Tag Archives: engineers

#439110 Robotic Exoskeletons Could One Day Walk ...

Engineers, using artificial intelligence and wearable cameras, now aim to help robotic exoskeletons walk by themselves.

Increasingly, researchers around the world are developing lower-body exoskeletons to help people walk. These are essentially walking robots users can strap to their legs to help them move.

One problem with such exoskeletons: They often depend on manual controls to switch from one mode of locomotion to another, such as from sitting to standing, or standing to walking, or walking on the ground to walking up or down stairs. Relying on joysticks or smartphone apps every time you want to switch the way you want to move can prove awkward and mentally taxing, says Brokoslaw Laschowski, a robotics researcher at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

Scientists are working on automated ways to help exoskeletons recognize when to switch locomotion modes — for instance, using sensors attached to legs that can detect bioelectric signals sent from your brain to your muscles telling them to move. However, this approach comes with a number of challenges, such as how how skin conductivity can change as a person’s skin gets sweatier or dries off.

Now several research groups are experimenting with a new approach: fitting exoskeleton users with wearable cameras to provide the machines with vision data that will let them operate autonomously. Artificial intelligence (AI) software can analyze this data to recognize stairs, doors, and other features of the surrounding environment and calculate how best to respond.

Laschowski leads the ExoNet project, the first open-source database of high-resolution wearable camera images of human locomotion scenarios. It holds more than 5.6 million images of indoor and outdoor real-world walking environments. The team used this data to train deep-learning algorithms; their convolutional neural networks can already automatically recognize different walking environments with 73 percent accuracy “despite the large variance in different surfaces and objects sensed by the wearable camera,” Laschowski notes.

According to Laschowski, a potential limitation of their work their reliance on conventional 2-D images, whereas depth cameras could also capture potentially useful distance data. He and his collaborators ultimately chose not to rely on depth cameras for a number of reasons, including the fact that the accuracy of depth measurements typically degrades in outdoor lighting and with increasing distance, he says.

In similar work, researchers in North Carolina had volunteers with cameras either mounted on their eyeglasses or strapped onto their knees walk through a variety of indoor and outdoor settings to capture the kind of image data exoskeletons might use to see the world around them. The aim? “To automate motion,” says Edgar Lobaton an electrical engineering researcher at North Carolina State University. He says they are focusing on how AI software might reduce uncertainty due to factors such as motion blur or overexposed images “to ensure safe operation. We want to ensure that we can really rely on the vision and AI portion before integrating it into the hardware.”

In the future, Laschowski and his colleagues will focus on improving the accuracy of their environmental analysis software with low computational and memory storage requirements, which are important for onboard, real-time operations on robotic exoskeletons. Lobaton and his team also seek to account for uncertainty introduced into their visual systems by movements .

Ultimately, the ExoNet researchers want to explore how AI software can transmit commands to exoskeletons so they can perform tasks such as climbing stairs or avoiding obstacles based on a system’s analysis of a user's current movements and the upcoming terrain. With autonomous cars as inspiration, they are seeking to develop autonomous exoskeletons that can handle the walking task without human input, Laschowski says.

However, Laschowski adds, “User safety is of the utmost importance, especially considering that we're working with individuals with mobility impairments,” resulting perhaps from advanced age or physical disabilities.
“The exoskeleton user will always have the ability to override the system should the classification algorithm or controller make a wrong decision.” Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#438779 Meet Catfish Charlie, the CIA’s ...

Photo: CIA Museum

CIA roboticists designed Catfish Charlie to take water samples undetected. Why they wanted a spy fish for such a purpose remains classified.

In 1961, Tom Rogers of the Leo Burnett Agency created Charlie the Tuna, a jive-talking cartoon mascot and spokesfish for the StarKist brand. The popular ad campaign ran for several decades, and its catchphrase “Sorry, Charlie” quickly hooked itself in the American lexicon.

When the CIA’s Office of Advanced Technologies and Programs started conducting some fish-focused research in the 1990s, Charlie must have seemed like the perfect code name. Except that the CIA’s Charlie was a catfish. And it was a robot.

More precisely, Charlie was an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) designed to surreptitiously collect water samples. Its handler controlled the fish via a line-of-sight radio handset. Not much has been revealed about the fish’s construction except that its body contained a pressure hull, ballast system, and communications system, while its tail housed the propulsion. At 61 centimeters long, Charlie wouldn’t set any biggest-fish records. (Some species of catfish can grow to 2 meters.) Whether Charlie reeled in any useful intel is unknown, as details of its missions are still classified.

For exploring watery environments, nothing beats a robot
The CIA was far from alone in its pursuit of UUVs nor was it the first agency to do so. In the United States, such research began in earnest in the 1950s, with the U.S. Navy’s funding of technology for deep-sea rescue and salvage operations. Other projects looked at sea drones for surveillance and scientific data collection.

Aaron Marburg, a principal electrical and computer engineer who works on UUVs at the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory, notes that the world’s oceans are largely off-limits to crewed vessels. “The nature of the oceans is that we can only go there with robots,” he told me in a recent Zoom call. To explore those uncharted regions, he said, “we are forced to solve the technical problems and make the robots work.”

Image: Thomas Wells/Applied Physics Laboratory/University of Washington

An oil painting commemorates SPURV, a series of underwater research robots built by the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Lab. In nearly 400 deployments, no SPURVs were lost.

One of the earliest UUVs happens to sit in the hall outside Marburg’s office: the Self-Propelled Underwater Research Vehicle, or SPURV, developed at the applied physics lab beginning in the late ’50s. SPURV’s original purpose was to gather data on the physical properties of the sea, in particular temperature and sound velocity. Unlike Charlie, with its fishy exterior, SPURV had a utilitarian torpedo shape that was more in line with its mission. Just over 3 meters long, it could dive to 3,600 meters, had a top speed of 2.5 m/s, and operated for 5.5 hours on a battery pack. Data was recorded to magnetic tape and later transferred to a photosensitive paper strip recorder or other computer-compatible media and then plotted using an IBM 1130.

Over time, SPURV’s instrumentation grew more capable, and the scope of the project expanded. In one study, for example, SPURV carried a fluorometer to measure the dispersion of dye in the water, to support wake studies. The project was so successful that additional SPURVs were developed, eventually completing nearly 400 missions by the time it ended in 1979.

Working on underwater robots, Marburg says, means balancing technical risks and mission objectives against constraints on funding and other resources. Support for purely speculative research in this area is rare. The goal, then, is to build UUVs that are simple, effective, and reliable. “No one wants to write a report to their funders saying, ‘Sorry, the batteries died, and we lost our million-dollar robot fish in a current,’ ” Marburg says.

A robot fish called SoFi
Since SPURV, there have been many other unmanned underwater vehicles, of various shapes and sizes and for various missions, developed in the United States and elsewhere. UUVs and their autonomous cousins, AUVs, are now routinely used for scientific research, education, and surveillance.

At least a few of these robots have been fish-inspired. In the mid-1990s, for instance, engineers at MIT worked on a RoboTuna, also nicknamed Charlie. Modeled loosely on a blue-fin tuna, it had a propulsion system that mimicked the tail fin of a real fish. This was a big departure from the screws or propellers used on UUVs like SPURV. But this Charlie never swam on its own; it was always tethered to a bank of instruments. The MIT group’s next effort, a RoboPike called Wanda, overcame this limitation and swam freely, but never learned to avoid running into the sides of its tank.

Fast-forward 25 years, and a team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) unveiled SoFi, a decidedly more fishy robot designed to swim next to real fish without disturbing them. Controlled by a retrofitted Super Nintendo handset, SoFi could dive more than 15 meters, control its own buoyancy, and swim around for up to 40 minutes between battery charges. Noting that SoFi’s creators tested their robot fish in the gorgeous waters off Fiji, IEEE Spectrum’s Evan Ackerman noted, “Part of me is convinced that roboticists take on projects like these…because it’s a great way to justify a trip somewhere exotic.”

SoFi, Wanda, and both Charlies are all examples of biomimetics, a term coined in 1974 to describe the study of biological mechanisms, processes, structures, and substances. Biomimetics looks to nature to inspire design.

Sometimes, the resulting technology proves to be more efficient than its natural counterpart, as Richard James Clapham discovered while researching robotic fish for his Ph.D. at the University of Essex, in England. Under the supervision of robotics expert Huosheng Hu, Clapham studied the swimming motion of Cyprinus carpio, the common carp. He then developed four robots that incorporated carplike swimming, the most capable of which was iSplash-II. When tested under ideal conditions—that is, a tank 5 meters long, 2 meters wide, and 1.5 meters deep—iSpash-II obtained a maximum velocity of 11.6 body lengths per second (or about 3.7 m/s). That’s faster than a real carp, which averages a top velocity of 10 body lengths per second. But iSplash-II fell short of the peak performance of a fish darting quickly to avoid a predator.

Of course, swimming in a test pool or placid lake is one thing; surviving the rough and tumble of a breaking wave is another matter. The latter is something that roboticist Kathryn Daltorio has explored in depth.

Daltorio, an assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University and codirector of the Center for Biologically Inspired Robotics Research there, has studied the movements of cockroaches, earthworms, and crabs for clues on how to build better robots. After watching a crab navigate from the sandy beach to shallow water without being thrown off course by a wave, she was inspired to create an amphibious robot with tapered, curved feet that could dig into the sand. This design allowed her robot to withstand forces up to 138 percent of its body weight.

Photo: Nicole Graf

This robotic crab created by Case Western’s Kathryn Daltorio imitates how real crabs grab the sand to avoid being toppled by waves.

In her designs, Daltorio is following architect Louis Sullivan’s famous maxim: Form follows function. She isn’t trying to imitate the aesthetics of nature—her robot bears only a passing resemblance to a crab—but rather the best functionality. She looks at how animals interact with their environments and steals evolution’s best ideas.

And yet, Daltorio admits, there is also a place for realistic-looking robotic fish, because they can capture the imagination and spark interest in robotics as well as nature. And unlike a hyperrealistic humanoid, a robotic fish is unlikely to fall into the creepiness of the uncanny valley.

In writing this column, I was delighted to come across plenty of recent examples of such robotic fish. Ryomei Engineering, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, has developed several: a robo-coelacanth, a robotic gold koi, and a robotic carp. The coelacanth was designed as an educational tool for aquariums, to present a lifelike specimen of a rarely seen fish that is often only known by its fossil record. Meanwhile, engineers at the University of Kitakyushu in Japan created Tai-robot-kun, a credible-looking sea bream. And a team at Evologics, based in Berlin, came up with the BOSS manta ray.

Whatever their official purpose, these nature-inspired robocreatures can inspire us in return. UUVs that open up new and wondrous vistas on the world’s oceans can extend humankind’s ability to explore. We create them, and they enhance us, and that strikes me as a very fair and worthy exchange.

This article appears in the March 2021 print issue as “Catfish, Robot, Swimmer, Spy.”

About the Author
Allison Marsh is an associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina and codirector of the university’s Ann Johnson Institute for Science, Technology & Society. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#438738 This Week’s Awesome Tech Stories From ...

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
A New Artificial Intelligence Makes Mistakes—on Purpose
Will Knight | Wired
“It took about 50 years for computers to eviscerate humans in the venerable game of chess. A standard smartphone can now play the kind of moves that make a grandmaster’s head spin. But one artificial intelligence program is taking a few steps backward, to appreciate how average humans play—blunders and all.”

CRYPTOCURRENCY
Bitcoin’s Price Rises to $50,000 as Mainstream Institutions Hop On
Timothy B. Lee | Ars Technica
“Bitcoin’s price is now far above the previous peak of $19,500 reached in December 2017. Bitcoin’s value has risen by almost 70 percent since the start of 2021. No single factor seems to be driving the cryptocurrency’s rise. Instead, the price is rising as more and more mainstream organizations are deciding to treat it as an ordinary investment asset.”

SCIENCE
Million-Year-Old Mammoth Teeth Contain Oldest DNA Ever Found
Jeanne Timmons | Gizmodo
“An international team of scientists has sequenced DNA from mammoth teeth that is at least a million years old, if not older. This research, published today in Nature, not only provides exciting new insight into mammoth evolutionary history, it reveals an entirely unknown lineage of ancient mammoth.”

SCIENCE
Scientists Accidentally Discover Strange Creatures Under a Half Mile of Ice
Matt Simon | Wired
“i‘It’s like, bloody hell!’ Smith says. ‘It’s just one big boulder in the middle of a relatively flat seafloor. It’s not as if the seafloor is littered with these things.’ Just his luck to drill in the only wrong place. Wrong place for collecting seafloor muck, but the absolute right place for a one-in-a-million shot at finding life in an environment that scientists didn’t reckon could support much of it.”

BIOTECH
Highest-Resolution Images of DNA Reveal It’s Surprisingly Jiggly
George Dvorsky | Gizmodo
“Scientists have captured the highest-resolution images ever taken of DNA, revealing previously unseen twisting and squirming behaviors. …These hidden movements were revealed by computer simulations fed with the highest-resolution images ever taken of a single molecule of DNA. The new study is exposing previously unseen behaviors in the self-replicating molecule, and this research could eventually lead to the development of powerful new genetic therapies.”

TRANSPORTATION
The First Battery-Powered Tanker Is Coming to Tokyo
Maria Gallucci | IEEE Spectrum
“The Japanese tanker is Corvus’s first fully-electric coastal freighter project; the company hopes the e5 will be the first of hundreds more just like it. ‘We see it [as] a beachhead for the coastal shipping market globally,’ Puchalski said. ‘There are many other coastal freighter types that are similar in size and energy demand.’ The number of battery-powered ships has ballooned from virtually zero a decade ago to hundreds worldwide.”

SPACE
Report: NASA’s Only Realistic Path for Humans on Mars Is Nuclear Propulsion
Eric Berger | Ars Technica
“Conducted at the request of NASA, a broad-based committee of experts assessed the viability of two means of propulsion—nuclear thermal and nuclear electric—for a human mission launching to Mars in 2039. ‘One of the primary takeaways of the report is that if we want to send humans to Mars, and we want to do so repeatedly and in a sustainable way, nuclear space propulsion is on the path,’ said [JPL’s] Bobby Braun.”

NASA’s Perseverance Rover Successfully Lands on Mars
Joey Roulette | The Verge
“Perseverance hit Mars’ atmosphere on time at 3:48PM ET at speeds of about 12,100 miles per hour, diving toward the surface in an infamously challenging sequence engineers call the “seven minutes of terror.” With an 11-minute comms delay between Mars and Earth, the spacecraft had to carry out its seven-minute plunge at all by itself with a wickedly complex set of pre-programmed instructions.”

ENVIRONMENT
A First-of-Its-Kind Geoengineering Experiment Is About to Take Its First Step
James Temple | MIT Technology Review
“When I visited Frank Keutsch in the fall of 2019, he walked me down to the lab, where the tube, wrapped in gray insulation, ran the length of a bench in the back corner. By filling it with the right combination of gases, at particular temperatures and pressures, Keutsch and his colleagues had simulated the conditions some 20 kilometers above Earth’s surface. In testing how various chemicals react in this rarefied air, the team hoped to conduct a crude test of a controversial scheme known as solar geoengineering.”

Image Credit: Garcia / Unsplash Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#438080 Boston Dynamics’ Spot Robot Is Now ...

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

Posted in Human Robots

#438076 Boston Dynamics’ Spot Robot Is Now ...

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

Posted in Human Robots