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Monthly Archives: October 2012

A New Challenge for Robotics

It looks like yesterday when I had just started my PhD and I was looking with awe at the first DARPA Grand Challenge (2005). Seeing cars race in the desert with no driver, knowing that the world was being changed before my eyes. It wasn’t the development of particularly new technologies, but showing that research was out of the labs and into the field. It made history. It prompted me to focus more on real robotics. And now it is happening again.

In the past couple of years Boston Dynamics has shown the world that robots don’t necessarily need wheels, but they can walk on impervious terrain using four legs, or even two. But it is not only about making them stand. These robots have to do stuff using common tools, like driving a truck, closing a valve or using a drill. They won’t have the great stability four wheels provide, or the capability of carrying a heavy payload packed with sensors and computational power. The lack of precision in motion will have to be compensated with sensing. And a novel inclusion of a human operator in the loop.

Meet Atlas, the new guy that is going to change the way robots will work alongside humans.

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It won’t be alone, as seven teams are building their own hardware to compete for the first prize.

So what is this challenge about? I have been lucky enough to get a virtual seat at the kickoff meeting. The details are not final, but the main idea is that teams from all around the world will compete to create a robot that can be deployed in a disaster-stricken area, possibly inspired by Fukushima, to perform tasks too dangerous for humans. It is not about being a camera-on-wheels system, but a robot that can perform actions in a semi-supervised way. If this works the technology will change the way manufacturing is done (like Baxter, but in some other way), and it will create a new huge boost for robotics and its deployment in the real world.

There has been a lot of talking about the challenge that I am not going to repeat here. Here is what I think will be the main obstacles towards solving the challenge:

  • Perception: Identifying items that are either usable by the robot (tools, valves, trucks) or that are an obstacle towards a goal (rubble blocking a door).
  • Locomotion: Moving on an uneven terrain. Entering or exiting a vehicle. Climbing a ladder.
  • Communication: Performing actions with little or no supervision from the operator, given the communications constraints a disaster environment imposes.
  • Robustness: It’s not about having a perfect algorithm to solve a problem, but to be able to adapt and cope with environments and situations that in no way could have been foreseen and accounted for when programming the robot.
  • Integration: A lot of components and ideas will merge and fight to control the robot, and they will call for a right arbitration for the overall system to be functional.

Many more obstacles will need to be overcome. People will work days and nights to solve waves of problems. There will be last-minute rushes and hacky solutions. The end result might look like the one folks at Drexel University have nicely illustrated in the following video.

Good luck to all the teams, PIs, scientists and engineers competing to make the world a better place!

 
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Posted by on October 28, 2012 in Discussion, News

 

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5/4 time, Jazz, David Brubeck and… Radiohead!

Disclaimer: I know I called this blog “Fantastic Machines”, and I promised I would talk about robotics, science, programming or related topics, but this is too mind-blowing to ignore.

Just by chance I stumbled upon this post by John Cook. Music and mathematics share a lot, and he does a good job at explaining the connections.

Here are two artists I love: Radiohead and Dave Brubeck. They play different music (although you could argue that Radiohead are inspired by jazz, see for example Pyramid Song). The latest album by Radiohead, which I personally don’t like, sounds more like dance than jazz. However somebody spotted some similarities between Take Five (Brubeck) and 15 Step (Radiohead). If you put them together you get the result below.

Crazy, isn’t it? By the way, you should listen to Brubeck’s Take Five alone, and Blue Rondo a la Turk, both in the great album Time Out.

You might be wondering what this has to do with robotics… Well Jazz and robotics are very well fit, as shown in the following video 😀 (the soundtrack is Deckchair, by Acoustic Ladyland).

 
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Posted by on October 19, 2012 in Discussion

 

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What Baxter Means for Research in Robotics

Short story: awesome! You can keep reading now if you want to know why I think so.

Today I was listening to an interview of Rodney Brooks speaking about Baxter. When I saw it featured on IEEE Spectrum I thought: “Cool, let’s see where it goes”. But listening to Brooks describing his creature gives you a different perspective.

Take a decades old task, like automatic assembly. Take a new technology like learning from demonstration. Then show the world that research can go out of the labs and change people’s life. Isn’t that easy?

No it isn’t. I haven’t seen Baxter in action but I bet there are a lot of hacks and assumptions that make it do a proper job. But that’s reasonable, even more, welcome. Most of the papers you’ll read in robotics start with a sentence along the line of:

We need robots  capable of learning from a non-expert to be usable in the real world.

And then it fires up equations, data collection, proofs and lab tests. However Rodney Brooks does something that he’s done in the past, actually he’s built his career around it: he does for real what others only discuss in papers and labs.

Don’t take me wrong, I’m not one more voice saying that research in University should be more application-focused and less theoretical. Baxter is build upon the research people in Universities around the world have done over the past years. Robotics, manipulation, computer vision, they all share the prize here.

This is a praise to all my colleagues who have worked hard and who never believed their research would make a difference. It takes a collective effort to change the world.

And a single mind who figures how to make money out of it.

 
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Posted by on October 16, 2012 in Discussion, Results

 

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