Tag Archives: Simulation

#435779 This Robot Ostrich Can Ride Around on ...

Proponents of legged robots say that they make sense because legs are often required to go where humans go. Proponents of wheeled robots say, “Yeah, that’s great but watch how fast and efficient my robot is, compared to yours.” Some robots try and take advantage of wheels and legs with hybrid designs like whegs or wheeled feet, but a simpler and more versatile solution is to do what humans do, and just take advantage of wheels when you need them.

We’ve seen a few experiments with this. The University of Michigan managed to convince Cassie to ride a Segway, with mostly positive (but occasionally quite negative) results. A Segway, and hoverboard-like systems, can provide wheeled mobility for legged robots over flat terrain, but they can’t handle things like stairs, which is kind of the whole point of having a robot with legs anyway.

Image: UC Berkeley

From left, a Segway, a hovercraft, and hovershoes, with complexity in terms of user control increasing from left to right.

At UC Berkeley’s Hybrid Robotics Lab, led by Koushil Sreenath, researchers have taken things a step further. They are teaching their Cassie bipedal robot (called Cassie Cal) to wheel around on a pair of hovershoes. Hovershoes are like hoverboards that have been chopped in half, resulting in a pair of motorized single-wheel skates. You balance on the skates, and control them by leaning forwards and backwards and left and right, which causes each skate to accelerate or decelerate in an attempt to keep itself upright. It’s not easy to get these things to work, even for a human, but by adding a sensor package to Cassie the UC Berkeley researchers have managed to get it to zip around campus fully autonomously.

Remember, Cassie is operating autonomously here—it’s performing vSLAM (with an Intel RealSense) and doing all of its own computation onboard in real time. Watching it jolt across that cracked sidewalk is particularly impressive, especially considering that it only has pitch control over its ankles and can’t roll its feet to maintain maximum contact with the hovershoes. But you can see the advantage that this particular platform offers to a robot like Cassie, including the ability to handle stairs. Stairs in one direction, anyway.

It’s a testament to the robustness of UC Berkeley’s controller that they were willing to let the robot operate untethered and outside, and it sounds like they’re thinking long-term about how legged robots on wheels would be real-world useful:

Our feedback control and autonomous system allow for swift movement through urban environments to aid in everything from food delivery to security and surveillance to search and rescue missions. This work can also help with transportation in large factories and warehouses.

For more details, we spoke with the UC Berkeley students (Shuxiao Chen, Jonathan Rogers, and Bike Zhang) via email.

IEEE Spectrum: How representative of Cassie’s real-world performance is what we see in the video? What happens when things go wrong?

Cassie’s real-world performance is similar to what we see in the video. Cassie can ride the hovershoes successfully all around the campus. Our current controller allows Cassie to robustly ride the hovershoes and rejects various perturbations. At present, one of the failure modes is when the hovershoe rolls to the side—this happens when it goes sideways down a step or encounters a large obstacle on one side of it, causing it to roll over. Under these circumstances, Cassie doesn’t have sufficient control authority (due to the thin narrow feet) to get the hovershoe back on its wheel.

The Hybrid Robotics Lab has been working on robots that walk over challenging terrain—how do wheeled platforms like hovershoes fit in with that?

Surprisingly, this research is related to our prior work on walking on discrete terrain. While locomotion using legs is efficient when traveling over rough and discrete terrain, wheeled locomotion is more efficient when traveling over flat continuous terrain. Enabling legged robots to ride on various micro-mobility platforms will offer multimodal locomotion capabilities, improving the efficiency of locomotion over various terrains.

Our current research furthers the locomotion ability for bipedal robots over continuous terrains by using a wheeled platform. In the long run, we would like to develop multi-modal locomotion strategies based on our current and prior work to allow legged robots to robustly and efficiently locomote in our daily life.

Photo: UC Berkeley

In their experiments, the UC Berkeley researchers say Cassie proved quite capable of riding the hovershoes over rough and uneven terrain, including going down stairs.

How long did it take to train Cassie to use the hovershoes? Are there any hovershoe skills that Cassie is better at than an average human?

We spent about eight months to develop our whole system, including a controller, a path planner, and a vision system. This involved developing mathematical models of Cassie and the hovershoes, setting up a dynamical simulation, figuring out how to interface and communicate with various sensors and Cassie, and doing several experiments to slowly improve performance. In contrast, a human with a good sense of balance needs a few hours to learn to use the hovershoes. A human who has never used skates or skis will probably need a longer time.

A human can easily turn in place on the hovershoes, while Cassie cannot do this motion currently due to our algorithm requiring a non-zero forward speed in order to turn. However, Cassie is much better at riding the hovershoes over rough and uneven terrain including riding the hovershoes down some stairs!

What would it take to make Cassie faster or more agile on the hovershoes?

While Cassie can currently move at a decent pace on the hovershoes and navigate obstacles, Cassie’s ability to avoid obstacles at rapid speeds is constrained by the sensing, the controller, and the onboard computation. To enable Cassie to dynamically weave around obstacles at high speeds exhibiting agile motions, we need to make progress on different fronts.

We need planners that take into account the entire dynamics of the Cassie-Hovershoe system and rapidly generate dynamically-feasible trajectories; we need controllers that tightly coordinate all the degrees-of-freedom of Cassie to dynamically move while balancing on the hovershoes; we need sensors that are robust to motion-blur artifacts caused due to fast turns; and we need onboard computation that can execute our algorithms at real-time speeds.

What are you working on next?

We are working on enabling more aggressive movements for Cassie on the hovershoes by fully exploiting Cassie’s dynamics. We are working on approaches that enable us to easily go beyond hovershoes to other challenging micro-mobility platforms. We are working on enabling Cassie to step onto and off from wheeled platforms such as hovershoes. We would like to create a future of multi-modal locomotion strategies for legged robots to enable them to efficiently help people in our daily life.

“Feedback Control for Autonomous Riding of Hovershoes by a Cassie Bipedal Robot,” by Shuxiao Chen, Jonathan Rogers, Bike Zhang, and Koushil Sreenath from the Hybrid Robotics Lab at UC Berkeley, has been submitted to IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters with option to be presented at the 2019 IEEE RAS International Conference on Humanoid Robots. 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

#435621 ANYbotics Introduces Sleek New ANYmal C ...

Quadrupedal robots are making significant advances lately, and just in the past few months we’ve seen Boston Dynamics’ Spot hauling a truck, IIT’s HyQReal pulling a plane, MIT’s MiniCheetah doing backflips, Unitree Robotics’ Laikago towing a van, and Ghost Robotics’ Vision 60 exploring a mine. Robot makers are betting that their four-legged machines will prove useful in a variety of applications in construction, security, delivery, and even at home.

ANYbotics has been working on such applications for years, testing out their ANYmal robot in places where humans typically don’t want to go (like offshore platforms) as well as places where humans really don’t want to go (like sewers), and they have a better idea than most companies what can make quadruped robots successful.

This week, ANYbotics is announcing a completely new quadruped platform, ANYmal C, a major upgrade from the really quite research-y ANYmal B. The new quadruped has been optimized for ruggedness and reliability in industrial environments, with a streamlined body painted a color that lets you know it means business.

ANYmal C’s physical specs are pretty impressive for a production quadruped. It can move at 1 meter per second, manage 20-degree slopes and 45-degree stairs, cross 25-centimeter gaps, and squeeze through passages just 60 centimeters wide. It’s packed with cameras and 3D sensors, including a lidar for 3D mapping and simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM). All these sensors (along with the vast volume of gait research that’s been done with ANYmal) make this one of the most reliably autonomous quadrupeds out there, with real-time motion planning and obstacle avoidance.

Image: ANYbotics

ANYmal can autonomously attach itself to a cone-shaped docking station to recharge.

ANYmal C is also one of the ruggedest legged robots in existence. The 50-kilogram robot is IP67 rated, meaning that it’s completely impervious to dust and can withstand being submerged in a meter of water for an hour. If it’s submerged for longer than that, you’re absolutely doing something wrong. The robot will run for over 2 hours on battery power, and if that’s not enough endurance, don’t worry, because ANYmal can autonomously impale itself on a weird cone-shaped docking station to recharge.

Photo: ANYbotics

ANYmal C’s sensor payload includes cameras and a lidar for 3D mapping and SLAM.

As far as what ANYmal C is designed to actually do, it’s mostly remote inspection tasks where you need to move around through a relatively complex environment, but where for whatever reason you’d be better off not sending a human. ANYmal C has a sensor payload that gives it lots of visual options, like thermal imaging, and with the ability to handle a 10-kilogram payload, the robot can be adapted to many different environments.

Over the next few months, we’re hoping to see more examples of ANYmal C being deployed to do useful stuff in real-world environments, but for now, we do have a bit more detail from ANYbotics CTO Christian Gehring.

IEEE Spectrum: Can you tell us about the development process for ANYmal C?

Christian Gehring: We tested the previous generation of ANYmal (B) in a broad range of environments over the last few years and gained a lot of insights. Based on our learnings, it became clear that we would have to re-design the robot to meet the requirements of industrial customers in terms of safety, quality, reliability, and lifetime. There were different prototype stages both for the new drives and for single robot assemblies. Apart from electrical tests, we thoroughly tested the thermal control and ingress protection of various subsystems like the depth cameras and actuators.

What can ANYmal C do that the previous version of ANYmal can’t?

ANYmal C was redesigned with a focus on performance increase regarding actuation (new drives), computational power (new hexacore Intel i7 PCs), locomotion and navigation skills, and autonomy (new depth cameras). The new robot additionally features a docking system for autonomous recharging and an inspection payload as an option. The design of ANYmal C is far more integrated than its predecessor, which increases both performance and reliability.

How much of ANYmal C’s development and design was driven by your experience with commercial or industry customers?

Tests (such as the offshore installation with TenneT) and discussions with industry customers were important to get the necessary design input in terms of performance, safety, quality, reliability, and lifetime. Most customers ask for very similar inspection tasks that can be performed with our standard inspection payload and the required software packages. Some are looking for a robot that can also solve some simple manipulation tasks like pushing a button. Overall, most use cases customers have in mind are realistic and achievable, but some are really tough for the robot, like climbing 50° stairs in hot environments of 50°C.

Can you describe how much autonomy you expect ANYmal C to have in industrial or commercial operations?

ANYmal C is primarily developed to perform autonomous routine inspections in industrial environments. This autonomy especially adds value for operations that are difficult to access, as human operation is extremely costly. The robot can naturally also be operated via a remote control and we are working on long-distance remote operation as well.

Do you expect that researchers will be interested in ANYmal C? What research applications could it be useful for?

ANYmal C has been designed to also address the needs of the research community. The robot comes with two powerful hexacore Intel i7 computers and can additionally be equipped with an NVIDIA Jetson Xavier graphics card for learning-based applications. Payload interfaces enable users to easily install and test new sensors. By joining our established ANYmal Research community, researchers get access to simulation tools and software APIs, which boosts their research in various areas like control, machine learning, and navigation.

[ ANYmal C ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435070 5 Breakthroughs Coming Soon in Augmented ...

Convergence is accelerating disruption… everywhere! Exponential technologies are colliding into each other, reinventing products, services, and industries.

In this third installment of my Convergence Catalyzer series, I’ll be synthesizing key insights from my annual entrepreneurs’ mastermind event, Abundance 360. This five-blog series looks at 3D printing, artificial intelligence, VR/AR, energy and transportation, and blockchain.

Today, let’s dive into virtual and augmented reality.

Today’s most prominent tech giants are leaping onto the VR/AR scene, each driving forward new and upcoming product lines. Think: Microsoft’s HoloLens, Facebook’s Oculus, Amazon’s Sumerian, and Google’s Cardboard (Apple plans to release a headset by 2021).

And as plummeting prices meet exponential advancements in VR/AR hardware, this burgeoning disruptor is on its way out of the early adopters’ market and into the majority of consumers’ homes.

My good friend Philip Rosedale is my go-to expert on AR/VR and one of the foremost creators of today’s most cutting-edge virtual worlds. After creating the virtual civilization Second Life in 2013, now populated by almost 1 million active users, Philip went on to co-found High Fidelity, which explores the future of next-generation shared VR.

In just the next five years, he predicts five emerging trends will take hold, together disrupting major players and birthing new ones.

Let’s dive in…

Top 5 Predictions for VR/AR Breakthroughs (2019-2024)
“If you think you kind of understand what’s going on with that tech today, you probably don’t,” says Philip. “We’re still in the middle of landing the airplane of all these new devices.”

(1) Transition from PC-based to standalone mobile VR devices

Historically, VR devices have relied on PC connections, usually involving wires and clunky hardware that restrict a user’s field of motion. However, as VR enters the dematerialization stage, we are about to witness the rapid rise of a standalone and highly mobile VR experience economy.

Oculus Go, the leading standalone mobile VR device on the market, requires only a mobile app for setup and can be transported anywhere with WiFi.

With a consumer audience in mind, the 32GB headset is priced at $200 and shares an app ecosystem with Samsung’s Gear VR. While Google Daydream are also standalone VR devices, they require a docked mobile phone instead of the built-in screen of Oculus Go.

In the AR space, Lenovo’s standalone Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 leads the way in providing tetherless experiences.

Freeing headsets from the constraints of heavy hardware will make VR/AR increasingly interactive and transportable, a seamless add-on whenever, wherever. Within a matter of years, it may be as simple as carrying lightweight VR goggles wherever you go and throwing them on at a moment’s notice.

(2) Wide field-of-view AR displays

Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 leads the AR industry in headset comfort and display quality. The most significant issue with their prior version was the limited rectangular field of view (FOV).

By implementing laser technology to create a microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) display, however, HoloLens 2 can position waveguides in front of users’ eyes, directed by mirrors. Subsequently enlarging images can be accomplished by shifting the angles of these mirrors. Coupled with a 47 pixel per degree resolution, HoloLens 2 has now doubled its predecessor’s FOV. Microsoft anticipates the release of its headset by the end of this year at a $3,500 price point, first targeting businesses and eventually rolling it out to consumers.

Magic Leap provides a similar FOV but with lower resolution than the HoloLens 2. The Meta 2 boasts an even wider 90-degree FOV, but requires a cable attachment. The race to achieve the natural human 120-degree horizontal FOV continues.

“The technology to expand the field of view is going to make those devices much more usable by giving you bigger than a small box to look through,” Rosedale explains.

(3) Mapping of real world to enable persistent AR ‘mirror worlds’

‘Mirror worlds’ are alternative dimensions of reality that can blanket a physical space. While seated in your office, the floor beneath you could dissolve into a calm lake and each desk into a sailboat. In the classroom, mirror worlds would convert pencils into magic wands and tabletops into touch screens.

Pokémon Go provides an introductory glimpse into the mirror world concept and its massive potential to unite people in real action.

To create these mirror worlds, AR headsets must precisely understand the architecture of the surrounding world. Rosedale predicts the scanning accuracy of devices will improve rapidly over the next five years to make these alternate dimensions possible.

(4) 5G mobile devices reduce latency to imperceptible levels

Verizon has already launched 5G networks in Minneapolis and Chicago, compatible with the Moto Z3. Sprint plans to follow with its own 5G launch in May. Samsung, LG, Huawei, and ZTE have all announced upcoming 5G devices.

“5G is rolling out this year and it’s going to materially affect particularly my work, which is making you feel like you’re talking to somebody else directly face to face,” explains Rosedale. “5G is critical because currently the cell devices impose too much delay, so it doesn’t feel real to talk to somebody face to face on these devices.”

To operate seamlessly from anywhere on the planet, standalone VR/AR devices will require a strong 5G network. Enhancing real-time connectivity in VR/AR will transform the communication methods of tomorrow.

(5) Eye-tracking and facial expressions built in for full natural communication

Companies like Pupil Labs and Tobii provide eye tracking hardware add-ons and software to VR/AR headsets. This technology allows for foveated rendering, which renders a given scene in high resolution only in the fovea region, while the peripheral regions appear in lower resolution, conserving processing power.

As seen in the HoloLens 2, eye tracking can also be used to identify users and customize lens widths to provide a comfortable, personalized experience for each individual.

According to Rosedale, “The fundamental opportunity for both VR and AR is to improve human communication.” He points out that current VR/AR headsets miss many of the subtle yet important aspects of communication. Eye movements and microexpressions provide valuable insight into a user’s emotions and desires.

Coupled with emotion-detecting AI software, such as Affectiva, VR/AR devices might soon convey much more richly textured and expressive interactions between any two people, transcending physical boundaries and even language gaps.

Final Thoughts
As these promising trends begin to transform the market, VR/AR will undoubtedly revolutionize our lives… possibly to the point at which our virtual worlds become just as consequential and enriching as our physical world.

A boon for next-gen education, VR/AR will empower youth and adults alike with holistic learning that incorporates social, emotional, and creative components through visceral experiences, storytelling, and simulation. Traveling to another time, manipulating the insides of a cell, or even designing a new city will become daily phenomena of tomorrow’s classrooms.

In real estate, buyers will increasingly make decisions through virtual tours. Corporate offices might evolve into spaces that only exist in ‘mirror worlds’ or grow virtual duplicates for remote workers.

In healthcare, accuracy of diagnosis will skyrocket, while surgeons gain access to digital aids as they conduct life-saving procedures. Or take manufacturing, wherein training and assembly will become exponentially more efficient as visual cues guide complex tasks.

In the mere matter of a decade, VR and AR will unlock limitless applications for new and converging industries. And as virtual worlds converge with AI, 3D printing, computing advancements and beyond, today’s experience economies will explode in scale and scope. Prepare yourself for the exciting disruption ahead!

Join Me
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Image Credit: Mariia Korneeva / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#434818 Watch These Robots Do Tasks You Thought ...

Robots have been masters of manufacturing at speed and precision for decades, but give them a seemingly simple task like stacking shelves, and they quickly get stuck. That’s changing, though, as engineers build systems that can take on the deceptively tricky tasks most humans can do with their eyes closed.

Boston Dynamics is famous for dramatic reveals of robots performing mind-blowing feats that also leave you scratching your head as to what the market is—think the bipedal Atlas doing backflips or Spot the galloping robot dog.

Last week, the company released a video of a robot called Handle that looks like an ostrich on wheels carrying out the seemingly mundane task of stacking boxes in a warehouse.

It might seem like a step backward, but this is exactly the kind of practical task robots have long struggled with. While the speed and precision of industrial robots has seen them take over many functions in modern factories, they’re generally limited to highly prescribed tasks carried out in meticulously-controlled environments.

That’s because despite their mechanical sophistication, most are still surprisingly dumb. They can carry out precision welding on a car or rapidly assemble electronics, but only by rigidly following a prescribed set of motions. Moving cardboard boxes around a warehouse might seem simple to a human, but it actually involves a variety of tasks machines still find pretty difficult—perceiving your surroundings, navigating, and interacting with objects in a dynamic environment.

But the release of this video suggests Boston Dynamics thinks these kinds of applications are close to prime time. Last week the company doubled down by announcing the acquisition of start-up Kinema Systems, which builds computer vision systems for robots working in warehouses.

It’s not the only company making strides in this area. On the same day the video went live, Google unveiled a robot arm called TossingBot that can pick random objects from a box and quickly toss them into another container beyond its reach, which could prove very useful for sorting items in a warehouse. The machine can train on new objects in just an hour or two, and can pick and toss up to 500 items an hour with better accuracy than any of the humans who tried the task.

And an apple-picking robot built by Abundant Robotics is currently on New Zealand farms navigating between rows of apple trees using LIDAR and computer vision to single out ripe apples before using a vacuum tube to suck them off the tree.

In most cases, advances in machine learning and computer vision brought about by the recent AI boom are the keys to these rapidly improving capabilities. Robots have historically had to be painstakingly programmed by humans to solve each new task, but deep learning is making it possible for them to quickly train themselves on a variety of perception, navigation, and dexterity tasks.

It’s not been simple, though, and the application of deep learning in robotics has lagged behind other areas. A major limitation is that the process typically requires huge amounts of training data. That’s fine when you’re dealing with image classification, but when that data needs to be generated by real-world robots it can make the approach impractical. Simulations offer the possibility to run this training faster than real time, but it’s proved difficult to translate policies learned in virtual environments into the real world.

Recent years have seen significant progress on these fronts, though, and the increasing integration of modern machine learning with robotics. In October, OpenAI imbued a robotic hand with human-level dexterity by training an algorithm in a simulation using reinforcement learning before transferring it to the real-world device. The key to ensuring the translation went smoothly was injecting random noise into the simulation to mimic some of the unpredictability of the real world.

And just a couple of weeks ago, MIT researchers demonstrated a new technique that let a robot arm learn to manipulate new objects with far less training data than is usually required. By getting the algorithm to focus on a few key points on the object necessary for picking it up, the system could learn to pick up a previously unseen object after seeing only a few dozen examples (rather than the hundreds or thousands typically required).

How quickly these innovations will trickle down to practical applications remains to be seen, but a number of startups as well as logistics behemoth Amazon are developing robots designed to flexibly pick and place the wide variety of items found in your average warehouse.

Whether the economics of using robots to replace humans at these kinds of menial tasks makes sense yet is still unclear. The collapse of collaborative robotics pioneer Rethink Robotics last year suggests there are still plenty of challenges.

But at the same time, the number of robotic warehouses is expected to leap from 4,000 today to 50,000 by 2025. It may not be long until robots are muscling in on tasks we’ve long assumed only humans could do.

Image Credit: Visual Generation / Shutterstock.com Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots