Tag Archives: vehicle

#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

#439006 Low-Cost Drones Learn Precise Control ...

I’ll admit to having been somewhat skeptical about the strategy of dangling payloads on long tethers for drone delivery. I mean, I get why Wing does it— it keeps the drone and all of its spinny bits well away from untrained users while preserving the capability of making deliveries to very specific areas that may have nearby obstacles. But it also seems like you’re adding some risk as well, because once your payload is out on that long tether, it’s more or less out of your control in at least two axes. And you can forget about your drone doing anything while this is going on, because who the heck knows what’s going to happen to your payload if the drone starts moving around?

NYU roboticists, that’s who.

This research is by Guanrui Li, Alex Tunchez, and Giuseppe Loianno at the Agile Robotics and Perception Lab (ARPL) at NYU. As you can see from the video, the drone makes keeping rock-solid control over that suspended payload look easy, but it’s very much not, especially considering that everything you see is running onboard the drone itself at 500Hz— all it takes is an IMU and a downward-facing monocular camera, along with the drone’s Snapdragon processor.

To get this to work, the drone has to be thinking about two things. First, there’s state estimation, which is the behavior of the drone itself along with its payload at the end of the tether. The drone figures this out by watching how the payload moves using its camera and tracking its own movement with its IMU. Second, there’s predicting what the payload is going to do next, and how that jibes (or not) with what the drone wants to do next. The researchers developed a model predictive control (MPC) system for this, with some added perception constraints to make sure that the behavior of the drone keeps the payload in view of the camera.

At the moment, the top speed of the system is 4 m/s, but it sounds like rather than increasing the speed of a single payload-swinging drone, the next steps will be to make the overall system more complicated by somehow using multiple drones to cooperatively manage tethered payloads that are too big or heavy for one drone to handle alone.

For more on this, we spoke with Giuseppe Loianno, head of the ARPL.

IEEE Spectrum: We've seen some examples of delivery drones delivering suspended loads. How will this work improve their capabilities?

Giuseppe Loianno: For the first time, we jointly design a perception-constrained model predictive control and state estimation approaches to enable the autonomy of a quadrotor with a cable suspended payload using onboard sensing and computation. The proposed control method guarantees the visibility of the payload in the robot camera as well as the respect of the system dynamics and actuator constraints. These are critical design aspects to guarantee safety and resilience for such a complex and delicate task involving transportation of objects.

The additional challenge involves the fact that we aim to solve the aforementioned problem using a minimal sensor suite for autonomous navigation made by a single camera and IMU. This is an ambitious goal since it concurrently involves estimating the load and the vehicle states. Previous approaches leverage GPS or motion capture systems for state estimation and do not consider the perception and physical constraints when solving the problem. We are confident that our solution will contribute to making a reality the autonomous delivery process in warehouses or in dense urban areas where the GPS signal is currently absent or shadowed.

Will it make a difference to delivery systems that use an actuated cable and only leave the load suspended for the delivery itself?

This is certainly an interesting question. We believe that adding an actuated cable will introduce more disadvantages than benefits. Certainly, an actuated cable can be leveraged to compensate for cable's swinging motions in windy conditions and/or increase the delivery precision. However, the introduction of additional actuated mechanisms and components come at the price of an increased system mass and inertia. This will reduce the overall flight time and the vehicle’s agility as well as the system resilience with respect to the transportation task. Finally, active mechanisms are also more difficult to design compared to passive ones.

What's challenging about doing all of this on-vehicle?

There are several challenges to solve on-board this problem. First, it is very difficult to concurrently run perception and action on such computationally constrained platforms in real-time. Second, the first aspect becomes even more challenging if we consider as in our case a perception-based constrained receding horizon control problem that aims to guarantee the visibility of the payload during the motion, while concurrently respecting all the system physical and sensing limitations. Finally, it has been challenging to run the entire system at a high rate to fully unleash the system’s agility. We are currently able to reach rates of 500 Hz.

Can your method adapt to loads of varying shapes, sizes, and masses? What about aerodynamics or flying in wind?

Technically, our approach can easily be adapted to varying objects sizes and masses. Our previous contributions have already shown the ability to estimate online changes in the vehicle/load configuration and can potentially be used to operate the proposed system in dynamic conditions, where the load’s characteristics are unknown and/or may vary across consecutive flights. This can be useful for both package delivery or warehouse operations, where different types of objects need to be transported or manipulated.

The aerodynamics problem is a great point. Overall, our past work has investigated the aerodynamics of wind disturbances for a single robot without a load. Formulating these problems for the proposed system is challenging and is still an open research question. We have some ideas to approach this problem combining Bayesian estimation techniques with more recent machine learning approaches and we will tackle it in the near future.

What are the limitations on the performance of the system? How fast and agile can it be with a suspended payload?

The limits of the performances are established by the actuating and sensing system. Our approach intrinsically considers both physical and sensing limitations of our system. From a sensing and computation perspective, we believe to be close to the limits with speeds of up to 4 m/s. Faster speeds can potentially introduce motion blur while decreasing the load tracking precision. Moreover, faster motions will increase as well aerodynamic disturbances that we have just mentioned. In the future, modeling these phenomena and their incorporation in the proposed solution can further push the agility.

Your paper talks about extending this approach to multiple vehicles cooperatively transporting a payload, can you tell us more about that?

We are currently working on a distributed perception and control approach for cooperative transportation. We already have some very exciting results that we will share with you very soon! Overall, we can employ a team of aerial robots to cooperatively transport a payload to increase the payload capacity and endow the system with additional resilience in case of vehicles’ failures. A cooperative cable suspended payload cooperative transportation system allows as well to concurrently and independently control the load’s position and orientation. This is not possible just using rigid connections. We believe that our approach will have a strong impact in real-world settings for delivery and constructions in warehouses and GPS-denied environments such as dense urban areas. Moreover, in post disaster scenarios, a team of physically interconnected aerial robots can deliver supplies and establish communication in areas where GPS signal is intermittent or unavailable.

PCMPC: Perception-Constrained Model Predictive Control for Quadrotors with Suspended Loads using a Single Camera and IMU, by Guanrui Li, Alex Tunchez, and Giuseppe Loianno from NYU, will be presented (virtually) at ICRA 2021.

<Back to IEEE Journal Watch Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#438785 Video Friday: A Blimp For Your Cat

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!):

HRI 2021 – March 8-11, 2021 – [Online Conference]
RoboSoft 2021 – April 12-16, 2021 – [Online Conference]
ICRA 2021 – May 30-5, 2021 – Xi'an, China
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today's videos.

Shiny robotic cat toy blimp!

I am pretty sure this is Google Translate getting things wrong, but the About page mentions that the blimp will “take you to your destination after appearing in the death of God.”

[ NTT DoCoMo ] via [ RobotStart ]

If you have yet to see this real-time video of Perseverance landing on Mars, drop everything and watch it.

During the press conference, someone commented that this is the first time anyone on the team who designed and built this system has ever seen it in operation, since it could only be tested at the component scale on Earth. This landing system has blown my mind since Curiosity.

Here's a better look at where Percy ended up:

[ NASA ]

The fact that Digit can just walk up and down wet, slippery, muddy hills without breaking a sweat is (still) astonishing.

[ Agility Robotics ]

SkyMul wants drones to take over the task of tying rebar, which looks like just the sort of thing we'd rather robots be doing so that we don't have to:

The tech certainly looks promising, and SkyMul says that they're looking for some additional support to bring things to the pilot stage.

[ SkyMul ]

Thanks Eohan!

Flatcat is a pet-like, playful robot that reacts to touch. Flatcat feels everything exactly: Cuddle with it, romp around with it, or just watch it do weird things of its own accord. We are sure that flatcat will amaze you, like us, and caress your soul.

I don't totally understand it, but I want it anyway.

[ Flatcat ]

Thanks Oswald!

This is how I would have a romantic dinner date if I couldn't get together in person. Herman the UR3 and an OptiTrack system let me remotely make a romantic meal!

[ Dave's Armoury ]

Here, we propose a novel design of deformable propellers inspired by dragonfly wings. The structure of these propellers includes a flexible segment similar to the nodus on a dragonfly wing. This flexible segment can bend, twist and even fold upon collision, absorbing force upon impact and protecting the propeller from damage.

[ Paper ]

Thanks Van!

In the 1970s, The CIA​ created the world's first miniaturized unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, which was intended to be a clandestine listening device. The Insectothopter was never deployed operationally, but was still revolutionary for its time.

It may never have been deployed (not that they'll admit to, anyway), but it was definitely operational and could fly controllably.

[ CIA ]

Research labs are starting to get Digits, which means we're going to get a much better idea of what its limitations are.

[ Ohio State ]

This video shows the latest achievements for LOLA walking on undetected uneven terrain. The robot is technically blind, not using any camera-based or prior information on the terrain.

[ TUM ]

We define “robotic contact juggling” to be the purposeful control of the motion of a three-dimensional smooth object as it rolls freely on a motion-controlled robot manipulator, or “hand.” While specific examples of robotic contact juggling have been studied before, in this paper we provide the first general formulation and solution method for the case of an arbitrary smooth object in single-point rolling contact on an arbitrary smooth hand.

[ Paper ]

Thanks Fan!

A couple of new cobots from ABB, designed to work safely around humans.

[ ABB ]

Thanks Fan!

It's worth watching at least a little bit of Adam Savage testing Spot's new arm, because we get to see Spot try, fail, and eventually succeed at an autonomous door-opening behavior at the 10 minute mark.

[ Tested ]

SVR discusses diversity with guest speakers Dr. Michelle Johnson from the GRASP Lab at UPenn; Dr Ariel Anders from Women in Robotics and first technical hire at Robust.ai; Alka Roy from The Responsible Innovation Project; and Kenechukwu C. Mbanesi and Kenya Andrews from Black in Robotics. The discussion here is moderated by Dr. Ken Goldberg—artist, roboticist and Director of the CITRIS People and Robots Lab—and Andra Keay from Silicon Valley Robotics.

[ SVR ]

RAS presents a Soft Robotics Debate on Bioinspired vs. Biohybrid Design.

In this debate, we will bring together experts in Bioinspiration and Biohybrid design to discuss the necessary steps to make more competent soft robots. We will try to answer whether bioinspired research should focus more on developing new bioinspired material and structures or on the integration of living and artificial structures in biohybrid designs.

[ RAS SoRo ]

IFRR presents a Colloquium on Human Robot Interaction.

Across many application domains, robots are expected to work in human environments, side by side with people. The users will vary substantially in background, training, physical and cognitive abilities, and readiness to adopt technology. Robotic products are expected to not only be intuitive, easy to use, and responsive to the needs and states of their users, but they must also be designed with these differences in mind, making human-robot interaction (HRI) a key area of research.

[ IFRR ]

Vijay Kumar, Nemirovsky Family Dean and Professor at Penn Engineering, gives an introduction to ENIAC day and David Patterson, Pardee Professor of Computer Science, Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, speaks about the legacy of the ENIAC and its impact on computer architecture today. This video is comprised of lectures one and two of nine total lectures in the ENIAC Day series.

There are more interesting ENIAC videos at the link below, but we'll highlight this particular one, about the women of the ENIAC, also known as the First Programmers.

[ ENIAC Day ] 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

#438731 Video Friday: Perseverance Lands on Mars

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!):

HRI 2021 – March 8-11, 2021 – [Online Conference]
RoboSoft 2021 – April 12-16, 2021 – [Online Conference]
ICRA 2021 – May 30-5, 2021 – Xi'an, China
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today's videos.

Hmm, did anything interesting happen in robotics yesterday week?

Obviously, we're going to have tons more on the Mars Rover and Mars Helicopter over the next days, weeks, months, years, and (if JPL's track record has anything to say about it) decades. Meantime, here's what's going to happen over the next day or two:

[ Mars 2020 ]

PLEN hopes you had a happy Valentine's Day!

[ PLEN ]

Unitree dressed up a whole bunch of Laikago quadrupeds to take part in the 2021 Spring Festival Gala in China.

[ Unitree ]

Thanks Xingxing!

Marine iguanas compete for the best nesting sites on the Galapagos Islands. Meanwhile RoboSpy Iguana gets involved in a snot sneezing competition after the marine iguanas return from the sea.

[ Spy in the Wild ]

Tails, it turns out, are useful for almost everything.

[ DART Lab ]

Partnered with MD-TEC, this video demonstrates use of teleoperated robotic arms and virtual reality interface to perform closed suction for self-ventilating tracheostomy patients during COVID -19 outbreak. Use of closed suction is recommended to minimise aerosol generated during this procedure. This robotic method avoids staff exposure to virus to further protect NHS.

[ Extend Robotics ]

Fotokite is a safe, practical way to do local surveillance with a drone.

I just wish they still had a consumer version 🙁

[ Fotokite ]

How to confuse fish.

[ Harvard ]

Army researchers recently expanded their research area for robotics to a site just north of Baltimore. Earlier this year, Army researchers performed the first fully-autonomous tests onsite using an unmanned ground vehicle test bed platform, which serves as the standard baseline configuration for multiple programmatic efforts within the laboratory. As a means to transition from simulation-based testing, the primary purpose of this test event was to capture relevant data in a live, operationally-relevant environment.

[ Army ]

Flexiv's new RIZON 10 robot hopes you had a happy Valentine's Day!

[ Flexiv ]

Thanks Yunfan!

An inchworm-inspired crawling robot (iCrawl) is a 5 DOF robot with two legs; each with an electromagnetic foot to crawl on the metal pipe surfaces. The robot uses a passive foot-cap underneath an electromagnetic foot, enabling it to be a versatile pipe-crawler. The robot has the ability to crawl on the metal pipes of various curvatures in horizontal and vertical directions. The robot can be used as a new robotic solution to assist close inspection outside the pipelines, thus minimizing downtime in the oil and gas industry.

[ Paper ]

Thanks Poramate!

A short film about Robot Wars from Blender Magazine in 1995.

[ YouTube ]

While modern cameras provide machines with a very well-developed sense of vision, robots still lack such a comprehensive solution for their sense of touch. The talk will present examples of why the sense of touch can prove crucial for a wide range of robotic applications, and a tech demo will introduce a novel sensing technology targeting the next generation of soft robotic skins. The prototype of the tactile sensor developed at ETH Zurich exploits the advances in camera technology to reconstruct the forces applied to a soft membrane. This technology has the potential to revolutionize robotic manipulation, human-robot interaction, and prosthetics.

[ ETHZ ]

Thanks Markus!

Quadrupedal robotics has reached a level of performance and maturity that enables some of the most advanced real-world applications with autonomous mobile robots. Driven by excellent research in academia and industry all around the world, a growing number of platforms with different skills target different applications and markets. We have invited a selection of experts with long-standing experience in this vibrant research area

[ IFRR ]

Thanks Fan!

Since January 2020, more than 300 different robots in over 40 countries have been used to cope with some aspect of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on society. The majority of these robots have been used to support clinical care and public safety, allowing responders to work safely and to handle the surge in infections. This panel will discuss how robots have been successfully used and what is needed, both in terms of fundamental research and policy, for robotics to be prepared for the future emergencies.

[ IFRR ]

At Skydio, we ship autonomous robots that are flown at scale in complex, unknown environments every day. We’ve invested six years of R&D into handling extreme visual scenarios not typically considered by academia nor encountered by cars, ground robots, or AR applications. Drones are commonly in scenes with few or no semantic priors on the environment and must deftly navigate thin objects, extreme lighting, camera artifacts, motion blur, textureless surfaces, vibrations, dirt, smudges, and fog. These challenges are daunting for classical vision, because photometric signals are simply inconsistent. And yet, there is no ground truth for direct supervision of deep networks. We’ll take a detailed look at these issues and how we’ve tackled them to push the state of the art in visual inertial navigation, obstacle avoidance, rapid trajectory planning. We will also cover the new capabilities on top of our core navigation engine to autonomously map complex scenes and capture all surfaces, by performing real-time 3D reconstruction across multiple flights.

[ UPenn ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots