Tag Archives: sharp

#435816 This Light-based Nervous System Helps ...

Last night, way past midnight, I stumbled onto my porch blindly grasping for my keys after a hellish day of international travel. Lights were low, I was half-asleep, yet my hand grabbed the keychain, found the lock, and opened the door.

If you’re rolling your eyes—yeah, it’s not exactly an epic feat for a human. Thanks to the intricate wiring between our brain and millions of sensors dotted on—and inside—our skin, we know exactly where our hand is in space and what it’s touching without needing visual confirmation. But this combined sense of the internal and the external is completely lost to robots, which generally rely on computer vision or surface mechanosensors to track their movements and their interaction with the outside world. It’s not always a winning strategy.

What if, instead, we could give robots an artificial nervous system?

This month, a team led by Dr. Rob Shepard at Cornell University did just that, with a seriously clever twist. Rather than mimicking the electric signals in our nervous system, his team turned to light. By embedding optical fibers inside a 3D printed stretchable material, the team engineered an “optical lace” that can detect changes in pressure less than a fraction of a pound, and pinpoint the location to a spot half the width of a tiny needle.

The invention isn’t just an artificial skin. Instead, the delicate fibers can be distributed both inside a robot and on its surface, giving it both a sense of tactile touch and—most importantly—an idea of its own body position in space. Optical lace isn’t a superficial coating of mechanical sensors; it’s an entire platform that may finally endow robots with nerve-like networks throughout the body.

Eventually, engineers hope to use this fleshy, washable material to coat the sharp, cold metal interior of current robots, transforming C-3PO more into the human-like hosts of Westworld. Robots with a “bodily” sense could act as better caretakers for the elderly, said Shepard, because they can assist fragile people without inadvertently bruising or otherwise harming them. The results were published in Science Robotics.

An Unconventional Marriage
The optical lace is especially creative because it marries two contrasting ideas: one biological-inspired, the other wholly alien.

The overarching idea for optical lace is based on the animal kingdom. Through sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and other senses, we’re able to interpret the outside world—something scientists call exteroception. Thanks to our nervous system, we perform these computations subconsciously, allowing us to constantly “perceive” what’s going on around us.

Our other perception is purely internal. Proprioception (sorry, it’s not called “inception” though it should be) is how we know where our body parts are in space without having to look at them, which lets us perform complex tasks when blind. Although less intuitive than exteroception, proprioception also relies on stretching and other deformations within the muscles and tendons and receptors under the skin, which generate electrical currents that shoot up into the brain for further interpretation.

In other words, in theory it’s possible to recreate both perceptions with a single information-carrying system.

Here’s where the alien factor comes in. Rather than using electrical properties, the team turned to light as their data carrier. They had good reason. “Compared with electricity, light carries information faster and with higher data densities,” the team explained. Light can also transmit in multiple directions simultaneously, and is less susceptible to electromagnetic interference. Although optical nervous systems don’t exist in the biological world, the team decided to improve on Mother Nature and give it a shot.

Optical Lace
The construction starts with engineering a “sheath” for the optical nerve fibers. The team first used an elastic polyurethane—a synthetic material used in foam cushioning, for example—to make a lattice structure filled with large pores, somewhat like a lattice pie crust. Thanks to rapid, high-resolution 3D printing, the scaffold can have different stiffness from top to bottom. To increase sensitivity to the outside world, the team made the top of the lattice soft and pliable, to better transfer force to mechanical sensors. In contrast, the “deeper” regions held their structure better, and kept their structure under pressure.

Now the fun part. The team next threaded stretchable “light guides” into the scaffold. These fibers transmit photons, and are illuminated with a blue LED light. One, the input light guide, ran horizontally across the soft top part of the scaffold. Others ran perpendicular to the input in a “U” shape, going from more surface regions to deeper ones. These are the output guides. The architecture loosely resembles the wiring in our skin and flesh.

Normally, the output guides are separated from the input by a small air gap. When pressed down, the input light fiber distorts slightly, and if the pressure is high enough, it contacts one of the output guides. This causes light from the input fiber to “leak” to the output one, so that it lights up—the stronger the pressure, the brighter the output.

“When the structure deforms, you have contact between the input line and the output lines, and the light jumps into these output loops in the structure, so you can tell where the contact is happening,” said study author Patricia Xu. “The intensity of this determines the intensity of the deformation itself.”

Double Perception
As a proof-of-concept for proprioception, the team made a cylindrical lace with one input and 12 output channels. They varied the stiffness of the scaffold along the cylinder, and by pressing down at different points, were able to calculate how much each part stretched and deformed—a prominent precursor to knowing where different regions of the structure are moving in space. It’s a very rudimentary sort of proprioception, but one that will become more sophisticated with increasing numbers of strategically-placed mechanosensors.

The test for exteroception was a whole lot stranger. Here, the team engineered another optical lace with 15 output channels and turned it into a squishy piano. When pressed down, an Arduino microcontroller translated light output signals into sound based on the position of each touch. The stronger the pressure, the louder the volume. While not a musical masterpiece, the demo proved their point: the optical lace faithfully reported the strength and location of each touch.

A More Efficient Robot
Although remarkably novel, the optical lace isn’t yet ready for prime time. One problem is scalability: because of light loss, the material is limited to a certain size. However, rather than coating an entire robot, it may help to add optical lace to body parts where perception is critical—for example, fingertips and hands.

The team sees plenty of potential to keep developing the artificial flesh. Depending on particular needs, both the light guides and scaffold can be modified for sensitivity, spatial resolution, and accuracy. Multiple optical fibers that measure for different aspects—pressure, pain, temperature—can potentially be embedded in the same region, giving robots a multitude of senses.

In this way, we hope to reduce the number of electronics and combine signals from multiple sensors without losing information, the authors said. By taking inspiration from biological networks, it may even be possible to use various inputs through an optical lace to control how the robot behaves, closing the loop from sensation to action.

Image Credit: Cornell Organic Robotics Lab. A flexible, porous lattice structure is threaded with stretchable optical fibers containing more than a dozen mechanosensors and attached to an LED light. When the lattice structure is pressed, the sensors pinpoint changes in the photon flow. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435791 To Fly Solo, Racing Drones Have a Need ...

Drone racing’s ultimate vision of quadcopters weaving nimbly through obstacle courses has attracted far less excitement and investment than self-driving cars aimed at reshaping ground transportation. But the U.S. military and defense industry are betting on autonomous drone racing as the next frontier for developing AI so that it can handle high-speed navigation within tight spaces without human intervention.

The autonomous drone challenge requires split-second decision-making with six degrees of freedom instead of a car’s mere two degrees of road freedom. One research team developing the AI necessary for controlling autonomous racing drones is the Robotics and Perception Group at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. In late May, the Swiss researchers were among nine teams revealed to be competing in the two-year AlphaPilot open innovation challenge sponsored by U.S. aerospace company Lockheed Martin. The winning team will walk away with up to $2.25 million for beating other autonomous racing drones and a professional human drone pilot in head-to-head competitions.

“I think it is important to first point out that having an autonomous drone to finish a racing track at high speeds or even beating a human pilot does not imply that we can have autonomous drones [capable of] navigating in real-world, complex, unstructured, unknown environments such as disaster zones, collapsed buildings, caves, tunnels or narrow pipes, forests, military scenarios, and so on,” says Davide Scaramuzza, a professor of robotics and perception at the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich. “However, the robust and computationally efficient state estimation algorithms, control, and planning algorithms developed for autonomous drone racing would represent a starting point.”

The nine teams that made the cut—from a pool of 424 AlphaPilot applicants—will compete in four 2019 racing events organized under the Drone Racing League’s Artificial Intelligence Robotic Racing Circuit, says Keith Lynn, program manager for AlphaPilot at Lockheed Martin. To ensure an apples-to-apples comparison of each team’s AI secret sauce, each AlphaPilot team will upload its AI code into identical, specially-built drones that have the NVIDIA Xavier GPU at the core of the onboard computing hardware.

“Lockheed Martin is offering mentorship to the nine AlphaPilot teams to support their AI tech development and innovations,” says Lynn. The company “will be hosting a week-long Developers Summit at MIT in July, dedicated to workshopping and improving AlphaPilot teams’ code,” he added. He notes that each team will retain the intellectual property rights to its AI code.

The AlphaPilot challenge takes inspiration from older autonomous drone racing events hosted by academic researchers, Scaramuzza says. He credits Hyungpil Moon, a professor of robotics and mechanical engineering at Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea, for having organized the annual autonomous drone racing competition at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems since 2016.

It’s no easy task to create and train AI that can perform high-speed flight through complex environments by relying on visual navigation. One big challenge comes from how drones can accelerate sharply, take sharp turns, fly sideways, do zig-zag patterns and even perform back flips. That means camera images can suddenly appear tilted or even upside down during drone flight. Motion blur may occur when a drone flies very close to structures at high speeds and camera pixels collect light from multiple directions. Both cameras and visual software can also struggle to compensate for sudden changes between light and dark parts of an environment.

To lend AI a helping hand, Scaramuzza’s group recently published a drone racing dataset that includes realistic training data taken from a drone flown by a professional pilot in both indoor and outdoor spaces. The data, which includes complicated aerial maneuvers such as back flips, flight sequences that cover hundreds of meters, and flight speeds of up to 83 kilometers per hour, was presented at the 2019 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation.

The drone racing dataset also includes data captured by the group’s special bioinspired event cameras that can detect changes in motion on a per-pixel basis within microseconds. By comparison, ordinary cameras need milliseconds (each millisecond being 1,000 microseconds) to compare motion changes in each image frame. The event cameras have already proven capable of helping drones nimbly dodge soccer balls thrown at them by the Swiss lab’s researchers.

The Swiss group’s work on the racing drone dataset received funding in part from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which acts as the U.S. military’s special R&D arm for more futuristic projects. Specifically, the funding came from DARPA’s Fast Lightweight Autonomy program that envisions small autonomous drones capable of flying at high speeds through cluttered environments without GPS guidance or communication with human pilots.

Such speedy drones could serve as military scouts checking out dangerous buildings or alleys. They could also someday help search-and-rescue teams find people trapped in semi-collapsed buildings or lost in the woods. Being able to fly at high speed without crashing into things also makes a drone more efficient at all sorts of tasks by making the most of limited battery life, Scaramuzza says. After all, most drone battery life gets used up by the need to hover in flight and doesn’t get drained much by flying faster.

Even if AI manages to conquer the drone racing obstacle courses, that would be the end of the beginning of the technology’s development. What would still be required? Scaramuzza specifically singled out the need to handle low-visibility conditions involving smoke, dust, fog, rain, snow, fire, hail, as some of the biggest challenges for vision-based algorithms and AI in complex real-life environments.

“I think we should develop and release datasets containing smoke, dust, fog, rain, fire, etc. if we want to allow using autonomous robots to complement human rescuers in saving people lives after an earthquake or natural disaster in the future,” Scaramuzza says. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435662 Video Friday: This 3D-Printed ...

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

ICRES 2019 – July 29-30, 2019 – London, U.K.
DARPA SubT Tunnel Circuit – August 15-22, 2019 – Pittsburgh, Pa., USA
IEEE Africon 2019 – September 25-27, 2019 – Accra, Ghana
ISRR 2019 – October 6-10, 2019 – Hanoi, Vietnam
Ro-Man 2019 – October 14-18, 2019 – New Delhi, India
Humanoids 2019 – October 15-17, 2019 – Toronto, Canada
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

We’re used to seeing bristle bots about the size of a toothbrush head (which is not a coincidence), but Georgia Tech has downsized them, with some interesting benefits.

Researchers have created a new type of tiny 3D-printed robot that moves by harnessing vibration from piezoelectric actuators, ultrasound sources or even tiny speakers. Swarms of these “micro-bristle-bots” might work together to sense environmental changes, move materials – or perhaps one day repair injuries inside the human body.

The prototype robots respond to different vibration frequencies depending on their configurations, allowing researchers to control individual bots by adjusting the vibration. Approximately two millimeters long – about the size of the world’s smallest ant – the bots can cover four times their own length in a second despite the physical limitations of their small size.

“We are working to make the technology robust, and we have a lot of potential applications in mind,” said Azadeh Ansari, an assistant professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “We are working at the intersection of mechanics, electronics, biology and physics. It’s a very rich area and there’s a lot of room for multidisciplinary concepts.”

[ Georgia Tech ]

Most consumer drones are “multi-copters,” meaning that they have a series of rotors or propellers that allow them to hover like helicopters. But having rotors severely limits their energy efficiency, which means that they can’t easily carry heavy payloads or fly for long periods of time. To get the best of both worlds, drone designers have tried to develop “hybrid” fixed-wing drones that can fly as efficiently as airplanes, while still taking off and landing vertically like multi-copters.

These drones are extremely hard to control because of the complexity of dealing with their flight dynamics, but a team from MIT CSAIL aims to make the customization process easier, with a new system that allows users to design drones of different sizes and shapes that can nimbly switch between hovering and gliding – all by using a single controller.

In future work, the team plans to try to further increase the drone’s maneuverability by improving its design. The model doesn’t yet fully take into account complex aerodynamic effects between the propeller’s airflow and the wings. And lastly, their method trained the copter with “yaw velocity” set at zero, which means that it cannot currently perform sharp turns.

[ Paper ] via [ MIT ]

We’re not quite at the point where we can 3D print entire robots, but UCSD is getting us closer.

The UC San Diego researchers’ insight was twofold. They turned to a commercially available printer for the job, (the Stratasys Objet350 Connex3—a workhorse in many robotics labs). In addition, they realized one of the materials used by the 3D printer is made of carbon particles that can conduct power to sensors when connected to a power source. So roboticists used the black resin to manufacture complex sensors embedded within robotic parts made of clear polymer. They designed and manufactured several prototypes, including a gripper.

When stretched, the sensors failed at approximately the same strain as human skin. But the polymers the 3D printer uses are not designed to conduct electricity, so their performance is not optimal. The 3D printed robots also require a lot of post-processing before they can be functional, including careful washing to clean up impurities and drying.

However, researchers remain optimistic that in the future, materials will improve and make 3D printed robots equipped with embedded sensors much easier to manufacture.

[ UCSD ]

Congrats to Team Homer from the University of Koblenz-Landau, who won the RoboCup@Home world championship in Sydney!

[ Team Homer ]

When you’ve got a robot with both wheels and legs, motion planning is complicated. IIT has developed a new planner for CENTAURO that takes advantage of the different ways that the robot is able to get past obstacles.

[ Centauro ]

Thanks Dimitrios!

If you constrain a problem tightly enough, you can solve it even with a relatively simple robot. Here’s an example of an experimental breakfast robot named “Loraine” that can cook eggs, bacon, and potatoes using what looks to be zero sensing at all, just moving to different positions and actuating its gripper.

There’s likely to be enough human work required in the prep here to make the value that the robot adds questionable at best, but it’s a good example of how you can make a relatively complex task robot-compatible as long as you set it up in just the right way.

[ Connected Robotics ] via [ RobotStart ]

It’s been a while since we’ve seen a ball bot, and I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen one with a manipulator on it.

[ ETH Zurich RSL ]

Soft Robotics’ new mini fingers are able to pick up taco shells without shattering them, which as far as I can tell is 100 percent impossible for humans to do.

[ Soft Robotics ]

Yes, Starship’s wheeled robots can climb curbs, and indeed they have a pretty neat way of doing it.

[ Starship ]

Last year we posted a long interview with Christoph Bartneck about his research into robots and racism, and here’s a nice video summary of the work.

[ Christoph Bartneck ]

Canada’s contribution to the Lunar Gateway will be a smart robotic system which includes a next-generation robotic arm known as Canadarm3, as well as equipment, and specialized tools. Using cutting-edge software and advances in artificial intelligence, this highly-autonomous system will be able to maintain, repair and inspect the Gateway, capture visiting vehicles, relocate Gateway modules, help astronauts during spacewalks, and enable science both in lunar orbit and on the surface of the Moon.

[ CSA ]

An interesting demo of how Misty can integrate sound localization with other services.

[ Misty Robotics ]

The third and last period of H2020 AEROARMS project has brought the final developments in industrial inspection and maintenance tasks, such as the crawler retrieval and deployment (DLR) or the industrial validation in stages like a refinery or a cement factory.

[ Aeroarms ]

The Guardian S remote visual inspection and surveillance robot navigates a disaster training site to demonstrate its advanced maneuverability, long-range wireless communications and extended run times.

[ Sarcos ]

This appears to be a cake frosting robot and I wish I had like 3 more hours of this to share:

Also here is a robot that picks fried chicken using a curiously successful technique:

[ Kazumichi Moriyama ]

This isn’t strictly robots, but professor Hiroshi Ishii, associate director of the MIT Media Lab, gave a fascinating SIGCHI Lifetime Achievement Talk that’s absolutely worth your time.

[ Tangible Media Group ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435640 Video Friday: This Wearable Robotic Tail ...

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

DARPA SubT Tunnel Circuit – August 15-22, 2019 – Pittsburgh, Pa., USA
CLAWAR 2019 – August 26-28, 2019 – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
IEEE Africon 2019 – September 25-27, 2019 – Accra, Ghana
ISRR 2019 – October 6-10, 2019 – Hanoi, Vietnam
Ro-Man 2019 – October 14-18, 2019 – New Delhi, India
Humanoids 2019 – October 15-17, 2019 – Toronto, Canada
ARSO 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Beijing, China
ROSCon 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Macau
IROS 2019 – November 4-8, 2019 – Macau
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

Lakshmi Nair from Georgia Tech describes some fascinating research towards robots that can create their own tools, as presented at ICRA this year:

Using a novel capability to reason about shape, function, and attachment of unrelated parts, researchers have for the first time successfully trained an intelligent agent to create basic tools by combining objects.

The breakthrough comes from Georgia Tech’s Robot Autonomy and Interactive Learning (RAIL) research lab and is a significant step toward enabling intelligent agents to devise more advanced tools that could prove useful in hazardous – and potentially life-threatening – environments.

[ Lakshmi Nair ]

Victor Barasuol, from the Dynamic Legged Systems Lab at IIT, wrote in to share some new research on their HyQ quadruped that enables sensorless shin collision detection. This helps the robot navigate unstructured environments, and also mitigates all those painful shin strikes, because ouch.

This will be presented later this month at the International Conference on Climbing and Walking Robots (CLAWAR) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

[ IIT ]

Thanks Victor!

You used to have a tail, you know—as an embryo, about a month in to your development. All mammals used to have tails, and now we just have useless tailbones, which don’t help us with balancing even a little bit. BRING BACK THE TAIL!

The tail, created by Junichi Nabeshima, Kouta Minamizawa, and MHD Yamen Saraiji from Keio University’s Graduate School of Media Design, was presented at SIGGRAPH 2019 Emerging Technologies.

[ Paper ] via [ Gizmodo ]

The noises in this video are fantastic.

[ ESA ]

Apparently the industrial revolution wasn’t a thorough enough beatdown of human knitting, because the robots are at it again.

[ MIT CSAIL ]

Skydio’s drones just keep getting more and more impressive. Now if only they’d make one that I can afford…

[ Skydio ]

The only thing more fun than watching robots is watching people react to robots.

[ SEER ]

There aren’t any robots in this video, but it’s robotics-related research, and very soothing to watch.

[ Stanford ]

#autonomousicecreamtricycle

In case it wasn’t clear, which it wasn’t, this is a Roboy project. And if you didn’t understand that first video, you definitely won’t understand this second one:

Whatever that t-shirt is at the end (Roboy in sunglasses puking rainbows…?) I need one.

[ Roboy ]

By adding electronics and computation technology to a simple cane that has been around since ancient times, a team of researchers at Columbia Engineering have transformed it into a 21st century robotic device that can provide light-touch assistance in walking to the aged and others with impaired mobility.

The light-touch robotic cane, called CANINE, acts as a cane-like mobile assistant. The device improves the individual’s proprioception, or self-awareness in space, during walking, which in turn improves stability and balance.

[ ROAR Lab ]

During the second field experiment for DARPA’s OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) program, which took place at Fort Benning, Georgia, teams of autonomous air and ground robots tested tactics on a mission to isolate an urban objective. Similar to the way a firefighting crew establishes a boundary around a burning building, they first identified locations of interest and then created a perimeter around the focal point.

[ DARPA ]

I think there’s a bit of new footage here of Ghost Robotics’ Vision 60 quadruped walking around without sensors on unstructured terrain.

[ Ghost Robotics ]

If you’re as tired of passenger drone hype as I am, there’s absolutely no need to watch this video of NEC’s latest hover test.

[ AP ]

As researchers teach robots to perform more and more complex tasks, the need for realistic simulation environments is growing. Existing techniques for closing the reality gap by approximating real-world physics often require extensive real world data and/or thousands of simulation samples. This paper presents TuneNet, a new machine learning-based method to directly tune the parameters of one model to match another using an iterative residual tuning technique. TuneNet estimates the parameter difference between two models using a single observation from the target and minimal simulation, allowing rapid, accurate and sample-efficient parameter estimation.

The system can be trained via supervised learning over an auto-generated simulated dataset. We show that TuneNet can perform system identification, even when the true parameter values lie well outside the distribution seen during training, and demonstrate that simulators tuned with TuneNet outperform existing techniques for predicting rigid body motion. Finally, we show that our method can estimate real-world parameter values, allowing a robot to perform sim-to-real task transfer on a dynamic manipulation task unseen during training. We are also making a baseline implementation of our code available online.

[ Paper ]

Here’s an update on what GITAI has been up to with their telepresence astronaut-replacement robot.

[ GITAI ]

Curiosity captured this 360-degree panorama of a location on Mars called “Teal Ridge” on June 18, 2019. This location is part of a larger region the rover has been exploring called the “clay-bearing unit” on the side of Mount Sharp, which is inside Gale Crater. The scene is presented with a color adjustment that approximates white balancing to resemble how the rocks and sand would appear under daytime lighting conditions on Earth.

[ MSL ]

Some updates (in English) on ROS from ROSCon France. The first is a keynote from Brian Gerkey:

And this second video is from Omri Ben-Bassat, about how to keep your Anki Vector alive using ROS:

All of the ROSCon FR talks are available on Vimeo.

[ ROSCon FR ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435632 DARPA Subterranean Challenge: Tunnel ...

The Tunnel Circuit of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge starts later this week at the NIOSH research mine just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. From 15-22 August, 11 teams will send robots into a mine that they've never seen before, with the goal of making maps and locating items. All DARPA SubT events involve tunnels of one sort or another, but in this case, the “Tunnel Circuit” refers to mines as opposed to urban underground areas or natural caves. This month’s challenge is the first of three discrete events leading up to a huge final event in August of 2021.

While the Tunnel Circuit competition will be closed to the public, and media are only allowed access for a single day (which we'll be at, of course), DARPA has provided a substantial amount of information about what teams will be able to expect. We also have details from the SubT Integration Exercise, called STIX, which was a completely closed event that took place back in April. STIX was aimed at giving some teams (and DARPA) a chance to practice in a real tunnel environment.

For more general background on SubT, here are some articles to get you all caught up:

SubT: The Next DARPA Challenge for Robotics

Q&A with DARPA Program Manager Tim Chung

Meet The First Nine Teams

It makes sense to take a closer look at what happened at April's STIX exercise, because it is (probably) very similar to what teams will experience in the upcoming Tunnel Circuit. STIX took place at Edgar Experimental Mine in Colorado, and while no two mines are the same (and many are very, very different), there are enough similarities for STIX to have been a valuable experience for teams. Here's an overview video of the exercise from DARPA:

DARPA has also put together a much more detailed walkthrough of the STIX mine exercise, which gives you a sense of just how vast, complicated, and (frankly) challenging for robots the mine environment is:

So, that's the kind of thing that teams had to deal with back in April. Since the event was an exercise, rather than a competition, DARPA didn't really keep score, and wouldn't comment on the performance of individual teams. We've been trolling YouTube for STIX footage, though, to get a sense of how things went, and we found a few interesting videos.

Here's a nice overview from Team CERBERUS, which used drones plus an ANYmal quadruped:

Team CTU-CRAS also used drones, along with a tracked robot:

Team Robotika was brave enough to post video of a “fatal failure” experienced by its wheeled robot; the poor little bot gets rescued at about 7:00 in case you get worried:

So that was STIX. But what about the Tunnel Circuit competition this week? Here's a course preview video from DARPA:

It sort of looks like the NIOSH mine might be a bit less dusty than the Edgar mine was, but it could also be wetter and muddier. It’s hard to tell, because we’re just getting a few snapshots of what’s probably an enormous area with kilometers of tunnels that the robots will have to explore. But DARPA has promised “constrained passages, sharp turns, large drops/climbs, inclines, steps, ladders, and mud, sand, and/or water.” Combine that with the serious challenge to communications imposed by the mine itself, and robots will have to be both physically capable, and almost entirely autonomous. Which is, of course, exactly what DARPA is looking to test with this challenge.

Lastly, we had a chance to catch up with Tim Chung, Program Manager for the Subterranean Challenge at DARPA, and ask him a few brief questions about STIX and what we have to look forward to this week.

IEEE Spectrum: How did STIX go?

Tim Chung: It was a lot of fun! I think it gave a lot of the teams a great opportunity to really get a taste of what these types of real world environments look like, and also what DARPA has in store for them in the SubT Challenge. STIX I saw as an experiment—a learning experience for all the teams involved (as well as the DARPA team) so that we can continue our calibration.

What do you think teams took away from STIX, and what do you think DARPA took away from STIX?

I think the thing that teams took away was that, when DARPA hosts a challenge, we have very audacious visions for what the art of the possible is. And that's what we want—in my mind, the purpose of a DARPA Grand Challenge is to provide that inspiration of, ‘Holy cow, someone thinks we can do this!’ So I do think the teams walked away with a better understanding of what DARPA's vision is for the capabilities we're seeking in the SubT Challenge, and hopefully walked away with a better understanding of the technical, physical, even maybe mental challenges of doing this in the wild— which will all roll back into how they think about the problem, and how they develop their systems.

This was a collaborative exercise, so the DARPA field team was out there interacting with the other engineers, figuring out what their strengths and weaknesses and needs might be, and even understanding how to handle the robots themselves. That will help [strengthen] connections between these university teams and DARPA going forward. Across the board, I think that collaborative spirit is something we really wish to encourage, and something that the DARPA folks were able to take away.

What do we have to look forward to during the Tunnel Circuit?

The vision here is that the Tunnel Circuit is representative of one of the three subterranean subdomains, along with urban and cave. Characteristics of all of these three subdomains will be mashed together in an epic final course, so that teams will have to face hints of tunnel once again in that final event.

Without giving too much away, the NIOSH mine will be similar to the Edgar mine in that it's a human-made environment that supports mining operations and research. But of course, every site is different, and these differences, I think, will provide good opportunities for the teams to shine.

Again, we'll be visiting the NIOSH mine in Pennsylvania during the Tunnel Circuit and will post as much as we can from there. But if you’re an actual participant in the Subterranean Challenge, please tweet me @BotJunkie so that I can follow and help share live updates.

[ DARPA Subterranean Challenge ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots