’s engineers and other staff members are working in shifts to practice social distancing.

“Rather than building one or two for the government, we want to scale up to build thousands, hundreds of thousands, hopefully millions, so we can improve our understanding and provide that data to the community,” Chao says. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#437673 Can AI and Automation Deliver a COVID-19 ...

Illustration: Marysia Machulska

Within moments of meeting each other at a conference last year, Nathan Collins and Yann Gaston-Mathé began devising a plan to work together. Gaston-Mathé runs a startup that applies automated software to the design of new drug candidates. Collins leads a team that uses an automated chemistry platform to synthesize new drug candidates.

“There was an obvious synergy between their technology and ours,” recalls Gaston-Mathé, CEO and cofounder of Paris-based Iktos.

In late 2019, the pair launched a project to create a brand-new antiviral drug that would block a specific protein exploited by influenza viruses. Then the COVID-19 pandemic erupted across the world stage, and Gaston-Mathé and Collins learned that the viral culprit, SARS-CoV-2, relied on a protein that was 97 percent similar to their influenza protein. The partners pivoted.

Their companies are just two of hundreds of biotech firms eager to overhaul the drug-discovery process, often with the aid of artificial intelligence (AI) tools. The first set of antiviral drugs to treat COVID-19 will likely come from sifting through existing drugs. Remdesivir, for example, was originally developed to treat Ebola, and it has been shown to speed the recovery of hospitalized COVID-19 patients. But a drug made for one condition often has side effects and limited potency when applied to another. If researchers can produce an ­antiviral that specifically targets SARS-CoV-2, the drug would likely be safer and more effective than a repurposed drug.

There’s one big problem: Traditional drug discovery is far too slow to react to a pandemic. Designing a drug from scratch typically takes three to five years—and that’s before human clinical trials. “Our goal, with the combination of AI and automation, is to reduce that down to six months or less,” says Collins, who is chief strategy officer at SRI Biosciences, a division of the Silicon Valley research nonprofit SRI International. “We want to get this to be very, very fast.”

That sentiment is shared by small biotech firms and big pharmaceutical companies alike, many of which are now ramping up automated technologies backed by supercomputing power to predict, design, and test new antivirals—for this pandemic as well as the next—with unprecedented speed and scope.

“The entire industry is embracing these tools,” says Kara Carter, president of the International Society for Antiviral Research and executive vice president of infectious disease at Evotec, a drug-discovery company in Hamburg. “Not only do we need [new antivirals] to treat the SARS-CoV-2 infection in the population, which is probably here to stay, but we’ll also need them to treat future agents that arrive.”

There are currentlyabout 200 known viruses that infect humans. Although viruses represent less than 14 percent of all known human pathogens, they make up two-thirds of all new human pathogens discovered since 1980.

Antiviral drugs are fundamentally different from vaccines, which teach a person’s immune system to mount a defense against a viral invader, and antibody treatments, which enhance the body’s immune response. By contrast, anti­virals are chemical compounds that directly block a virus after a person has become infected. They do this by binding to specific proteins and preventing them from functioning, so that the virus cannot copy itself or enter or exit a cell.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus has an estimated 25 to 29 proteins, but not all of them are suitable drug targets. Researchers are investigating, among other targets, the virus’s exterior spike protein, which binds to a receptor on a human cell; two scissorlike enzymes, called proteases, that cut up long strings of viral proteins into functional pieces inside the cell; and a polymerase complex that makes the cell churn out copies of the virus’s genetic material, in the form of single-stranded RNA.

But it’s not enough for a drug candidate to simply attach to a target protein. Chemists also consider how tightly the compound binds to its target, whether it binds to other things as well, how quickly it metabolizes in the body, and so on. A drug candidate may have 10 to 20 such objectives. “Very often those objectives can appear to be anticorrelated or contradictory with each other,” says Gaston-Mathé.

Compared with antibiotics, antiviral drug discovery has proceeded at a snail’s pace. Scientists advanced from isolating the first antibacterial molecules in 1910 to developing an arsenal of powerful antibiotics by 1944. By contrast, it took until 1951 for researchers to be able to routinely grow large amounts of virus particles in cells in a dish, a breakthrough that earned the inventors a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1954.

And the lag between the discovery of a virus and the creation of a treatment can be heartbreaking. According to the World Health Organization, 71 million people worldwide have chronic hepatitis C, a major cause of liver cancer. The virus that causes the infection was discovered in 1989, but effective antiviral drugs didn’t hit the market until 2014.

While many antibiotics work on a range of microbes, most antivirals are highly specific to a single virus—what those in the business call “one bug, one drug.” It takes a detailed understanding of a virus to develop an antiviral against it, says Che Colpitts, a virologist at Queen’s University, in Canada, who works on antivirals against RNA viruses. “When a new virus emerges, like SARS-CoV-2, we’re at a big disadvantage.”

