Tag Archives: realistic

#438921 Disney’s creepy humanoid ...

This video by Disney Research using a humanoid animatronic bust demonstrates a very realistic and interactive lifelike gaze in human-robot interactions, thus creating “the illusion of life”. Cool, but creepy as heck! Related Posts Should We Fear the Rise of … Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#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

#438998 Foam Sword Fencing With a PR2 Is the ...

Most of what we cover in the Human Robot Interaction (HRI) space involves collaboration, because collaborative interactions tend to be productive, positive, and happy. Yay! But sometimes, collaboration is not what you want. Sometimes, you want competition.

Competition between humans and robots doesn’t have to be a bad thing, in the same way that competition between humans and humans doesn’t have to be a bad thing. There are all kinds of scenarios in which humans respond favorably to competition, and exercise is an obvious example.

Studies have shown that humans can perform significantly better when they’re exercising competitively as opposed to when they’re exercising individually. And while researchers have looked at whether robots can be effective exercise coaches (they can be), there hasn’t been a lot of exploration of physical robots actually competing directly with humans. Roboticists from the University of Washington decided to put adversarial exercise robots to the test, and they did it by giving a PR2 a giant foam sword. Awesome.

This exercise game matches a PR2 with a human in a zero-sum competitive fencing game with foam swords. Expecting the PR2 to actually be a competitive fencer isn’t realistic because, like, it’s a PR2. Instead, the objective of the game is for the human to keep their foam sword within a target area near the PR2 while also avoiding the PR2’s low-key sword-waving. A VR system allows the user to see the target area, while also giving the system a way to track the user’s location and pose.

Looks like fun, right? It’s also exercise, at least in the sense that the user’s heart rate nearly doubled over their resting heart rate during the highest scoring game. This is super preliminary research, though, and there’s still a lot of work to do. It’ll be important to figure out how skilled a competitive robot should be in order to keep providing a reasonable challenge to a human who gradually improves over time, while also being careful to avoid generating any negative reactions. For example, the robot should probably not beat you over the head with its foam sword, even if that’s a highly effective strategy for getting your heart rate up.

Competitive Physical Human-Robot Game Play, by Boling Yang, Xiangyu Xie, Golnaz Habibi, and Joshua R. Smith from the University of Washington and MIT, was presented as a late-breaking report at the ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#438982 Quantum Computing and Reinforcement ...

Deep reinforcement learning is having a superstar moment.

Powering smarter robots. Simulating human neural networks. Trouncing physicians at medical diagnoses and crushing humanity’s best gamers at Go and Atari. While far from achieving the flexible, quick thinking that comes naturally to humans, this powerful machine learning idea seems unstoppable as a harbinger of better thinking machines.

Except there’s a massive roadblock: they take forever to run. Because the concept behind these algorithms is based on trial and error, a reinforcement learning AI “agent” only learns after being rewarded for its correct decisions. For complex problems, the time it takes an AI agent to try and fail to learn a solution can quickly become untenable.

But what if you could try multiple solutions at once?

This week, an international collaboration led by Dr. Philip Walther at the University of Vienna took the “classic” concept of reinforcement learning and gave it a quantum spin. They designed a hybrid AI that relies on both quantum and run-of-the-mill classic computing, and showed that—thanks to quantum quirkiness—it could simultaneously screen a handful of different ways to solve a problem.

The result is a reinforcement learning AI that learned over 60 percent faster than its non-quantum-enabled peers. This is one of the first tests that shows adding quantum computing can speed up the actual learning process of an AI agent, the authors explained.

Although only challenged with a “toy problem” in the study, the hybrid AI, once scaled, could impact real-world problems such as building an efficient quantum internet. The setup “could readily be integrated within future large-scale quantum communication networks,” the authors wrote.

The Bottleneck
Learning from trial and error comes intuitively to our brains.

Say you’re trying to navigate a new convoluted campground without a map. The goal is to get from the communal bathroom back to your campsite. Dead ends and confusing loops abound. We tackle the problem by deciding to turn either left or right at every branch in the road. One will get us closer to the goal; the other leads to a half hour of walking in circles. Eventually, our brain chemistry rewards correct decisions, so we gradually learn the correct route. (If you’re wondering…yeah, true story.)

Reinforcement learning AI agents operate in a similar trial-and-error way. As a problem becomes more complex, the number—and time—of each trial also skyrockets.

“Even in a moderately realistic environment, it may simply take too long to rationally respond to a given situation,” explained study author Dr. Hans Briegel at the Universität Innsbruck in Austria, who previously led efforts to speed up AI decision-making using quantum mechanics. If there’s pressure that allows “only a certain time for a response, an agent may then be unable to cope with the situation and to learn at all,” he wrote.

Many attempts have tried speeding up reinforcement learning. Giving the AI agent a short-term “memory.” Tapping into neuromorphic computing, which better resembles the brain. In 2014, Briegel and colleagues showed that a “quantum brain” of sorts can help propel an AI agent’s decision-making process after learning. But speeding up the learning process itself has eluded our best attempts.

The Hybrid AI
The new study went straight for that previously untenable jugular.

The team’s key insight was to tap into the best of both worlds—quantum and classical computing. Rather than building an entire reinforcement learning system using quantum mechanics, they turned to a hybrid approach that could prove to be more practical. Here, the AI agent uses quantum weirdness as it’s trying out new approaches—the “trial” in trial and error. The system then passes the baton to a classical computer to give the AI its reward—or not—based on its performance.

At the heart of the quantum “trial” process is a quirk called superposition. Stay with me. Our computers are powered by electrons, which can represent only two states—0 or 1. Quantum mechanics is far weirder, in that photons (particles of light) can simultaneously be both 0 and 1, with a slightly different probability of “leaning towards” one or the other.

This noncommittal oddity is part of what makes quantum computing so powerful. Take our reinforcement learning example of navigating a new campsite. In our classic world, we—and our AI—need to decide between turning left or right at an intersection. In a quantum setup, however, the AI can (in a sense) turn left and right at the same time. So when searching for the correct path back to home base, the quantum system has a leg up in that it can simultaneously explore multiple routes, making it far faster than conventional, consecutive trail and error.

“As a consequence, an agent that can explore its environment in superposition will learn significantly faster than its classical counterpart,” said Briegel.

It’s not all theory. To test out their idea, the team turned to a programmable chip called a nanophotonic processor. Think of it as a CPU-like computer chip, but it processes particles of light—photons—rather than electricity. These light-powered chips have been a long time in the making. Back in 2017, for example, a team from MIT built a fully optical neural network into an optical chip to bolster deep learning.

The chips aren’t all that exotic. Nanophotonic processors act kind of like our eyeglasses, which can carry out complex calculations that transform light that passes through them. In the glasses case, they let people see better. For a light-based computer chip, it allows computation. Rather than using electrical cables, the chips use “wave guides” to shuttle photons and perform calculations based on their interactions.

The “error” or “reward” part of the new hardware comes from a classical computer. The nanophotonic processor is coupled to a traditional computer, where the latter provides the quantum circuit with feedback—that is, whether to reward a solution or not. This setup, the team explains, allows them to more objectively judge any speed-ups in learning in real time.

In this way, a hybrid reinforcement learning agent alternates between quantum and classical computing, trying out ideas in wibbly-wobbly “multiverse” land while obtaining feedback in grounded, classic physics “normality.”

A Quantum Boost
In simulations using 10,000 AI agents and actual experimental data from 165 trials, the hybrid approach, when challenged with a more complex problem, showed a clear leg up.

The key word is “complex.” The team found that if an AI agent has a high chance of figuring out the solution anyway—as for a simple problem—then classical computing works pretty well. The quantum advantage blossoms when the task becomes more complex or difficult, allowing quantum mechanics to fully flex its superposition muscles. For these problems, the hybrid AI was 63 percent faster at learning a solution compared to traditional reinforcement learning, decreasing its learning effort from 270 guesses to 100.

Now that scientists have shown a quantum boost for reinforcement learning speeds, the race for next-generation computing is even more lit. Photonics hardware required for long-range light-based communications is rapidly shrinking, while improving signal quality. The partial-quantum setup could “aid specifically in problems where frequent search is needed, for example, network routing problems” that’s prevalent for a smooth-running internet, the authors wrote. With a quantum boost, reinforcement learning may be able to tackle far more complex problems—those in the real world—than currently possible.

“We are just at the beginning of understanding the possibilities of quantum artificial intelligence,” said lead author Walther.

Image Credit: Oleg Gamulinskiy from Pixabay Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

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

Photo: CIA Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Nicole Graf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Human Robots