Tag Archives: shows

#435707 AI Agents Startle Researchers With ...

After 25 million games, the AI agents playing hide-and-seek with each other had mastered four basic game strategies. The researchers expected that part.

After a total of 380 million games, the AI players developed strategies that the researchers didn’t know were possible in the game environment—which the researchers had themselves created. That was the part that surprised the team at OpenAI, a research company based in San Francisco.

The AI players learned everything via a machine learning technique known as reinforcement learning. In this learning method, AI agents start out by taking random actions. Sometimes those random actions produce desired results, which earn them rewards. Via trial-and-error on a massive scale, they can learn sophisticated strategies.

In the context of games, this process can be abetted by having the AI play against another version of itself, ensuring that the opponents will be evenly matched. It also locks the AI into a process of one-upmanship, where any new strategy that emerges forces the opponent to search for a countermeasure. Over time, this “self-play” amounted to what the researchers call an “auto-curriculum.”

According to OpenAI researcher Igor Mordatch, this experiment shows that self-play “is enough for the agents to learn surprising behaviors on their own—it’s like children playing with each other.”

Reinforcement is a hot field of AI research right now. OpenAI’s researchers used the technique when they trained a team of bots to play the video game Dota 2, which squashed a world-champion human team last April. The Alphabet subsidiary DeepMind has used it to triumph in the ancient board game Go and the video game StarCraft.

Aniruddha Kembhavi, a researcher at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) in Seattle, says games such as hide-and-seek offer a good way for AI agents to learn “foundational skills.” He worked on a team that taught their AllenAI to play Pictionary with humans, viewing the gameplay as a way for the AI to work on common sense reasoning and communication. “We are, however, quite far away from being able to translate these preliminary findings in highly simplified environments into the real world,” says Kembhavi.

Illustration: OpenAI

AI agents construct a fort during a hide-and-seek game developed by OpenAI.

In OpenAI’s game of hide-and-seek, both the hiders and the seekers received a reward only if they won the game, leaving the AI players to develop their own strategies. Within a simple 3D environment containing walls, blocks, and ramps, the players first learned to run around and chase each other (strategy 1). The hiders next learned to move the blocks around to build forts (2), and then the seekers learned to move the ramps (3), enabling them to jump inside the forts. Then the hiders learned to move all the ramps into their forts before the seekers could use them (4).

The two strategies that surprised the researchers came next. First the seekers learned that they could jump onto a box and “surf” it over to a fort (5), allowing them to jump in—a maneuver that the researchers hadn’t realized was physically possible in the game environment. So as a final countermeasure, the hiders learned to lock all the boxes into place (6) so they weren’t available for use as surfboards.

Illustration: OpenAI

An AI agent uses a nearby box to surf its way into a competitor’s fort.

In this circumstance, having AI agents behave in an unexpected way wasn’t a problem: They found different paths to their rewards, but didn’t cause any trouble. However, you can imagine situations in which the outcome would be rather serious. Robots acting in the real world could do real damage. And then there’s Nick Bostrom’s famous example of a paper clip factory run by an AI, whose goal is to make as many paper clips as possible. As Bostrom told IEEE Spectrum back in 2014, the AI might realize that “human bodies consist of atoms, and those atoms could be used to make some very nice paper clips.”

Bowen Baker, another member of the OpenAI research team, notes that it’s hard to predict all the ways an AI agent will act inside an environment—even a simple one. “Building these environments is hard,” he says. “The agents will come up with these unexpected behaviors, which will be a safety problem down the road when you put them in more complex environments.”

AI researcher Katja Hofmann at Microsoft Research Cambridge, in England, has seen a lot of gameplay by AI agents: She started a competition that uses Minecraft as the playing field. She says the emergent behavior seen in this game, and in prior experiments by other researchers, shows that games can be a useful for studies of safe and responsible AI.

