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#435687 Humanoid Robots Teach Coping Skills to ...

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.”

ROLE MODEL
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.

ACTIVE VOLUNTEER
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

Posted in Human Robots

#435669 Watch World Champion Soccer Robots Take ...

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

Posted in Human Robots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ Georgia Tech ]

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

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

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

[ Paper ] via [ MIT ]

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

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

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

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

[ UCSD ]

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

[ Team Homer ]

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

[ Centauro ]

Thanks Dimitrios!

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

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

[ Connected Robotics ] via [ RobotStart ]

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

[ ETH Zurich RSL ]

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

[ Soft Robotics ]

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

[ Starship ]

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

[ Christoph Bartneck ]

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

[ CSA ]

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

[ Misty Robotics ]

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

[ Aeroarms ]

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

[ Sarcos ]

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

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

[ Kazumichi Moriyama ]

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

[ Tangible Media Group ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435632 DARPA Subterranean Challenge: Tunnel ...

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

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

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

SubT: The Next DARPA Challenge for Robotics

Q&A with DARPA Program Manager Tim Chung

Meet The First Nine Teams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IEEE Spectrum: How did STIX go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ DARPA Subterranean Challenge ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#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