Making drugs to stop viruses is hard for three main reasons. First, viruses are the Spartans of the pathogen world: They’re frugal, brutal, and expert at evading the human immune system. About 20 to 250 nanometers in diameter, viruses rely on just a few parts to operate, hijacking host cells to reproduce and often destroying those cells upon departure. They employ tricks to camouflage their presence from the host’s immune system, including preventing infected cells from sending out molecular distress beacons. “Viruses are really small, so they only have a few components, so there’s not that many drug targets available to start with,” says Colpitts.

Second, viruses replicate quickly, typically doubling in number in hours or days. This constant copying of their genetic material enables viruses to evolve quickly, producing mutations able to sidestep drug effects. The virus that causes AIDS soon develops resistance when exposed to a single drug. That’s why a cocktail of antiviral drugs is used to treat HIV infection.

Finally, unlike bacteria, which can exist independently outside human cells, viruses invade human cells to propagate, so any drug designed to eliminate a virus needs to spare the host cell. A drug that fails to distinguish between a virus and a cell can cause serious side effects. “Discriminating between the two is really quite difficult,” says Evotec’s Carter, who has worked in antiviral drug discovery for over three decades.

And then there’s the money barrier. Developing antivirals is rarely profitable. Health-policy researchers at the London School of Economics recently estimated that the average cost of developing a new drug is US $1 billion, and up to $2.8 billion for cancer and other specialty drugs. Because antivirals are usually taken for only short periods of time or during short outbreaks of disease, companies rarely recoup what they spent developing the drug, much less turn a profit, says Carter.

To change the status quo, drug discovery needs fresh approaches that leverage new technologies, rather than incremental improvements, says Christian Tidona, managing director of BioMed X, an independent research institute in Heidelberg, Germany. “We need breakthroughs.”

Putting Drug Development on Autopilot
Earlier this year, SRI Biosciences and Iktos began collaborating on a way to use artificial intelligence and automated chemistry to rapidly identify new drugs to target the COVID-19 virus. Within four months, they had designed and synthesized a first round of antiviral candidates. Here’s how they’re doing it.


STEP 1: Iktos’s AI platform uses deep-learning algorithms in an iterative process to come up with new molecular structures likely to bind to and disable a specific coronavirus protein. Illustrations: Chris Philpot


STEP 2: SRI Biosciences’s SynFini system is a three-part automated chemistry suite for producing new compounds. Starting with a target compound from Iktos, SynRoute uses machine learning to analyze and optimize routes for creating that compound, with results in about 10 seconds. It prioritizes routes based on cost, likelihood of success, and ease of implementation.


STEP 3: SynJet, an automated inkjet printer platform, tests the routes by printing out tiny quantities of chemical ingredients to see how they react. If the right compound is produced, the platform tests it.


STEP 4: AutoSyn, an automated tabletop chemical plant, synthesizes milligrams to grams of the desired compound for further testing. Computer-selected “maps” dictate paths through the plant’s modular components.


STEP 5: The most promising compounds are tested against live virus samples.


Iktos’s AI platform was created by a medicinal chemist and an AI expert. To tackle SARS-CoV-2, the company used generative models—deep-learning algorithms that generate new data—to “imagine” molecular structures with a good chance of disabling a key coronavirus protein.

For a new drug target, the software proposes and evaluates roughly 1 million compounds, says Gaston-Mathé. It’s an iterative process: At each step, the system generates 100 virtual compounds, which are tested in silico with predictive models to see how closely they meet the objectives. The test results are then used to design the next batch of compounds. “It’s like we have a very, very fast chemist who is designing compounds, testing compounds, getting back the data, then designing another batch of compounds,” he says.

The computer isn’t as smart as a human chemist, Gaston-Mathé notes, but it’s much faster, so it can explore far more of what people in the field call “chemical space”—the set of all possible organic compounds. Unexplored chemical space is huge: Biochemists estimate that there are at least 1063 possible druglike molecules, and that 99.9 percent of all possible small molecules or compounds have never been synthesized.

Still, designing a chemical compound isn’t the hardest part of creating a new drug. After a drug candidate is designed, it must be synthesized, and the highly manual process for synthesizing a new chemical hasn’t changed much in 200 years. It can take days to plan a synthesis process and then months to years to optimize it for manufacture.

That’s why Gaston-Mathé was eager to send Iktos’s AI-generated designs to Collins’s team at SRI Biosciences. With $13.8 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, SRI Biosciences spent the last four years automating the synthesis process. The company’s automated suite of three technologies, called SynFini, can produce new chemical compounds in just hours or days, says Collins.

First, machine-learning software devises possible routes for making a desired molecule. Next, an inkjet printer platform tests the routes by printing out and mixing tiny quantities of chemical ingredients to see how they react with one another; if the right compound is produced, the platform runs tests on it. Finally, a tabletop chemical plant synthesizes milligrams to grams of the desired compound.

Less than four months after Iktos and SRI Biosciences announced their collaboration, they had designed and synthesized a first round of antiviral candidates for SARS-CoV-2. Now they’re testing how well the compounds work on actual samples of the virus.

Out of 10
63 possible druglike molecules, 99.9 percent have never been synthesized.

Theirs isn’t the only collaborationapplying new tools to drug discovery. In late March, Alex Zhavoronkov, CEO of Hong Kong–based Insilico Medicine, came across a YouTube video showing three virtual-reality avatars positioning colorful, sticklike fragments in the side of a bulbous blue protein. The three researchers were using VR to explore how compounds might bind to a SARS-CoV-2 enzyme. Zhavoronkov contacted the startup that created the simulation—Nanome, in San Diego—and invited it to examine Insilico’s ­AI-generated molecules in virtual reality.

Insilico runs an AI platform that uses biological data to train deep-learning algorithms, then uses those algorithms to identify molecules with druglike features that will likely bind to a protein target. A four-day training sprint in late January yielded 100 molecules that appear to bind to an important SARS-CoV-2 protease. The company recently began synthesizing some of those molecules for laboratory testing.

Nanome’s VR software, meanwhile, allows researchers to import a molecular structure, then view and manipulate it on the scale of individual atoms. Like human chess players who use computer programs to explore potential moves, chemists can use VR to predict how to make molecules more druglike, says Nanome CEO Steve McCloskey. “The tighter the interface between the human and the computer, the more information goes both ways,” he says.

Zhavoronkov sent data about several of Insilico’s compounds to Nanome, which re-created them in VR. Nanome’s chemist demonstrated chemical tweaks to potentially improve each compound. “It was a very good experience,” says Zhavoronkov.

Meanwhile, in March, Takeda Pharmaceutical Co., of Japan, invited Schrödinger, a New York–based company that develops chemical-simulation software, to join an alliance working on antivirals. Schrödinger’s AI focuses on the physics of how proteins interact with small molecules and one another.

The software sifts through billions of molecules per week to predict a compound’s properties, and it optimizes for multiple desired properties simultaneously, says Karen Akinsanya, chief biomedical scientist and head of discovery R&D at Schrödinger. “There’s a huge sense of urgency here to come up with a potent molecule, but also to come up with molecules that are going to be well tolerated” by the body, she says. Drug developers are seeking compounds that can be broadly used and easily administered, such as an oral drug rather than an intravenous drug, she adds.

Schrödinger evaluated four protein targets and performed virtual screens for two of them, a computing-intensive process. In June, Google Cloud donated the equivalent of 16 million hours of Nvidia GPU time for the company’s calculations. Next, the alliance’s drug companies will synthesize and test the most promising compounds identified by the virtual screens.

Other companies, including Amazon Web Services, IBM, and Intel, as well as several U.S. national labs are also donating time and resources to the Covid-19 High Performance Computing Consortium. The consortium is supporting 87 projects, which now have access to 6.8 million CPU cores, 50,000 GPUs, and 600 petaflops of computational resources.

While advanced technologies could transform early drug discovery, any new drug candidate still has a long road after that. It must be tested in animals, manufactured in large batches for clinical trials, then tested in a series of trials that, for antivirals, lasts an average of seven years.

In May, the BioMed X Institute in Germany launched a five-year project to build a Rapid Antiviral Response Platform, which would speed drug discovery all the way through manufacturing for clinical trials. The €40 million ($47 million) project, backed by drug companies, will identify ­outside-the-box proposals from young scientists, then provide space and funding to develop their ideas.

“We’ll focus on technologies that allow us to go from identification of a new virus to 10,000 doses of a novel potential therapeutic ready for trials in less than six months,” says BioMed X’s Tidona, who leads the project.

While a vaccine will likely arrive long before a bespoke antiviral does, experts expect COVID-19 to be with us for a long time, so the effort to develop a direct-acting, potent antiviral continues. Plus, having new antivirals—and tools to rapidly create more—can only help us prepare for the next pandemic, whether it comes next month or in another 102 years.

“We’ve got to start thinking differently about how to be more responsive to these kinds of threats,” says Collins. “It’s pushing us out of our comfort zones.”

This article appears in the October 2020 print issue as “Automating Antivirals.” Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#437630 How Toyota Research Envisions the Future ...

Yesterday, the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) showed off some of the projects that it’s been working on recently, including a ceiling-mounted robot that could one day help us with household chores. That system is just one example of how TRI envisions the future of robotics and artificial intelligence. As TRI CEO Gill Pratt told us, the company is focusing on robotics and AI technology for “amplifying, rather than replacing, human beings.” In other words, Toyota wants to develop robots not for convenience or to do our jobs for us, but rather to allow people to continue to live and work independently even as we age.

To better understand Toyota’s vision of robotics 15 to 20 years from now, it’s worth watching the 20-minute video below, which depicts various scenarios “where the application of robotic capabilities is enabling members of an aging society to live full and independent lives in spite of the challenges that getting older brings.” It’s a long video, but it helps explains TRI’s perspective on how robots will collaborate with humans in our daily lives over the next couple of decades.

Those are some interesting conceptual telepresence-controlled bipeds they’ve got running around in that video, right?

For more details, we sent TRI some questions on how it plans to go from concepts like the ones shown in the video to real products that can be deployed in human environments. Below are answers from TRI CEO Gill Pratt, who is also chief scientist for Toyota Motor Corp.; Steffi Paepcke, senior UX designer at TRI; and Max Bajracharya, VP of robotics at TRI.

IEEE Spectrum: TRI seems to have a more explicit focus on eventual commercialization than most of the robotics research that we cover. At what point TRI starts to think about things like reliability and cost?

Photo: TRI

Toyota is exploring robots capable of manipulating dishes in a sink and a dishwasher, performing experiments and simulations to make sure that the robots can handle a wide range of conditions.

Gill Pratt: It’s a really interesting question, because the normal way to think about this would be to say, well, both reliability and cost are product development tasks. But actually, we need to think about it at the earliest possible stage with research as well. The hardware that we use in the laboratory for doing experiments, we don’t worry about cost there, or not nearly as much as you’d worry about for a product. However, in terms of what research we do, we very much have to think about, is it possible (if the research is successful) for it to end up in a product that has a reasonable cost. Because if a customer can’t afford what we come up with, maybe it has some academic value but it’s not actually going to make a difference in their quality of life in the real world. So we think about cost very much from the beginning.

The same is true with reliability. Right now, we’re working very hard to make our control techniques robust to wide variations in the environment. For instance, in work that Russ Tedrake is doing with manipulating dishes in a sink and a dishwasher, both in physical testing and in simulation, we’re doing thousands and now millions of different experiments to make sure that we can handle the edge cases and it works over a very wide range of conditions.

A tremendous amount of work that we do is trying to bring robotics out of the age of doing demonstrations. There’s been a history of robotics where for some time, things have not been reliable, so we’d catch the robot succeeding just once and then show that video to the world, and people would get the mis-impression that it worked all of the time. Some researchers have been very good about showing the blooper reel too, to show that some of the time, robots don’t work.

“A tremendous amount of work that we do is trying to bring robotics out of the age of doing demonstrations. There’s been a history of robotics where for some time, things have not been reliable, so we’d catch the robot succeeding just once and then show that video to the world, and people would get the mis-impression that it worked all of the time.”
—Gill Pratt, TRI

In the spirit of sharing things that didn’t work, can you tell us a bit about some of the robots that TRI has had under development that didn’t make it into the demo yesterday because they were abandoned along the way?

Steffi Paepcke: We’re really looking at how we can connect people; it can be hard to stay in touch and see our loved ones as much as we would like to. There have been a few prototypes that we’ve worked on that had to be put on the shelf, at least for the time being. We were exploring how to use light so that people could be ambiently aware of one another across distances. I was very excited about that—the internal name was “glowing orb.” For a variety of reasons, it didn’t work out, but it was really fascinating to investigate different modalities for keeping in touch.

Another prototype we worked on—we found through our research that grocery shopping is obviously an important part of life, and for a lot of older adults, it’s not necessarily the right answer to always have groceries delivered. Getting up and getting out of the house keeps you physically active, and a lot of people prefer to continue doing it themselves. But it can be challenging, especially if you’re purchasing heavy items that you need to transport. We had a prototype that assisted with grocery shopping, but when we pivoted our focus to Japan, we found that the inside of a Japanese home really needs to stay inside, and the outside needs to stay outside, so a robot that traverses both domains is probably not the right fit for a Japanese audience, and those were some really valuable lessons for us.

Photo: TRI

Toyota recently demonstrated a gantry robot that would hang from the ceiling to perform tasks like wiping surfaces and clearing clutter.

I love that TRI is exploring things like the gantry robot both in terms of near-term research and as part of its long-term vision, but is a robot like this actually worth pursuing? Or more generally, what’s the right way to compromise between making an environment robot friendly, and asking humans to make changes to their homes?

Max Bajracharya: We think a lot about the problems that we’re trying to address in a holistic way. We don’t want to just give people a robot, and assume that they’re not going to change anything about their lifestyle. We have a lot of evidence from people who use automated vacuum cleaners that people will adapt to the tools you give them, and they’ll change their lifestyle. So we want to think about what is that trade between changing the environment, and giving people robotic assistance and tools.

We certainly think that there are ways to make the gantry system plausible. The one you saw today is obviously a prototype and does require significant infrastructure. If we’re going to retrofit a home, that isn’t going to be the way to do it. But we still feel like we’re very much in the prototype phase, where we’re trying to understand whether this is worth it to be able to bypass navigation challenges, and coming up with the pros and cons of the gantry system. We’re evaluating whether we think this is the right approach to solving the problem.

To what extent do you think humans should be either directly or indirectly in the loop with home and service robots?

Bajracharya: Our goal is to amplify people, so achieving this is going to require robots to be in a loop with people in some form. One thing we have learned is that using people in a slow loop with robots, such as teaching them or helping them when they make mistakes, gives a robot an important advantage over one that has to do everything perfectly 100 percent of the time. In unstructured human environments, robots are going to encounter corner cases, and are going to need to learn to adapt. People will likely play an important role in helping the robots learn. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#437575 AI-Directed Robotic Hand Learns How to ...

Reaching for a nearby object seems like a mindless task, but the action requires a sophisticated neural network that took humans millions of years to evolve. Now, robots are acquiring that same ability using artificial neural networks. In a recent study, a robotic hand “learns” to pick up objects of different shapes and hardness using three different grasping motions.

The key to this development is something called a spiking neuron. Like real neurons in the brain, artificial neurons in a spiking neural network (SNN) fire together to encode and process temporal information. Researchers study SNNs because this approach may yield insights into how biological neural networks function, including our own.

“The programming of humanoid or bio-inspired robots is complex,” says Juan Camilo Vasquez Tieck, a research scientist at FZI Forschungszentrum Informatik in Karlsruhe, Germany. “And classical robotics programming methods are not always suitable to take advantage of their capabilities.”

Conventional robotic systems must perform extensive calculations, Tieck says, to track trajectories and grasp objects. But a robotic system like Tieck’s, which relies on a SNN, first trains its neural net to better model system and object motions. After which it grasps items more autonomously—by adapting to the motion in real-time.

The new robotic system by Tieck and his colleagues uses an existing robotic hand, called a Schunk SVH 5-finger hand, which has the same number of fingers and joints as a human hand.

The researchers incorporated a SNN into their system, which is divided into several sub-networks. One sub-network controls each finger individually, either flexing or extending the finger. Another concerns each type of grasping movement, for example whether the robotic hand will need to do a pinching, spherical or cylindrical movement.

For each finger, a neural circuit detects contact with an object using the currents of the motors and the velocity of the joints. When contact with an object is detected, a controller is activated to regulate how much force the finger exerts.

“This way, the movements of generic grasping motions are adapted to objects with different shapes, stiffness and sizes,” says Tieck. The system can also adapt its grasping motion quickly if the object moves or deforms.

The robotic grasping system is described in a study published October 24 in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters. The researchers’ robotic hand used its three different grasping motions on objects without knowing their properties. Target objects included a plastic bottle, a soft ball, a tennis ball, a sponge, a rubber duck, different balloons, a pen, and a tissue pack. The researchers found, for one, that pinching motions required more precision than cylindrical or spherical grasping motions.

“For this approach, the next step is to incorporate visual information from event-based cameras and integrate arm motion with SNNs,” says Tieck. “Additionally, we would like to extend the hand with haptic sensors.”

The long-term goal, he says, is to develop “a system that can perform grasping similar to humans, without intensive planning for contact points or intense stability analysis, and [that is] able to adapt to different objects using visual and haptic feedback.” Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#437564 How We Won the DARPA SubT Challenge: ...

This is a guest post. The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent positions of IEEE or its organizational units.​

“Do you smell smoke?” It was three days before the qualification deadline for the Virtual Tunnel Circuit of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge Virtual Track, and our team was barrelling through last-minute updates to our robot controllers in a small conference room at the Michigan Tech Research Institute (MTRI) offices in Ann Arbor, Mich. That’s when we noticed the smell. We’d assumed that one of the benefits of entering a virtual disaster competition was that we wouldn’t be exposed to any actual disasters, but equipment in the basement of the building MTRI shares had started to smoke. We evacuated. The fire department showed up. And as soon as we could, the team went back into the building, hunkered down, and tried to make up for the unexpected loss of several critical hours.

Team BARCS joins the SubT Virtual Track
The smoke incident happened more than a year after we first learned of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge. DARPA announced SubT early in 2018, and at that time, we were interested in building internal collaborations on multi-agent autonomy problems, and SubT seemed like the perfect opportunity. Though a few of us had backgrounds in robotics, the majority of our team was new to the field. We knew that submitting a proposal as a largely non-traditional robotics team from an organization not known for research in robotics was a risk. However, the Virtual Track gave us the opportunity to focus on autonomy and multi-agent teaming strategies, areas requiring skill in asynchronous computing and sensor data processing that are strengths of our Institute. The prevalence of open source code, small inexpensive platforms, and customizable sensors has provided the opportunity for experts in fields other than robotics to apply novel approaches to robotics problems. This is precisely what makes the Virtual Track of SubT appealing to us, and since starting SubT, autonomy has developed into a significant research thrust for our Institute. Plus, robots are fun!

After many hours of research, discussion, and collaboration, we submitted our proposal early in 2018. And several months later, we found out that we had won a contract and became a funded team (Team BARCS) in the SubT Virtual Track. Now we needed to actually make our strategy work for the first SubT Tunnel Circuit competition, taking place in August of 2019.

Building a team of virtual robots
A natural approach to robotics competitions like SubT is to start with the question of “what can X-type robot do” and then build a team and strategy around individual capabilities. A particular challenge for the SubT Virtual Track is that we can’t design our own systems; instead, we have to choose from a predefined set of simulated robots and sensors that DARPA provides, based on the real robots used by Systems Track teams. Our approach is to look at what a team of robots can do together, determining experimentally what the best team configuration is for each environment. By the final competition, ideally we will be demonstrating the value of combining platforms across multiple Systems Track teams into a single Virtual Track team. Each of the robot configurations in the competition has an associated cost, and team size is constrained by a total cost. This provides another impetus for limiting dependence on complex sensor packages, though our ranging preference is 3D lidar, which is the most expensive sensor!

Image: Michigan Tech Research Institute

The teams can rely on realistic physics and sensors but they start off with no maps of any kind, so the focus is on developing autonomous exploratory behavior, navigation methods, and object recognition for their simulated robots.

One of the frequent questions we receive about the Virtual Track is if it’s like a video game. While it may look similar on the surface, everything under the hood in a video game is designed to service the game narrative and play experience, not require novel research in AI and autonomy. The purpose of simulations, on the other hand, is to include full physics and sensor models (including noise and errors) to provide a testbed for prototyping and developing solutions to those real-world challenges. We are starting with realistic physics and sensors but no maps of any kind, so the focus is on developing autonomous exploratory behavior, navigation methods, and object recognition for our simulated robots.

Though the simulation is more like real life than a video game, it is not real life. Due to occasional software bugs, there are still non-physical events, like the robots falling through an invisible hole in the world or driving through a rock instead of over it or flipping head over heels when driving over a tiny lip between world tiles. These glitches, while sometimes frustrating, still allow the SubT Virtual platform to be realistic enough to support rapid prototyping of controller modules that will transition straightforwardly onto hardware, closing the loop between simulation and real-world robots.

Full autonomy for DARPA-hard scenarios
The Virtual Track requirement that the robotic agents be fully autonomous, rather than have a human supervisor, is a significant distinction between the Systems and Virtual Tracks of SubT. Our solutions must be hardened against software faults caused by things like missing and bad data since our robots can’t turn to us for help. In order for a team of robots to complete this objective reliably with no human-in-the-loop, all of the internal systems, from perception to navigation to control to actuation to communications, must be able to autonomously identify and manage faults and failures anywhere in the control chain.

The communications limitations in subterranean environments (both real and virtual) mean that we need to keep the amount of information shared between robots low, while making the usability of that information for joint decision-making high. This goal has guided much of our design for autonomous navigation and joint search strategy for our team. For example, instead of sharing the full SLAM map of the environment, our agents only share a simplified graphical representation of the space, along with data about frontiers it has not yet explored, and are able to merge its information with the graphs generated by other agents. The merged graph can then be used for planning and navigation without having full knowledge of the detailed 3D map.

The Virtual Track requires that the robotic agents be fully autonomous. With no human-in-the-loop, all of the internal systems, from perception to navigation to control to actuation to communications, must be able to identify and manage faults and failures anywhere in the control chain.

Since the objective of the SubT program is to advance the state-of-the-art in rapid autonomous exploration and mapping of subterranean environments by robots, our first software design choices focused on the mapping task. The SubT virtual environments are sufficiently rich as to provide interesting problems in building so-called costmaps that accurately separate obstructions that are traversable (like ramps) from legitimately impassible obstructions. An extra complication we discovered in the first course, which took place in mining tunnels, was that the angle of the lowest beam of the lidar was parallel to the down ramps in the tunnel environment, so they could not “see” the ground (or sometimes even obstructions on the ramp) until they got close enough to the lip of the ramp to receive lidar reflections off the bottom of the ramp. In this case, we had to not only change the costmap to convince the robot that there was safe ground to reach over the lip of the ramp, but also had to change the path planner to get the robot to proceed with caution onto the top of the ramp in case there were previously unseen obstructions on the ramp.

In addition to navigation in the costmaps, the robot must be able to generate its own goals to navigate to. This is what produces exploratory behavior when there is no map to start with. SLAM is used to generate a detailed map of the environment explored by a single robot—the space it has probed with its sensors. From the sensor data, we are able to extract information about the interior space of the environment while looking for holes in the data, to determine things like whether the current tunnel continues or ends, or how many tunnels meet at an intersection. Once we have some understanding of the interior space, we can place navigation goals in that space. These goals naturally update as the robot traverses the tunnel, allowing the entire space to be explored.

Sending our robots into the virtual unknown
The solutions for the Virtual Track competitions are tested by DARPA in multiple sequestered runs across many environments for each Circuit in the month prior to the Systems Track competition. We must wait until the joint award ceremony at the conclusion of the Systems Track to find out the results, and we are completely in the dark about placings before the awards are announced. It’s nerve-wracking! The challenges of the worlds used in the Circuit events are also hand-designed, so features of the worlds we use for development could be combined in ways we have not anticipated—it’s always interesting to see what features were prioritized after the event. We test everything in our controllers well enough to feel confident that we at least are submitting something reasonably stable and broadly capable, and once the solution is in, we can’t really do anything other than “let go” and get back to work on the next phase of development. Maybe it’s somewhat like sending your kid to college: “we did our best to prepare you for this world, little bots. Go do good.”

Image: Michigan Tech Research Institute

The first SubT competition was the Tunnel Circuit, featuring a labyrinthine environment that simulated human-engineered tunnels, including hazards such as vertical shafts and rubble.

The first competition was the Tunnel Circuit, in October 2019. This environment models human-engineered tunnels. Two substantial challenges in this environment were vertical shafts and rubble. Our team accrued 21 points over 15 competition runs in five separate tunnel environments for a second place finish, behind Team Coordinated Robotics.

The next phase of the SubT virtual competition was the Urban Circuit. Much of the difference between our Tunnel and Urban Circuit results came down to thorough testing to identify failure modes and implementations of checks and data filtering for fault tolerance. For example, in the SLAM nodes run by a single robot, the coordinates of the most recent sensor data are changed multiple times during processing and integration into the current global 3D map of the “visited” environment stored by that robot. If there is lag in IMU or clock data, the observation may be temporarily registered at a default location that is very far from the actual position. Since most of our decision processes for exploration are downstream from SLAM, this can cause faulty or impossible goals to be generated, and the robots then spend inordinate amounts of time trying to drive through walls. We updated our method to add a check to see if the new map position has jumped a far distance from the prior map position, and if so, we threw that data out.

Image: Michigan Tech Research Institute

In open spaces like the rooms in the Urban circuit, we adjusted our approach to exploration through graph generation to allow the robots to accurately identify viable routes while helping to prevent forays off platform edges.

Our approach to exploration through graph generation based on identification of interior spaces allowed us to thoroughly explore the centers of rooms, although we did have to make some changes from the Tunnel circuit to achieve that. In the Tunnel circuit, we used a simplified graph of the environment based on landmarks like intersections. The advantage of this approach is that it is straightforward for two robots to compare how the graphs of the space they explored individually overlap. In open spaces like the rooms in the Urban circuit, we chose to instead use a more complex, less directly comparable graph structure based on the individual robot’s trajectory. This allowed the robots to accurately identify viable routes between features like subway station platforms and subway tracks, as well as to build up the navigation space for room interiors, while helping to prevent forays off the platform edges. Frontier information is also integrated into the graph, providing a uniform data structure for both goal selection and route planning.

The results are in!
The award ceremony for the Urban Circuit was held concurrently with the Systems Track competition awards this past February in Washington State. We sent a team representative to participate in the Technical Interchange Meeting and present the approach for our team, and the rest of us followed along from our office space on the DARPAtv live stream. While we were confident in our solution, we had also been tracking the online leaderboard and knew our competitors were going to be submitting strong solutions. Since the competition environments are hand-designed, there are always novel challenges that could be presented in these environments as well. We knew we would put up a good fight, but it was very exciting to see BARCS appear in first place!

Any time we implement a new module in our control system, there is a lot of parameter tuning that has to happen to produce reliably good autonomous behavior. In the Urban Circuit, we did not sufficiently test some parameter values in our exploration modules. The effect of this was that the robots only chose to go down small hallways after they explored everything else in their environment, which meant very often they ran out of time and missed a lot of small rooms. This may be the biggest source of lost points for us in the Urban Circuit. One of our major plans going forward from the Urban Circuit is to integrate more sophisticated node selection methods, which can help our robots more intelligently prioritize which frontier nodes to visit. By going through all three Circuit challenges, we will learn how to appropriately add weights to the frontiers based on features of the individual environments. For the Final Challenge, when all three Circuit environments will be combined into large systems, we plan to implement adaptive controllers that will identify their environments and use the appropriate optimized parameters for that environment. In this way, we expect our agents to be able to (for example) prioritize hallways and other small spaces in Urban environments, and perhaps prioritize large openings over small in the Cave environments, if the small openings end up being treacherous overall.

Next for our team: Cave Circuit
Coming up next for Team BARCS is the Virtual Cave Circuit. We are in the middle of testing our hypothesis that our controller will transition from UGVs to UAVs and developing strategies for refining our solution to handle Cave Circuit environmental hazards. The UAVs have a shorter battery life than the UGVs, so executing a joint exploration strategy will also be a high priority for this event, as will completing our work on graph sharing and merging, which will give our robot teams more sophisticated options for navigation and teamwork. We’re reaching a threshold in development where we can start increasing the “smarts” of the robots, which we anticipate will be critical for the final competition, where all of the challenges of SubT will be combined to push the limits of innovation. The Cave Circuit will also have new environmental challenges to tackle: dynamic features such as rock falls have been added, which will block previously accessible passages in the cave environment. We think our controllers are well-poised to handle this new challenge, and we’re eager to find out if that’s the case.

As of now, the biggest worries for us are time and team composition. The Cave Circuit deadline has been postponed to October 15 due to COVID-19 delays, with the award ceremony in mid-November, but there have also been several very compelling additions to the testbed that we would like to experiment with before submission, including droppable networking ‘breadcrumbs’ and new simulated platforms. There are design trade-offs when balancing general versus specialist approaches to the controllers for these robots—since we are adding UAVs to our team for the first time, there are new decisions that will have to be made. For example, the UAVs can ascend into vertical spaces, but only have a battery life of 20 minutes. The UGVs by contrast have 90 minute battery life. One of our strategies is to do an early return to base with one or more agents to buy down risk on making any artifact reports at all for the run, hedging against our other robots not making it back in time, a lesson learned from the Tunnel Circuit. Should a UAV take on this role, or is it better to have them explore deeper into the environment and instead report their artifacts to a UGV or network node, which comes with its own risks? Testing and experimentation to determine the best options takes time, which is always a worry when preparing for a competition! We also anticipate new competitors and stiffer competition all around.

Image: Michigan Tech Research Institute

Team BARCS has now a year to prepare for the final DARPA SubT Challenge event, expected to take place in late 2021.

Going forward from the Cave Circuit, we will have a year to prepare for the final DARPA SubT Challenge event, expected to take place in late 2021. What we are most excited about is increasing the level of intelligence of the agents in their teamwork and joint exploration of the environment. Since we will have (hopefully) built up robust approaches to handling each of the specific types of environments in the Tunnel, Urban, and Cave circuits, we will be aiming to push the limits on collaboration and efficiency among the agents in our team. We view this as a central research contribution of the Virtual Track to the Subterranean Challenge because intelligent, adaptive, multi-robot collaboration is an upcoming stage of development for integration of robots into our lives.

The Subterranean Challenge Virtual Track gives us a bridge for transitioning our more abstract research ideas and algorithms relevant to this degree of autonomy and collaboration onto physical systems, and exploring the tangible outcomes of implementing our work in the real world. And the next time there’s an incident in the basement of our building, the robots (and humans) of Team BARCS will be ready to respond.

Richard Chase, Ph.D., P.E., is a research scientist at Michigan Tech Research Institute (MTRI) and has 20 years of experience developing robotics and cyber physical systems in areas from remote sensing to autonomous vehicles. At MTRI, he works on a variety of topics such as swarm autonomy, human-swarm teaming, and autonomous vehicles. His research interests are the intersection of design, robotics, and embedded systems.

Sarah Kitchen is a Ph.D. mathematician working as a research scientist and an AI/Robotics focus area leader at MTRI. Her research interests include intelligent autonomous agents and multi-agent collaborative teams, as well as applications of autonomous robots to sensing systems.

This material is based upon work supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under Contract No. HR001118C0124 and is released under Distribution Statement (Approved for Public Release, Distribution Unlimited). Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of DARPA. Continue reading

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