Tag Archives: years

#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

#438755 Soft Legged Robot Uses Pneumatic ...

Soft robots are inherently safe, highly resilient, and potentially very cheap, making them promising for a wide array of applications. But development on them has been a bit slow relative to other areas of robotics, at least partially because soft robots can’t directly benefit from the massive increase in computing power and sensor and actuator availability that we’ve seen over the last few decades. Instead, roboticists have had to get creative to find ways of achieving the functionality of conventional robotics components using soft materials and compatible power sources.

In the current issue of Science Robotics, researchers from UC San Diego demonstrate a soft walking robot with four legs that moves with a turtle-like gait controlled by a pneumatic circuit system made from tubes and valves. This air-powered nervous system can actuate multiple degrees of freedom in sequence from a single source of pressurized air, offering a huge reduction in complexity and bringing a very basic form of decision making onto the robot itself.

Generally, when people talk about soft robots, the robots are only mostly soft. There are some components that are very difficult to make soft, including pressure sources and the necessary electronics to direct that pressure between different soft actuators in a way that can be used for propulsion. What’s really cool about this robot is that researchers have managed to take a pressure source (either a single tether or an onboard CO2 cartridge) and direct it to four different legs, each with three different air chambers, using an oscillating three valve circuit made entirely of soft materials.

Photo: UCSD

The pneumatic circuit that powers and controls the soft quadruped.

The inspiration for this can be found in biology—natural organisms, including quadrupeds, use nervous system components called central pattern generators (CPGs) to prompt repetitive motions with limbs that are used for walking, flying, and swimming. This is obviously more complicated in some organisms than in others, and is typically mediated by sensory feedback, but the underlying structure of a CPG is basically just a repeating circuit that drives muscles in sequence to produce a stable, continuous gait. In this case, we’ve got pneumatic muscles being driven in opposing pairs, resulting in a diagonal couplet gait, where diagonally opposed limbs rotate forwards and backwards at the same time.

Diagram: Science Robotics

(J) Pneumatic logic circuit for rhythmic leg motion. A constant positive pressure source (P+) applied to three inverter components causes a high-pressure state to propagate around the circuit, with a delay at each inverter. While the input to one inverter is high, the attached actuator (i.e., A1, A2, or A3) is inflated. This sequence of high-pressure states causes each pair of legs of the robot to rotate in a direction determined by the pneumatic connections. (K) By reversing the sequence of activation of the pneumatic oscillator circuit, the attached actuators inflate in a new sequence (A1, A3, and A2), causing (L) the legs of the robot to rotate in reverse. (M) Schematic bottom view of the robot with the directions of leg motions indicated for forward walking.

Diagram: Science Robotics

Each of the valves acts as an inverter by switching the normally closed half (top) to open and the normally open half (bottom) to closed.

The circuit itself is made up of three bistable pneumatic valves connected by tubing that acts as a delay by providing resistance to the gas moving through it that can be adjusted by altering the tube’s length and inner diameter. Within the circuit, the movement of the pressurized gas acts as both a source of energy and as a signal, since wherever the pressure is in the circuit is where the legs are moving. The simplest circuit uses only three valves, and can keep the robot walking in one single direction, but more valves can add more complex leg control options. For example, the researchers were able to use seven valves to tune the phase offset of the gait, and even just one additional valve (albeit of a slightly more complex design) could enable reversal of the system, causing the robot to walk backwards in response to input from a soft sensor. And with another complex valve, a manual (tethered) controller could be used for omnidirectional movement.

This work has some similarities to the rover that JPL is developing to explore Venus—that rover isn’t a soft robot, of course, but it operates under similar constraints in that it can’t rely on conventional electronic systems for autonomous navigation or control. It turns out that there are plenty of clever ways to use mechanical (or in this case, pneumatic) intelligence to make robots with relatively complex autonomous behaviors, meaning that in the future, soft (or soft-ish) robots could find valuable roles in situations where using a non-compliant system is not a good option.

For more on why we should be so excited about soft robots and just how soft a soft robot needs to be, we spoke with Michael Tolley, who runs the Bioinspired Robotics and Design Lab at UCSD, and Dylan Drotman, the paper’s first author.

IEEE Spectrum: What can soft robots do for us that more rigid robotic designs can’t?

Michael Tolley: At the very highest level, one of the fundamental assumptions of robotics is that you have rigid bodies connected at joints, and all your motion happens at these joints. That's a really nice approach because it makes the math easy, frankly, and it simplifies control. But when you look around us in nature, even though animals do have bones and joints, the way we interact with the world is much more complicated than that simple story. I’m interested in where we can take advantage of material properties in robotics. If you look at robots that have to operate in very unknown environments, I think you can build in some of the intelligence for how to deal with those environments into the body of the robot itself. And that’s the category this work really falls under—it's about navigating the world.

Dylan Drotman: Walking through confined spaces is a good example. With the rigid legged robot, you would have to completely change the way that the legs move to walk through a confined space, while if you have flexible legs, like the robot in our paper, you can use relatively simple control strategies to squeeze through an area you wouldn’t be able to get through with a rigid system.

How smart can a soft robot get?

Drotman: Right now we have a sensor on the front that's connected through a fluidic transmission to a bistable valve that causes the robot to reverse. We could add other sensors around the robot to allow it to change direction whenever it runs into an obstacle to effectively make an electronics-free version of a Roomba.

Tolley: Stepping back a little bit from that, one could make an argument that we’re using basic memory elements to generate very basic signals. There’s nothing in principle that would stop someone from making a pneumatic computer—it’s just very complicated to make something that complex. I think you could build on this and do more intelligent decision making, but using this specific design and the components we’re using, it’s likely to be things that are more direct responses to the environment.

How well would robots like these scale down?

Drotman: At the moment we’re manufacturing these components by hand, so the idea would be to make something more like a printed circuit board instead, and looking at how the channel sizes and the valve design would affect the actuation properties. We’ll also be coming up with new circuits, and different designs for the circuits themselves.

Tolley: Down to centimeter or millimeter scale, I don’t think you’d have fundamental fluid flow problems. I think you’re going to be limited more by system design constraints. You’ll have to be able to locomote while carrying around your pressure source, and possibly some other components that are also still rigid. When you start to talk about really small scales, though, it's not as clear to me that you really need an intrinsically soft robot. If you think about insects, their structural geometry can make them behave like they’re soft, but they’re not intrinsically soft.

Should we be thinking about soft robots and compliant robots in the same way, or are they fundamentally different?

Tolley: There’s certainly a connection between the two. You could have a compliant robot that behaves in a very similar way to an intrinsically soft robot, or a robot made of intrinsically soft materials. At that point, it comes down to design and manufacturing and practical limitations on what you can make. I think when you get down to small scales, the two sort of get connected.

There was some interesting work several years ago on using explosions to power soft robots. Is that still a thing?

Tolley: One of the opportunities with soft robots is that with material compliance, you have the potential to store energy. I think there’s exciting potential there for rapid motion with a soft body. Combustion is one way of doing that with power coming from a chemical source all at once, but you could also use a relatively weak muscle that over time stores up energy in a soft body and then releases it.

Is it realistic to expect complete softness from soft robots, or will they likely always have rigid components because they have to store or generate and move pressurized gas somehow?

Tolley: If you look in nature, you do have soft pumps like the heart, but although it’s soft, it’s still relatively stiff. Like, if you grab a heart, it’s not totally squishy. I haven’t done it, but I’d imagine. If you have a container that you’re pressurizing, it has to be stiff enough to not just blow up like a balloon. Certainly pneumatics or hydraulics are not the only way to go for soft actuators; there has been some really nice work on smart muscles and smart materials like hydraulic electrostatic (HASEL) actuators. They seem promising, but all of these actuators have challenges. We’ve chosen to stick with pressurized pneumatics in the near term; longer term, I think you’ll start to see more of these smart material actuators become more practical.

Personally, I don’t have any problem with soft robots having some rigid components. Most animals on land have some rigid components, but they can still take advantage of being soft, so it’s probably going to be a combination. But I do also like the vision of making an entirely soft, squishy thing. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#438738 This Week’s Awesome Tech Stories From ...

A New Artificial Intelligence Makes Mistakes—on Purpose
Will Knight | Wired
“It took about 50 years for computers to eviscerate humans in the venerable game of chess. A standard smartphone can now play the kind of moves that make a grandmaster’s head spin. But one artificial intelligence program is taking a few steps backward, to appreciate how average humans play—blunders and all.”

Bitcoin’s Price Rises to $50,000 as Mainstream Institutions Hop On
Timothy B. Lee | Ars Technica
“Bitcoin’s price is now far above the previous peak of $19,500 reached in December 2017. Bitcoin’s value has risen by almost 70 percent since the start of 2021. No single factor seems to be driving the cryptocurrency’s rise. Instead, the price is rising as more and more mainstream organizations are deciding to treat it as an ordinary investment asset.”

Million-Year-Old Mammoth Teeth Contain Oldest DNA Ever Found
Jeanne Timmons | Gizmodo
“An international team of scientists has sequenced DNA from mammoth teeth that is at least a million years old, if not older. This research, published today in Nature, not only provides exciting new insight into mammoth evolutionary history, it reveals an entirely unknown lineage of ancient mammoth.”

Scientists Accidentally Discover Strange Creatures Under a Half Mile of Ice
Matt Simon | Wired
“i‘It’s like, bloody hell!’ Smith says. ‘It’s just one big boulder in the middle of a relatively flat seafloor. It’s not as if the seafloor is littered with these things.’ Just his luck to drill in the only wrong place. Wrong place for collecting seafloor muck, but the absolute right place for a one-in-a-million shot at finding life in an environment that scientists didn’t reckon could support much of it.”

Highest-Resolution Images of DNA Reveal It’s Surprisingly Jiggly
George Dvorsky | Gizmodo
“Scientists have captured the highest-resolution images ever taken of DNA, revealing previously unseen twisting and squirming behaviors. …These hidden movements were revealed by computer simulations fed with the highest-resolution images ever taken of a single molecule of DNA. The new study is exposing previously unseen behaviors in the self-replicating molecule, and this research could eventually lead to the development of powerful new genetic therapies.”

The First Battery-Powered Tanker Is Coming to Tokyo
Maria Gallucci | IEEE Spectrum
“The Japanese tanker is Corvus’s first fully-electric coastal freighter project; the company hopes the e5 will be the first of hundreds more just like it. ‘We see it [as] a beachhead for the coastal shipping market globally,’ Puchalski said. ‘There are many other coastal freighter types that are similar in size and energy demand.’ The number of battery-powered ships has ballooned from virtually zero a decade ago to hundreds worldwide.”

Report: NASA’s Only Realistic Path for Humans on Mars Is Nuclear Propulsion
Eric Berger | Ars Technica
“Conducted at the request of NASA, a broad-based committee of experts assessed the viability of two means of propulsion—nuclear thermal and nuclear electric—for a human mission launching to Mars in 2039. ‘One of the primary takeaways of the report is that if we want to send humans to Mars, and we want to do so repeatedly and in a sustainable way, nuclear space propulsion is on the path,’ said [JPL’s] Bobby Braun.”

NASA’s Perseverance Rover Successfully Lands on Mars
Joey Roulette | The Verge
“Perseverance hit Mars’ atmosphere on time at 3:48PM ET at speeds of about 12,100 miles per hour, diving toward the surface in an infamously challenging sequence engineers call the “seven minutes of terror.” With an 11-minute comms delay between Mars and Earth, the spacecraft had to carry out its seven-minute plunge at all by itself with a wickedly complex set of pre-programmed instructions.”

A First-of-Its-Kind Geoengineering Experiment Is About to Take Its First Step
James Temple | MIT Technology Review
“When I visited Frank Keutsch in the fall of 2019, he walked me down to the lab, where the tube, wrapped in gray insulation, ran the length of a bench in the back corner. By filling it with the right combination of gases, at particular temperatures and pressures, Keutsch and his colleagues had simulated the conditions some 20 kilometers above Earth’s surface. In testing how various chemicals react in this rarefied air, the team hoped to conduct a crude test of a controversial scheme known as solar geoengineering.”

Image Credit: Garcia / Unsplash 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

#438613 Video Friday: Digit Takes a Hike

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.

It's winter in Oregon, so everything is damp, all the time. No problem for Digit!

Also the case for summer in Oregon.

[ Agility Robotics ]

While other organisms form collective flocks, schools, or swarms for such purposes as mating, predation, and protection, the Lumbriculus variegatus worms are unusual in their ability to braid themselves together to accomplish tasks that unconnected individuals cannot. A new study reported by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology describes how the worms self-organize to act as entangled “active matter,” creating surprising collective behaviors whose principles have been applied to help blobs of simple robots evolve their own locomotion.

No, this doesn't squick me out at all, why would it.

[ Georgia Tech ]

A few years ago, we wrote about Zhifeng Huang's jet-foot equipped bipedal robot, and he's been continuing to work on it to the point where it can now step over gaps that are an absolutely astonishing 147% of its leg length.

[ Paper ]

Thanks Zhifeng!

The Inception Drive is a novel, ultra-compact design for an Infinitely Variable Transmission (IVT) that uses nested-pulleys to adjust the gear ratio between input and output shafts. This video shows the first proof-of-concept prototype for a “Fully Balanced” design, where the spinning masses within the drive are completely balanced to reduce vibration, thereby allowing the drive to operate more efficiently and at higher speeds than achievable on an unbalanced design.

As shown in this video, the Inception Drive can change both the speed and direction of rotation of the output shaft while keeping the direction and speed of the input shaft constant. This ability to adjust speed and direction within such a compact package makes the Inception Drive a compelling choice for machine designers in a wide variety of fields, including robotics, automotive, and renewable-energy generation.

[ SRI ]

Robots with kinematic loops are known to have superior mechanical performance. However, due to these loops, their modeling and control is challenging, and prevents a more widespread use. In this paper, we describe a versatile Inverse Kinematics (IK) formulation for the retargeting of expressive motions onto mechanical systems with loops.

[ Disney Research ]

Watch Engineered Arts put together one of its Mesmer robots in a not at all uncanny way.

[ Engineered Arts ]

There's been a bunch of interesting research into vision-based tactile sensing recently; here's some from Van Ho at JAIST:

[ Paper ]

Thanks Van!

This is really more of an automated system than a robot, but these little levitating pucks are very very slick.

ACOPOS 6D is based on the principle of magnetic levitation: Shuttles with integrated permanent magnets float over the surface of electromagnetic motor segments. The modular motor segments are 240 x 240 millimeters in size and can be arranged freely in any shape. A variety of shuttle sizes carry payloads of 0.6 to 14 kilograms and reach speeds of up to 2 meters per second. They can move freely in two-dimensional space, rotate and tilt along three axes and offer precise control over the height of levitation. All together, that gives them six degrees of motion control freedom.


Navigation and motion control of a robot to a destination are tasks that have historically been performed with the assumption that contact with the environment is harmful. This makes sense for rigid-bodied robots where obstacle collisions are fundamentally dangerous. However, because many soft robots have bodies that are low-inertia and compliant, obstacle contact is inherently safe. We find that a planner that takes into account and capitalizes on environmental contact produces paths that are more robust to uncertainty than a planner that avoids all obstacle contact.

[ CHARM Lab ]

The quadrotor experts at UZH have been really cranking it up recently.

Aerodynamic forces render accurate high-speed trajectory tracking with quadrotors extremely challenging. These complex aerodynamic effects become a significant disturbance at high speeds, introducing large positional tracking errors, and are extremely difficult to model. To fly at high speeds, feedback control must be able to account for these aerodynamic effects in real-time. This necessitates a modelling procedure that is both accurate and efficient to evaluate. Therefore, we present an approach to model aerodynamic effects using Gaussian Processes, which we incorporate into a Model Predictive Controller to achieve efficient and precise real-time feedback control, leading to up to 70% reduction in trajectory tracking error at high speeds. We verify our method by extensive comparison to a state-of-the-art linear drag model in synthetic and real-world experiments at speeds of up to 14m/s and accelerations beyond 4g.

[ Paper ]

I have not heard much from Harvest Automation over the last couple years and their website was last updated in 2016, but I guess they're selling robots in France, so that's good?

[ Harvest Automation ]

Last year, Clearpath Robotics introduced a ROS package for Spot which enables robotics developers to leverage ROS capabilities out-of-the-box. Here at OTTO Motors, we thought it would be a compelling test case to see just how easy it would be to integrate Spot into our test fleet of OTTO materials handling robots.

[ OTTO Motors ]

Video showcasing recent robotics activities at PRISMA Lab, coordinated by Prof. Bruno Siciliano, at Università di Napoli Federico II.

[ PRISMA Lab ]

Thanks Fan!

State estimation framework developed by the team CoSTAR for the DARPA Subterranean Challenge, where the team achieved 2nd and 1st places in the Tunnel and Urban circuits.

[ Paper ]

Highlights from the 2020 ROS Industrial conference.

[ ROS Industrial ]

Thanks Thilo!

Not robotics, but entertaining anyway. From the CHI 1995 Technical Video Program, “The Tablet Newspaper: a Vision for the Future.”

[ CHI 1995 ]

This week's GRASP on Robotics seminar comes from Allison Okamura at Stanford, on “Wearable Haptic Devices for Ubiquitous Communication.”

Haptic devices allow touch-based information transfer between humans and intelligent systems, enabling communication in a salient but private manner that frees other sensory channels. For such devices to become ubiquitous, their physical and computational aspects must be intuitive and unobtrusive. We explore the design of a wide array of haptic feedback mechanisms, ranging from devices that can be actively touched by the fingertips to multi-modal haptic actuation mounted on the arm. We demonstrate how these devices are effective in virtual reality, human-machine communication, and human-human communication.

[ UPenn ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots