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Photo: Rob Felt
IEEE Senior Member Ayanna Howard with one of the interactive androids that help children with autism improve their social and emotional engagement.
THE INSTITUTEChildren with autism spectrum disorder can have a difficult time expressing their emotions and can be highly sensitive to sound, sight, and touch. That sometimes restricts their participation in everyday activities, leaving them socially isolated. Occupational therapists can help them cope better, but the time they’re able to spend is limited and the sessions tend to be expensive.
Roboticist Ayanna Howard, an IEEE senior member, has been using interactive androids to guide children with autism on ways to socially and emotionally engage with others—as a supplement to therapy. Howard is chair of the School of Interactive Computing and director of the Human-Automation Systems Lab at Georgia Tech. She helped found Zyrobotics, a Georgia Tech VentureLab startup that is working on AI and robotics technologies to engage children with special needs. Last year Forbes named Howard, Zyrobotics’ chief technology officer, one of the Top 50 U.S. Women in Tech.
In a recent study, Howard and other researchers explored how robots might help children navigate sensory experiences. The experiment involved 18 participants between the ages of 4 and 12; five had autism, and the rest were meeting typical developmental milestones. Two humanoid robots were programmed to express boredom, excitement, nervousness, and 17 other emotional states. As children explored stations set up for hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching, the robots modeled what the socially acceptable responses should be.
“If a child’s expression is one of happiness or joy, the robot will have a corresponding response of encouragement,” Howard says. “If there are aspects of frustration or sadness, the robot will provide input to try again.” The study suggested that many children with autism exhibit stronger levels of engagement when the robots interact with them at such sensory stations.
It is one of many robotics projects Howard has tackled. She has designed robots for researching glaciers, and she is working on assistive robots for the home, as well as an exoskeleton that can help children who have motor disabilities.
Howard spoke about her work during the Ethics in AI: Impacts of (Anti?) Social Robotics panel session held in May at the IEEE Vision, Innovation, and Challenges Summit in San Diego. You can watch the session on IEEE.tv.
The next IEEE Vision, Innovation, and Challenges Summit and Honors Ceremony will be held on 15 May 2020 at the JW Marriott Parq Vancouver hotel, in Vancouver.
In this interview with The Institute, Howard talks about how she got involved with assistive technologies, the need for a more diverse workforce, and ways IEEE has benefited her career.
FOCUS ON ACCESSIBILITY
Howard was inspired to work on technology that can improve accessibility in 2008 while teaching high school students at a summer camp devoted to science, technology, engineering, and math.
“A young lady with a visual impairment attended camp. The robot programming tools being used at the camp weren’t accessible to her,” Howard says. “As an engineer, I want to fix problems when I see them, so we ended up designing tools to enable access to programming tools that could be used in STEM education.
“That was my starting motivation, and this theme of accessibility has expanded to become a main focus of my research. One of the things about this world of accessibility is that when you start interacting with kids and parents, you discover another world out there of assistive technologies and how robotics can be used for good in education as well as therapy.”
DIVERSITY OF THOUGHT
The Institute asked Howard why it’s important to have a more diverse STEM workforce and what could be done to increase the number of women and others from underrepresented groups.
“The makeup of the current engineering workforce isn’t necessarily representative of the world, which is composed of different races, cultures, ages, disabilities, and socio-economic backgrounds,” Howard says. “We’re creating products used by people around the globe, so we have to ensure they’re being designed for a diverse population. As IEEE members, we also need to engage with people who aren’t engineers, and we don’t do that enough.”
Educational institutions are doing a better job of increasing diversity in areas such as gender, she says, adding that more work is needed because the enrollment numbers still aren’t representative of the population and the gains don’t necessarily carry through after graduation.
“There has been an increase in the number of underrepresented minorities and females going into engineering and computer science,” she says, “but data has shown that their numbers are not sustained in the workforce.”
Because there are more underrepresented groups on today’s college campuses that can form a community, the lack of engineering role models—although a concern on campuses—is more extreme for preuniversity students, Howard says.
“Depending on where you go to school, you may not know what an engineer does or even consider engineering as an option,” she says, “so there’s still a big disconnect there.”
Howard has been involved for many years in math- and science-mentoring programs for at-risk high school girls. She tells them to find what they’re passionate about and combine it with math and science to create something. She also advises them not to let anyone tell them that they can’t.
Howard’s father is an engineer. She says he never encouraged or discouraged her to become one, but when she broke something, he would show her how to fix it and talk her through the process. Along the way, he taught her a logical way of thinking she says all engineers have.
“When I would try to explain something, he would quiz me and tell me to ‘think more logically,’” she says.
Howard earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Brown University, in Providence, R.I., then she received both a master’s and doctorate degree in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California. Before joining the faculty of Georgia Tech in 2005, she worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology for more than a decade as a senior robotics researcher and deputy manager in the Office of the Chief Scientist.
Howard’s father was also an IEEE member, but that’s not why she joined the organization. She says she signed up when she was a student because, “that was something that you just did. Plus, my student membership fee was subsidized.”
She kept the membership as a grad student because of the discounted rates members receive on conferences.
Those conferences have had an impact on her career. “They allow you to understand what the state of the art is,” she says. “Back then you received a printed conference proceeding and reading through it was brutal, but by attending it in person, you got a 15-minute snippet about the research.”
Howard is an active volunteer with the IEEE Robotics and Automation and the IEEE Systems, Man, and Cybernetics societies, holding many positions and serving on several committees. She is also featured in the IEEE Impact Creators campaign. These members were selected because they inspire others to innovate for a better tomorrow.
“I value IEEE for its community,” she says. “One of the nice things about IEEE is that it’s international.” Continue reading →
The human sense of touch is so naturally ingrained in our everyday lives that we often don’t notice its presence. Even so, touch is a crucial sensing ability that helps people to understand the world and connect with others. As the market for robots grows, and as robots become more ingrained into our environments, people will expect robots to participate in a wide variety of social touch interactions. At Oregon State University’s Collaborative Robotics and Intelligent Systems (CoRIS) Institute, I research how to equip everyday robots with better social-physical interaction skills—from playful high-fives to challenging physical therapy routines.
Some commercial robots already possess certain physical interaction skills. For example, the videoconferencing feature of mobile telepresence robots can keep far-away family members connected with one another. These robots can also roam distant spaces and bump into people, chairs, and other remote objects. And my Roomba occasionally tickles my toes before turning to vacuum a different area of the room. As a human being, I naturally interpret this (and other Roomba behaviors) as social, even if they were not intended as such. At the same time, for both of these systems, social perceptions of the robots’ physical interaction behaviors are not well understood, and these social touch-like interactions cannot be controlled in nuanced ways.
Before joining CoRIS early this year, I was a postdoc at the University of Southern California’s Interaction Lab, and prior to that, I completed my doctoral work at the GRASP Laboratory’s Haptics Group at the University of Pennsylvania. My dissertation focused on improving the general understanding of how robot control and planning strategies influence perceptions of social touch interactions. As part of that research, I conducted a study of human-robot hand-to-hand contact, focusing on an interaction somewhere between a high five and a hand-clapping game. I decided to study this particular interaction because people often high five, and they will likely expect robots in everyday spaces to high five as well!
I conducted a study of human-robot hand-to-hand contact, focusing on an interaction somewhere between a high five and a hand-clapping game. I decided to study this particular interaction because people often high five, and they will likely expect robots to high five as well!
The implications of motion and planning on the social touch experience in these interactions is also crucial—think about a disappointingly wimpy (or triumphantly amazing) high five that you’ve experienced in the past. This great or terrible high-fiving experience could be fleeting, but it could also influence who you interact with, who you’re friends with, and even how you perceive the character or personalities of those around you. This type of perception, judgement, and response could extend to personal robots, too!
An investigation like this requires a mixture of more traditional robotics research (e.g., understanding how to move and control a robot arm, developing models of the desired robot motion) along with techniques from design and psychology (e.g., performing interviews with research participants, using best practices from experimental methods in perception). Enabling robots with social touch abilities also comes with many challenges, and even skilled humans can have trouble anticipating what another person is about to do. Think about trying to make satisfying hand contact during a high five—you might know the classic adage “watch the elbow,” but if you’re like me, even this may not always work.
I conducted a research study involving eight different types of human-robot hand contact, with different combinations of the following: interactions with a facially reactive or non-reactive robot, a physically reactive or non-reactive planning strategy, and a lower or higher robot arm stiffness. My robotic system could become facially reactive by changing its facial expression in response to hand contact, or physically reactive by updating its plan of where to move next after sensing hand contact. The stiffness of the robot could be adjusted by changing a variable that controlled how quickly the robot’s motors tried to pull its arm to the desired position. I knew from previous research that fine differences in touch interactions can have a big impact on perceived robot character. For example, if a robot grips an object too tightly or for too long while handing an object to a person, it might be perceived as greedy, possessive, or perhaps even Sméagol-like. A robot that lets go too soon might appear careless or sloppy.
In the example cases of robot grip, it’s clear that understanding people’s perceptions of robot characteristics and personality can help roboticists choose the right robot design based on the proposed operating environment of the robot. I likewise wanted to learn how the facial expressions, physical reactions, and stiffness of a hand-clapping robot would influence human perceptions of robot pleasantness, energeticness, dominance, and safety. Understanding this relationship can help roboticists to equip robots with personalities appropriate for the task at hand. For example, a robot assisting people in a grocery store may need to be designed with a high level of pleasantness and only moderate energy, while a maximally effective robot for comedy roast battles may need high degrees of energy and dominance above all else.
After many a late night at the GRASP Lab clapping hands with a big red robot, I was ready to conduct the study. Twenty participants visited the lab to clap hands with our Baxter Research Robot and help me begin to understand how characteristics of this humanoid robot’s social touch influenced its pleasantness, energeticness, dominance, and apparent safety. Baxter interacted with participants using a custom 3D-printed hand that was inlaid with silicone inserts.
The study showed that a facially reactive robot seemed more pleasant and energetic. A physically reactive robot seemed less pleasant, energetic, and dominant for this particular study design and interaction. I thought contact with a stiffer robot would seem harder (and therefore more dominant and less safe), but counter to my expectations, a stiffer-armed robot seemed safer and less dominant to participants. This may be because the stiffer robot was more precise in following its pre-programmed trajectory, therefore seeming more predictable and less free-spirited.
Safety ratings of the robot were generally high, and several participants commented positively on the robot’s facial expressions. Some participants attributed inventive (and non-existent) intelligences to the robot—I used neither computer vision nor the Baxter robot’s cameras in this study, but more than one participant complimented me on how well the robot tracked their hand position. While interacting with the robot, participants displayed happy facial expressions more than any other analyzed type of expression.
Photo: Naomi Fitter
Participants were asked to clap hands with Baxter and describe how they perceived the robot in terms of its pleasantness, energeticness, dominance, and apparent safety.
Circling back to the idea of how people might interpret even rudimentary and practical robot behaviors as social, these results show that this type of social perception isn’t just true for my lovable (but sometimes dopey) Roomba, but also for collaborative industrial robots, and generally, any robot capable of physical human-robot interaction. In designing the motion of Baxter, the adjustment of a single number in the equation that controls joint stiffness can flip the robot from seeming safe and docile to brash and commanding. These implications are sometimes predictable, but often unexpected.
The results of this particular study give us a partial guide to manipulating the emotional experience of robot users by adjusting aspects of robot control and planning, but future work is needed to fully understand the design space of social touch. Will materials play a major role? How about personalized machine learning? Do results generalize over all robot arms, or even a specialized subset like collaborative industrial robot arms? I’m planning to continue answering these questions, and when I finally solve human-robot social touch, I’ll high five all my robots to celebrate.
Naomi Fitter is an assistant professor in the Collaborative Robotics and Intelligent Systems (CoRIS) Institute at Oregon State University, where her Social Haptics, Assistive Robotics, and Embodiment (SHARE) research group aims to equip robots with the ability to engage and empower people in interactions from playful high-fives to challenging physical therapy routines. She completed her doctoral work in the GRASP Laboratory’s Haptics Group and was a postdoctoral scholar in the University of Southern California’s Interaction Lab from 2017 to 2018. Naomi’s not-so-secret pastime is performing stand-up and improv comedy. Continue reading →
RoboCup 2019 took place earlier this month down in Sydney, Australia. While there are many different events including RoboCup@Home, RoboCup Rescue, and a bunch of different soccer leagues, one of the most compelling events is middle-size league (MSL), where mobile robots each about the size of a fire hydrant play soccer using a regular size FIFA soccer ball. The robots are fully autonomous, making their own decisions in real time about when to dribble, pass, and shoot.
The long-term goal of RoboCup is this:
By the middle of the 21st century, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players shall win a soccer game, complying with the official rules of FIFA, against the winner of the most recent World Cup.
While the robots are certainly not there yet, they're definitely getting closer.
Even if you’re not a particular fan of soccer, it’s impressive to watch the robots coordinate with each other, setting up multiple passes and changing tactics on the fly in response to the movements of the other team. And the ability of these robots to shoot accurately is world-class (like, human world-class), as they’re seemingly able to put the ball in whatever corner of the goal they choose with split-second timing.
The final match was between Tech United from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands (whose robots are called TURTLE), and Team Water from Beijing Information Science & Technology University. Without spoiling it, I can tell you that the game was tied within just the last few seconds, meaning that it had to go to overtime. You can watch the entire match on YouTube, or a 5-minute commentated highlight video here:
It’s become a bit of a tradition to have the winning MSL robots play a team of what looks to be inexperienced adult humans wearing long pants and dress shoes.
The fact that the robots managed to score even once is pretty awesome, and it also looks like the robots are playing very conservatively (more so than the humans) so as not to accidentally injure any of us fragile meatbags with our spindly little legs. I get that RoboCup wants its first team of robots that can beat a human World Cup winning team to be humanoids, but at the moment, the MSL robots are where all the skill is.
To get calibrated on the state of the art for humanoid soccer robots, here’s the adult size final, Team Nimbro from the University of Bonn in Germany versus Team Sweaty from Offenburg University in Germany:
Yup, still a lot of falling over.
There’s lots more RoboCup on YouTube: Some channels to find more matches include the official RoboCup 2019 channel, and Tech United Eindhoven’s channel, which has both live English commentary and some highlight videos.
[ RoboCup 2019 ] Continue reading →
Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. Every week, we also post a calendar of upcoming robotics events; here's what we have so far (send us your events!):
Robotronica – August 18, 2019 – Brisbane, Australia
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
Humanoids 2019 – October 15-17, 2019 – Toronto
ARSO 2019 – October 31-November 2, 2019 – Beijing
ROSCon 2019 – October 31-November 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 CoSTAR (JPL, MIT, Caltech, KAIST, LTU) has one of the more diverse teams of robots that we’ve seen:
[ Team CoSTAR ]
A team from Carnegie Mellon University and Oregon State University is sending ground and aerial autonomous robots into a Pittsburgh-area mine to prepare for this month’s DARPA Subterranean Challenge.
“Look at that fire extinguisher, what a beauty!” Expect to hear a lot more of that kind of weirdness during SubT.
[ CMU ]
Unitree Robotics is starting to batch-manufacture Laikago Pro quadrupeds, and if you buy four of them, they can carry you around in a chair!
I’m also really liking these videos from companies that are like, “We have a whole bunch of robot dogs now—what weird stuff can we do with them?”
[ Unitree Robotics ]
Why take a handful of pills every day for all the stuff that's wrong with you, when you could take one custom pill instead? Because custom pills are time-consuming to make, that’s why. But robots don’t care!
Multiply Labs’ factory is designed to operate in parallel. All the filling robots and all the quality-control robots are operating at the same time. The robotic arm, in the meanwhile, shuttles dozens of trays up and down the production floor, making sure that each capsule is filled with the right drugs. The manufacturing cell shown in this article can produce 10,000 personalized capsules in an 8-hour shift. A single cell occupies just 128 square feet (12 square meters) on the production floor. This means that a regular production facility (~10,000 square feet, or 929 m2 ) can house 78 cells, for an overall output of 780,000 capsules per shift. This exceeds the output of most traditional manufacturers—while producing unique personalized capsules!
[ Multiply Labs ]
If you’re getting tired of all those annoying drones that sound like giant bees, just have a listen to this turbine-powered one:
[ Malloy Aeronautics ]
In retrospect, it’s kind of amazing that nobody has bothered to put a functional robotic dog head on a quadruped robot before this, right?
Equipped with sensors, high-tech radar imaging, cameras and a directional microphone, this 100-pound (45-kilogram) super-robot is still a “puppy-in-training.” Just like a regular dog, he responds to commands such as “sit,” “stand,” and “lie down.” Eventually, he will be able to understand and respond to hand signals, detect different colors, comprehend many languages, coordinate his efforts with drones, distinguish human faces, and even recognize other dogs.
As an information scout, Astro’s key missions will include detecting guns, explosives and gun residue to assist police, the military, and security personnel. This robodog’s talents won’t just end there, he also can be programmed to assist as a service dog for the visually impaired or to provide medical diagnostic monitoring. The MPCR team also is training Astro to serve as a first responder for search-and-rescue missions such as hurricane reconnaissance as well as military maneuvers.
[ FAU ]
And now this amazing video, “The Coke Thief,” from ICRA 2005 (!):
[ Paper ]
CYBATHLON Series put the focus on one or two of the six disciplines and are organized in cooperation with international universities and partners. The CYBATHLON Arm and Leg Prosthesis Series took place in Karlsruhe, Germany, from 16 to 18 May and was organized in cooperation with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and the trade fair REHAB Karlsruhe.
The CYBATHLON Wheelchair Series took place in Kawasaki, Japan on 5 May 2019 and was organized in cooperation with the CYBATHLON Wheelchair Series Japan Organizing Committee and supported by the Swiss Embassy.
[ Cybathlon ]
Rainbow crepe robot!
There’s also this other robot, which I assume does something besides what's in the video, because otherwise it appears to be a massively overengineered way of shaping cooked rice into a chubby triangle.
[ PC Watch ]
The Weaponized Plastic Fighting League at Fetch Robotics has had another season of shardation, deintegration, explodification, and other -tions. Here are a couple fan favorite match videos:
[ Fetch Robotics ]
This video is in German, but it’s worth watching for the three seconds of extremely satisfying footage showing a robot twisting dough into pretzels.
[ Festo ]
Putting brains into farming equipment is a no-brainer, since it’s a semi-structured environment that's generally clear of wayward humans driving other vehicles.
[ Lovol ]
Watch some robots assemble suspiciously Lego-like (but definitely not actually Lego) minifigs.
[ DevLinks ]
The Robotics Innovation Facility (RIFBristol) helps businesses, entrepreneurs, researchers and public sector bodies to embrace the concept of ‘Industry 4.0'. From training your staff in robotics, and demonstrating how automation can improve your manufacturing processes, to prototyping and validating your new innovations—we can provide the support you need.
[ RIF ]
Ryan Gariepy from Clearpath Robotics (and a bunch of other stuff) gave a talk at ICRA with the title of “Move Fast and (Don’t) Break Things: Commercializing Robotics at the Speed of Venture Capital,” which is more interesting when you know that this year’s theme was “Notable Failures.”
[ Clearpath Robotics ]
In this week’s episode of Robots in Depth, Per interviews Michael Nielsen, a computer vision researcher at the Danish Technological Institute.
Michael worked with a fusion of sensors like stereo vision, thermography, radar, lidar and high-frame-rate cameras, merging multiple images for high dynamic range. All this, to be able to navigate the tricky situation in a farm field where you need to navigate close to or even in what is grown. Multibaseline cameras were also used to provide range detection over a wide range of distances.
We also learn about how he expanded his work into sorting recycling, a very challenging problem. We also hear about the problems faced when using time of flight and sheet of light cameras. He then shares some good results using stereo vision, especially combined with blue light random dot projectors.
[ Robots in Depth ] Continue reading →
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 →