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#437600 Brain-Inspired Robot Controller Uses ...

Robots operating in the real world are starting to find themselves constrained by the amount of computing power they have available. Computers are certainly getting faster and more efficient, but they’re not keeping up with the potential of robotic systems, which have access to better sensors and more data, which in turn makes decision making more complex. A relatively new kind of computing device called a memristor could potentially help robotics smash through this barrier, through a combination of lower complexity, lower cost, and higher speed.

In a paper published today in Science Robotics, a team of researchers from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and the Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, N.Y., demonstrate a simple self-balancing robot that uses memristors to form a highly effective analog control system, inspired by the functional structure of the human brain.

First, we should go over just what the heck a memristor is. As the name suggests, it’s a type of memory that is resistance-based. That is, the resistance of a memristor can be programmed, and the memristor remembers that resistance even after it’s powered off (the resistance depends on the magnitude of the voltage applied to the memristor’s two terminals and the length of time that voltage has been applied). Memristors are potentially the ideal hybrid between RAM and flash memory, offering high speed, high density, non-volatile storage. So that’s cool, but what we’re most interested in as far as robot control systems go is that memristors store resistance, making them analog devices rather than digital ones.

By adding a memristor to an analog circuit with inputs from a gyroscope and an accelerometer, the researchers created a completely analog Kalman filter, which coupled to a second memristor functioned as a PD controller.

Nowadays, the word “analog” sounds like a bad thing, but robots are stuck in an analog world, and any physical interactions they have with the world (mediated through sensors) are fundamentally analog in nature. The challenge is that an analog signal is often “messy”—full of noise and non-linearities—and as such, the usual approach now is to get it converted to a digital signal and then processed to get anything useful out of it. This is fine, but it’s also not particularly fast or efficient. Where memristors come in is that they’re inherently analog, and in addition to storing data, they can also act as tiny analog computers, which is pretty wild.

By adding a memristor to an analog circuit with inputs from a gyroscope and an accelerometer, the researchers, led by Wei Wu, an associate professor of electrical engineering at USC, created a completely analog and completely physical Kalman filter to remove noise from the sensor signal. In addition, they used a second memristor can be used to turn that sensor data into a proportional-derivative (PD) controller. Next they put those two components together to build an analogy system that can do a bunch of the work required to keep an inverted pendulum robot upright far more efficiently than a traditional system. The difference in performance is readily apparent:

The shaking you see in the traditionally-controlled robot on the bottom comes from the non-linearity of the dynamic system, which changes faster than the on-board controller can keep up with. The memristors substantially reduce the cycle time, so the robot can balance much more smoothly. Specifically, cycle time is reduced from 3,034 microseconds to just 6 microseconds.

Of course, there’s more going on here, like motor drivers and a digital computer to talk to them, so this robot is really a hybrid system. But guess what? As the researchers point out, so are we!

The human brain consists of the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the brainstem. The cerebrum is a major part of the brain in charge of vision, hearing, and thinking, whereas the cerebellum plays an important role in motion control. Through this cooperation of the cerebrum and the cerebellum, the human brain can conduct multiple tasks simultaneously with extremely low power consumption. Inspired by this, we developed a hybrid analog-digital computation platform, in which the digital component runs the high-level algorithm, whereas the analog component is responsible for sensor fusion and motion control.

By offloading a bunch of computation onto the memristors, the higher brain functions of the robot have more breathing room. Overall, you reduce power, space, and cost, while substantially improving performance. This has only become possible relatively recently due to memristor advances and availability, and the researchers expect that memristor-based hybrid computing will soon be able to “improve the robustness and the performance of mobile robotic systems with higher” degrees of freedom.

“A memristor-based hybrid analog-digital computing platform for mobile robotics,” by Buyun Chen, Hao Yang, Boxiang Song, Deming Meng, Xiaodong Yan, Yuanrui Li, Yunxiang Wang, Pan Hu, Tse-Hsien Ou, Mark Barnell, Qing Wu, Han Wang, and Wei Wu, from USC Viterbi and AFRL, was published in Science Robotics. Continue reading

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#437592 Coordinated Robotics Wins DARPA SubT ...

DARPA held the Virtual Cave Circuit event of the Subterranean Challenge on Tuesday in the form of a several hour-long livestream. We got to watch (along with all of the competing teams) as virtual robots explored virtual caves fully autonomously, dodging rockfalls, spotting artifacts, scoring points, and sometimes running into stuff and falling over.

Expert commentary was provided by DARPA, and we were able to watch multiple teams running at once, skipping from highlight to highlight. It was really very well done (you can watch an archive of the entire stream here), but they made us wait until the very end to learn who won: First place went to Coordinated Robotics, with BARCS taking second, and third place going to newcomer Team Dynamo.

Huge congratulations to Coordinated Robotics! It’s worth pointing out that the top three teams were separated by an incredibly small handful of points, and on a slightly different day, with slightly different artifact positions, any of them could have come out on top. This doesn’t diminish Coordinated Robotics’ victory in the least—it means that the competition was fierce, and that the problem of autonomous cave exploration with robots has been solved (virtually, at least) in several different but effective ways.

We know Coordinated Robotics pretty well at this point, but here’s an introduction video:

You heard that right—Coordinated Robotics is just Kevin Knoedler, all by himself. This would be astonishing, if we weren’t already familiar with Kevin’s abilities: He won NASA’s virtual Space Robotics Challenge by himself in 2017, and Coordinated Robotics placed first in the DARPA SubT Virtual Tunnel Circuit and second in the Virtual Urban Circuit. We asked Kevin how he managed to do so spectacularly well (again), and here’s what he told us:

IEEE Spectrum: Can you describe what it was like to watch your team of robots on the live stream, and to see them score the most points?

Kevin Knoedler: It was exciting and stressful watching the live stream. It was exciting as the top few scores were quite close for the cave circuit. It was stressful because I started out behind and worked my way up, but did not do well on the final world. Luckily, not doing well on the first and last worlds was offset by better scores on many of the runs in between. DARPA did a very nice job with their live stream of the cave circuit results.

How did you decide on the makeup of your team, and on what sensors to use?

To decide on the makeup of the team I experimented with quite a few different vehicles. I had a lot of trouble with the X2 and other small ground vehicles flipping over. Based on that I looked at the larger ground vehicles that also had a sensor capable of identifying drop-offs. The vehicles that met those criteria for me were the Marble HD2, Marble Husky, Ozbot ATR, and the Absolem. Of those ground vehicles I went with the Marble HD2. It had a downward looking depth camera that I could use to detect drop-offs and was much more stable on the varied terrain than the X2. I had used the X3 aerial vehicle before and so that was my first choice for an aerial platform.

What were some things that you learned in Tunnel and Urban that you were able to incorporate into your strategy for Cave?

In the Tunnel circuit I had learned a strategy to use ground vehicles and in the Urban circuit I had learned a strategy to use aerial vehicles. At a high level that was the biggest thing I learned from the previous circuits that I was able to apply to the Cave circuit. At a lower level I was able to apply many of the development and testing strategies from the previous circuits to the Cave circuit.

What aspect of the cave environment was most challenging for your robots?

I would say it wasn't just one aspect of the cave environment that was challenging for the robots. There were quite a few challenging aspects of the cave environment. For the ground vehicles there were frequently paths that looked good as the robot started on the path, but turned into drop-offs or difficult boulder crawls. While it was fun to see the robot plan well enough to slowly execute paths over the boulders, I was wishing that the robot was smart enough to try a different path rather than wasting so much time crawling over the large boulders. For the aerial vehicles the combination of tight paths along with large vertical spaces was the biggest challenge in the environment. The large open vertical areas were particularly challenging for my aerial robots. They could easily lose track of their position without enough nearby features to track and it was challenging to find the correct path in and out of such large vertical areas.

How will you be preparing for the SubT Final?

To prepare for the SubT Final the vehicles will be getting a lot smarter. The ground vehicles will be better at navigation and communicating with one another. The aerial vehicles will be better able to handle large vertical areas both from a positioning and a planning point of view. Finally, all of the vehicles will do a better job coordinating what areas have been explored and what areas have good leads for further exploration.

Image: DARPA

The final score for the DARPA SubT Cave Circuit virtual competition.

We also had a chance to ask SubT program manager Tim Chung a few questions at yesterday’s post-event press conference, about the course itself and what he thinks teams should have learned from the competition:

IEEE Spectrum: Having looked through some real caves, can you give some examples of some of the most significant differences between this simulation and real caves? And with the enormous variety of caves out there, how generalizable are the solutions that teams came up with?

Tim Chung: Many of the caves that I’ve had to crawl through and gotten bumps and scrapes from had a couple of different features that I’ll highlight. The first is the variations in moisture— a lot of these caves were naturally formed with streams and such, so many of the caves we went to had significant mud, flowing water, and such. And so one of the things we're not capturing in the SubT simulator is explicitly anything that would submerge the robots, or otherwise short any of their systems. So from that perspective, that's one difference that's certainly notable.

And then the other difference I think is the granularity of the terrain, whether it's rubble, sand, or just raw dirt, friction coefficients are all across the board, and I think that's one of the things that any terrestrial simulator will both struggle with and potentially benefit from— that is, terramechanics simulation abilities. Given the emphasis on mobility in the SubT simulation, we’re capturing just a sliver of the complexity of terramechanics, but I think that's probably another take away that you'll certainly see— where there’s that distinction between physical and virtual technologies.

To answer your second question about generalizability— that’s the multi-million dollar question! It’s definitely at the crux of why we have eight diverse worlds, both in size verticality, dimensions, constraint passageways, etc. But this is eight out of countless variations, and the goal of course is to be able to investigate what those key dependencies are. What I'll say is that the out of the seventy three different virtual cave tiles, which are the building blocks that make up these virtual worlds, quite a number of them were not only inspired by real world caves, but were specifically designed so that we can essentially use these tiles as unit tests going forward. So, if I want to simulate vertical inclines, here are the tiles that are the vertical vertical unit tests for robots, and that’s how we’re trying to to think through how to tease out that generalizability factor.

What are some observations from this event that you think systems track teams should pay attention to as they prepare for the final event?

One of the key things about the virtual competition is that you submit your software, and that's it. So you have to design everything from state management to failure mode triage, really thinking about what could go wrong and then building out your autonomous capabilities either to react to some of those conditions, or to anticipate them. And to be honest I think that the humans in the loop that we have in the systems competition really are key enablers of their capability, but also could someday (if not already) be a crutch that we might not be able to develop.

Thinking through some of the failure modes in a fully autonomous software deployed setting are going to be incredibly valuable for the systems competitors, so that for example the human supervisor doesn't have to worry about those failure modes as much, or can respond in a more supervisory way rather than trying to joystick the robot around. I think that's going to be one of the greatest impacts, thinking through what it means to send these robots off to autonomously get you the information you need and complete the mission

This isn’t to say that the humans aren't going to be useful and continue to play a role of course, but I think this shifting of the role of the human supervisor from being a state manager to being more of a tactical commander will dramatically highlight the impact of the virtual side on the systems side.

What, if anything, should we take away from one person teams being able to do so consistently well in the virtual circuit?

It’s a really interesting question. I think part of it has to do with systems integration versus software integration. There's something to be said for the richness of the technologies that can be developed, and how many people it requires to be able to develop some of those technologies. With the systems competitors, having one person try to build, manage, deploy, service, and operate all of those robots is still functionally quite challenging, whereas in the virtual competition, it really is a software deployment more than anything else. And so I think the commonality of single person teams may just be a virtue of the virtual competition not having some of those person-intensive requirements.

In terms of their strong performance, I give credit to all of these really talented folks who are taking upon themselves to jump into the competitor pool and see how well they do, and I think that just goes to show you that whether you're one person or ten people people or a hundred people on a team, a good idea translated and executed well really goes a long way.

Looking ahead, teams have a year to prepare for the final event, which is still scheduled to be held sometime in fall 2021. And even though there was no cave event for systems track teams, the fact that the final event will be a combination of tunnel, urban, and cave circuits means that systems track teams have been figuring out how to get their robots to work in caves anyway, and we’ll be bringing you some of their stories over the next few weeks.

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#437585 Dart-Shooting Drone Attacks Trees for ...

We all know how robots are great at going to places where you can’t (or shouldn’t) send a human. We also know how robots are great at doing repetitive tasks. These characteristics have the potential to make robots ideal for setting up wireless sensor networks in hazardous environments—that is, they could deploy a whole bunch of self-contained sensor nodes that create a network that can monitor a very large area for a very long time.

When it comes to using drones to set up sensor networks, you’ve generally got two options: A drone that just drops sensors on the ground (easy but inaccurate and limited locations), or using a drone with some sort of manipulator on it to stick sensors in specific places (complicated and risky). A third option, under development by researchers at Imperial College London’s Aerial Robotics Lab, provides the accuracy of direct contact with the safety and ease of use of passive dropping by instead using the drone as a launching platform for laser-aimed, sensor-equipped darts.

These darts (which the researchers refer to as aerodynamically stabilized, spine-equipped sensor pods) can embed themselves in relatively soft targets from up to 4 meters away with an accuracy of about 10 centimeters after being fired from a spring-loaded launcher. They’re not quite as accurate as a drone with a manipulator, but it’s pretty good, and the drone can maintain a safe distance from the surface that it’s trying to add a sensor to. Obviously, the spine is only going to work on things like wood, but the researchers point out that there are plenty of attachment mechanisms that could be used, including magnets, adhesives, chemical bonding, or microspines.

Indoor tests using magnets showed the system to be quite reliable, but at close range (within a meter of the target) the darts sometimes bounced off rather than sticking. From between 1 and 4 meters away, the darts stuck between 90 and 100 percent of the time. Initial outdoor tests were also successful, although the system was under manual control. The researchers say that “regular and safe operations should be carried out autonomously,” which, yeah, you’d just have to deal with all of the extra sensing and hardware required to autonomously fly beneath the canopy of a forest. That’s happening next, as the researchers plan to add “vision state estimation and positioning, as well as a depth sensor” to avoid some trees and fire sensors into others.

And if all of that goes well, they’ll consider trying to get each drone to carry multiple darts. Look out, trees: You’re about to be pierced for science.

“Unmanned Aerial Sensor Placement for Cluttered Environments,” by André Farinha, Raphael Zufferey, Peter Zheng, Sophie F. Armanini, and Mirko Kovac from Imperial College London, was published in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters.

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#437579 Disney Research Makes Robotic Gaze ...

While it’s not totally clear to what extent human-like robots are better than conventional robots for most applications, one area I’m personally comfortable with them is entertainment. The folks over at Disney Research, who are all about entertainment, have been working on this sort of thing for a very long time, and some of their animatronic attractions are actually quite impressive.

The next step for Disney is to make its animatronic figures, which currently feature scripted behaviors, to perform in an interactive manner with visitors. The challenge is that this is where you start to get into potential Uncanny Valley territory, which is what happens when you try to create “the illusion of life,” which is what Disney (they explicitly say) is trying to do.

In a paper presented at IROS this month, a team from Disney Research, Caltech, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Walt Disney Imagineering is trying to nail that illusion of life with a single, and perhaps most important, social cue: eye gaze.

Before you watch this video, keep in mind that you’re watching a specific character, as Disney describes:

The robot character plays an elderly man reading a book, perhaps in a library or on a park bench. He has difficulty hearing and his eyesight is in decline. Even so, he is constantly distracted from reading by people passing by or coming up to greet him. Most times, he glances at people moving quickly in the distance, but as people encroach into his personal space, he will stare with disapproval for the interruption, or provide those that are familiar to him with friendly acknowledgment.

What, exactly, does “lifelike” mean in the context of robotic gaze? The paper abstract describes the goal as “[seeking] to create an interaction which demonstrates the illusion of life.” I suppose you could think of it like a sort of old-fashioned Turing test focused on gaze: If the gaze of this robot cannot be distinguished from the gaze of a human, then victory, that’s lifelike. And critically, we’re talking about mutual gaze here—not just a robot gazing off into the distance, but you looking deep into the eyes of this robot and it looking right back at you just like a human would. Or, just like some humans would.

The approach that Disney is using is more animation-y than biology-y or psychology-y. In other words, they’re not trying to figure out what’s going on in our brains to make our eyes move the way that they do when we’re looking at other people and basing their control system on that, but instead, Disney just wants it to look right. This “visual appeal” approach is totally fine, and there’s been an enormous amount of human-robot interaction (HRI) research behind it already, albeit usually with less explicitly human-like platforms. And speaking of human-like platforms, the hardware is a “custom Walt Disney Imagineering Audio-Animatronics bust,” which has DoFs that include neck, eyes, eyelids, and eyebrows.

In order to decide on gaze motions, the system first identifies a person to target with its attention using an RGB-D camera. If more than one person is visible, the system calculates a curiosity score for each, currently simplified to be based on how much motion it sees. Depending on which person that the robot can see has the highest curiosity score, the system will choose from a variety of high level gaze behavior states, including:

Read: The Read state can be considered the “default” state of the character. When not executing another state, the robot character will return to the Read state. Here, the character will appear to read a book located at torso level.

Glance: A transition to the Glance state from the Read or Engage states occurs when the attention engine indicates that there is a stimuli with a curiosity score […] above a certain threshold.

Engage: The Engage state occurs when the attention engine indicates that there is a stimuli […] to meet a threshold and can be triggered from both Read and Glance states. This state causes the robot to gaze at the person-of-interest with both the eyes and head.

Acknowledge: The Acknowledge state is triggered from either Engage or Glance states when the person-of-interest is deemed to be familiar to the robot.

Running underneath these higher level behavior states are lower level motion behaviors like breathing, small head movements, eye blinking, and saccades (the quick eye movements that occur when people, or robots, look between two different focal points). The term for this hierarchical behavioral state layering is a subsumption architecture, which goes all the way back to Rodney Brooks’ work on robots like Genghis in the 1980s and Cog and Kismet in the ’90s, and it provides a way for more complex behaviors to emerge from a set of simple, decentralized low-level behaviors.

“25 years on Disney is using my subsumption architecture for humanoid eye control, better and smoother now than our 1995 implementations on Cog and Kismet.”
—Rodney Brooks, MIT emeritus professor

Brooks, an emeritus professor at MIT and, most recently, cofounder and CTO of Robust.ai, tweeted about the Disney project, saying: “People underestimate how long it takes to get from academic paper to real world robotics. 25 years on Disney is using my subsumption architecture for humanoid eye control, better and smoother now than our 1995 implementations on Cog and Kismet.”

From the paper:

Although originally intended for control of mobile robots, we find that the subsumption architecture, as presented in [17], lends itself as a framework for organizing animatronic behaviors. This is due to the analogous use of subsumption in human behavior: human psychomotor behavior can be intuitively modeled as layered behaviors with incoming sensory inputs, where higher behavioral levels are able to subsume lower behaviors. At the lowest level, we have involuntary movements such as heartbeats, breathing and blinking. However, higher behavioral responses can take over and control lower level behaviors, e.g., fight-or-flight response can induce faster heart rate and breathing. As our robot character is modeled after human morphology, mimicking biological behaviors through the use of a bottom-up approach is straightforward.

The result, as the video shows, appears to be quite good, although it’s hard to tell how it would all come together if the robot had more of, you know, a face. But it seems like you don’t necessarily need to have a lifelike humanoid robot to take advantage of this architecture in an HRI context—any robot that wants to make a gaze-based connection with a human could benefit from doing it in a more human-like way.

“Realistic and Interactive Robot Gaze,” by Matthew K.X.J. Pan, Sungjoon Choi, James Kennedy, Kyna McIntosh, Daniel Campos Zamora, Gunter Niemeyer, Joohyung Kim, Alexis Wieland, and David Christensen from Disney Research, California Institute of Technology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Walt Disney Imagineering, was presented at IROS 2020. You can find the full paper, along with a 13-minute video presentation, on the IROS on-demand conference website.

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#437577 A Swarm of Cyborg Cockroaches That Lives ...

Digital Nature Group at the University of Tsukuba in Japan is working towards a “post ubiquitous computing era consisting of seamless combination of computational resources and non-computational resources.” By “non-computational resources,” they mean leveraging the natural world, which for better or worse includes insects.

At small scales, the capabilities of insects far exceed the capabilities of robots. I get that. And I get that turning cockroaches into an army of insect cyborgs could be useful in a variety of ways. But what makes me fundamentally uncomfortable is the idea that “in the future, they’ll appear out of nowhere without us recognizing it, fulfilling their tasks and then hiding.” In other words, you’ll have cyborg cockroaches hiding all over your house, all the time.

Warning: This article contains video of cockroaches being modified with cybernetic implants that some people may find upsetting.

Remote controlling cockroaches isn’t a new idea, and it’s a fairly simple one. By stimulating the left or right antenna nerves of the cockroach, you can make it think that it’s running into something, and get it to turn in the opposite direction. Add wireless connectivity, some fiducial markers, an overhead camera system, and a bunch of cyborg cockroaches, and you have a resilient swarm that can collaborate on tasks. The researchers suggest that the swarm could be used as a display (by making each cockroach into a pixel), to transport objects, or to draw things. There’s also some mention of “input or haptic interfaces or an audio device,” which frankly sounds horrible.

The reason to use cockroaches is that you can take advantage of their impressive ruggedness, efficiency, high power to weight ratio, and mobility. They can also feed themselves, meaning that whenever you don’t need the swarm to perform some task for you, you can deactivate the control system and let them scurry off to find crumbs in dark places.

There are many other swarm robotic platforms that can perform what you’re seeing these cyborg roaches do, but according to the researchers, the reason to use cockroaches is that you can take advantage of their impressive ruggedness, efficiency, high power to weight ratio, and mobility. They’re a lot messier (yay biology!), but they can also feed themselves, meaning that whenever you don’t need the swarm to perform some task for you, you can deactivate the control system and let them scurry off to find crumbs in dark places. And when you need them again, turn the control system on and experience the nightmare of your cyborg cockroach swarm reassembling itself from all over your house.

While we’re on the subject of cockroach hacking, we would be doing you a disservice if we didn’t share some of project leader Yuga Tsukuda’s other projects. Here’s a cockroach-powered clock, about which the researchers note that “it is difficult to control the cockroaches when trying to control them by electrical stimulation because they move spontaneously. However, by cutting off the head and removing the brain, they do not move spontaneously and the control by the computer becomes easy.” So, zombie cockroaches. Good then.

And if that’s not enough for you, how about this:

The researchers describe this project as an “attempt to use cockroaches for makeup by sticking them on the face.” They stick electrodes into the cockroaches to make them wiggle their legs when electrical stimulation is applied. And the peacock feathers? They “make the cockroach movement bigger, and create a cosmic mystery.” Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots