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#439110 Robotic Exoskeletons Could One Day Walk ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Human Robots

#439105 This Robot Taught Itself to Walk in a ...

Recently, in a Berkeley lab, a robot called Cassie taught itself to walk, a little like a toddler might. Through trial and error, it learned to move in a simulated world. Then its handlers sent it strolling through a minefield of real-world tests to see how it’d fare.

And, as it turns out, it fared pretty damn well. With no further fine-tuning, the robot—which is basically just a pair of legs—was able to walk in all directions, squat down while walking, right itself when pushed off balance, and adjust to different kinds of surfaces.

It’s the first time a machine learning approach known as reinforcement learning has been so successfully applied in two-legged robots.

This likely isn’t the first robot video you’ve seen, nor the most polished.

For years, the internet has been enthralled by videos of robots doing far more than walking and regaining their balance. All that is table stakes these days. Boston Dynamics, the heavyweight champ of robot videos, regularly releases mind-blowing footage of robots doing parkour, back flips, and complex dance routines. At times, it can seem the world of iRobot is just around the corner.

This sense of awe is well-earned. Boston Dynamics is one of the world’s top makers of advanced robots.

But they still have to meticulously hand program and choreograph the movements of the robots in their videos. This is a powerful approach, and the Boston Dynamics team has done incredible things with it.

In real-world situations, however, robots need to be robust and resilient. They need to regularly deal with the unexpected, and no amount of choreography will do. Which is how, it’s hoped, machine learning can help.

Reinforcement learning has been most famously exploited by Alphabet’s DeepMind to train algorithms that thrash humans at some the most difficult games. Simplistically, it’s modeled on the way we learn. Touch the stove, get burned, don’t touch the damn thing again; say please, get a jelly bean, politely ask for another.

In Cassie’s case, the Berkeley team used reinforcement learning to train an algorithm to walk in a simulation. It’s not the first AI to learn to walk in this manner. But going from simulation to the real world doesn’t always translate.

Subtle differences between the two can (literally) trip up a fledgling robot as it tries out its sim skills for the first time.

To overcome this challenge, the researchers used two simulations instead of one. The first simulation, an open source training environment called MuJoCo, was where the algorithm drew upon a large library of possible movements and, through trial and error, learned to apply them. The second simulation, called Matlab SimMechanics, served as a low-stakes testing ground that more precisely matched real-world conditions.

Once the algorithm was good enough, it graduated to Cassie.

And amazingly, it didn’t need further polishing. Said another way, when it was born into the physical world—it knew how to walk just fine. In addition, it was also quite robust. The researchers write that two motors in Cassie’s knee malfunctioned during the experiment, but the robot was able to adjust and keep on trucking.

Other labs have been hard at work applying machine learning to robotics.

Last year Google used reinforcement learning to train a (simpler) four-legged robot. And OpenAI has used it with robotic arms. Boston Dynamics, too, will likely explore ways to augment their robots with machine learning. New approaches—like this one aimed at training multi-skilled robots or this one offering continuous learning beyond training—may also move the dial. It’s early yet, however, and there’s no telling when machine learning will exceed more traditional methods.

And in the meantime, Boston Dynamics bots are testing the commercial waters.

Still, robotics researchers, who were not part of the Berkeley team, think the approach is promising. Edward Johns, head of Imperial College London’s Robot Learning Lab, told MIT Technology Review, “This is one of the most successful examples I have seen.”

The Berkeley team hopes to build on that success by trying out “more dynamic and agile behaviors.” So, might a self-taught parkour-Cassie be headed our way? We’ll see.

Image Credit: University of California Berkeley Hybrid Robotics via YouTube Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#439100 Video Friday: Robotic Eyeball Camera

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here's what we have so far (send us your events!):

RoboSoft 2021 – April 12-16, 2021 – [Online Conference]
ICRA 2021 – May 30-5, 2021 – Xi'an, China
RoboCup 2021 – June 22-28, 2021 – [Online Event]
DARPA SubT Finals – September 21-23, 2021 – Louisville, KY, USA
WeRobot 2021 – September 23-25, 2021 – Coral Gables, FL, USA
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today's videos.

What if seeing devices looked like us? Eyecam is a prototype exploring the potential future design of sensing devices. Eyecam is a webcam shaped like a human eye that can see, blink, look around and observe us.

And it's open source, so you can build your own!

[ Eyecam ]

Looks like Festo will be turning some of its bionic robots into educational kits, which is a pretty cool idea.

[ Bionics4Education ]

Underwater soft robots are challenging to model and control because of their high degrees of freedom and their intricate coupling with water. In this paper, we present a method that leverages the recent development in differentiable simulation coupled with a differentiable, analytical hydrodynamic model to assist with the modeling and control of an underwater soft robot. We apply this method to Starfish, a customized soft robot design that is easy to fabricate and intuitive to manipulate.

[ MIT CSAIL ]

Rainbow Robotics, the company who made HUBO, has a new collaborative robot arm.

[ Rainbow Robotics ]

Thanks Fan!

We develop an integrated robotic platform for advanced collaborative robots and demonstrates an application of multiple robots collaboratively transporting an object to different positions in a factory environment. The proposed platform integrates a drone, a mobile manipulator robot, and a dual-arm robot to work autonomously, while also collaborating with a human worker. The platform also demonstrates the potential of a novel manufacturing process, which incorporates adaptive and collaborative intelligence to improve the efficiency of mass customization for the factory of the future.

[ Paper ]

Thanks Poramate!

In Sevastopol State University the team of the Laboratory of Underwater Robotics and Control Systems and Research and Production Association “Android Technika” performed tests of an underwater anropomorphic manipulator robot.

[ Sevastopol State ]

Thanks Fan!

Taiwanese company TCI Gene created a COVID test system based on their fully automated and enclosed gene testing machine QVS-96S. The system includes two ABB robots and carries out 1800 tests per day, operating 24/7. Every hour 96 virus samples tests are made with an accuracy of 99.99%.

[ ABB ]

A short video showing how a Halodi Robotics can be used in a commercial guarding application.

[ Halodi ]

During the past five years, under the NASA Early Space Innovations program, we have been developing new design optimization methods for underactuated robot hands, aiming to achieve versatile manipulation in highly constrained environments. We have prototyped hands for NASA’s Astrobee robot, an in-orbit assistive free flyer for the International Space Station.

[ ROAM Lab ]

The new, improved OTTO 1500 is a workhorse AMR designed to move heavy payloads through demanding environments faster than any other AMR on the market, with zero compromise to safety.

[ ROAM Lab ]

Very, very high performance sensing and actuation to pull this off.

[ Ishikawa Group ]

We introduce a conversational social robot designed for long-term in-home use to help with loneliness. We present a novel robot behavior design to have simple self-reflection conversations with people to improve wellness, while still being feasible, deployable, and safe.

[ HCI Lab ]

We are one of the 5 winners of the Start-up Challenge. This video illustrates what we achieved during the Swisscom 5G exploration week. Our proof-of-concept tele-excavation system is composed of a Menzi Muck M545 walking excavator automated & customized by Robotic Systems Lab and IBEX motion platform as the operator station. The operator and remote machine are connected for the first time via a 5G network infrastructure which was brought to our test field by Swisscom.

[ RSL ]

This video shows LOLA balancing on different terrain when being pushed in different directions. The robot is technically blind, not using any camera-based or prior information on the terrain (hard ground is assumed).

[ TUM ]

Autonomous driving when you cannot see the road at all because it's buried in snow is some serious autonomous driving.

[ Norlab ]

A hierarchical and robust framework for learning bipedal locomotion is presented and successfully implemented on the 3D biped robot Digit. The feasibility of the method is demonstrated by successfully transferring the learned policy in simulation to the Digit robot hardware, realizing sustained walking gaits under external force disturbances and challenging terrains not included during the training process.

[ OSU ]

This is a video summary of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue's deployments under the direction of emergency response agencies to more than 30 disasters in five countries from 2001 (9/11 World Trade Center) to 2018 (Hurricane Michael). It includes the first use of ground robots for a disaster (WTC, 2001), the first use of small unmanned aerial systems (Hurricane Katrina 2005), and the first use of water surface vehicles (Hurricane Wilma, 2005).

[ CRASAR ]

In March, a team from the Oxford Robotics Institute collected a week of epic off-road driving data, as part of the Sense-Assess-eXplain (SAX) project.

[ Oxford Robotics ]

As a part of the AAAI 2021 Spring Symposium Series, HEBI Robotics was invited to present an Industry Talk on the symposium's topic: Machine Learning for Mobile Robot Navigation in the Wild. Included in this presentation was a short case study on one of our upcoming mobile robots that is being designed to successfully navigate unstructured environments where today's robots struggle.

[ HEBI Robotics ]

Thanks Hardik!

This Lockheed Martin Robotics Seminar is from Chad Jenkins at the University of Michigan, on “Semantic Robot Programming… and Maybe Making the World a Better Place.”

I will present our efforts towards accessible and general methods of robot programming from the demonstrations of human users. Our recent work has focused on Semantic Robot Programming (SRP), a declarative paradigm for robot programming by demonstration that builds on semantic mapping. In contrast to procedural methods for motion imitation in configuration space, SRP is suited to generalize user demonstrations of goal scenes in workspace, such as for manipulation in cluttered environments. SRP extends our efforts to crowdsource robot learning from demonstration at scale through messaging protocols suited to web/cloud robotics. With such scaling of robotics in mind, prospects for cultivating both equal opportunity and technological excellence will be discussed in the context of broadening and strengthening Title IX and Title VI.

[ UMD ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#439095 DARPA Prepares for the Subterranean ...

The DARPA Subterranean Challenge Final Event is scheduled to take place at the Louisville Mega Cavern in Louisville, Kentucky, from September 21 to 23. We’ve followed SubT teams as they’ve explored their way through abandoned mines, unfinished nuclear reactors, and a variety of caves, and now everything comes together in one final course where the winner of the Systems Track will take home the $2 million first prize.

It’s a fitting reward for teams that have been solving some of the hardest problems in robotics, but winning isn’t going to be easy, and we’ll talk with SubT Program Manager Tim Chung about what we have to look forward to.

Since we haven’t talked about SubT in a little while (what with the unfortunate covid-related cancellation of the Systems Track Cave Circuit), here’s a quick refresher of where we are: the teams have made it through the Tunnel Circuit, the Urban Circuit, and a virtual version of the Cave Circuit, and some of them have been testing in caves of their own. The Final Event will include all of these environments, and the teams of robots will have 60 minutes to autonomously map the course, locating artifacts to score points. Since I’m not sure where on Earth there’s an underground location that combines tunnels and caves with urban structures, DARPA is going to have to get creative, and the location in which they’ve chosen to do that is Louisville, Kentucky.

The Louisville Mega Cavern is a former limestone mine, most of which is under the Louisville Zoo. It’s not all that deep, mostly less than 30 meters under the surface, but it’s enormous: with 370,000 square meters of rooms and passages, the cavern currently hosts (among other things) a business park, a zipline course, and mountain bike trails, because why not. While DARPA is keeping pretty quiet on the details, I’m guessing that they’ll be taking over a chunk of the cavern and filling it with features representing as many of the environmental challenges as they can.

To learn more about how the SubT Final Event is going to go, we spoke with SubT Program Manager Tim Chung. But first, we talked about Tim’s perspective on the success of the Urban Circuit, and how teams have been managing without an in-person Cave Circuit.

IEEE Spectrum: How did the SubT Urban Circuit go?

Tim Chung: On a couple fronts, Urban Circuit was really exciting. We were in this unfinished nuclear power plant—I’d be surprised if any of the competitors had prior experience in such a facility, or anything like it. I think that was illuminating both from an experiential point of view for the competitors, but also from a technology point of view, too.

One thing that I thought was really interesting was that we, DARPA, didn't need to make the venue more challenging. The real world is really that hard. There are places that were just really heinous for these robots to have to navigate through in order to look in every nook and cranny for artifacts. There were corners and doorways and small corridors and all these kind of things that really forced the teams to have to work hard, and the feedback was, why did DARPA have to make it so hard? But we didn’t, and in fact there were places that for the safety of the robots and personnel, we had to ensure the robots couldn’t go.

It sounds like some teams thought this course was on the more difficult side—do you think you tuned it to just the right amount of DARPA-hard?

Our calibration worked quite well. We were able to tease out and help refine and better understand what technologies are both useful and critical and also those technologies that might not necessarily get you the leap ahead capability. So as an example, the Urban Circuit really emphasized verticality, where you have to be able to sense, understand, and maneuver in three dimensions. Being able to capitalize on their robot technologies to address that verticality really stratified the teams, and showed how critical those capabilities are.

We saw teams that brought a lot of those capabilities do very well, and teams that brought baseline capabilities do what they could on the single floor that they were able to operate on. And so I think we got the Goldilocks solution for Urban Circuit that combined both difficulty and ambition.

Photos: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Two SubT Teams embedded networking equipment in balls that they could throw onto the course.

One of the things that I found interesting was that two teams independently came up with throwable network nodes. What was DARPA’s reaction to this? Is any solution a good solution, or was it more like the teams were trying to game the system?

You mean, do we want teams to game the rules in any way so as to get a competitive advantage? I don't think that's what the teams were doing. I think they were operating not only within the bounds of the rules, which permitted such a thing as throwable sensors where you could stand at the line and see how far you could chuck these things—not only was that acceptable by the rules, but anticipated. Behind the scenes, we tried to do exactly what these teams are doing and think through different approaches, so we explicitly didn't forbid such things in our rules because we thought it's important to have as wide an aperture as possible.

With these comms nodes specifically, I think they’re pretty clever. They were in some cases hacked together with a variety of different sports paraphernalia to see what would provide the best cushioning. You know, a lot of that happens in the field, and what it captured was that sometimes you just need to be up at two in the morning and thinking about things in a slightly different way, and that's when some nuggets of innovation can arise, and we see this all the time with operators in the field as well. They might only have duct tape or Styrofoam or whatever the case may be and that's when they come up with different ways to solve these problems. I think from DARPA’s perspective, and certainly from my perspective, wherever innovation can strike, we want to try to encourage and inspire those opportunities. I thought it was great, and it’s all part of the challenge.

Is there anything you can tell us about what your original plan had been for the Cave Circuit?

I can say that we’ve had the opportunity to go through a number of these caves scattered all throughout the country, and engage with caving communities—cavers clubs, speleologists that conduct research, and then of course the cave rescue community. The single biggest takeaway
is that every cave, and there are tens of thousands of them in the US alone, every cave has its own personality, and a lot of that personality is quite hidden from humans, because we can’t explore or access all of the cave. This led us to a number of different caves that were intriguing from a DARPA perspective but also inspirational for our Cave Circuit Virtual Competition.

How do you feel like the tuning was for the Virtual Cave Circuit?

The Virtual Competition, as you well know, was exciting in the sense that we could basically combine eight worlds into one competition, whereas the systems track competition really didn’t give us that opportunity. Even if we were able have held the Cave Circuit Systems Competition in person, it would have been at one site, and it would have been challenging to represent the level of diversity that we could with the Virtual Competition. So I think from that perspective, it’s clearly an advantage in terms of calibration—diversity gets you the ability to aggregate results to capture those that excel across all worlds as well as those that do well in one world or some worlds and not the others. I think the calibration was great in the sense that we were able to see the gamut of performance. Those that did well, did quite well, and those that have room to grow showed where those opportunities are for them as well.

We had to find ways to capture that diversity and that representativeness, and I think one of the fun ways we did that was with the different cave world tiles that we were able to combine in a variety of different ways. We also made use of a real world data set that we were able to take from a laser scan. Across the board, we had a really great chance to illustrate why virtual testing and simulation still plays such a dominant role in robotics technology development, and why I think it will continue to play an increasing role for developing these types of autonomy solutions.

Photo: Team CSIRO Data 61

How can systems track teams learn from their testing in whatever cave is local to them and effectively apply that to whatever cave environment is part of the final considering what the diversity of caves is?

I think that hits the nail on the head for what we as technologists are trying to discover—what are the transferable generalizable insights and how does that inform our technology development? As roboticists we want to optimize our systems to perform well at the tasks that they were designed to do, and oftentimes that means specialization because we get increased performance at the expense of being a generalist robot. I think in the case of SubT, we want to have our cake and eat it too—we want robots that perform well and reliably, but we want them to do so not just in one environment, which is how we tend to think about robot performance, but we want them to operate well in many environments, many of which have yet to be faced.

And I think that's kind of the nuance here, that we want robot systems to be generalists for the sake of being able to handle the unknown, namely the real world, but still achieve a high level of performance and perhaps they do that to their combined use of different technologies or advances in autonomy or perception approaches or novel mechanisms or mobility, but somehow they're still able, at least in aggregate, to achieve high performance.

We know these teams eagerly await any type of clue that DARPA can provide like about the SubT environments. From the environment previews for Tunnel, Urban, and even Cave, the teams were pivoting around and thinking a little bit differently. The takeaway, however, was that they didn't go to a clean sheet design—their systems were flexible enough that they could incorporate some of those specialist trends while still maintaining the notion of a generalist framework.

Looking ahead to the SubT Final, what can you tell us about the Louisville Mega Cavern?

As always, I’ll keep you in suspense until we get you there, but I can say that from the beginning of the SubT Challenge we had always envisioned teams of robots that are able to address not only the uncertainty of what's right in front of them, but also the uncertainty of what comes next. So I think the teams will be advantaged by thinking through subdomain awareness, or domain awareness if you want to generalize it, whether that means tuning multi-purpose robots, or deploying different robots, or employing your team of robots differently. Knowing which subdomain you are in is likely to be helpful, because then you can take advantage of those unique lessons learned through all those previous experiences then capitalize on that.

As far as specifics, I think the Mega Cavern offers many of the features important to what it means to be underground, while giving DARPA a pretty blank canvas to realize our vision of the SubT Challenge.

The SubT Final will be different from the earlier circuits in that there’s just one 60-minute run, rather than two. This is going to make things a lot more stressful for teams who have experienced bad robot days—why do it this way?

The preliminary round has two 30-minute runs, and those two runs are very similar to how we have done it during the circuits, of a single run per configuration per course. Teams will have the opportunity to show that their systems can face the obstacles in the final course, and it's the sum of those scores much like we did during the circuits, to help mitigate some of the concerns that you mentioned of having one robot somehow ruin their chances at a prize.

The prize round does give DARPA as well as the community a chance to focus on the top six teams from the preliminary round, and allows us to understand how they came to be at the top of the pack while emphasizing their technological contributions. The prize round will be one and done, but all of these teams we anticipate will be putting their best robot forward and will show the world why they deserve to win the SubT Challenge.

We’ve always thought that when called upon these robots need to operate in really challenging environments, and in the context of real world operations, there is no second chance. I don't think it's actually that much of a departure from our interests and insistence on bringing reliable technologies to the field, and those teams that might have something break here and there, that's all part of the challenge, of being resilient. Many teams struggled with robots that were debilitated on the course, and they still found ways to succeed and overcome that in the field, so maybe the rules emphasize that desire for showing up and working on game day which is consistent, I think, with how we've always envisioned it. This isn’t to say that these systems have to work perfectly, they just have to work in a way such that the team is resilient enough to tackle anything that they face.

It’s not too late for teams to enter for both the Virtual Track and the Systems Track to compete in the SubT Final, right?

Yes, that's absolutely right. Qualifications are still open, we are eager to welcome new teams to join in along with our existing competitors. I think any dark horse competitors coming into the Finals may be able to bring something that we haven't seen before, and that would be really exciting. I think it'll really make for an incredibly vibrant and illuminating final event.

The final event qualification deadline for the Systems Competition is April 21, and the qualification deadline for the Virtual Competition is June 29. More details here. 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

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