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#439089 Ingenuity’s Chief Pilot Explains How ...

On April 11, the Mars helicopter Ingenuity will take to the skies of Mars for the first time. It will do so fully autonomously, out of necessity—the time delay between Ingenuity’s pilots at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Jezero Crater on Mars makes manual or even supervisory control impossible. So the best that the folks at JPL can do is practice as much as they can in simulation, and then hope that the helicopter can handle everything on its own.

Here on Earth, simulation is a critical tool for many robotics applications, because it doesn’t rely on access to expensive hardware, is non-destructive, and can be run in parallel and at faster-than-real-time speeds to focus on solving specific problems. Once you think you’ve gotten everything figured out in simulation, you can always give it a try on the real robot and see how close you came. If it works in real life, great! And if not, well, you can tweak some stuff in the simulation and try again.

For the Mars helicopter, simulation is much more important, and much higher stakes. Testing the Mars helicopter under conditions matching what it’ll find on Mars is not physically possible on Earth. JPL has flown engineering models in Martian atmospheric conditions, and they’ve used an actuated tether to mimic Mars gravity, but there’s just no way to know what it’ll be like flying on Mars until they’ve actually flown on Mars. With that in mind, the Ingenuity team has been relying heavily on simulation, since that’s one of the best tools they have to prepare for their Martian flights. We talk with Ingenuity’s Chief Pilot, Håvard Grip, to learn how it all works.

Ingenuity Facts:
Body Size: a box of tissues

Brains: Qualcomm Snapdragon 801

Weight: 1.8 kilograms

Propulsion: Two 1.2m carbon fiber rotors

Navigation sensors: VGA camera, laser altimeter, inclinometer

Ingenuity is scheduled to make its first flight no earlier than April 11. Before liftoff, the Ingenuity team will conduct a variety of pre-flight checks, including verifying the responsiveness of the control system and spinning the blades up to full speed (2,537 rpm) without lifting off. If everything looks good, the first flight will consist of a 1 meter per second climb to 3 meters, 30 seconds of hover at 3 meters while rotating in place a bit, and then a descent to landing. If Ingenuity pulls this off, that will have made its entire mission a success. There will be more flights over the next few weeks, but all it takes is one to prove that autonomous helicopter flight on Mars is possible.

Last month, we spoke with Mars Helicopter Operations Lead Tim Canham about Ingenuity’s hardware, software, and autonomy, but we wanted to know more about how the Ingenuity team has been using simulation for everything from vehicle design to flight planning. To answer our questions, we talked with JPL’s Håvard Grip, who led the development of Ingenuity’s navigation and flight control systems. Grip also has the title of Ingenuity Chief Pilot, which is pretty awesome. He summarizes this role as “operating the flight control system to make the helicopter do what we want it to do.”

IEEE Spectrum: Can you tell me about the simulation environment that JPL uses for Ingenuity’s flight planning?

Håvard Grip: We developed a Mars helicopter simulation ourselves at JPL, based on a multi-body simulation framework that’s also developed at JPL, called DARTS/DSHELL. That's a system that has been in development at JPL for about 30 years now, and it's been used in a number of missions. And so we took that multibody simulation framework, and based on it we built our own Mars helicopter simulation, put together our own rotor model, our own aerodynamics models, and everything else that's needed in order to simulate a helicopter. We also had a lot of help from the rotorcraft experts at NASA Ames and NASA Langley.

Image: NASA/JPL

Ingenuity in JPL’s flight simulator.

Without being able to test on Mars, how much validation are you able to do of what you’re seeing in simulation?

We can do a fair amount, but it requires a lot of planning. When we made our first real prototype (with a full-size rotor that looked like what we were thinking of putting on Mars) we first spent a lot of time designing it and using simulation tools to guide that design, and when we were sufficiently confident that we were close enough, and that we understood enough about it, then we actually built the thing and designed a whole suite of tests in a vacuum chamber where where we could replicate Mars atmospheric conditions. And those tests were before we tried to fly the helicopter—they were specifically targeted at what we call system identification, which has to do with figuring out what the true properties, the true dynamics of a system are, compared to what we assumed in our models. So then we got to see how well our models did, and in the places where they needed adjustment, we could go back and do that.

The simulation work that we really started after that very first initial lift test, that’s what allowed us to unlock all of the secrets to building a helicopter that can fly on Mars.
—Håvard Grip, Ingenuity Chief Pilot

We did a lot of this kind of testing. It was a big campaign, in several stages. But there are of course things that you can't fully replicate, and you do depend on simulation to tie things together. For example, we can't truly replicate Martian gravity on Earth. We can replicate the atmosphere, but not the gravity, and so we have to do various things when we fly—either make the helicopter very light, or we have to help it a little bit by pulling up on it with a string to offload some of the weight. These things don't fully replicate what it will be like on Mars. We also can't simultaneously replicate the Mars aerodynamic environment and the physical and visual surroundings that the helicopter will be flying in. These are places where simulation tools definitely come in handy, with the ability to do full flight tests from A to B, with the helicopter taking off from the ground, running the flight software that it will be running on board, simulating the images that the navigation camera takes of the ground below as it flies, feeding that back into the flight software, and then controlling it.

To what extent can simulation really compensate for the kinds of physical testing that you can’t do on Earth?

It gives you a few different possibilities. We can take certain tests on Earth where we replicate key elements of the environment, like the atmosphere or the visual surroundings for example, and you can validate your simulation on those parameters that you can test on Earth. Then, you can combine those things in simulation, which gives you the ability to set up arbitrary scenarios and do lots and lots of tests. We can Monte Carlo things, we can do a flight a thousand times in a row, with small perturbations of various parameters and tease out what our sensitivities are to those things. And those are the kinds of things that you can't do with physical tests, both because you can't fully replicate the environment and also because of the resources that would be required to do the same thing a thousand times in a row.

Because there are limits to the physical testing we can do on Earth, there are elements where we know there's more uncertainty. On those aspects where the uncertainty is high, we tried to build in enough margin that we can handle a range of things. And simulation gives you the ability to then maybe play with those parameters, and put them at their outer limits, and test them beyond where the real parameters are going to be to make sure that you have robustness even in those extreme cases.

How do you make sure you’re not relying on simulation too much, especially since in some ways it’s your only option?

It’s about anchoring it in real data, and we’ve done a lot of that with our physical testing. I think what you’re referring to is making your simulation too perfect, and we’re careful to model the things that matter. For example, the simulated sensors that we use have realistic levels of simulated noise and bias in them, the navigation camera images have realistic levels of degradation, we have realistic disturbances from wind gusts. If you don’t properly account for those things, then you’re missing important details. So, we try to be as accurate as we can, and to capture that by overbounding in areas where we have a high degree of uncertainty.

What kinds of simulated challenges have you put the Mars helicopter through, and how do you decide how far to push those challenges?

One example is that we can simulate going over rougher terrain. We can push that, and see how far we can go and still have the helicopter behave the way that we want it to. Or we can inject levels of noise that maybe the real sensors don't see, but you want to just see how far you can push things and make sure that it's still robust.

Where we put the limits on this and what we consider to be realistic is often a challenge. We consider this on a case by case basis—if you have a sensor that you're dealing with, you try to do testing with it to characterize it and understand its performance as much as possible, and you build a level of confidence in it that allows you to find the proper balance.

When it comes to things like terrain roughness, it's a little bit of a different thing, because we're actually picking where we're flying the helicopter. We have made that choice, and we know what the terrain looks like around us, so we don’t have to wonder about that anymore.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

Satellite image of the Ingenuity flight area.

The way that we’re trying to approach this operationally is that we should be done with the engineering at this point. We’re not depending on going back and resimulating things, other than a few checks here and there.

Are there any examples of things you learned as part of the simulation process that resulted in changes to the hardware or mission?

You know, it’s been a journey. One of the early things that we discovered as part of modeling the helicopter was that the rotor dynamics were quite different for a helicopter on Mars, in particular with respect to how the rotor responds to the up and down bending of the blades because they’re not perfectly rigid. That motion is a very important influence on the overall flight dynamics of the helicopter, and what we discovered as we started modeling was that this motion is damped much less on Mars. Under-damped oscillatory things like that, you kind of figure might pose a control issue, and that is the case here: if you just naively design it as you might a helicopter on Earth, without taking this into account, you could have a system where the response to control inputs becomes very sluggish. So that required changes to the vehicle design from some of the very early concepts, and it led us to make a rotor that’s extremely light and rigid.

The design cycle for the Mars helicopter—it’s not like we could just build something and take it out to the back yard and try it and then come back and tweak it if it doesn’t work. It’s a much bigger effort to build something and develop a test program where you have to use a vacuum chamber to test it. So you really want to get as close as possible up front, on your first iteration, and not have to go back to the drawing board on the basic things.

So how close were you able to get on your first iteration of the helicopter design?

[This video shows] a very early demo which was done more or less just assuming that things were going to behave as they would on Earth, and that we’d be able to fly in a Martian atmosphere just spinning the rotor faster and having a very light helicopter. We were basically just trying to demonstrate that we could produce enough lift. You can see the helicopter hopping around, with someone trying to joystick it, but it turned out to be very hard to control. This was prior to doing any of the modeling that I talked about earlier. But once we started seriously focusing on the modeling and simulation, we then went on to build a prototype vehicle which had a full-size rotor that’s very close to the rotor that will be flying on Mars. One difference is that prototype had cyclic control only on the lower rotor, and later we added cyclic control on the upper rotor as well, and that decision was informed in large part by the work we did in simulation—we’d put in the kinds of disturbances that we thought we might see on Mars, and decided that we needed to have the extra control authority.

How much room do you think there is for improvement in simulation, and how could that help you in the future?

The tools that we have were definitely sufficient for doing the job that we needed to do in terms of building a helicopter that can fly on Mars. But simulation is a compute-intensive thing, and so I think there’s definitely room for higher fidelity simulation if you have the compute power to do so. For a future Mars helicopter, you could get some benefits by more closely coupling together high-fidelity aerodynamic models with larger multi-body models, and doing that in a fast way, where you can iterate quickly. There’s certainly more potential for optimizing things.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Ingenuity preparing for flight.

Watching Ingenuity’s first flight take place will likely be much like watching the Perseverance landing—we’ll be able to follow along with the Ingenuity team while they send commands to the helicopter and receive data back, although the time delay will mean that any kind of direct control won’t be possible. If everything goes the way it’s supposed to, there will hopefully be some preliminary telemetry from Ingenuity saying so, but it sounds like we’ll likely have to wait until April 12 before we get pictures or video of the flight itself.

Because Mars doesn’t care what time it is on Earth, the flight will actually be taking place very early on April 12, with the JPL Mission Control livestream starting at 3:30 a.m. EDT (12:30 a.m. PDT). Details are here. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#439066 Video Friday: Festo’s BionicSwift

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.

Festo's Bionic Learning Network for 2021 presents a flock of BionicSwifts.

To execute the flight maneuvers as true to life as possible, the wings are modeled on the plumage of birds. The individual lamellae are made of an ultralight, flexible but very robust foam and lie on top of each other like shingles. Connected to a carbon quill, they are attached to the actual hand and arm wings as in the natural model.

During the wing upstroke, the individual lamellae fan out so that air can flow through the wing. This means that the birds need less force to pull the wing up. During the downstroke, the lamellae close up so that the birds can generate more power to fly. Due to this close-to-nature replica of the wings, the BionicSwifts have a better flight profile than previous wing-beating drives.

[ Festo ]

While we've seen a wide variety of COVID-motivated disinfecting robots, they're usually using either ultraviolet light or a chemical fog. This isn't the way that humans clean—we wipe stuff down, which gets rid of surface dirt and disinfects at the same time. Fraunhofer has been working on a mobile manipulator that can clean in the same ways that we do.

It's quite the technical challenge, but it has the potential to be both more efficient and more effective.

[ Fraunhofer ]

In recent years, robots have gained artificial vision, touch, and even smell. “Researchers have been giving robots human-like perception,” says MIT Associate Professor Fadel Adib. In a new paper, Adib’s team is pushing the technology a step further. “We’re trying to give robots superhuman perception,” he says. The researchers have developed a robot that uses radio waves, which can pass through walls, to sense occluded objects. The robot, called RF-Grasp, combines this powerful sensing with more traditional computer vision to locate and grasp items that might otherwise be blocked from view.

[ MIT ]

Ingenuity is now scheduled to fly on April 11.

[ JPL ]

The legendary Zenta is back after a two year YouTube hiatus with “a kind of freaky furry hexapod bunny creature.”

[ Zenta ]

It is with great pride and excitement that the South Australia Police announce a new expansion to their kennel by introducing three new Police Dog (PD) recruits. These dogs have been purposely targeted to bring a whole new range of dog operational capabilities known as the ‘small area urban search and guided evacuation’ dogs. Police have been working closely with specialist vets and dog trainers to ascertain if the lightweight dogs could be transported safely by drones and released into hard-to-access areas where at the moment the larger PDs just simply cannot get in due to their size.

[ SA Police ]

SoftBank may not have Spot cheerleading robots for their baseball team anymore, but they've more than made up for it with a full century of Peppers. And one dude doing the robot.

[ SoftBank ]

MAB Robotics is a Polish company developing walking robots for inspection, and here's a prototype they've been working on.

[ MAB Robotics ]

Thanks Jakub!

DoraNose: Smell your way to a better tomorrow.

[ Dorabot ]

Our robots need to learn how to cope with their new neighbors, and we have just the solution for this, the egg detector! Using cutting-edge AI, it provides incredible precision in detecting a vast variety of eggs. We have deployed this new feature on Boston Dynamics Spot, one of our fleet's robots. It can now detect eggs with its cameras and avoid them on his autonomous missions.

[ Energy Robotics ]

When dropping a squishy robot from an airplane 1,000 feet up, make sure that you land as close to people's cars as you can.

Now do it from orbit!

[ Squishy Robotics ]

An autonomous robot that is able to physically guide humans through narrow and cluttered spaces could be a big boon to the visually-impaired. Most prior robotic guiding systems are based on wheeled platforms with large bases with actuated rigid guiding canes. The large bases and the actuated arms limit these prior approaches from operating in narrow and cluttered environments. We propose a method that introduces a quadrupedal robot with a leash to enable the robot-guiding-human system to change its intrinsic dimension (by letting the leash go slack) in order to fit into narrow spaces.

[ Hybrid Robotics ]

How to prove that your drone is waterproof.

[ UNL ]

Well this ought to be pretty good once it gets out of simulation.

[ Hybrid Robotics ]

MIDAS is Aurora’s AI-enabled, multi-rotor sUAV outfitted with optical sensors and a customized payload that can defeat multiple small UAVs per flight with low-collateral effects.

[ Aurora ]

The robots​ of the DFKI have the advantage of being able to reach extreme environments: they can be used for decontamination purposes in high-risk areas or inspect and maintain underwater​ structures, for which they are tested in the North Sea near Heligoland​.

[ DFKI ]

After years of trying, 60 Minutes cameras finally get a peek inside the workshop at Boston Dynamics, where robots move in ways once only thought possible in movies. Anderson Cooper reports.

[ 60 Minutes ]

In 2007, Noel Sharky stated that “we are sleepwalking into a brave new world where robots decide who, where and when to kill.” Since then thousands of AI and robotics researchers have joined his calls to regulate “killer robots.” But sometime this year, Turkey will deploy fully autonomous home-built kamikaze drones on its border with Syria. What are the ethical choices we need to consider? Will we end up in an episode of Black Mirror? Or is the UN listening to calls and starting the process of regulating this space? Prof. Toby Walsh will discuss this important issue, consider where we are at and where we need to go.

[ ICRA 2020 ]

In the second session of HAI's spring conference, artists and technologists discussed how technology can enhance creativity, reimagine meaning, and support racial and social justice. The conference, called “Intelligence Augmentation: AI Empowering People to Solve Global Challenges,” took place on 25 March 2021.

[ Stanford HAI ]

This spring 2021 GRASP SFI comes from Monroe Kennedy III at Stanford University, on “Considerations for Human-Robot Collaboration.”

The field of robotics has evolved over the past few decades. We’ve seen robots progress from the automation of repetitive tasks in manufacturing to the autonomy of mobilizing in unstructured environments to the cooperation of swarm robots that are centralized or decentralized. These abilities have required advances in robotic hardware, modeling, and artificial intelligence. The next frontier is robots collaborating in complex tasks with human teammates, in environments traditionally configured for humans. While solutions to this challenge must utilize all the advances of robotics, the human element adds a unique aspect that must be addressed. Collaborating with a human teammate means that the robot must have a contextual understanding of the task as well as all participant’s roles. We will discuss what constitutes an effective teammate and how we can capture this behavior in a robotic collaborator.

[ UPenn ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#439055 Stretch Is Boston Dynamics’ Take on a ...

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

Posted in Human Robots

#439053 Bipedal Robots Are Learning To Move With ...

Most humans are bipeds, but even the best of us are really only bipeds until things get tricky. While our legs may be our primary mobility system, there are lots of situations in which we leverage our arms as well, either passively to keep balance or actively when we put out a hand to steady ourselves on a nearby object. And despite how unstable bipedal robots tend to be, using anything besides legs for mobility has been a challenge in both software and hardware, a significant limitation in highly unstructured environments.

Roboticists from TUM in Germany (with support from the German Research Foundation) have recently given their humanoid robot LOLA some major upgrades to make this kind of multi-contact locomotion possible. While it’s still in the early stages, it’s already some of the most human-like bipedal locomotion we’ve seen.

It’s certainly possible for bipedal robots to walk over challenging terrain without using limbs for support, but I’m sure you can think of lots of times where using your arms to assist with your own bipedal mobility was a requirement. It’s not a requirement because your leg strength or coordination or sense of balance is bad, necessarily. It’s just that sometimes, you might find yourself walking across something that’s highly unstable or in a situation where the consequences of a stumble are exceptionally high. And it may not even matter how much sensing you do beforehand, and how careful you are with your footstep planning: there are limits to how much you can know about your environment beforehand, and that can result in having a really bad time of it. This is why using multi-contact locomotion, whether it’s planned in advance or not, is a useful skill for humans, and should be for robots, too.

As the video notes (and props for being explicit up front about it), this isn’t yet fully autonomous behavior, with foot positions and arm contact points set by hand in advance. But it’s not much of a stretch to see how everything could be done autonomously, since one of the really hard parts (using multiple contact points to dynamically balance a moving robot) is being done onboard and in real time.

Getting LOLA to be able to do this required a major overhaul in hardware as well as software. And Philipp Seiwald, who works with LOLA at TUM, was able to tell us more about it.

IEEE Spectrum: Can you summarize the changes to LOLA’s hardware that are required for multi-contact locomotion?

Philipp Seiwald: The original version of LOLA has been designed for fast biped walking. Although it had two arms, they were not meant to get into contact with the environment but rather to compensate for the dynamic effects of the feet during fast walking. Also, the torso had a relatively simple design that was fine for its original purpose; however, it was not conceived to withstand the high loads coming from the hands during multi-contact maneuvers. Thus, we redesigned the complete upper body of LOLA from scratch. Starting from the pelvis, the strength and stiffness of the torso have been increased. We used the finite element method to optimize critical parts to obtain maximum strength at minimum weight. Moreover, we added additional degrees of freedom to the arms to increase the hands' reachable workspace. The kinematic topology of the arms, i.e., the arrangement of joints and link lengths, has been obtained from an optimization that takes typical multi-contact scenarios into account.

Why is this an important problem for bipedal humanoid robots?

Maintaining balance during locomotion can be considered the primary goal of legged robots. Naturally, this task is more challenging for bipeds when compared to robots with four or even more legs. Although current high-end prototypes show impressive progress, humanoid robots still do not have the robustness and versatility they need for most real-world applications. With our research, we try to contribute to this field and help to push the limits further. Recently, we showed our latest work on walking over uneven terrain without multi-contact support. Although the robustness is already high, there still exist scenarios, such as walking on loose objects, where the robot's stabilization fails when using only foot contacts. The use of additional hand-environment support during this (comparatively) fast walking allows a further significant increase in robustness, i.e., the robot's capability to compensate disturbances, modeling errors, or inaccurate sensor input. Besides stabilization on uneven terrain, multi-contact locomotion also enables more complex motions, e.g., stepping over a tall obstacle or toe-only contacts, as shown in our latest multi-contact video.

How can LOLA decide whether a surface is suitable for multi-contact locomotion?

LOLA’s visual perception system is currently developed by our project partners from the Chair for Computer Aided Medical Procedures & Augmented Reality at the TUM. This system relies on a novel semantic Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) pipeline that can robustly extract the scene's semantic components (like floor, walls, and objects therein) by merging multiple observations from different viewpoints and by inferring therefrom the underlying scene graph. This provides a reliable estimate of which scene parts can be used to support the locomotion, based on the assumption that certain structural elements such as walls are fixed, while chairs, for example, are not.

Also, the team plans to develop a specific dataset with annotations further describing the attributes of the object (such as roughness of the surface or its softness) and that will be used to master multi-contact locomotion in even more complex scenes. As of today, the vision and navigation system is not finished yet; thus, in our latest video, we used pre-defined footholds and contact points for the hands. However, within our collaboration, we are working towards a fully integrated and autonomous system.

Is LOLA capable of both proactive and reactive multi-contact locomotion?

The software framework of LOLA has a hierarchical structure. On the highest level, the vision system generates an environment model and estimates the 6D-pose of the robot in the scene. The walking pattern generator then uses this information to plan a dynamically feasible future motion that will lead LOLA to a target position defined by the user. On a lower level, the stabilization module modifies this plan to compensate for model errors or any kind of disturbance and keep overall balance. So our approach currently focuses on proactive multi-contact locomotion. However, we also plan to work on a more reactive behavior such that additional hand support can also be triggered by an unexpected disturbance instead of being planned in advance.

What are some examples of unique capabilities that you are working towards with LOLA?

One of the main goals for the research with LOLA remains fast, autonomous, and robust locomotion on complex, uneven terrain. We aim to reach a walking speed similar to humans. Currently, LOLA can do multi-contact locomotion and cross uneven terrain at a speed of 1.8 km/h, which is comparably fast for a biped robot but still slow for a human. On flat ground, LOLA's high-end hardware allows it to walk at a relatively high maximum speed of 3.38 km/h.

Fully autonomous multi-contact locomotion for a life-sized humanoid robot is a tough task. As algorithms get more complex, computation time increases, which often results in offline motion planning methods. For LOLA, we restrict ourselves to gaited multi-contact locomotion, which means that we try to preserve the core characteristics of bipedal gait and use the arms only for assistance. This allows us to use simplified models of the robot which lead to very efficient algorithms running in real-time and fully onboard.

A long-term scientific goal with LOLA is to understand essential components and control policies of human walking. LOLA's leg kinematics is relatively similar to the human body. Together with scientists from kinesiology, we try to identify similarities and differences between observed human walking and LOLA’s “engineered” walking gait. We hope this research leads, on the one hand, to new ideas for the control of bipeds, and on the other hand, shows via experiments on bipeds if biomechanical models for the human gait are correctly understood. For a comparison of control policies on uneven terrain, LOLA must be able to walk at comparable speeds, which also motivates our research on fast and robust walking.

While it makes sense why the researchers are using LOLA’s arms primarily to assist with a conventional biped gait, looking ahead a bit it’s interesting to think about how robots that we typically consider to be bipeds could potentially leverage their limbs for mobility in decidedly non-human ways.

We’re used to legged robots being one particular morphology, I guess because associating them with either humans or dogs or whatever is just a comfortable way to do it, but there’s no particular reason why a robot with four limbs has to choose between being a quadruped and being a biped with arms, or some hybrid between the two, depending on what its task is. The research being done with LOLA could be a step in that direction, and maybe a hand on the wall in that direction, too. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#439023 In ‘Klara and the Sun,’ We Glimpse ...

In a store in the center of an unnamed city, humanoid robots are displayed alongside housewares and magazines. They watch the fast-moving world outside the window, anxiously awaiting the arrival of customers who might buy them and take them home. Among them is Klara, a particularly astute robot who loves the sun and wants to learn as much as possible about humans and the world they live in.

So begins Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun, published earlier this month. The book, told from Klara’s perspective, portrays an eerie future society in which intelligent machines and other advanced technologies have been integrated into daily life, but not everyone is happy about it.

Technological unemployment, the progress of artificial intelligence, inequality, the safety and ethics of gene editing, increasing loneliness and isolation—all of which we’re grappling with today—show up in Ishiguro’s world. It’s like he hit a fast-forward button, mirroring back to us how things might play out if we don’t approach these technologies with caution and foresight.

The wealthy genetically edit or “lift” their children to set them up for success, while the poor have to make do with the regular old brains and bodies bequeathed them by evolution. Lifted and unlifted kids generally don’t mix, and this is just one of many sinister delineations between a new breed of haves and have-nots.

There’s anger about robots’ steady infiltration into everyday life, and questions about how similar their rights should be to those of humans. “First they take the jobs. Then they take the seats at the theater?” one woman fumes.

References to “changes” and “substitutions” allude to an economy where automation has eliminated millions of jobs. While “post-employed” people squat in abandoned buildings and fringe communities arm themselves in preparation for conflict, those whose livelihoods haven’t been destroyed can afford to have live-in housekeepers and buy Artificial Friends (or AFs) for their lonely children.

“The old traditional model that we still live with now—where most of us can get some kind of paid work in exchange for our services or the goods we make—has broken down,” Ishiguro said in a podcast discussion of the novel. “We’re not talking just about the difference between rich and poor getting bigger. We’re talking about a gap appearing between people who participate in society in an obvious way and people who do not.”

He has a point; as much as techno-optimists claim that the economic changes brought by automation and AI will give us all more free time, let us work less, and devote time to our passion projects, how would that actually play out? What would millions of “post-employed” people receiving basic income actually do with their time and energy?

In the novel, we don’t get much of a glimpse of this side of the equation, but we do see how the wealthy live. After a long wait, just as the store manager seems ready to give up on selling her, Klara is chosen by a 14-year-old girl named Josie, the daughter of a woman who wears “high-rank clothes” and lives in a large, sunny home outside the city. Cheerful and kind, Josie suffers from an unspecified illness that periodically flares up and leaves her confined to her bed for days at a time.

Her life seems somewhat bleak, the need for an AF clear. In this future world, the children of the wealthy no longer go to school together, instead studying alone at home on their digital devices. “Interaction meetings” are set up for them to learn to socialize, their parents carefully eavesdropping from the next room and trying not to intervene when there’s conflict or hurt feelings.

Klara does her best to be a friend, aide, and confidante to Josie while continuing to learn about the world around her and decode the mysteries of human behavior. We surmise that she was programmed with a basic ability to understand emotions, which evolves along with her other types of intelligence. “I believe I have many feelings. The more I observe, the more feelings become available to me,” she explains to one character.

Ishiguro does an excellent job of representing Klara’s mind: a blend of pre-determined programming, observation, and continuous learning. Her narration has qualities both robotic and human; we can tell when something has been programmed in—she “Gives Privacy” to the humans around her when that’s appropriate, for example—and when she’s figured something out for herself.

But the author maintains some mystery around Klara’s inner emotional life. “Does she actually understand human emotions, or is she just observing human emotions and simulating them within herself?” he said. “I suppose the question comes back to, what are our emotions as human beings? What do they amount to?”

Klara is particularly attuned to human loneliness, since she essentially was made to help prevent it. It is, in her view, peoples’ biggest fear, and something they’ll go to great lengths to avoid, yet can never fully escape. “Perhaps all humans are lonely,” she says.

Warding off loneliness through technology isn’t a futuristic idea, it’s something we’ve been doing for a long time, with the technologies at hand growing more and more sophisticated. Products like AFs already exist. There’s XiaoIce, a chatbot that uses “sentiment analysis” to keep its 660 million users engaged, and Azuma Hikari, a character-based AI designed to “bring comfort” to users whose lives lack emotional connection with other humans.

The mere existence of these tools would be sinister if it wasn’t for their widespread adoption; when millions of people use AIs to fill a void in their lives, it raises deeper questions about our ability to connect with each other and whether technology is building it up or tearing it down.

This isn’t the only big question the novel tackles. An overarching theme is one we’ve been increasingly contemplating as computers start to acquire more complex capabilities, like the beginnings of creativity or emotional awareness: What is it that truly makes us human?

“Do you believe in the human heart?” one character asks. “I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?”

The alternative, at least in the story, is that people don’t have a unique essence, but rather we’re all a blend of traits and personalities that can be reduced to strings of code. Our understanding of the brain is still elementary, but at some level, doesn’t all human experience boil down to the firing of billions of neurons between our ears? Will we one day—in a future beyond that painted by Ishiguro, but certainly foreshadowed by it—be able to “decode” our humanity to the point that there’s nothing mysterious left about it? “A human heart is bound to be complex,” Klara says. “But it must be limited.”

Whether or not you agree, Klara and the Sun is worth the read. It’s both a marvelous, engaging story about what it means to love and be human, and a prescient warning to approach technological change with caution and nuance. We’re already living in a world where AI keeps us company, influences our behavior, and is wreaking various forms of havoc. Ishiguro’s novel is a snapshot of one of our possible futures, told through the eyes of a robot who keeps you rooting for her to the end.

Image Credit: Marion Wellmann from Pixabay Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots