Tag Archives: disney

#439200 How Disney Imagineering Crammed a ...

From what I’ve seen of humanoid robotics, there’s a fairly substantial divide between what folks in the research space traditionally call robotics, and something like animatronics, which tends to be much more character-driven.

There’s plenty of technology embodied in animatronic robotics, but usually under some fairly significant constraints—like, they’re not autonomously interactive, or they’re stapled to the floor and tethered for power, things like that. And there are reasons for doing it this way: namely, dynamic untethered humanoid robots are already super hard, so why would anyone stress themselves out even more by trying to make them into an interactive character at the same time? That would be crazy!

At Walt Disney Imagineering, which is apparently full of crazy people, they’ve spent the last three years working on Project Kiwi: a dynamic untethered humanoid robot that’s an interactive character at the same time. We asked them (among other things) just how they managed to stuff all of the stuff they needed to stuff into that costume, and how they expect to enable children (of all ages) to interact with the robot safely.

Project Kiwi is an untethered bipedal humanoid robot that Disney Imagineering designed not just to walk without falling over, but to walk without falling over with some character. At about 0.75 meters tall, Kiwi is a bit bigger than a NAO and a bit smaller than an iCub, and it’s just about completely self-contained, with the tether you see in the video being used for control rather than for power. Kiwi can manage 45 minutes of operating time, which is pretty impressive considering its size and the fact that it incorporates a staggering 50 degrees of freedom, a requirement for lifelike motion.

This version of the robot is just a prototype, and it sounds like there’s plenty to do in terms of hardware optimization to improve efficiency and add sensing and interactivity. The most surprising thing to me is that this is not a stage robot: Disney does plan to have some future version of Kiwi wandering around and interacting directly with park guests, and I’m sure you can imagine how that’s likely to go. Interaction at this level, where there’s a substantial risk of small children tackling your robot with a vicious high-speed hug, could be a uniquely Disney problem for a robot with this level of sophistication. And it’s one of the reasons they needed to build their own robot—when Universal Studios decided to try out a Steampunk Spot, for example, they had to put a fence plus a row of potted plants between it and any potential hugs, because Spot is very much not a hug-safe robot.

So how the heck do you design a humanoid robot from scratch with personality and safe human interaction in mind? We asked Scott LaValley, Project Kiwi lead, who came to Disney Imagineering by way of Boston Dynamics and some of our favorite robots ever (including RHex, PETMAN, and Atlas), to explain how they pulled it off.

IEEE Spectrum: What are some of the constraints of Disney’s use case that meant you had to develop your own platform from the ground up?

Scott LaValley: First and foremost, we had to consider the packaging constraints. Our robot was always intended to serve as a bipedal character platform capable of taking on the role of a variety of our small-size characters. While we can sometimes take artistic liberties, for the most part, the electromechanical design had to fit within a minimal character profile to allow the robot to be fully themed with shells, skin, and costuming. When determining the scope of the project, a high-performance biped that matched our size constraints just did not exist.

Equally important was the ability to move with style and personality, or the “emotion of motion.” To really capture a specific character performance, a robotic platform must be capable of motions that range from fast and expressive to extremely slow and nuanced. In our case, this required developing custom high-speed actuators with the necessary torque density to be packaged into the mechanical structure. Each actuator is also equipped with a mechanical clutch and inline torque sensor to support low-stiffness control for compliant interactions and reduced vibration.

Designing custom hardware also allowed us to include additional joints that are uncommon in humanoid robots. For example, the clavicle and shoulder alone include five degrees of freedom to support a shrug function and an extended configuration space for more natural gestures. We were also able to integrate onboard computing to support interactive behaviors.

What compromises were required to make sure that your robot was not only functional, but also capable of becoming an expressive character?

As mentioned previously, we face serious challenges in terms of packaging and component selection due to the small size and character profile. This has led to a few compromises on the design side. For example, we currently rely on rigid-flex circuit boards to fit our electronics onto the available surface area of our parts without additional cables or connectors. Unfortunately, these boards are harder to design and manufacture than standard rigid boards, increasing complexity, cost, and build time. We might also consider increasing the size of the hip and knee actuators if they no longer needed to fit within a themed costume.

Designing a reliable walking robot is in itself a significant challenge, but adding style and personality to each motion is a new layer of complexity. From a software perspective, we spend a significant amount of time developing motion planning and animation tools that allow animators to author stylized gaits, gestures, and expressions for physical characters. Unfortunately, unlike on-screen characters, we do not have the option to bend the laws of physics and must validate each motion through simulation. As a result, we are currently limited to stylized walking and dancing on mostly flat ground, but we hope to be skipping up stairs in the future!

Of course, there is always more that can be done to better match the performance you would expect from a character. We are excited about some things we have in the pipeline, including a next generation lower body and an improved locomotion planner.

How are you going to make this robot safe for guests to be around?

First let us say, we take safety extremely seriously, and it is a top priority for any Disney experience. Ultimately, we do intend to allow interactions with guests of all ages, but it will take a measured process to get there. Proper safety evaluation is a big part of productizing any Research & Development project, and we plan to conduct playtests with our Imagineers, cast members and guests along the way. Their feedback will help determine exactly what an experience with a robotic character will look like once implemented.

From a design standpoint, we believe that small characters are the safest type of biped for human-robot interaction due to their reduced weight and low center of mass. We are also employing compliant control strategies to ensure that the robot’s actuators are torque-limited and backdrivable. Perception and behavior design may also play a key role, but in the end, we will rely on proper show design to permit a safe level of interaction as the technology evolves.

What do you think other roboticists working on legged systems could learn from Project Kiwi?

We are often inspired by other roboticists working on legged systems ourselves but would be happy to share some lessons learned. Remember that robotics is fundamentally interdisciplinary, and a good team typically consists of a mix of hardware and software engineers in close collaboration. In our experience, however, artists and animators play an equally valuable role in bringing a new vision to life. We often pull in ideas from the character animation and game development world, and while robotic characters are far more constrained than their virtual counterparts, we are solving many of the same problems. Another tip is to leverage motion studies (either through animation, motion capture, and/or simulation tools) early in the design process to generate performance-driven requirements for any new robot.

Now that Project Kiwi has de-stealthed, I hope the Disney Imagineering folks will be able to be a little more open with all of the sweet goo inside of the fuzzy skin of this metaphor that has stopped making sense. Meeting a new humanoid robot is always exciting, and the approach here (with its technical capability combined with an emphasis on character and interaction) is totally unique. And if they need anyone to test Kiwi’s huggability, I volunteer! You know, for science. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#438921 Disney’s creepy humanoid ...

This video by Disney Research using a humanoid animatronic bust demonstrates a very realistic and interactive lifelike gaze in human-robot interactions, thus creating “the illusion of life”. Cool, but creepy as heck! Related Posts How can humans keep the upper … Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#438613 Video Friday: Digit Takes a Hike

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!):

HRI 2021 – March 8-11, 2021 – [Online Conference]
RoboSoft 2021 – April 12-16, 2021 – [Online Conference]
ICRA 2021 – May 30-5, 2021 – Xi'an, China
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today's videos.

It's winter in Oregon, so everything is damp, all the time. No problem for Digit!

Also the case for summer in Oregon.

[ Agility Robotics ]

While other organisms form collective flocks, schools, or swarms for such purposes as mating, predation, and protection, the Lumbriculus variegatus worms are unusual in their ability to braid themselves together to accomplish tasks that unconnected individuals cannot. A new study reported by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology describes how the worms self-organize to act as entangled “active matter,” creating surprising collective behaviors whose principles have been applied to help blobs of simple robots evolve their own locomotion.

No, this doesn't squick me out at all, why would it.

[ Georgia Tech ]

A few years ago, we wrote about Zhifeng Huang's jet-foot equipped bipedal robot, and he's been continuing to work on it to the point where it can now step over gaps that are an absolutely astonishing 147% of its leg length.

[ Paper ]

Thanks Zhifeng!

The Inception Drive is a novel, ultra-compact design for an Infinitely Variable Transmission (IVT) that uses nested-pulleys to adjust the gear ratio between input and output shafts. This video shows the first proof-of-concept prototype for a “Fully Balanced” design, where the spinning masses within the drive are completely balanced to reduce vibration, thereby allowing the drive to operate more efficiently and at higher speeds than achievable on an unbalanced design.

As shown in this video, the Inception Drive can change both the speed and direction of rotation of the output shaft while keeping the direction and speed of the input shaft constant. This ability to adjust speed and direction within such a compact package makes the Inception Drive a compelling choice for machine designers in a wide variety of fields, including robotics, automotive, and renewable-energy generation.

[ SRI ]

Robots with kinematic loops are known to have superior mechanical performance. However, due to these loops, their modeling and control is challenging, and prevents a more widespread use. In this paper, we describe a versatile Inverse Kinematics (IK) formulation for the retargeting of expressive motions onto mechanical systems with loops.

[ Disney Research ]

Watch Engineered Arts put together one of its Mesmer robots in a not at all uncanny way.

[ Engineered Arts ]

There's been a bunch of interesting research into vision-based tactile sensing recently; here's some from Van Ho at JAIST:

[ Paper ]

Thanks Van!

This is really more of an automated system than a robot, but these little levitating pucks are very very slick.

ACOPOS 6D is based on the principle of magnetic levitation: Shuttles with integrated permanent magnets float over the surface of electromagnetic motor segments. The modular motor segments are 240 x 240 millimeters in size and can be arranged freely in any shape. A variety of shuttle sizes carry payloads of 0.6 to 14 kilograms and reach speeds of up to 2 meters per second. They can move freely in two-dimensional space, rotate and tilt along three axes and offer precise control over the height of levitation. All together, that gives them six degrees of motion control freedom.


Navigation and motion control of a robot to a destination are tasks that have historically been performed with the assumption that contact with the environment is harmful. This makes sense for rigid-bodied robots where obstacle collisions are fundamentally dangerous. However, because many soft robots have bodies that are low-inertia and compliant, obstacle contact is inherently safe. We find that a planner that takes into account and capitalizes on environmental contact produces paths that are more robust to uncertainty than a planner that avoids all obstacle contact.

[ CHARM Lab ]

The quadrotor experts at UZH have been really cranking it up recently.

Aerodynamic forces render accurate high-speed trajectory tracking with quadrotors extremely challenging. These complex aerodynamic effects become a significant disturbance at high speeds, introducing large positional tracking errors, and are extremely difficult to model. To fly at high speeds, feedback control must be able to account for these aerodynamic effects in real-time. This necessitates a modelling procedure that is both accurate and efficient to evaluate. Therefore, we present an approach to model aerodynamic effects using Gaussian Processes, which we incorporate into a Model Predictive Controller to achieve efficient and precise real-time feedback control, leading to up to 70% reduction in trajectory tracking error at high speeds. We verify our method by extensive comparison to a state-of-the-art linear drag model in synthetic and real-world experiments at speeds of up to 14m/s and accelerations beyond 4g.

[ Paper ]

I have not heard much from Harvest Automation over the last couple years and their website was last updated in 2016, but I guess they're selling robots in France, so that's good?

[ Harvest Automation ]

Last year, Clearpath Robotics introduced a ROS package for Spot which enables robotics developers to leverage ROS capabilities out-of-the-box. Here at OTTO Motors, we thought it would be a compelling test case to see just how easy it would be to integrate Spot into our test fleet of OTTO materials handling robots.

[ OTTO Motors ]

Video showcasing recent robotics activities at PRISMA Lab, coordinated by Prof. Bruno Siciliano, at Università di Napoli Federico II.

[ PRISMA Lab ]

Thanks Fan!

State estimation framework developed by the team CoSTAR for the DARPA Subterranean Challenge, where the team achieved 2nd and 1st places in the Tunnel and Urban circuits.

[ Paper ]

Highlights from the 2020 ROS Industrial conference.

[ ROS Industrial ]

Thanks Thilo!

Not robotics, but entertaining anyway. From the CHI 1995 Technical Video Program, “The Tablet Newspaper: a Vision for the Future.”

[ CHI 1995 ]

This week's GRASP on Robotics seminar comes from Allison Okamura at Stanford, on “Wearable Haptic Devices for Ubiquitous Communication.”

Haptic devices allow touch-based information transfer between humans and intelligent systems, enabling communication in a salient but private manner that frees other sensory channels. For such devices to become ubiquitous, their physical and computational aspects must be intuitive and unobtrusive. We explore the design of a wide array of haptic feedback mechanisms, ranging from devices that can be actively touched by the fingertips to multi-modal haptic actuation mounted on the arm. We demonstrate how these devices are effective in virtual reality, human-machine communication, and human-human communication.

[ UPenn ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#437869 Video Friday: Japan’s Gundam Robot ...

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!):

ACRA 2020 – December 8-10, 2020 – [Online]
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

Another BIG step for Japan’s Gundam project.

[ Gundam Factory ]

We present an interactive design system that allows users to create sculpting styles and fabricate clay models using a standard 6-axis robot arm. Given a general mesh as input, the user iteratively selects sub-areas of the mesh through decomposition and embeds the design expression into an initial set of toolpaths by modifying key parameters that affect the visual appearance of the sculpted surface finish. We demonstrate the versatility of our approach by designing and fabricating different sculpting styles over a wide range of clay models.

[ Disney Research ]

China’s Chang’e-5 completed the drilling, sampling and sealing of lunar soil at 04:53 BJT on Wednesday, marking the first automatic sampling on the Moon, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced Wednesday.

[ CCTV ]

Red Hat’s been putting together an excellent documentary on Willow Garage and ROS, and all five parts have just been released. We posted Part 1 a little while ago, so here’s Part 2 and Part 3.

Parts 4 and 5 are at the link below!

[ Red Hat ]

Congratulations to ANYbotics on a well-deserved raise!

ANYbotics has origins in the Robotic Systems Lab at ETH Zurich, and ANYmal’s heritage can be traced back at least as far as StarlETH, which we first met at ICRA 2013.

[ ANYbotics ]

Most conventional robots are working with 0.05-0.1mm accuracy. Such accuracy requires high-end components like low-backlash gears, high-resolution encoders, complicated CNC parts, powerful motor drives, etc. Those in combination end up an expensive solution, which is either unaffordable or unnecessary for many applications. As a result, we found the Apicoo Robotics to provide our customers solutions with a much lower cost and higher stability.

[ Apicoo Robotics ]

The Skydio 2 is an incredible drone that can take incredible footage fully autonomously, but it definitely helps if you do incredible things in incredible places.

[ Skydio ]

Jueying is the first domestic sensitive quadruped robot for industry applications and scenarios. It can coordinate (replace) humans to reach any place that can be reached. It has superior environmental adaptability, excellent dynamic balance capabilities and precise Environmental perception capabilities. By carrying functional modules for different application scenarios in the safe load area, the mobile superiority of the quadruped robot can be organically integrated with the commercialization of functional modules, providing smart factories, smart parks, scene display and public safety application solutions.

[ DeepRobotics ]

We have developed semi-autonomous quadruped robot, called LASER-D (Legged-Agile-Smart-Efficient Robot for Disinfection) for performing disinfection in cluttered environments. The robot is equipped with a spray-based disinfection system and leverages the body motion to controlling the spray action without the need for an extra stabilization mechanism. The system includes an image processing capability to verify disinfected regions with high accuracy. This system allows the robot to successfully carry out effective disinfection tasks while safely traversing through cluttered environments, climb stairs/slopes, and navigate on slippery surfaces.

[ USC Viterbi ]

We propose the “multi-vision hand”, in which a number of small high-speed cameras are mounted on the robot hand of a common 7 degrees-of-freedom robot. Also, we propose visual-servoing control by using a multi-vision system that combines the multi-vision hand and external fixed high-speed cameras. The target task was ball catching motion, which requires high-speed operation. In the proposed catching control, the catch position of the ball, which is estimated by the external fixed high-speed cameras, is corrected by the multi-vision hand in real-time.

More details available through IROS on-demand.

[ Namiki Laboratory ]

Shunichi Kurumaya wrote in to share his work on PneuFinger, a pneumatically actuated compliant robotic gripping system.

[ Nakamura Lab ]

Thanks Shunichi!

Motivated by insights into the human teaching process, we introduce a method for incorporating unstructured natural language into imitation learning. At training time, the expert can provide demonstrations along with verbal descriptions in order to describe the underlying intent, e.g., “Go to the large green bowl’’. The training process, then, interrelates the different modalities to encode the correlations between language, perception, and motion. The resulting language-conditioned visuomotor policies can be conditioned at run time on new human commands and instructions, which allows for more fine-grained control over the trained policies while also reducing situational ambiguity.

[ ASU ]

Thanks Heni!

Gita is on sale for the holidays for only $2,000.

[ Gita ]

This video introduces a computational approach for routing thin artificial muscle actuators through hyperelastic soft robots, in order to achieve a desired deformation behavior. Provided with a robot design, and a set of example deformations, we continuously co-optimize the routing of actuators, and their actuation, to approximate example deformations as closely as possible.

[ Disney Research ]

Researchers and mountain rescuers in Switzerland are making huge progress in the field of autonomous drones as the technology becomes more in-demand for global search-and-rescue operations.

[ SWI ]

This short clip of the Ghost Robotics V60 features an interesting, if awkward looking, righting behavior at the end.

[ Ghost Robotics ]

Europe’s Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover has a younger ’sibling’, ExoMy. The blueprints and software for this mini-version of the full-size Mars explorer are available for free so that anyone can 3D print, assemble and program their own ExoMy.

[ ESA ]

The holiday season is here, and with the added impact of Covid-19 consumer demand is at an all-time high. Berkshire Grey is the partner that today’s leading organizations turn to when it comes to fulfillment automation.

[ Berkshire Grey ]

Until very recently, the vast majority of studies and reports on the use of cargo drones for public health were almost exclusively focused on the technology. The driving interest from was on the range that these drones could travel, how much they could carry and how they worked. Little to no attention was placed on the human side of these projects. Community perception, community engagement, consent and stakeholder feedback were rarely if ever addressed. This webinar presents the findings from a very recent study that finally sheds some light on the human side of drone delivery projects.

[ WeRobotics ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#437758 Remotely Operated Robot Takes Straight ...

Roboticists love hard problems. Challenges like the DRC and SubT have helped (and are still helping) to catalyze major advances in robotics, but not all hard problems require a massive amount of DARPA funding—sometimes, a hard problem can just be something very specific that’s really hard for a robot to do, especially relative to the ease with which a moderately trained human might be able to do it. Catching a ball. Putting a peg in a hole. Or using a straight razor to shave someone’s face without Sweeney Todd-izing them.

This particular roboticist who sees straight-razor face shaving as a hard problem that robots should be solving is John Peter Whitney, who we first met back at IROS 2014 in Chicago when (working at Disney Research) he introduced an elegant fluidic actuator system. These actuators use tubes containing a fluid (like air or water) to transmit forces from a primary robot to a secondary robot in a very efficient way that also allows for either compliance or very high fidelity force feedback, depending on the compressibility of the fluid.

Photo: John Peter Whitney/Northeastern University

Barber meets robot: Boston based barber Jesse Cabbage [top, right] observes the machine created by roboticist John Peter Whitney. Before testing the robot on Whitney’s face, they used his arm for a quick practice [bottom].

Whitney is now at Northeastern University, in Boston, and he recently gave a talk at the RSS workshop on “Reacting to Contact,” where he suggested that straight razor shaving would be an interesting and valuable problem for robotics to work toward, due to its difficulty and requirement for an extremely high level of both performance and reliability.

Now, a straight razor is sort of like a safety razor, except with the safety part removed, which in fact does make it significantly less safe for humans, much less robots. Also not ideal for those worried about safety is that as part of the process the razor ends up in distressingly close proximity to things like the artery that is busily delivering your brain’s entire supply of blood, which is very close to the top of the list of things that most people want to keep blades very far away from. But that didn’t stop Whitney from putting his whiskers where his mouth is and letting his robotic system mediate the ministrations of a professional barber. It’s not an autonomous robotic straight-razor shave (because Whitney is not totally crazy), but it’s a step in that direction, and requires that the hardware Whitney developed be dead reliable.

Perhaps that was a poor choice of words. But, rest assured that Whitney lived long enough to answer our questions after. Here’s the video; it’s part of a longer talk, but it should start in the right spot, at about 23:30.

If Whitney looked a little bit nervous to you, that’s because he was. “This was the first time I’d ever been shaved by someone (something?!) else with a straight razor,” he told us, and while having a professional barber at the helm was some comfort, “the lack of feeling and control on my part was somewhat unsettling.” Whitney says that the barber, Jesse Cabbage of Dentes Barbershop in Somerville, Mass., was surprised by how well he could feel the tactile sensations being transmitted from the razor. “That’s one of the reasons we decided to make this video,” Whitney says. “I can’t show someone how something feels, so the next best thing is to show a delicate task that either from experience or intuition makes it clear to the viewer that the system must have these properties—otherwise the task wouldn’t be possible.”

And as for when Whitney might be comfortable getting shaved by a robotic system without a human in the loop? It’s going to take a lot of work, as do most other hard problems in robotics. “There are two parts to this,” he explains. “One is fault-tolerance of the components themselves (software, electronics, etc.) and the second is the quality of the perception and planning algorithms.”

He offers a comparison to self-driving cars, in which similar (or greater) risks are incurred: “To learn how to perceive, interpret, and adapt, we need a very high-fidelity model of the problem, or a wealth of data and experience, or both” he says. “But in the case of shaving we are greatly lacking in both!” He continues with the analogy: “I think there is a natural progression—the community started with autonomous driving of toy cars on closed courses and worked up to real cars carrying human passengers; in robotic manipulation we are beginning to move out of the ‘toy car’ stage and so I think it’s good to target high-consequence hard problems to help drive progress.”

The ultimate goal is much more general than the creation of a dedicated straight razor shaving robot. This particular hardware system is actually a testbed for exploring MRI-compatible remote needle biopsy.

Of course, the ultimate goal here is much more general than the creation of a dedicated straight razor shaving robot; it’s a challenge that includes a host of sub-goals that will benefit robotics more generally. This particular hardware system Whitney is developing is actually a testbed for exploring MRI-compatible remote needle biopsy, and he and his students are collaborating with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston on adapting this technology to prostate biopsy and ablation procedures. They’re also exploring how delicate touch can be used as a way to map an environment and localize within it, especially where using vision may not be a good option. “These traits and behaviors are especially interesting for applications where we must interact with delicate and uncertain environments,” says Whitney. “Medical robots, assistive and rehabilitation robots and exoskeletons, and shared-autonomy teleoperation for delicate tasks.”
A paper with more details on this robotic system, “Series Elastic Force Control for Soft Robotic Fluid Actuators,” is available on arXiv. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots