Tag Archives: operated

#436911 Scientists Linked Artificial and ...

Scientists have linked up two silicon-based artificial neurons with a biological one across multiple countries into a fully-functional network. Using standard internet protocols, they established a chain of communication whereby an artificial neuron controls a living, biological one, and passes on the info to another artificial one.

Whoa.

We’ve talked plenty about brain-computer interfaces and novel computer chips that resemble the brain. We’ve covered how those “neuromorphic” chips could link up into tremendously powerful computing entities, using engineered communication nodes called artificial synapses.

As Moore’s law is dying, we even said that neuromorphic computing is one path towards the future of extremely powerful, low energy consumption artificial neural network-based computing—in hardware—that could in theory better link up with the brain. Because the chips “speak” the brain’s language, in theory they could become neuroprosthesis hubs far more advanced and “natural” than anything currently possible.

This month, an international team put all of those ingredients together, turning theory into reality.

The three labs, scattered across Padova, Italy, Zurich, Switzerland, and Southampton, England, collaborated to create a fully self-controlled, hybrid artificial-biological neural network that communicated using biological principles, but over the internet.

The three-neuron network, linked through artificial synapses that emulate the real thing, was able to reproduce a classic neuroscience experiment that’s considered the basis of learning and memory in the brain. In other words, artificial neuron and synapse “chips” have progressed to the point where they can actually use a biological neuron intermediary to form a circuit that, at least partially, behaves like the real thing.

That’s not to say cyborg brains are coming soon. The simulation only recreated a small network that supports excitatory transmission in the hippocampus—a critical region that supports memory—and most brain functions require enormous cross-talk between numerous neurons and circuits. Nevertheless, the study is a jaw-dropping demonstration of how far we’ve come in recreating biological neurons and synapses in artificial hardware.

And perhaps one day, the currently “experimental” neuromorphic hardware will be integrated into broken biological neural circuits as bridges to restore movement, memory, personality, and even a sense of self.

The Artificial Brain Boom
One important thing: this study relies heavily on a decade of research into neuromorphic computing, or the implementation of brain functions inside computer chips.

The best-known example is perhaps IBM’s TrueNorth, which leveraged the brain’s computational principles to build a completely different computer than what we have today. Today’s computers run on a von Neumann architecture, in which memory and processing modules are physically separate. In contrast, the brain’s computing and memory are simultaneously achieved at synapses, small “hubs” on individual neurons that talk to adjacent ones.

Because memory and processing occur on the same site, biological neurons don’t have to shuttle data back and forth between processing and storage compartments, massively reducing processing time and energy use. What’s more, a neuron’s history will also influence how it behaves in the future, increasing flexibility and adaptability compared to computers. With the rise of deep learning, which loosely mimics neural processing as the prima donna of AI, the need to reduce power while boosting speed and flexible learning is becoming ever more tantamount in the AI community.

Neuromorphic computing was partially born out of this need. Most chips utilize special ingredients that change their resistance (or other physical characteristics) to mimic how a neuron might adapt to stimulation. Some chips emulate a whole neuron, that is, how it responds to a history of stimulation—does it get easier or harder to fire? Others imitate synapses themselves, that is, how easily they will pass on the information to another neuron.

Although single neuromorphic chips have proven to be far more efficient and powerful than current computer chips running machine learning algorithms in toy problems, so far few people have tried putting the artificial components together with biological ones in the ultimate test.

That’s what this study did.

A Hybrid Network
Still with me? Let’s talk network.

It’s gonna sound complicated, but remember: learning is the formation of neural networks, and neurons that fire together wire together. To rephrase: when learning, neurons will spontaneously organize into networks so that future instances will re-trigger the entire network. To “wire” together, downstream neurons will become more responsive to their upstream neural partners, so that even a whisper will cause them to activate. In contrast, some types of stimulation will cause the downstream neuron to “chill out” so that only an upstream “shout” will trigger downstream activation.

Both these properties—easier or harder to activate downstream neurons—are essentially how the brain forms connections. The “amping up,” in neuroscience jargon, is long-term potentiation (LTP), whereas the down-tuning is LTD (long-term depression). These two phenomena were first discovered in the rodent hippocampus more than half a century ago, and ever since have been considered as the biological basis of how the brain learns and remembers, and implicated in neurological problems such as addition (seriously, you can’t pass Neuro 101 without learning about LTP and LTD!).

So it’s perhaps especially salient that one of the first artificial-brain hybrid networks recapitulated this classic result.

To visualize: the three-neuron network began in Switzerland, with an artificial neuron with the badass name of “silicon spiking neuron.” That neuron is linked to an artificial synapse, a “memristor” located in the UK, which is then linked to a biological rat neuron cultured in Italy. The rat neuron has a “smart” microelectrode, controlled by the artificial synapse, to stimulate it. This is the artificial-to-biological pathway.

Meanwhile, the rat neuron in Italy also has electrodes that listen in on its electrical signaling. This signaling is passed back to another artificial synapse in the UK, which is then used to control a second artificial neuron back in Switzerland. This is the biological-to-artificial pathway back. As a testimony in how far we’ve come in digitizing neural signaling, all of the biological neural responses are digitized and sent over the internet to control its far-out artificial partner.

Here’s the crux: to demonstrate a functional neural network, just having the biological neuron passively “pass on” electrical stimulation isn’t enough. It has to show the capacity to learn, that is, to be able to mimic the amping up and down-tuning that are LTP and LTD, respectively.

You’ve probably guessed the results: certain stimulation patterns to the first artificial neuron in Switzerland changed how the artificial synapse in the UK operated. This, in turn, changed the stimulation to the biological neuron, so that it either amped up or toned down depending on the input.

Similarly, the response of the biological neuron altered the second artificial synapse, which then controlled the output of the second artificial neuron. Altogether, the biological and artificial components seamlessly linked up, over thousands of miles, into a functional neural circuit.

Cyborg Mind-Meld
So…I’m still picking my jaw up off the floor.

It’s utterly insane seeing a classic neuroscience learning experiment repeated with an integrated network with artificial components. That said, a three-neuron network is far from the thousands of synapses (if not more) needed to truly re-establish a broken neural circuit in the hippocampus, which DARPA has been aiming to do. And LTP/LTD has come under fire recently as the de facto brain mechanism for learning, though so far they remain cemented as neuroscience dogma.

However, this is one of the few studies where you see fields coming together. As Richard Feynman famously said, “What I cannot recreate, I cannot understand.” Even though neuromorphic chips were built on a high-level rather than molecular-level understanding of how neurons work, the study shows that artificial versions can still synapse with their biological counterparts. We’re not just on the right path towards understanding the brain, we’re recreating it, in hardware—if just a little.

While the study doesn’t have immediate use cases, practically it does boost both the neuromorphic computing and neuroprosthetic fields.

“We are very excited with this new development,” said study author Dr. Themis Prodromakis at the University of Southampton. “On one side it sets the basis for a novel scenario that was never encountered during natural evolution, where biological and artificial neurons are linked together and communicate across global networks; laying the foundations for the Internet of Neuro-electronics. On the other hand, it brings new prospects to neuroprosthetic technologies, paving the way towards research into replacing dysfunctional parts of the brain with AI chips.”

Image Credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#436209 Video Friday: Robotic Endoscope Travels ...

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!):

DARPA SubT Urban Circuit – February 18-27, 2020 – Olympia, WA, USA
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today's videos.

Kuka has just announced the results of its annual Innovation Award. From an initial batch of 30 applicants, five teams reached the finals (we were part of the judging committee). The five finalists worked for nearly a year on their applications, which they demonstrated this week at the Medica trade show in Düsseldorf, Germany. And the winner of the €20,000 prize is…Team RoboFORCE, led by the STORM Lab in the U.K., which developed a “robotic magnetic flexible endoscope for painless colorectal cancer screening, surveillance, and intervention.”

The system could improve colonoscopy procedures by reducing pain and discomfort as well as other risks such as bleeding and perforation, according to the STORM Lab researchers. It uses a magnetic field to control the endoscope, pulling rather than pushing it through the colon.

The other four finalists also presented some really interesting applications—you can see their videos below.

“Because we were so please with the high quality of the submissions, we will have next year’s finals again at the Medica fair, and the challenge will be named ‘Medical Robotics’,” says Rainer Bischoff, vice president for corporate research at Kuka. He adds that the selected teams will again use Kuka’s LBR Med robot arm, which is “already certified for integration into medical products and makes it particularly easy for startups to use a robot as the main component for a particular solution.”

Applications are now open for Kuka’s Innovation Award 2020. You can find more information on how to enter here. The deadline is 5 January 2020.

[ Kuka ]

Oh good, Aibo needs to be fed now.

You know what comes next, right?

[ Aibo ]

Your cat needs this robot.

It's about $200 on Kickstarter.

[ Kickstarter ]

Enjoy this tour of the Skydio offices courtesy Skydio 2, which runs into not even one single thing.

If any Skydio employees had important piles of papers on their desks, well, they don’t anymore.

[ Skydio ]

Artificial intelligence is everywhere nowadays, but what exactly does it mean? We asked a group MIT computer science grad students and post-docs how they personally define AI.

“When most people say AI, they actually mean machine learning, which is just pattern recognition.” Yup.

[ MIT ]

Using event-based cameras, this drone control system can track attitude at 1600 degrees per second (!).

[ UZH ]

Introduced at CES 2018, Walker is an intelligent humanoid service robot from UBTECH Robotics. Below are the latest features and technologies used during our latest round of development to make Walker even better.

[ Ubtech ]

Introducing the Alpha Prime by #VelodyneLidar, the most advanced lidar sensor on the market! Alpha Prime delivers an unrivaled combination of field-of-view, range, high-resolution, clarity and operational performance.

Performance looks good, but don’t expect it to be cheap.

[ Velodyne ]

Ghost Robotics’ Spirit 40 will start shipping to researchers in January of next year.

[ Ghost Robotics ]

Unitree is about to ship the first batch of their AlienGo quadrupeds as well:

[ Unitree ]

Mechanical engineering’s Sarah Bergbreiter discusses her work on micro robotics, how they draw inspiration from insects and animals, and how tiny robots can help humans in a variety of fields.

[ CMU ]

Learning contact-rich, robotic manipulation skills is a challenging problem due to the high-dimensionality of the state and action space as well as uncertainty from noisy sensors and inaccurate motor control. To combat these factors and achieve more robust manipulation, humans actively exploit contact constraints in the environment. By adopting a similar strategy, robots can also achieve more robust manipulation. In this paper, we enable a robot to autonomously modify its environment and thereby discover how to ease manipulation skill learning. Specifically, we provide the robot with fixtures that it can freely place within the environment. These fixtures provide hard constraints that limit the outcome of robot actions. Thereby, they funnel uncertainty from perception and motor control and scaffold manipulation skill learning.

[ Stanford ]

Since 2016, Verity's drones have completed more than 200,000 flights around the world. Completely autonomous, client-operated and designed for live events, Verity is making the magic real by turning drones into flying lights, characters, and props.

[ Verity ]

To monitor and stop the spread of wildfires, University of Michigan engineers developed UAVs that could find, map and report fires. One day UAVs like this could work with disaster response units, firefighters and other emergency teams to provide real-time accurate information to reduce damage and save lives. For their research, the University of Michigan graduate students won first place at a competition for using a swarm of UAVs to successfully map and report simulated wildfires.

[ University of Michigan ]

Here’s an important issue that I haven’t heard talked about all that much: How first responders should interact with self-driving cars.

“To put the car in manual mode, you must call Waymo.” Huh.

[ Waymo ]

Here’s what Gitai has been up to recently, from a Humanoids 2019 workshop talk.

[ Gitai ]

The latest CMU RI seminar comes from Girish Chowdhary at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on “Autonomous and Intelligent Robots in Unstructured Field Environments.”

What if a team of collaborative autonomous robots grew your food for you? In this talk, I will discuss some key advances in robotics, machine learning, and autonomy that will one day enable teams of small robots to grow food for you in your backyard in a fundamentally more sustainable way than modern mega-farms! Teams of small aerial and ground robots could be a potential solution to many of the serious problems that modern agriculture is facing. However, fully autonomous robots that operate without supervision for weeks, months, or entire growing season are not yet practical. I will discuss my group’s theoretical and practical work towards the underlying challenging problems in robotic systems, autonomy, sensing, and learning. I will begin with our lightweight, compact, and autonomous field robot TerraSentia and the recent successes of this type of undercanopy robots for high-throughput phenotyping with deep learning-based machine vision. I will also discuss how to make a team of autonomous robots learn to coordinate to weed large agricultural farms under partial observability. These direct applications will help me make the case for the type of reinforcement learning and adaptive control that are necessary to usher in the next generation of autonomous field robots that learn to solve complex problems in harsh, changing, and dynamic environments. I will then end with an overview of our new MURI, in which we are working towards developing AI and control that leverages neurodynamics inspired by the Octopus brain.

[ CMU RI ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435828 Video Friday: Boston Dynamics’ ...

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!):

RoboBusiness 2019 – October 1-3, 2019 – Santa Clara, Calif., USA
ISRR 2019 – October 6-10, 2019 – Hanoi, Vietnam
Ro-Man 2019 – October 14-18, 2019 – New Delhi, India
Humanoids 2019 – October 15-17, 2019 – Toronto, Canada
ARSO 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Beijing, China
ROSCon 2019 – October 31-1, 2019 – Macau
IROS 2019 – November 4-8, 2019 – Macau
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

You’ve almost certainly seen the new Spot and Atlas videos from Boston Dynamics, if for no other reason than we posted about Spot’s commercial availability earlier this week. But what, are we supposed to NOT include them in Video Friday anyway? Psh! Here you go:

[ Boston Dynamics ]

Eight deadly-looking robots. One Giant Nut trophy. Tonight is the BattleBots season finale, airing on Discovery, 8 p.m. ET, or check your local channels.

[ BattleBots ]

Thanks Trey!

Speaking of battling robots… Having giant robots fight each other is one of those things that sounds really great in theory, but doesn’t work out so well in reality. And sadly, MegaBots is having to deal with reality, which means putting their giant fighting robot up on eBay.

As of Friday afternoon, the current bid is just over $100,000 with a week to go.

[ MegaBots ]

Michigan Engineering has figured out the secret formula to getting 150,000 views on YouTube: drone plus nail gun.

[ Michigan Engineering ]

Michael Burke from the University of Edinburgh writes:

We’ve been learning to scoop grapefruit segments using a PR2, by “feeling” the difference between peel and pulp. We use joint torque measurements to predict the probability that the knife is in the peel or pulp, and use this to apply feedback control to a nominal cutting trajectory learned from human demonstration, so that we remain in a position of maximum uncertainty about which medium we’re cutting. This means we slice along the boundary between the two mediums. It works pretty well!

[ Paper ] via [ Robust Autonomy and Decisions Group ]

Thanks Michael!

Hey look, it’s Jan with eight EMYS robot heads. Hi, Jan! Hi, EMYSes!

[ EMYS ]

We’re putting the KRAKEN Arm through its paces, demonstrating that it can unfold from an Express Rack locker on the International Space Station and access neighboring lockers in NASA’s FabLab system to enable transfer of materials and parts between manufacturing, inspection, and storage stations. The KRAKEN arm will be able to change between multiple ’end effector’ tools such as grippers and inspection sensors – those are in development so they’re not shown in this video.

[ Tethers Unlimited ]

UBTECH’s Alpha Mini Robot with Smart Robot’s “Maatje” software is offering healthcare service to children at Praktijk Intraverte Multidisciplinary Institution in Netherlands.

This institution is using Alpha Mini in counseling children’s behavior. Alpha Mini can move and talk to children and offers games and activities to stimulate and interact with them. Alpha Mini talks, helps and motivates children thereby becoming more flexible in society.

[ UBTECH ]

Some impressive work here from Anusha Nagabandi, Kurt Konoglie, Sergey Levine, Vikash Kumar at Google Brain, training a dexterous multi-fingered hand to do that thing with two balls that I’m really bad at.

Dexterous multi-fingered hands can provide robots with the ability to flexibly perform a wide range of manipulation skills. However, many of the more complex behaviors are also notoriously difficult to control: Performing in-hand object manipulation, executing finger gaits to move objects, and exhibiting precise fine motor skills such as writing, all require finely balancing contact forces, breaking and reestablishing contacts repeatedly, and maintaining control of unactuated objects. In this work, we demonstrate that our method of online planning with deep dynamics models (PDDM) addresses both of these limitations; we show that improvements in learned dynamics models, together with improvements in online model-predictive control, can indeed enable efficient and effective learning of flexible contact-rich dexterous manipulation skills — and that too, on a 24-DoF anthropomorphic hand in the real world, using just 2-4 hours of purely real-world data to learn to simultaneously coordinate multiple free-floating objects.

[ PDDM ]

Thanks Vikash!

CMU’s Ballbot has a deceptively light touch that’s ideal for leading people around.

A paper on this has been submitted to IROS 2019.

[ CMU ]

The Autonomous Robots Lab at the University of Nevada is sharing some of the work they’ve done on path planning and exploration for aerial robots during the DARPA SubT Challenge.

[ Autonomous Robots Lab ]

More proof that anything can be a drone if you staple some motors to it. Even 32 feet of styrofoam insulation.

[ YouTube ]

Whatever you think of military drones, we can all agree that they look cool.

[ Boeing ]

I appreciate the fact that iCub has eyelids, I really do, but sometimes, it ends up looking kinda sleepy in research videos.

[ EPFL LASA ]

Video shows autonomous flight of a lightweight aerial vehicle outdoors and indoors on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University. The vehicle is equipped with limited onboard sensing from a front-facing camera and a proximity sensor. The aerial autonomy is enabled by utilizing a 3D prior map built in Step 1.

[ CMU ]

The Stanford Space Robotics Facility allows researchers to test innovative guidance and navigation algorithms on a realistic frictionless, underactuated system.

[ Stanford ASL ]

In this video, Ian and CP discuss Misty’s many capabilities including robust locomotion, obstacle avoidance, 3D mapping/SLAM, face detection and recognition, sound localization, hardware extensibility, photo and video capture, and programmable personality. They also talk about some of the skills he’s built using these capabilities (and others) and how those skills can be expanded upon by you.

[ Misty Robotics ]

This week’s CMU RI Seminar comes from Aaron Parness at Caltech and NASA JPL, on “Robotic Grippers for Planetary Applications.”

The previous generation of NASA missions to the outer solar system discovered salt water oceans on Europa and Enceladus, each with more liquid water than Earth – compelling targets to look for extraterrestrial life. Closer to home, JAXA and NASA have imaged sky-light entrances to lava tube caves on the Moon more than 100 m in diameter and ESA has characterized the incredibly varied and complex terrain of Comet 67P. While JPL has successfully landed and operated four rovers on the surface of Mars using a 6-wheeled rocker-bogie architecture, future missions will require new mobility architectures for these extreme environments. Unfortunately, the highest value science targets often lie in the terrain that is hardest to access. This talk will explore robotic grippers that enable missions to these extreme terrains through their ability to grip a wide variety of surfaces (shapes, sizes, and geotechnical properties). To prepare for use in space where repair or replacement is not possible, we field-test these grippers and robots in analog extreme terrain on Earth. Many of these systems are enabled by advances in autonomy. The talk will present a rapid overview of my work and a detailed case study of an underactuated rock gripper for deflecting asteroids.

[ CMU ]

Rod Brooks gives some of the best robotics talks ever. He gave this one earlier this week at UC Berkeley, on “Steps Toward Super Intelligence and the Search for a New Path.”

[ UC Berkeley ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435757 Robotic Animal Agility

An off-shore wind power platform, somewhere in the North Sea, on a freezing cold night, with howling winds and waves crashing against the impressive structure. An imperturbable ANYmal is quietly conducting its inspection.

ANYmal, a medium sized dog-like quadruped robot, walks down the stairs, lifts a “paw” to open doors or to call the elevator and trots along corridors. Darkness is no problem: it knows the place perfectly, having 3D-mapped it. Its laser sensors keep it informed about its precise path, location and potential obstacles. It conducts its inspection across several rooms. Its cameras zoom in on counters, recording the measurements displayed. Its thermal sensors record the temperature of machines and equipment and its ultrasound microphone checks for potential gas leaks. The robot also inspects lever positions as well as the correct positioning of regulatory fire extinguishers. As the electronic buzz of its engines resumes, it carries on working tirelessly.

After a little over two hours of inspection, the robot returns to its docking station for recharging. It will soon head back out to conduct its next solitary patrol. ANYmal played alongside Mulder and Scully in the “X-Files” TV series*, but it is in no way a Hollywood robot. It genuinely exists and surveillance missions are part of its very near future.

Off-shore oil platforms, the first test fields and probably the first actual application of ANYmal. ©ANYbotics

This quadruped robot was designed by ANYbotics, a spinoff of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich). Made of carbon fibre and aluminium, it weighs about thirty kilos. It is fully ruggedised, water- and dust-proof (IP-67). A kevlar belly protects its main body, carrying its powerful brain, batteries, network device, power management system and navigational systems.

ANYmal was designed for all types of terrain, including rubble, sand or snow. It has been field tested on industrial sites and is at ease with new obstacles to overcome (and it can even get up after a fall). Depending on its mission, its batteries last 2 to 4 hours.

On its jointed legs, protected by rubber pads, it can walk (at the speed of human steps), trot, climb, curl upon itself to crawl, carry a load or even jump and dance. It is the need to move on all surfaces that has driven its designers to choose a quadruped. “Biped robots are not easy to stabilise, especially on irregular terrain” explains Dr Péter Fankhauser, co-founder and chief business development officer of ANYbotics. “Wheeled or tracked robots can carry heavy loads, but they are bulky and less agile. Flying drones are highly mobile, but cannot carry load, handle objects or operate in bad weather conditions. We believe that quadrupeds combine the optimal characteristics, both in terms of mobility and versatility.”

What served as a source of inspiration for the team behind the project, the Robotic Systems Lab of the ETH Zurich, is a champion of agility on rugged terrain: the mountain goat. “We are of course still a long way” says Fankhauser. “However, it remains our objective on the longer term.

The first prototype, ALoF, was designed already back in 2009. It was still rather slow, very rigid and clumsy – more of a proof of concept than a robot ready for application. In 2012, StarlETH, fitted with spring joints, could hop, jump and climb. It was with this robot that the team started participating in 2014 in ARGOS, a full-scale challenge, launched by the Total oil group. The idea was to present a robot capable of inspecting an off-shore drilling station autonomously.

Up against dozens of competitors, the ETH Zurich team was the only team to enter the competition with such a quadrupedal robot. They didn’t win, but the multiple field tests were growing evermore convincing. Especially because, during the challenge, the team designed new joints with elastic actuators made in-house. These joints, inspired by tendons and muscles, are compact, sealed and include their own custom control electronics. They can regulate joint torque, position and impedance directly. Thanks to this innovation, the team could enter the same competition with a new version of its robot, ANYmal, fitted with three joints on each leg.

The ARGOS experience confirms the relevance of the selected means of locomotion. “Our robot is lighter, takes up less space on site and it is less noisy” says Fankhauser. “It also overcomes bigger obstacles than larger wheeled or tracked robots!” As ANYmal generated public interest and its transformation into a genuine product seemed more than possible, the startup ANYbotics was launched in 2016. It sold not only its robot, but also its revolutionary joints, called ANYdrive.

Today, ANYmal is not yet ready for sale to companies. However, ANYbotics has a growing number of partnerships with several industries, testing the robot for a few days or several weeks, for all types of tasks. Last October, for example, ANYmal navigated its way through the dark sewage system of the city of Zurich in order to test its capacity to help workers in similar difficult, repetitive and even dangerous tasks.

Why such an early interest among companies? “Because many companies want to integrate robots into their maintenance tasks” answers Fankhauser. “With ANYmal, they can actually evaluate its feasibility and plan their strategy. Eventually, both the architecture and the equipment of buildings could be rethought to be adapted to these maintenance robots”.

ANYmal requires ruggedised, sealed and extremely reliable interconnection solutions, such as LEMO. ©ANYbotics

Through field demonstrations and testing, ANYbotics can gather masses of information (up to 50,000 measurements are recorded every second during each test!) “It helps us to shape the product.” In due time, the startup will be ready to deliver a commercial product which really caters for companies’ needs.

Inspection and surveillance tasks on industrial sites are not the only applications considered. The startup is also thinking of agricultural inspections – with its onboard sensors, ANYmal is capable of mapping its environment, measuring bio mass and even taking soil samples. In the longer term, it could also be used for search and rescue operations. By the way, the robot can already be switched to “remote control” mode at any time and can be easily tele-operated. It is also capable of live audio and video transmission.

The transition from the prototype to the marketed product stage will involve a number of further developments. These include increasing ANYmal’s agility and speed, extending its capacity to map large-scale environments, improving safety, security, user handling and integrating the system with the customer’s data management software. It will also be necessary to enhance the robot’s reliability “so that it can work for days, weeks, or even months without human supervision.” All required certifications will have to be obtained. The locomotion system, which had triggered the whole business, is only one of a number of considerations of ANYbotics.

Designed for extreme environments, for ANYmal smoke is not a problem and it can walk in the snow, through rubble or in water. ©ANYbotics

The startup is not all alone. In fact, it has sold ANYmal robots to a dozen major universities who use them to develop their know-how in robotics. The startup has also founded ANYmal Research, a community including members such as Toyota Research Institute, the German Aerospace Center and the computer company Nvidia. Members have full access to ANYmal’s control software, simulations and documentation. Sharing has boosted both software and hardware ideas and developments (built on ROS, the open-source Robot Operating System). In particular, payload variations, providing for expandability and scalability. For instance, one of the universities uses a robotic arm which enables ANYmal to grasp or handle objects and open doors.

Among possible applications, ANYbotics mentions entertainment. It is not only about playing in more films or TV series, but rather about participating in various attractions (trade shows, museums, etc.). “ANYmal is so novel that it attracts a great amount of interest” confirms Fankhauser with a smile. “Whenever we present it somewhere, people gather around.”

Videos of these events show a fascinated and sometimes slightly fearful audience, when ANYmal gets too close to them. Is it fear of the “bad robot”? “This fear exists indeed and we are happy to be able to use ANYmal also to promote public awareness towards robotics and robots.” Reminiscent of a young dog, ANYmal is truly adapted for the purpose.

However, Péter Fankhauser softens the image of humans and sophisticated robots living together. “These coming years, robots will continue to work in the background, like they have for a long time in factories. Then, they will be used in public places in a selective and targeted way, for instance for dangerous missions. We will need to wait another ten years before animal-like robots, such as ANYmal will share our everyday lives!”

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January, Continental, the German automotive manufacturing company, used robots to demonstrate a last-mile delivery. It showed ANYmal getting out of an autonomous vehicle with a parcel, climbing onto the front porch, lifting a paw to ring the doorbell, depositing the parcel before getting back into the vehicle. This futuristic image seems very close indeed.

*X-Files, season 11, episode 7, aired in February 2018 Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435726 This Is the Most Powerful Robot Arm Ever ...

Last month, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory wrapped up the installation of the Mars 2020 rover’s 2.1-meter-long robot arm. This is the most powerful arm ever installed on a Mars rover. Even though the Mars 2020 rover shares much of its design with Curiosity, the new arm was redesigned to be able to do much more complex science, drilling into rocks to collect samples that can be stored for later recovery.

JPL is well known for developing robots that do amazing work in incredibly distant and hostile environments. The Opportunity Mars rover, to name just one example, had a 90-day planned mission but remained operational for 5,498 days in a robot unfriendly place full of dust and wild temperature swings where even the most basic maintenance or repair is utterly impossible. (Its twin rover, Spirit, operated for 2,269 days.)

To learn more about the process behind designing robotic systems that are capable of feats like these, we talked with Matt Robinson, one of the engineers who designed the Mars 2020 rover’s new robot arm.

The Mars 2020 rover (which will be officially named through a public contest which opens this fall) is scheduled to launch in July of 2020, landing in Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021. The overall design is similar to the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, named Curiosity, which has been exploring Gale Crater on Mars since August 2012, except Mars 2020 will be a bit bigger and capable of doing even more amazing science. It will outweigh Curiosity by about 150 kilograms, but it’s otherwise about the same size, and uses the same type of radioisotope thermoelectric generator for power. Upgraded aluminum wheels will be more durable than Curiosity’s wheels, which have suffered significant wear. Mars 2020 will land on Mars in the same way that Curiosity did, with a mildly insane descent to the surface from a rocket-powered hovering “skycrane.”

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Last month, engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory install the main robotic arm on the Mars 2020 rover. Measuring 2.1 meters long, the arm will allow the rover to work as a human geologist would: by holding and using science tools with its turret.

Mars 2020 really steps it up when it comes to science. The most interesting new capability (besides serving as the base station for a highly experimental autonomous helicopter) is that the rover will be able to take surface samples of rock and soil, put them into tubes, seal the tubes up, and then cache the tubes on the surface for later retrieval (and potentially return to Earth for analysis). Collecting the samples is the job of a drill on the end of the robot arm that can be equipped with a variety of interchangeable bits, but the arm holds a number of other instruments as well. A “turret” can swap between the drill, a mineral identification sensor suite called SHERLOC, and an X-ray spectrometer and camera called PIXL. Fundamentally, most of Mars 2020’s science work is going to depend on the arm and the hardware that it carries, both in terms of close-up surface investigations and collecting samples for caching.

Matt Robinson is the Deputy Delivery Manager for the Sample Caching System on the Mars 2020 rover, which covers the robotic arm itself, the drill at the end of the arm, and the sample caching system within the body of the rover that manages the samples. Robinson has been at JPL since 2001, and he’s worked on the Mars Phoenix Lander mission as the robotic arm flight software developer and robotic arm test and operations engineer, as well as on Curiosity as the robotic arm test and operations lead engineer.

We spoke with Robinson about how the Mars 2020 arm was designed, and what it’s like to be building robots for exploring other planets.

IEEE Spectrum: How’d you end up working on robots at JPL?

Matt Robinson: When I was a grad student, my focus was on vision-based robotics research, so the kinds of things they do at JPL, or that we do at JPL now, were right within my wheelhouse. One of my advisors in grad school had a former student who was out here at JPL, so that’s how I made the contact. But I was very excited to come to JPL—as a young grad student working in robotics, space robotics was where it’s at.

For a robotics engineer, working in space is kind of the gold standard. You’re working in a challenging environment and you have to be prepared for any time of eventuality that may occur. And when you send your robot out to space, there’s no getting it back.

Once the rover arrives on Mars and you receive pictures back from it operating, there’s no greater feeling. You’ve built something that is now working 200+ million miles away. It’s an awesome experience! I have to pinch myself sometimes with the job I do. Working at JPL on space robotics is the holy grail for a roboticist.

What’s different about designing an arm for a rover that will operate on Mars?

We spent over five years designing, manufacturing, assembling, and testing the arm. Scientists have defined the high-level goals for what the mission has to do—acquire core samples and process them for return, carry science instruments on the arm to help determine what rocks to sample, and so on. We, as engineers, define the next level of requirements that support those goals.

When you’re building a robotic arm for another planet, you want to design something that is robust to the environment as well as robust from fault-protection standpoint. On Mars, we’re talking about an environment where the temperature can vary 100 degrees Celsius over the course of the day, so it’s very challenging thermally. With force sensing for instance, that’s a major problem. Force sensors aren’t typically designed to operate or even survive in temperature ranges that we’re talking about. So a lot of effort has to go into force sensor design and testing.

And then there’s a do-no-harm aspect—you’re sending this piece of hardware 200 million miles away, and you can’t get it back, so you want to make sure your hardware and software are robust and cannot do any harm to the system. It’s definitely a change in mindset from a terrestrial robot, where if you make a mistake, you can repair it.

“Once the rover arrives on Mars and you receive pictures back from it, there’s no greater feeling . . . I have to pinch myself sometimes with the job I do.”
—Matt Robinson, NASA JPL

How do you decide how much redundancy is enough?

That’s always a big question. It comes down to a couple of things, typically: mass and volume. You have a certain amount of mass that’s allocated to the robotic arm and we have a volume that it has to fit within, so those are often the drivers of the amount of redundancy that you can fit. We also have a lot of experience with sending arms to other planets, and at the beginning of projects, we establish a number of requirements that the design has to meet, and that’s where the redundancy is captured.

How much is the design of the arm driven by this need for redundancy, as opposed to trying to pack in all of the instrumentation that you want to have on there to do as much science as possible?

The requirements were driven by a couple of things. We knew roughly how big the instruments on the end of the arm were going to be, so the arm design is partially driven by that, because as the instruments get bigger and heavier, the arm has to get bigger and stronger. We have our coring drill at the end of the arm, and coring requires a certain level of force, so the arm has to be strong enough to do that. Those all became requirements that drove the design of the arm. On top of that, there was also that this arm also has to operate within the Martian environment, so you have things like the temperature changes and thermal expansion—you have to design for that as well. It’s a combination of both, really.

You were a test engineer for the arm used on the MSL rover. What did you learn from Spirit and Opportunity that informed the design of the arm on Curiosity?

Spirit and Opportunity did not have any force-sensing on the robotic arm. We had contact sensors that were good enough. Spirit and Opportunity’s arms were used to place instruments, that’s all it had to do, primarily. When you’re talking about actually acquiring samples, it’s not a matter of just placing the tool—you also have to apply forces to the environment. And once you start doing that, you really need a force sensor to protect you, and also to determine how much load to apply. So that was a big theme, a big difference between MSL and Spirit and Opportunity.

The size grew a lot too. If you look at Spirit and Opportunity, they’re the size of a riding lawnmower. Curiosity and the Mars 2020 rovers are the size of a small car. The Spirit and Opportunity arm was under a meter long, and the 2020 arm is twice that, and it has to apply forces that are much higher than the Spirit and Opportunity arm. From Curiosity to 2020, the payload of the arm grew by 50 percent, but the mass of the arm did not grow a whole lot, because our mass budget was kind of tight. We had to design an arm that was stronger, that had more capability, without adding more mass. That was a big challenge. We were fairly efficient on Curiosity, but on 2020, we sharpened the pencil even more.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Three generations of Mars rovers developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Front and center: Sojourner rover, which landed on Mars in 1997 as part of the Mars Pathfinder Project. Left: Mars Exploration Rover Project rover (Spirit and Opportunity), which landed on Mars in 2004. Right: Mars Science Laboratory rover (Curiosity), which landed on Mars in August 2012.

MSL used its arm to drill into rocks like Mars 2020 will—how has the experience of operating MSL on Mars changed your thinking on how to make that work?

On MSL, the force sensor was used primarily for fault protection, just to protect the arm from being overloaded. [When drilling] we used a stiffness model of the arm to apply the force. The force sensor was only used in case you overloaded, and that’s very different from doing active force control, where you’re actually using the force sensor in a control loop.

On Mars 2020, we’re taking it to the next step, using the force sensor to actually actively control the level of force, both for pushing on the ground and for doing bit exchange. That’s a key point because fault protection to prevent damage usually has larger error bars. When you’re trying to actually push on the environment to apply force, and you’re doing active force control, the force sensor has to be significantly more accurate.

So a big thing that we learned on MSL—it was the first time we’d actually flown a force sensor, and we learned a lot about how to design and test force sensors to be used on the surface of Mars.

How do you effectively test the Mars 2020 arm on Earth?

That’s a good question. The arm was designed to operate on either Earth or Mars. It’s strong enough to do both. We also have a stiffness model of the arm which includes allows us to compensate for differences in gravity. For testing, we make two copies of the robotic arm. We have our copy that we’re going to fly to Mars, which is what we call our flight model, and we have our engineering model. They’re effectively duplicates of each other. The engineering arm stays on earth, so even once we’ve sent the flight model to Mars, we can continue to test. And if something were to happen, if say a drill bit got stuck in the ground on Mars, we could try to replicate those conditions on Earth with our engineering model arm, and use that to test out different scenarios to overcome the problem.

How much autonomy will the arm have?

We have different models of autonomy. We have pretty high levels flight software and, for instance, we have a command that just says “dock,” that moves the arm does all the force control to the dock the arm with the carousel. For surface interaction, we have stereo cameras on the rover, and those cameras allow us to generate 3D terrain models. Using those 3D terrain models, scientists can select a target on that surface, and then we can position the arm on the target.

Scientists like to select the particular sample targets, because they have very specific types of rocks they’re looking for to sample from. On 2020, we’re providing the ability for the next level of autonomy for the rover to drive up to an area and at least do the initial surveying of that area, so the scientists can select the specific target. So the way that that would happen is, if there’s an area off in the distance that the scientists find potentially interesting, the rover will autonomously drive up to it, and deploy the arm and take all the pictures so that we can generate those 3D terrain models and then the next day the scientists can pick the specific target they want. It’s really cool.

JPL is famous for making robots that operate for far longer than NASA necessarily plans for. What’s it like designing hardware and software for a system that will (hopefully) become part of that legacy?

The way that I look at it is, when you’re building an arm that’s going to go to another planet, all the things that could go wrong… You have to build something that’s robust and that can survive all that. It’s not that we’re trying to overdesign arms so that they’ll end up lasting much, much longer, it’s that, given all the things that you can encounter within a fairly unknown environment, and the level of robustness of the design you have to apply, it just so happens we end up with designs that end up lasting a lot longer than they do. Which is great, but we’re not held to that, although we’re very excited when we see them last that long. Without any calibration, without any maintenance, exactly, it’s amazing. They show their wear over time, but they still operate, it’s super exciting, it’s very inspirational to see.

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