“I find demonstrations like this, in games and game-like settings, a great way to explore the capabilities and limitations of existing approaches in a safe environment,” says Hofmann. “Results like these will help us develop a better understanding on how to validate and debug reinforcement learning systems–a crucial step on the path towards real-world applications.”

Baker says there’s also a hopeful takeaway from the surprises in the hide-and-seek experiment. “If you put these agents into a rich enough environment they will find strategies that we never knew were possible,” he says. “Maybe they can solve problems that we can’t imagine solutions to.” Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435681 Video Friday: This NASA Robot Uses ...

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
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

Robots can land on the Moon and drive on Mars, but what about the places they can’t reach? Designed by engineers as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, a four-limbed robot named LEMUR (Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robot) can scale rock walls, gripping with hundreds of tiny fishhooks in each of its 16 fingers and using artificial intelligence to find its way around obstacles. In its last field test in Death Valley, California, in early 2019, LEMUR chose a route up a cliff, scanning the rock for ancient fossils from the sea that once filled the area.

The LEMUR project has since concluded, but it helped lead to a new generation of walking, climbing and crawling robots. In future missions to Mars or icy moons, robots with AI and climbing technology derived from LEMUR could discover similar signs of life. Those robots are being developed now, honing technology that may one day be part of future missions to distant worlds.

[ NASA ]

This video demonstrates the autonomous footstep planning developed by IHMC. Robots in this video are the Atlas humanoid robot (DRC version) and the NASA Valkyrie. The operator specifies a goal location in the world, which is modeled as planar regions using the robot’s perception sensors. The planner then automatically computes the necessary steps to reach the goal using a Weighted A* algorithm. The algorithm does not reject footholds that have a certain amount of support, but instead modifies them after the plan is found to try and increase that support area.

Currently, narrow terrain has a success rate of about 50%, rough terrain is about 90%, whereas flat ground is near 100%. We plan on increasing planner speed and the ability to plan through mazes and to unseen goals by including a body-path planner as the first step. Control, Perception, and Planning algorithms by IHMC Robotics.

[ IHMC ]

I’ve never really been able to get into watching people play poker, but throw an AI from CMU and Facebook into a game of no-limit Texas hold’em with five humans, and I’m there.

[ Facebook ]

In this video, Cassie Blue is navigating autonomously. Right now, her world is very small, the Wavefield at the University of Michigan, where she is told to turn left at intersections. You’re right, that is not a lot of independence, but it’s a first step away from a human and an RC controller!

Using a RealSense RGBD Camera, an IMU, and our version of an InEKF with contact factors, Cassie Blue is building a 3D semantic map in real time that identifies sidewalks, grass, poles, bicycles, and buildings. From the semantic map, occupancy and cost maps are built with the sidewalk identified as walk-able area and everything else considered as an obstacle. A planner then sets a goal to stay approximately 50 cm to the right of the sidewalk’s left edge and plans a path around obstacles and corners using D*. The path is translated into way-points that are achieved via Cassie Blue’s gait controller.

[ University of Michigan ]

Thanks Jesse!

Dave from HEBI Robotics wrote in to share some new actuators that are designed to get all kinds of dirty: “The R-Series takes HEBI’s X-Series to the next level, providing a sealed robotics solution for rugged, industrial applications and laying the groundwork for industrial users to address challenges that are not well met by traditional robotics. To prove it, we shot some video right in the Allegheny River here in Pittsburgh. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon :-)”

The R-Series Actuator is a full-featured robotic component as opposed to a simple servo motor. The output rotates continuously, requires no calibration or homing on boot-up, and contains a thru-bore for easy daisy-chaining of wiring. Modular in nature, R-Series Actuators can be used in everything from wheeled robots to collaborative robotic arms. They are sealed to IP67 and designed with a lightweight form factor for challenging field applications, and they’re packed with sensors that enable simultaneous control of position, velocity, and torque.

[ HEBI Robotics ]

Thanks Dave!

If your robot hands out karate chops on purpose, that’s great. If it hands out karate chops accidentally, maybe you should fix that.

COVR is short for “being safe around collaborative and versatile robots in shared spaces”. Our mission is to significantly reduce the complexity in safety certifying cobots. Increasing safety for collaborative robots enables new innovative applications, thus increasing production and job creation for companies utilizing the technology. Whether you’re an established company seeking to deploy cobots or an innovative startup with a prototype of a cobot related product, COVR will help you analyze, test and validate the safety for that application.

[ COVR ]

Thanks Anna!

EPFL startup Flybotix has developed a novel drone with just two propellers and an advanced stabilization system that allow it to fly for twice as long as conventional models. That fact, together with its small size, makes it perfect for inspecting hard-to-reach parts of industrial facilities such as ducts.

[ Flybotix ]

SpaceBok is a quadruped robot designed and built by a Swiss student team from ETH Zurich and ZHAW Zurich, currently being tested using Automation and Robotics Laboratories (ARL) facilities at our technical centre in the Netherlands. The robot is being used to investigate the potential of ‘dynamic walking’ and jumping to get around in low gravity environments.

SpaceBok could potentially go up to 2 m high in lunar gravity, although such a height poses new challenges. Once it comes off the ground the legged robot needs to stabilise itself to come down again safely – like a mini-spacecraft. So, like a spacecraft. SpaceBok uses a reaction wheel to control its orientation.

[ ESA ]

A new video from GITAI showing progress on their immersive telepresence robot for space.

[ GITAI ]

Tech United’s HERO robot (a Toyota HSR) competed in the RoboCup@Home competition, and it had a couple of garbage-related hiccups.

[ Tech United ]

Even small drones are getting better at autonomous obstacle avoidance in cluttered environments at useful speeds, as this work from the HKUST Aerial Robotics Group shows.

[ HKUST ]

DelFly Nimbles now come in swarms.

[ DelFly Nimble ]

This is a very short video, but it’s a fairly impressive look at a Baxter robot collaboratively helping someone put a shirt on, a useful task for folks with disabilities.

[ Shibata Lab ]

ANYmal can inspect the concrete in sewers for deterioration by sliding its feet along the ground.

[ ETH Zurich ]

HUG is a haptic user interface for teleoperating advanced robotic systems as the humanoid robot Justin or the assistive robotic system EDAN. With its lightweight robot arms, HUG can measure human movements and simultaneously display forces from the distant environment. In addition to such teleoperation applications, HUG serves as a research platform for virtual assembly simulations, rehabilitation, and training.

[ DLR ]

This video about “image understanding” from CMU in 1979 (!) is amazing, and even though it’s long, you won’t regret watching until 3:30. Or maybe you will.

[ ARGOS (pdf) ]

Will Burrard-Lucas’ BeetleCam turned 10 this month, and in this video, he recounts the history of his little robotic camera.

[ BeetleCam ]

In this week’s episode of Robots in Depth, Per speaks with Gabriel Skantze from Furhat Robotics.

Gabriel Skantze is co-founder and Chief Scientist at Furhat Robotics and Professor in speech technology at KTH with a specialization in conversational systems. He has a background in research into how humans use spoken communication to interact.

In this interview, Gabriel talks about how the social robot revolution makes it necessary to communicate with humans in a human ways through speech and facial expressions. This is necessary as we expand the number of people that interact with robots as well as the types of interaction. Gabriel gives us more insight into the many challenges of implementing spoken communication for co-bots, where robots and humans work closely together. They need to communicate about the world, the objects in it and how to handle them. We also get to hear how having an embodied system using the Furhat robot head helps the interaction between humans and the system.

[ Robots in Depth ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435648 Surprisingly Speedy Soft Robot Survives ...

Soft robots are getting more and more popular for some very good reasons. Their relative simplicity is one. Their relative low cost is another. And for their simplicity and low cost, they’re generally able to perform very impressively, leveraging the unique features inherent to their design and construction to move themselves and interact with their environment. The other significant reason why soft robots are so appealing is that they’re durable. Without the constraints of rigid parts, they can withstand the sort of abuse that would make any roboticist cringe.

In the current issue of Science Robotics, a group of researchers from Tsinghua University in China and University of California, Berkeley, present a new kind of soft robot that’s both higher performance and much more robust than just about anything we’ve seen before. The deceptively simple robot looks like a bent strip of paper, but it’s able to move at 20 body lengths per second and survive being stomped on by a human wearing tennis shoes. Take that, cockroaches.

This prototype robot measures just 3 centimeters by 1.5 cm. It takes a scanning electron microscope to actually see what the robot is made of—a thermoplastic layer is sandwiched by palladium-gold electrodes, bonded with adhesive silicone to a structural plastic at the bottom. When an AC voltage (as low as 8 volts but typically about 60 volts) is run through the electrodes, the thermoplastic extends and contracts, causing the robot’s back to flex and the little “foot” to shuffle. A complete step cycle takes just 50 milliseconds, yielding a 200 hertz gait. And technically, the robot “runs,” since it does have a brief aerial phase.

Image: Science Robotics

Photos from a high-speed camera show the robot’s gait (A to D) as it contracts and expands its body.

To put the robot’s top speed of 20 body lengths per second in perspective, have a look at this nifty chart, which shows where other animals relative running speeds of some animals and robots versus body mass:

Image: Science Robotics

This chart shows the relative running speeds of some mammals (purple area), arthropods (orange area), and soft robots (blue area) versus body mass. For both mammals and arthropods, relative speeds show a strong negative scaling law with respect to the body mass: speeds increase as body masses decrease. However, for soft robots, the relationship appears to be the opposite: speeds decrease as the body mass decrease. For the little soft robots created by the researchers from Tsinghua University and UC Berkeley (red stars), the scaling law is similar to that of living animals: Higher speed was attained as the body mass decreased.

If you were wondering, like we were, just what that number 39 is on that chart (top left corner), it’s a species of tiny mite that was discovered underneath a rock in California in 1916. The mite is just under 1 mm in size, but it can run at 0.8 kilometer per hour, which is 322 body lengths per second, making it by far (like, by a factor of two at least) the fastest land animal on Earth relative to size. If a human was to run that fast relative to our size, we’d be traveling at a little bit over 2,000 kilometers per hour. It’s not a coincidence that pretty much everything in the upper left of the chart is an insect—speed scales favorably with decreasing mass, since actuators have a proportionally larger effect.

Other notable robots on the chart with impressive speed to mass ratios are number 27, which is this magnetically driven quadruped robot from UMD, and number 86, UC Berkeley’s X2-VelociRoACH.

Anyway, back to this robot. Some other cool things about it:

You can step on it, squishing it flat with a load about 1 million times its own body weight, and it’ll keep on crawling, albeit only half as fast.
Even climbing a slope of 15 degrees, it can still manage to move at 1 body length per second.
It carries peanuts! With a payload of six times its own weight, it moves a sixth as fast, but still, it’s not like you need your peanuts delivered all that quickly anyway, do you?

Image: Science Robotics

The researchers also put together a prototype with two legs instead of one, which was able to demonstrate a potentially faster galloping gait by spending more time in the air. They suggest that robots like these could be used for “environmental exploration, structural inspection, information reconnaissance, and disaster relief,” which are the sorts of things that you suggest that your robot could be used for when you really have no idea what it could be used for. But this work is certainly impressive, with speed and robustness that are largely unmatched by other soft robots. An untethered version seems possible due to the relatively low voltages required to drive the robot, and if they can put some peanut-sized sensors on there as well, practical applications might actually be forthcoming sometime soon.

“Insect-scale Fast Moving and Ultrarobust Soft Robot,” by Yichuan Wu, Justin K. Yim, Jiaming Liang, Zhichun Shao, Mingjing Qi, Junwen Zhong, Zihao Luo, Xiaojun Yan, Min Zhang, Xiaohao Wang, Ronald S. Fearing, Robert J. Full, and Liwei Lin from Tsinghua University and UC Berkeley, is published in Science Robotics. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435619 Video Friday: Watch This Robot Dog ...

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!):

IEEE Africon 2019 – September 25-27, 2019 – Accra, Ghana
RoboBusiness 2019 – October 1-3, 2019 – Santa Clara, CA, USA
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.

Team PLUTO (University of Pennsylvania, Ghost Robotics, and Exyn Technologies) put together this video giving us a robot’s-eye-view (or whatever they happen to be using for eyes) of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge tunnel circuits.

[ PLUTO ]

Zhifeng Huang has been improving his jet-stepping humanoid robot, which features new hardware and the ability to take larger and more complex steps.

This video reported the last progress of an ongoing project utilizing ducted-fan propulsion system to improve humanoid robot’s ability in stepping over large ditches. The landing point of the robot’s swing foot can be not only forward but also side direction. With keeping quasi-static balance, the robot was able to step over a ditch with 450mm in width (up to 97% of the robot’s leg’s length) in 3D stepping.

[ Paper ]

Thanks Zhifeng!

These underacuated hands from Matei Ciocarlie’s lab at Columbia are magically able to reconfigure themselves to grasp different object types with just one or two motors.

[ Paper ] via [ ROAM Lab ]

This is one reason we should pursue not “autonomous cars” but “fully autonomous cars” that never require humans to take over. We can’t be trusted.

During our early days as the Google self-driving car project, we invited some employees to test our vehicles on their commutes and weekend trips. What we were testing at the time was similar to the highway driver assist features that are now available on cars today, where the car takes over the boring parts of the driving, but if something outside its ability occurs, the driver has to take over immediately.

What we saw was that our testers put too much trust in that technology. They were doing things like texting, applying makeup, and even falling asleep that made it clear they would not be ready to take over driving if the vehicle asked them to. This is why we believe that nothing short of full autonomy will do.

[ Waymo ]

Buddy is a DIY and fetchingly minimalist social robot (of sorts) that will be coming to Kickstarter this month.

We have created a new arduino kit. His name is Buddy. He is a DIY social robot to serve as a replacement for Jibo, Cozmo, or any of the other bots that are no longer available. Fully 3D printed and supported he adds much more to our series of Arduino STEM robotics kits.

Buddy is able to look around and map his surroundings and react to changes within them. He can be surprised and he will always have a unique reaction to changes. The kit can be built very easily in less than an hour. It is even robust enough to take the abuse that kids can give it in a classroom.

[ Littlebots ]

The android Mindar, based on the Buddhist deity of mercy, preaches sermons at Kodaiji temple in Kyoto, and its human colleagues predict that with artificial intelligence it could one day acquire unlimited wisdom. Developed at a cost of almost $1 million (¥106 million) in a joint project between the Zen temple and robotics professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, the robot teaches about compassion and the dangers of desire, anger and ego.

[ Japan Times ]

I’m not sure whether it’s the sound or what, but this thing scares me for some reason.

[ BIRL ]

This gripper uses magnets as a sort of adjustable spring for dynamic stiffness control, which seems pretty clever.

[ Buffalo ]

What a package of medicine sees while being flown by drone from a hospital to a remote clinic in the Dominican Republic. The drone flew 11 km horizontally and 800 meters vertically, and I can’t even imagine what it would take to make that drive.

[ WeRobotics ]

My first ride in a fully autonomous car was at Stanford in 2009. I vividly remember getting in the back seat of a descendant of Junior, and watching the steering wheel turn by itself as the car executed a perfect parking maneuver. Ten years later, it’s still fun to watch other people have that experience.

[ Waymo ]

Flirtey, the pioneer of the commercial drone delivery industry, has unveiled the much-anticipated first video of its next-generation delivery drone, the Flirtey Eagle. The aircraft designer and manufacturer also unveiled the Flirtey Portal, a sophisticated take off and landing platform that enables scalable store-to-door operations; and an autonomous software platform that enables drones to deliver safely to homes.

[ Flirtey ]

EPFL scientists are developing new approaches for improved control of robotic hands – in particular for amputees – that combines individual finger control and automation for improved grasping and manipulation. This interdisciplinary proof-of-concept between neuroengineering and robotics was successfully tested on three amputees and seven healthy subjects.

[ EPFL ]

This video is a few years old, but we’ll take any excuse to watch the majestic sage-grouse be majestic in all their majesticness.

[ UC Davis ]

I like the idea of a game of soccer (or, football to you weirdos in the rest of the world) where the ball has a mind of its own.

[ Sphero ]

Looks like the whole delivery glider idea is really taking off! Or, you know, not taking off.

Weird that they didn’t show the landing, because it sure looked like it was going to plow into the side of the hill at full speed.

[ Yates ] via [ sUAS News ]

This video is from a 2018 paper, but it’s not like we ever get tired of seeing quadrupeds do stuff, right?

[ MIT ]

Founder and Head of Product, Ian Bernstein, and Head of Engineering, Morgan Bell, have been involved in the Misty project for years and they have learned a thing or two about building robots. Hear how and why Misty evolved into a robot development platform, learn what some of the earliest prototypes did (and why they didn’t work for what we envision), and take a deep dive into the technology decisions that form the Misty II platform.

[ Misty Robotics ]

Lex Fridman interviews Vijay Kumar on the Artifiical Intelligence Podcast.

[ AI Podcast ]

This week’s CMU RI Seminar is from Ross Knepper at Cornell, on Formalizing Teamwork in Human-Robot Interaction.

Robots out in the world today work for people but not with people. Before robots can work closely with ordinary people as part of a human-robot team in a home or office setting, robots need the ability to acquire a new mix of functional and social skills. Working with people requires a shared understanding of the task, capabilities, intentions, and background knowledge. For robots to act jointly as part of a team with people, they must engage in collaborative planning, which involves forming a consensus through an exchange of information about goals, capabilities, and partial plans. Often, much of this information is conveyed through implicit communication. In this talk, I formalize components of teamwork involving collaboration, communication, and representation. I illustrate how these concepts interact in the application of social navigation, which I argue is a first-class example of teamwork. In this setting, participants must avoid collision by legibly conveying intended passing sides via nonverbal cues like path shape. A topological representation using the braid groups enables the robot to reason about a small enumerable set of passing outcomes. I show how implicit communication of topological group plans achieves rapid covergence to a group consensus, and how a robot in the group can deliberately influence the ultimate outcome to maximize joint performance, yielding pedestrian comfort with the robot.

[ CMU RI ]

In this week’s episode of Robots in Depth, Per speaks with Julien Bourgeois about Claytronics, a project from Carnegie Mellon and Intel to develop “programmable matter.”

Julien started out as a computer scientist. He was always interested in robotics privately but then had the opportunity to get into micro robots when his lab was merged into the FEMTO-ST Institute. He later worked with Seth Copen Goldstein at Carnegie Mellon on the Claytronics project.

Julien shows an enlarged mock-up of the small robots that make up programmable matter, catoms, and speaks about how they are designed. Currently he is working on a unit that is one centimeter in diameter and he shows us the very small CPU that goes into that model.

[ Robots in Depth ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435597 Water Jet Powered Drone Takes Off With ...

At ICRA 2015, the Aerial Robotics Lab at the Imperial College London presented a concept for a multimodal flying swimming robot called AquaMAV. The really difficult thing about a flying and swimming robot isn’t so much the transition from the first to the second, since you can manage that even if your robot is completely dead (thanks to gravity), but rather the other way: going from water to air, ideally in a stable and repetitive way. The AquaMAV concept solved this by basically just applying as much concentrated power as possible to the problem, using a jet thruster to hurl the robot out of the water with quite a bit of velocity to spare.

In a paper appearing in Science Robotics this week, the roboticists behind AquaMAV present a fully operational robot that uses a solid-fuel powered chemical reaction to generate an explosion that powers the robot into the air.

The 2015 version of AquaMAV, which was mostly just some very vintage-looking computer renderings and a little bit of hardware, used a small cylinder of CO2 to power its water jet thruster. This worked pretty well, but the mass and complexity of the storage and release mechanism for the compressed gas wasn’t all that practical for a flying robot designed for long-term autonomy. It’s a familiar challenge, especially for pneumatically powered soft robots—how do you efficiently generate gas on-demand, especially if you need a lot of pressure all at once?

An explosion propels the drone out of the water
There’s one obvious way of generating large amounts of pressurized gas all at once, and that’s explosions. We’ve seen robots use explosive thrust for mobility before, at a variety of scales, and it’s very effective as long as you can both properly harness the explosion and generate the fuel with a minimum of fuss, and this latest version of AquaMAV manages to do both:

The water jet coming out the back of this robot aircraft is being propelled by a gas explosion. The gas comes from the reaction between a little bit of calcium carbide powder stored inside the robot, and water. Water is mixed with the powder one drop at a time, producing acetylene gas, which gets piped into a combustion chamber along with air and water. When ignited, the acetylene air mixture explodes, forcing the water out of the combustion chamber and providing up to 51 N of thrust, which is enough to launch the 160-gram robot 26 meters up and over the water at 11 m/s. It takes just 50 mg of calcium carbide (mixed with 3 drops of water) to generate enough acetylene for each explosion, and both air and water are of course readily available. With 0.2 g of calcium carbide powder on board, the robot has enough fuel for multiple jumps, and the jump is powerful enough that the robot can get airborne even under fairly aggressive sea conditions.

Image: Science Robotics

The robot can transition from a floating state to an airborne jetting phase and back to floating (A). A 3D model render of the underside of the robot (B) shows the electronics capsule. The capsule contains the fuel tank (C), where calcium carbide reacts with air and water to propel the vehicle.

Next step: getting the robot to fly autonomously
Providing adequate thrust is just one problem that needs to be solved when attempting to conquer the water-air transition with a fixed-wing robot. The overall design of the robot itself is a challenge as well, because the optimal design and balance for the robot is quite different in each phase of operation, as the paper describes:

For the vehicle to fly in a stable manner during the jetting phase, the center of mass must be a significant distance in front of the center of pressure of the vehicle. However, to maintain a stable floating position on the water surface and the desired angle during jetting, the center of mass must be located behind the center of buoyancy. For the gliding phase, a fine balance between the center of mass and the center of pressure must be struck to achieve static longitudinal flight stability passively. During gliding, the center of mass should be slightly forward from the wing’s center of pressure.

The current version is mostly optimized for the jetting phase of flight, and doesn’t have any active flight control surfaces yet, but the researchers are optimistic that if they added some they’d have no problem getting the robot to fly autonomously. It’s just a glider at the moment, but a low-power propeller is the obvious step after that, and to get really fancy, a switchable gearbox could enable efficient movement on water as well as in the air. Long-term, the idea is that robots like these would be useful for tasks like autonomous water sampling over large areas, but I’d personally be satisfied with a remote controlled version that I could take to the beach.

“Consecutive aquatic jump-gliding with water-reactive fuel,” by R. Zufferey, A. Ortega Ancel, A. Farinha, R. Siddall, S. F. Armanini, M. Nasr, R. V. Brahmal, G. Kennedy, and M. Kovac from Imperial College in London, is published in the current issue of Science Robotics. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots