Tag Archives: drive
Today, Boston Dynamics is announcing Stretch, a mobile robot designed to autonomously move boxes around warehouses. At first glance, you might be wondering why the heck this is a Boston Dynamics robot at all, since the dynamic mobility that we associate with most of their platforms is notably absent. The combination of strength and speed in Stretch’s arm is something we haven’t seen before in a mobile robot, and it’s what makes this a unique and potentially exciting entry into the warehouse robotics space.
Useful mobile manipulation in any environment that’s not almost entirely structured is still a significant challenge in robotics, and it requires a very difficult combination of sensing, intelligence, and dynamic motion, all of which are classic Boston Dynamics. But also classic Boston Dynamics is building really cool platforms, and only later trying to figure out a way of making them commercially viable. So why Stretch, why boxes, why now, and (the real question) why not Handle? We talk with Boston Dynamics’ Vice President of Product Engineering Kevin Blankespoor to find out.
Stretch is very explicitly a box-handling mobile robot for relatively well structured warehouses. It’s in no way designed to be a generalist that many of Boston Dynamics’ other robots are. And to be fair, this is absolutely how to make a robot that’s practical and cost effective right out of the crate: Identify a task that is dull or dirty or dangerous for humans, design a robot to do that task safely and efficiently, and deploy it with the expectation that it’ll be really good at that task but not necessarily much else. This is a very different approach than a robot like Spot, where the platform came first and the practical applications came later—with Stretch, it’s all about that specific task in a specific environment.
There are already robotic solutions for truck unloading, palletizing, and depalletizing, but Stretch seems to be uniquely capable. For truck unloading, the highest performance systems that I’m aware of are monstrous things (here’s one example from Honeywell) that use a ton of custom hardware to just sort of ingest the cargo within a trailer all at once. In a highly structured and predictable warehouse, this sort of thing may pay off over the long term, but it’s going to be extremely expensive and not very versatile at all.
Palletizing and depalletizing robots are much more common in warehouses today. They’re almost always large industrial arms surrounded by a network of custom conveyor belts and whatnot, suffering from the same sorts of constraints as a truck unloader— very capable in some situations, but generally high cost and low flexibility.
Photo: Boston Dynamics
Stretch is probably not going to be able to compete with either of these types of dedicated systems when it comes to sheer speed, but it offers lots of other critical advantages: It’s fast and easy to deploy, easy to use, and adaptable to a variety of different tasks without costly infrastructure changes. It’s also very much not Handle, which was Boston Dynamics’ earlier (although not that much earlier) attempt at a box-handling robot for warehouses, and (let’s be honest here) a much more Boston Dynamics-y thing than Stretch seems to be. To learn more about why the answer is Stretch rather than Handle, and how Stretch will fit into the warehouse of the very near future, we spoke with Kevin Blankespoor, Boston Dynamics’ VP of Product Engineering and chief engineer for both Handle and Stretch.
IEEE Spectrum: Tell me about Stretch!
Kevin Blankespoor: Stretch is the first mobile robot that we’ve designed specifically for the warehouse. It’s all about moving boxes. Stretch is a flexible robot that can move throughout the warehouse and do different tasks. During a typical day in the life of Stretch in the future, it might spend the morning on the inbound side of the warehouse unloading boxes from trucks. It might spend the afternoon in the aisles of the warehouse building up pallets to go to retailers and e-commerce facilities, and it might spend the evening on the outbound side of the warehouse loading boxes into the trucks. So, it really goes to where the work is.
There are already other robots that include truck unloading robots, palletizing and depalletizing robots, and mobile bases with arms on them. What makes Boston Dynamics the right company to introduce a new robot in this space?
We definitely thought through this, because there are already autonomous mobile robots [AMRs] out there. Most of them, though, are more like pallet movers or tote movers—they don't have an arm, and most of them are really just about moving something from point A to point B without manipulation capability. We've seen some experiments where people put arms on AMRs, but nothing that's made it very far in the market. And so when we started looking at Stretch, we realized we really needed to make a custom robot, and that it was something we could do quickly.
“We got a lot of interest from people who wanted to put Atlas to work in the warehouse, but we knew that we could build a simpler robot to do some of those same tasks.”
Stretch is built with pieces from Spot and Atlas and that gave us a big head start. For example, if you look at Stretch’s vision system, it's 2D cameras, depth sensors, and software that allows it to do obstacle detection, box detection, and localization. Those are all the same sensors and software that we've been using for years on our legged robots. And if you look closely at Stretch’s wrist joints, they're actually the same as Spot’s hips. They use the same electric motors, the same gearboxes, the same sensors, and they even have the same closed-loop controller controlling the joints.
If you were to buy an existing industrial robot arm with this kind of performance, it would be about four times heavier than the arm we built, and it's really hard to make that into a mobile robot. A lot of this came from our leg technology because it’s so important for our leg designs to be lightweight for the robots to balance. We took that same strength to weight advantage that we have, and built it into this arm. We're able to rapidly piece together things from our other robots to get us out of the gate quickly, so even though this looks like a totally different robot, we think we have a good head start going into this market.
At what point did you decide to go with an arm on a statically stable base on Stretch, rather than something more, you know, dynamic-y?
Stretch looks really different than the robots that Boston Dynamics has done in the past. But you'd be surprised how much similarity there is between our legged robots and Stretch under the hood. Looking back, we actually got our start on moving boxes with Atlas, and at that point it was just research and development. We were really trying to do force control for box grasping. We were picking up heavy boxes and maintaining balance and working on those fundamentals. We released a video of that as our first next-gen Atlas video, and it was interesting. We got a lot of interest from people who wanted to put Atlas to work in the warehouse, but we knew that we could build a simpler robot to do some of those same tasks.
So at this point we actually came up with Handle. The intent of Handle was to do a couple things—one was, we thought we could build a simpler robot that had Atlas’ attributes. Handle has a small footprint so it can fit in tight spaces, but it can pick up heavy boxes. And in addition to that, we had always really wanted to combine wheels and legs. We’d been talking about doing that for a decade and so Handle was a chance for us to try it.
We built a couple versions of Handle, and the first one was really just a prototype to kind of explore the morphology. But the second one was more purpose-built for warehouse tasks, and we started building pallets with that one and it looked pretty good. And then we started doing truck unloading with Handle, which was the pivotal moment. Handle could do it, but it took too long. Every time Handle grasped a box, it would have to roll back and then get to a place where it could spin itself to face forward and place the box, and trucks are very tight for a robot this size, so there's not a lot of room to maneuver. We knew the whole time that there was a robot like Stretch that was another alternative, but that's really when it became clear that Stretch would have a lot of advantages, and we started working on it about a year ago.
Stretch is certainly impressive in a practical way, but I’ll admit to really hoping that something like Handle could have turned out to be a viable warehouse robot.
I love the Handle project as well, and I’m very passionate about that robot. And there was a stage before we built Stretch where we thought, “this would be pretty standard looking compared to Handle, is it going to capture enough of the Boston Dynamics secret sauce?” But when you actually dissect all the problems within Stretch that you have to tackle, there are a lot of cool robotics problems left in there—the vision system, the planning, the manipulation, the grasping of the boxes—it's a lot harder to solve than it looks, and we're excited that we're actually getting fairly far down that road now.
What happens to Handle now?
Stretch has really taken over our team as far as warehouse products go. Handle we still use occasionally as a research robot, but it’s not actively under development. Stretch is really Handle’s descendent. Handle’s not retired, exactly, but we’re just using it for things like the dance video.
There’s still potential to do cool stuff with Handle. I do think that combining wheels with legs is very cool, and largely unexplored compared to its potential. So I still think that you're gonna see versions of robots combining wheels and legs like Handle, and maybe a version of Handle in the future that does more of that. But because we're switching this thread from research into product, Stretch is really the main focus now.
How autonomous is Stretch?
Stretch is semi-autonomous, and that means it really needs to work with people to tap into its full potential. With truck unloading, for example, a person will drive Stretch into the back of the truck and then basically point Stretch in the right direction and say go. And from that point on, everything’s autonomous. Stretch has its vision system and its mobility and it can detect all the boxes, grasp all boxes, and move them onto a conveyor all autonomously. This is something that takes people hours to do manually, and Stretch can go all the way until it gets to the last box, and the truck is empty. There are some parts of the truck unloading task that do require people, like verifying that the truck is in the right place and opening the doors. But this takes a person just a few minutes, and then the robot can spend hours or as long as it takes to do its job autonomously.
There are also other tasks in the warehouse where the autonomy will increase in the future. After truck unloading, the second thing we’ll take on is order building, which will be more in the aisles of a warehouse. For that, Stretch will be navigating around the warehouse, finding the right pallet it needs to take a box from, and loading it onto a new pallet. This will be a different model with more autonomy; you’ll still have people involved to some degree, but the robot will have a higher percentage of the time where it can work independently.
What kinds of constraints is Stretch operating under? Do the boxes all have to be stacked neatly in the back of the truck, do they have to be the same size, the same color, etc?
“This will be a different model with more autonomy. You’ll still have people involved to some degree, but the robot will have a higher percentage of the time where it can work independently.”
If you think about manufacturing, where there's been automation for decades, you can go into a modern manufacturing facility and there are robot arms and conveyors and other machines. But if you look at the actual warehouse space, 90+ percent is manually operated, and that's because of what you just asked about— things that are less structured, where there’s more variety, and it's more challenging for a robot. But this is starting to change. This is really, really early days, and you’re going to be seeing a lot more robots in the warehouse space.
The warehouse robotics industry is going to grow a lot over the next decade, and a lot of that boils down to vision—the ability for robots to navigate and to understand what they’re seeing. Actually seeing boxes in real world scenarios is challenging, especially when there's a lot of variety. We've been testing our machine learning-based box detection system on Pick for a few years now, and it's gotten far enough that we know it’s one of the technical hurdles you need to overcome to succeed in the warehouse.
Can you compare the performance of Stretch to the performance of a human in a box-unloading task?
Stretch can move cases up to 50 pounds which is the OSHA limit for how much a single person's allowed to move. The peak case rate for Stretch is 800 cases per hour. You really need to keep up with the flow of goods throughout the warehouse, and 800 cases per hour should be enough for most applications. This is similar to a really good human; most humans are probably slower, and it’s hard for a human to sustain that rate, and one of the big issues with people doing this jobs is injury rates. Imagine moving really heavy boxes all day, and having to reach up high or bend down to get them—injuries are really common in this area. Truck unloading is one of the hardest jobs in a warehouse, and that’s one of the reasons we’re starting there with Stretch.
Is Stretch safe for humans to be around?
We looked at using collaborative robot arms for Stretch, but they don’t have the combination of strength and speed and reach to do this task. That’s partially just due to the laws of physics—if you want to move a 50lb box really fast, that’s a lot of energy there. So, Stretch does need to maintain separation from humans, but it’s pretty safe when it’s operating in the back of a truck.
In the middle of a warehouse, Stretch will have a couple different modes. When it's traveling around it'll be kind of like an AMR, and use a safety-rated lidar making sure that it slows down or stops as people get closer. If it's parked and the arm is moving, it'll do the same thing, monitoring anyone getting close and either slow down or stop.
How do you see Stretch interacting with other warehouse robots?
For building pallet orders, we can do that in a couple of different ways, and we’re experimenting with partners in the AMR space. So you might have an AMR that moves the pallet around and then rendezvous with Stretch, and Stretch does the manipulation part and moves boxes onto the pallet, and then the AMR scuttles off to the next rendezvous point where maybe a different Stretch meets it. We’re developing prototypes of that behavior now with a few partners. Another way to do it is Stretch can actually pull the pallet around itself and do both tasks. There are two fundamental things that happen in the warehouse: there's movement of goods, and there's manipulation of goods, and Stretch can do both.
You’re aware that Hello Robot has a mobile manipulator called Stretch, right?
Great minds think alike! We know Aaron [Edsinger] from the Google days; we all used to be in the same company, and he’s a great guy. We’re in very different applications and spaces, though— Aaron’s robot is going into research and maybe a little bit into the consumer space, while this robot is on a much bigger scale aimed at industrial applications, so I think there’s actually a lot of space between our robots, in terms of how they’ll be used.
Editor’s Note: We did check in with Aaron Edsinger at Hello Robot, and he sees things a little bit differently. “We're disappointed they chose our name for their robot,” Edsinger told us. “We're seriously concerned about it and considering our options.” We sincerely hope that Boston Dynamics and Hello Robot can come to an amicable solution on this.
What’s the timeline for commercial deployment of Stretch?
This is a prototype of the Stretch robot, and anytime we design a new robot, we always like to build a prototype as quickly as possible so we can figure out what works and what doesn't work. We did that with our bipeds and quadrupeds as well. So, we get an early look at what we need to iterate, because any time you build the first thing, it's not the right thing, and you always need to make changes to get to the final version. We've got about six of those Stretch prototypes operating now. In parallel, our hardware team is finishing up the design of the productized version of Stretch. That version of Stretch looks a lot like the prototype, but every component has been redesigned from the ground up to be manufacturable, to be reliable, and to be higher performance.
For the productized version of Stretch, we’ll build up the first units this summer, and then it’ll go on sale next year. So this is kind of a sneak peak into what the final product will be.
How much does it cost, and will you be selling Stretch, or offering it as a service?
We’re not quite ready to talk about cost yet, but it’ll be cost effective, and similar in cost to existing systems if you were to combine an industrial robot arm, custom gripper, and mobile base. We’re considering both selling and leasing as a service, but we’re not quite ready to narrow it down yet.
Photo: Boston Dynamics
As with all mobile manipulators, what Stretch can do long-term is constrained far more by software than by hardware. With a fast and powerful arm, a mobile base, a solid perception system, and 16 hours of battery life, you can imagine how different grippers could enable all kinds of different capabilities. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, because it’s a long, long way from getting a prototype to work pretty well to getting robots into warehouses in a way that’s commercially viable long-term, even when the use case is as clear as it seems to be for Stretch.
Stretch also could signal a significant shift in focus for Boston Dynamics. While Blankespoor’s comments about Stretch leveraging Boston Dynamics’ expertise with robots like Spot and Atlas are well taken, Stretch is arguably the most traditional robot that the company has designed, and they’ve done so specifically to be able to sell robots into industry. This is what you do if you’re a robotics company who wants to make money by selling robots commercially, which (historically) has not been what Boston Dynamics is all about. Despite its bonkers valuation, Boston Dynamics ultimately needs to make money, and robots like Stretch are a good way to do it. With that in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more robots like this from Boston Dynamics—robots that leverage the company’s unique technology, but that are designed to do commercially useful tasks in a somewhat less flashy way. And if this strategy keeps Boston Dynamics around (while funding some occasional creative craziness), then I’m all for it. Continue reading →
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!):
RoboSoft 2021 – April 12-16, 2021 – [Online Conference]
ICRA 2021 – May 30-5, 2021 – Xi'an, China
DARPA SubT Finals – September 21-23, 2021 – Louisville, KY, USA
WeRobot 2021 – September 23-25, 2021 – Coral Gables, FL, USA
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.
The Shadow Robot team couldn't resist! Our Operator, Joanna, is using the Shadow Teleoperation System which, fun and games aside, can help those in difficult, dangerous and distant jobs.
Shadow could challenge this MIT Jenga-playing robot, but I bet they wouldn't win:
[ Shadow Robot ]
Digit is gradually stomping the Agility Robotics logo into a big grassy field fully autonomously.
[ Agility Robotics ]
This is a pretty great and very short robotic magic show.
[ Mario the Magician ]
A research team at the Georgia Institute of Technology has developed a modular solution for drone delivery of larger packages without the need for a complex fleet of drones of varying sizes. By allowing teams of small drones to collaboratively lift objects using an adaptive control algorithm, the strategy could allow a wide range of packages to be delivered using a combination of several standard-sized vehicles.
[ GA Tech ]
I've seen this done using vision before, but Flexiv's Rizon 4s can keep a ball moving along a specific trajectory using only force sensing and control.
[ Flexiv ]
This combination of a 3D aerial projection system and a sensing interface can be used as an interactive and intuitive control system for things like robot arms, but in this case, it's being used to make simulated pottery. Much less messy than the traditional way of doing it.
More details on Takafumi Matsumaru's work at the Bio-Robotics & Human-Mechatronics Laboratory at Waseda University at the link below.
[ BLHM ]
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris called astronauts Shannon Walker and Kate Rubins on the ISS, and they brought up Astrobee, at which point Shannon reaches over and rips Honey right off of her charging dock to get her on camera.
[ NASA ]
Here's a quick three minute update on Perseverance and Ingenuity from JPL.
[ Mars 2020 ]
Rigid grippers used in existing aerial manipulators require precise positioning to achieve successful grasps and transmit large contact forces that may destabilize the drone. This limits the speed during grasping and prevents “dynamic grasping,” where the drone attempts to grasp an object while moving. On the other hand, biological systems (e.g. birds) rely on compliant and soft parts to dampen contact forces and compensate for grasping inaccuracy, enabling impressive feats. This paper presents the first prototype of a soft drone—a quadrotor where traditional (i.e. rigid) landing gears are replaced with a soft tendon-actuated gripper to enable aggressive grasping.
[ MIT ]
In this video we present results from a field deployment inside the Løkken Mine underground pyrite mine in Norway. The Løkken mine was operative from 1654 to 1987 and contains narrow but long corridors, alongside vast rooms and challenging vertical stopes. In this field study we evaluated selected autonomous exploration and visual search capabilities of a subset of the aerial robots of Team CERBERUS towards the goal of complete subterranean autonomy.
[ Team CERBERUS ]
What you can do with a 1,000 FPS projector with a high speed tracking system.
[ Ishikawa Group ]
ANYbotics’ collaboration with BASF, one of the largest global chemical manufacturers, displays the efficiency, quality, and scalability of robotic inspection and data-collection capabilities in complex industrial environments.
[ ANYbotics ]
Does your robot arm need a stylish jacket?
[ Fraunhofer ]
Trossen Robotics unboxes a Unitree A1, and it's actually an unboxing where they have to figure out everything from scratch.
[ Trossen ]
Robots have learned to drive cars, assist in surgeries―and vacuum our floors. But can they navigate the unwritten rules of a busy sidewalk? Until they can, robotics experts Leila Takayama and Chris Nicholson believe, robots won’t be able to fulfill their immense potential. In this conversation, Chris and Leila explore the future of robotics and the role open source will play in it.
[ Red Hat ]
Christoph Bartneck's keynote at the 6th Joint UAE Symposium on Social Robotics, focusing on what roles robots can play during the Covid crisis and why so many social robots fail in the market.
[ HIT Lab ]
Decision-making based on arbitrary criteria is legal in some contexts, such as employment, and not in others, such as criminal sentencing. As algorithms replace human deciders, HAI-EIS fellow Kathleen Creel argues arbitrariness at scale is morally and legally problematic. In this HAI seminar, she explains how the heart of this moral issue relates to domination and a lack of sufficient opportunity for autonomy. It relates in interesting ways to the moral wrong of discrimination. She proposes technically informed solutions that can lessen the impact of algorithms at scale and so mitigate or avoid the moral harm identified.
[ Stanford HAI ]
Sawyer B. Fuller speaks on Autonomous Insect-Sized Robots at the UC Berkeley EECS Colloquium series.
Sub-gram (insect-sized) robots have enormous potential that is largely untapped. From a research perspective, their extreme size, weight, and power (SWaP) constraints also forces us to reimagine everything from how they compute their control laws to how they are fabricated. These questions are the focus of the Autonomous Insect Robotics Laboratory at the University of Washington. I will discuss potential applications for insect robots and recent advances from our group. These include the first wireless flights of a sub-gram flapping-wing robot that weighs barely more than a toothpick. I will describe efforts to expand its capabilities, including the first multimodal ground-flight locomotion, the first demonstration of steering control, and how to find chemical plume sources by integrating the smelling apparatus of a live moth. I will also describe a backpack for live beetles with a steerable camera and conceptual design of robots that could scale all the way down to the “gnat robots” first envisioned by Flynn & Brooks in the ‘80s.
[ UC Berkeley ]
Joshua Vander Hook, Computer Scientist, NIAC Fellow, and Technical Group Supervisor at NASA JPL, presents an overview of the AI Group(s) at JPL, and recent work on single and multi-agent autonomous systems supporting space exploration, Earth science, NASA technology development, and national defense programs.
[ UMD ] Continue reading →
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 ]
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 ]
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.
[ ACOPOS ]
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 ]
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 ]
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 →
Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a couple of new robots from Hyundai Motor Group. This is a couple more robots than I think I’ve seen from Hyundai Motor Group, like, ever. We’re particularly interested in them right now mostly because Hyundai Motor Group are the new owners of Boston Dynamics, and so far, these robots represent one of the most explicit indications we’ve got about exactly what Hyundai Motor Group wants their robots to be doing.
We know it would be a mistake to read too much into these new announcements, but we can’t help reading something into them, right? So let’s take a look at what Hyundai Motor Group has been up to recently. This first robot is DAL-e, what HMG is calling an “Advanced Humanoid Robot.”
According to Hyundai, DAL-e is “designed to pioneer the future of automated customer services,” and is equipped with “state-of-the-art artificial intelligence technology for facial recognition as well as an automatic communication system based on a language-comprehension platform.” You’ll find it in car showrooms, but only in Seoul, for now.
We don’t normally write about robots like these because they tend not to represent much that’s especially new or interesting in terms of robotic technology, capabilities, or commercial potential. There’s certainly nothing wrong with DAL-e—it’s moderately cute and appears to be moderately functional. We’ve seen other platforms (like Pepper) take on similar roles, and our impression is that the long-term cost effectiveness of these greeter robots tends to be somewhat limited. And unless there’s some hidden functionality that we’re not aware of, this robot doesn’t really seem to be pushing the envelope, but we’d love to be wrong about that.
The other new robot, announced yesterday, is TIGER (Transforming Intelligent Ground Excursion Robot). It’s a bit more interesting, although you’ll have to skip ahead about 1:30 in the video to get to it.
We’ve talked about how adding wheels can make legged robots faster and more efficient, but I’m honestly not sure that it works all that well going the other way (adding legs to wheeled robots) because rather than adding a little complexity to get a multi-modal system that you can use much of the time, you’re instead adding a lot of complexity to get a multi-modal system that you’re going to use sometimes.
You could argue, as perhaps Hyundai would, that the multi-modal system is critical to get TIGER to do what they want it to do, which seems to be primarily remote delivery. They mention operating in urban areas as well, where TIGER could use its legs to climb stairs, but I think it would be beat by more traditional wheeled platforms, or even whegged platforms, that are almost as capable while being much simpler and cheaper. For remote delivery, though, legs might be a necessary feature.
That is, if you assume that using a ground-based system is really the best way to go.
The TIGER concept can be integrated with a drone to transport it from place to place, so why not just use the drone to make the remote delivery instead? I guess maybe if you’re dealing with a thick tree canopy, the drone could drop TIGER off in a clearing and the robot could drive to its destination, but now we’re talking about developing a very complex system for a very specific use case. Even though Hyundai has said that they’re going to attempt to commercialize TIGER over the next five years, I think it’ll be tricky for them to successfully do so.
The best part about these robots from Hyundai is that between the two of them, they suggest that the company is serious about developing commercial robots as well as willing to invest in something that seems a little crazy. And you know who else is both of those things? Boston Dynamics. To be clear, it’s almost certain that both of Hyundai’s robots were developed well before the company was even thinking about acquiring Boston Dynamics, so the real question is: Where do these two companies go from here? Continue reading →
Boston Dynamics has been working on an arm for its Spot quadruped for at least five years now. There have been plenty of teasers along the way, including this 45-second clip from early 2018 of Spot using its arm to open a door, which at 85 million views seems to be Boston Dynamics’ most popular video ever by a huge margin. Obviously, there’s a substantial amount of interest in turning Spot from a highly dynamic but mostly passive sensor platform into a mobile manipulator that can interact with its environment.
As anyone who’s done mobile manipulation will tell you, actually building an arm is just the first step—the really tricky part is getting that arm to do exactly what you want it to do. In particular, Spot’s arm needs to be able to interact with the world with some amount of autonomy in order to be commercially useful, because you can’t expect a human (remote or otherwise) to spend all their time positioning individual joints or whatever to pick something up. So the real question about this arm is whether Boston Dynamics has managed to get it to a point where it’s autonomous enough that users with relatively little robotics experience will be able to get it to do useful tasks without driving themselves nuts.
Today, Boston Dynamics is announcing commercial availability of the Spot arm, along with some improved software called Scout plus a self-charging dock that’ll give the robot even more independence. And to figure out exactly what Spot’s new arm can do, we spoke with Zachary Jackowski, Spot Chief Engineer at Boston Dynamics.
Although Boston Dynamics’ focus has been on dynamic mobility and legged robots, the company has been working on manipulation for a very long time. We first saw an arm prototype on an early iteration of Spot in 2016, where it demonstrated some impressive functionality, including loading a dishwasher and fetching a beer in a way that only resulted in a minor catastrophe. But we’re guessing that Spot’s arm can trace its history back to BigDog’s crazy powerful hydraulic face-arm, which was causing mayhem with cinder blocks back in 2013:
Spot’s arm is not quite that powerful (it has to drag cinder blocks along the ground rather than fling them into space), but you can certainly see the resemblance. Here’s the video that Boston Dynamics posted yesterday to introduce Spot’s new arm:
A couple of things jumped out from this video right away. First, Spot is doing whole body manipulation with its arm, as opposed to just acting as a four-legged base that brings the arm where it needs to go. Planning looks to be very tightly integrated, such that if you ask the robot to manipulate an object, its arm, legs, and torso all work together to optimize that manipulation. Also, when Spot flips that electrical switch, you see the robot successfully grasp the switch, and then reposition its body in a way that looks like it provides better leverage for the flip, which is a neat trick. It looks like it may be able to use the strength of its legs to augment the strength of its arm, as when it’s dragging the cinder block around, which is surely an homage to BigDog. The digging of a hole is particularly impressive. But again, the real question is how much of this is autonomous or semi-autonomous in a way that will be commercially useful?
Before we get to our interview with Spot Chief Engineer Zack Jackowski, it’s worth watching one more video that Boston Dynamics shared with us:
This is notable because Spot is opening a door that’s not ADA compliant, and the robot is doing it with a simple two-finger gripper. Most robots you see interacting with doors rely on ADA compliant hardware, meaning (among other things) a handle that can be pushed rather than a knob that has to be twisted, because it’s much more challenging for a robot to grasp and twist a smooth round door knob than it is to just kinda bash down on a handle. That capability, combined with Spot being able to pass through a spring-loaded door, potentially opens up a much wider array of human environments to the robot, and that’s where we started our conversation with Jackowski.
IEEE Spectrum: At what point did you decide that for Spot’s arm to be useful, it had to be able to handle round door knobs?
Zachary Jackowski: We're like a lot of roboticists, where someone in a meeting about manipulation would say “it's time for the round doorknob” and people would start groaning a little bit. But the reality is that, in order to make a robot useful, you have to engage with the environments that users have. Spot’s arm uses a very simple gripper—it’s a one degree of freedom gripper, but a ton of thought has gone into all of the fine geometric contours of it such that it can grab that ADA compliant lever handle, and it’ll also do an enclosing grasp around a round door knob. The major point of a robot like Spot is to engage with the environment you have, and so you can’t cut out stuff like round door knobs.
We're thrilled to be launching the arm and getting it out with users and to have them start telling us what doors it works really well on, and what they're having trouble with. And we're going to be working on rapidly improving all this stuff. We went through a few campaigns of like, “this isn’t ready until we can open every single door at Boston Dynamics!” But every single door at Boston Dynamics and at our test lab is a small fraction of all the doors in the world. So we're prepared to learn a lot this year.
When we see Spot open a door, or when it does those other manipulation behaviors in the launch video, how much of that is autonomous, how much is scripted, and to what extent is there a human in the loop?
All of the scenes where the robot does a pick, like the snow scene or the laundry scene, that is actually an almost fully integrated autonomous behavior that has a bit of a script wrapped around it. We trained a detector for an object, and the robot is identifying that object in the environment, picking it, and putting it in the bin all autonomously. The scripted part of that is telling the robot to perform a series of picks.
One of the things that we’re excited about, and that roboticists have been excited about going back probably all the way to the DRC, is semi-autonomous manipulation. And so we have modes built into the interface where if you see an object that you want the robot to grab, all you have to do is tap that object on the screen, and the robot will walk up to it, use the depth camera in its gripper to capture a depth map, and plan a grasp on its own in real time. That’s all built-in, too.
The jump rope—robots don’t just go and jump rope on their own. We scripted an arm motion to move the rope, and wrote a script using our API to coordinate all three robots. Drawing “Boston Dynamics” in chalk in our parking lot was scripted also. One of our engineers wrote a really cool G-code interpreter that vectorizes graphics so that Spot can draw them.
So for an end user, if you wanted Spot to autonomously flip some switches for you, you’d just have to train Spot on your switches, and then Spot could autonomously perform the task?
There are a couple of ways that task could break down depending on how you’re interfacing with the robot. If you’re a tablet user, you’d probably just identify the switch yourself on the tablet’s screen, and the robot will figure out the grasp, and grasp it. Then you’ll enter a constrained manipulation mode on the tablet, and the robot will be able to actuate the switch. But the robot will take care of the complicated controls aspects, like figuring out how hard it has to pull, the center of rotation of the switch, and so on.
The video of Spot digging was pretty cool—how did that work?
That’s mostly a scripted behavior. There are some really interesting control systems topics in there, like how you’d actually do the right kinds of force control while you insert the trowel into the dirt, and how to maintain robot stability while you do it. The higher level task of how to make a good hole in the dirt—that’s scripted. But the part of the problem that’s actually digging, you need the right control system to actually do that, or you’ll dig your trowel into the ground and flip your robot over.
The last time we saw Boston Dynamics robots flipping switches and turning valves I think might have been during the DRC in 2015, when they had expert robot operators with control over every degree of freedom. How are things different now with Spot, and will non-experts in the commercial space really be able to get the robot to do useful tasks?
A lot of the things, like “pick the stuff up in the room,” or ‘turn that switch,” can all be done by a lightly trained operator using just the tablet interface. If you want to actually command all of Spot’s arm degrees of freedom, you can do that— not through the tablet, but the API does expose all of it. That’s actually a notable difference from the base robot; we’ve never opened up the part of the API that lets you command individual leg degrees of freedom, because we don’t think it’s productive for someone to do that. The arm is a little bit different. There are a lot of smart people working on arm motion planning algorithms, and maybe you want to plan your arm trajectory in a super precise way and then do a DRC-style interface where you click to approve it. You can do all that through the API if you want, but fundamentally, it’s also user friendly. It follows our general API design philosophy of giving you the highest level pieces of the toolbox that will enable you to solve a complex problem that we haven't thought of.
Looking back on it now, it’s really cool to see, after so many years, robots do the stuff that Gill Pratt was excited about kicking off with the DRC. And now it’s just a thing you can buy.
Is Spot’s arm safe?
You should follow the same safety rules that you’d follow when working with Spot normally, and that’s that you shouldn’t get within two meters of the robot when it’s powered on. Spot is not a cobot. You shouldn’t hug it. Fundamentally, the places where the robot is the most valuable are places where people don’t want to be, or shouldn’t be.
We’ve seen how people reacted to earlier videos of Spot using its arm—can you help us set some reasonable expectations for what this means for Spot?
You know, it gets right back to the normal assumptions about our robots that people make that aren’t quite reality. All of this manipulation work we’re doing— the robot’s really acting as a tool. Even if it’s an autonomous behavior, it’s a tool. The robot is digging a hole because it’s got a set of instructions that say “apply this much force over this much distance here, here, and here.”
It’s not digging a hole and planting a tree because it loves trees, as much as I’d love to build a robot that works like that.
Photo: Boston Dynamics
There isn’t too much to say about the dock, except that it’s a requirement for making Spot long-term autonomous. The uncomfortable looking charging contacts that Spot impales itself on also include hardwired network connectivity, which is important because Spot often comes back home with a huge amount of data that all needs to be offloaded and processed. Docking and undocking are autonomous— as soon as the robot sees the fiducial markers on the dock, auto docking is enabled and it takes one click to settle the robot down.
During a brief remote demo, we also learned some other interesting things about Spot’s updated remote interface. It’s very latency tolerant, since you don’t have to drive the robot directly (although you can if you want to). Click a point on the camera view and Spot will move there autonomously while avoiding obstacles, meaning that even if you’re dealing with seconds of lag, the robot will continue making safe progress. This will be especially important if (when?) Spot starts exploring the Moon.
The remote interface also has an option to adjust how close Spot can get to obstacles, or to turn the obstacle avoidance off altogether. The latter functionality is useful if Spot sees something as an obstacle that really isn’t, like a curtain, while the former is useful if the robot is operating in an environment where it needs to give an especially wide berth to objects that could be dangerous to run into. “The robot’s not perfect—robots will never be perfect,” Jackowski reminds us, which is something we really (seriously) appreciate hearing from folks working on powerful, dynamic robots. “No matter how good the robot is, you should always de-risk as much as possible.”
Another part of that de-risking is having the user let Spot know when it’s about to go up or down some stairs by putting into “Stair Mode” with a toggle switch in the remote interface. Stairs are still a challenge for Spot, and Stair Mode slows the robot down and encourages it to pitch its body more aggressively to get a better view of the stairs. You’re encouraged to use stair mode, and also encouraged to send Spot up and down stairs with its “head” pointing up the stairs both ways, but these are not requirements for stair navigation— if you want to, you can send Spot down stairs head first without putting it in stair mode. Jackowski says that eventually, Spot will detect stairways by itself even when not in stair mode and adjust itself accordingly, but for now, that de-risking is solidly in the hands of the user.
Spot’s sensor payload, which is what we were trying out for the demo, provided a great opportunity for us to hear Spot STOMP STOMP STOMPING all over the place, which was also an opportunity for us to ask Jackowski why they can’t make Spot a little quieter. “It’s advantageous for Spot to step a little bit hard for the same reason it’s advantageous for you to step a little bit hard if you’re walking around blindfolded—that reason is that it really lets you know where the ground is, particularly when you’re not sure what to expect.” He adds, “It’s all in the name of robustness— the robot might be a little louder, but it’s a little more sure of its footing.”
Boston Dynamics isn’t yet ready to disclose the price of an arm-equipped Spot, but if you’re a potential customer, now is the time to contact the Boston Dynamics sales team to ask them about it. As a reminder, the base model of Spot costs US $74,500, with extra sensing or compute adding a substantial premium on top of that.
There will be a livestream launch event taking place at 11am ET today, during which Boston Dynamics’ CEO Robert Playter, VP of Marketing Michael Perry, and other folks from Boston Dynamics will make presentations on this new stuff. It’ll be live at this link, or you can watch it below. Continue reading →