When I tested out Cyberdyne's HAL exoskeleton at CES in January, it turns out I was testing just one of several significantly different versions of the power suit that Cyberdyne has under development. Specifically, I was wearing the medical rehab version of HAL, which Cyberdyne plans to introduce commercially alongside a separate strength enhancing version, along with a dedicated single cyborg arm to help people repetitively lift and hold heavy objects.
While the suits may be designed for different purposes, the underlying technology is fundamentally the same: as I found out, the HAL suits use skin sensors to detect electrical commands as they travel from your brain to your muscles, and then the suit moves you itself before those muscles even have a chance to kick in. The suit you really want to take home, though, is definitely the industrial version, which looks quite a bit beefier and more fantastical, includes the upper body segments, and probably doesn't (but might!) allow you to punch straight through a brick wall. Plus, it comes in a sexy red color, which just screams I'M A SUPERHERO.
The basis for HAL is an entirely new field called "cybernics," which (as far as I can tell) was more or less invented by Cyberdyne's president and CEO, Yoshiyuki Sankai:
"The word cybernics comes from cybernetics, mechatronics, and informatics. But this field also requires neurology, behavioral science, robotics, IT, physiology, and psychology. It also involves law, so it even extends as far as the social sciences. We're going to develop this field by looking at all perspectives, from fundamental research to the real world."
It's great that Cyberdyne is working so hard to make sure that their technology is useful for the general public who needs it, and not just industry and the military. I'm (still) looking forward to the day when I can go down to my local robotics emporium and rent an exoskeleton for a few hours, for those times when I need to move my couch or finally take my revenge on that kid who punched me in the nose for no reason in middle school. I'm coming for ya, buddy, just as soon as I can stuff my feet into these tiny shoes.
February was a big month for robots, but then, from our perspective, every month is a big month for robots. Robonaut finally made it to the ISS, and Watson proved that humans are doomed at Jeopardy, more or less. And did we mention a bomb-disposal bot dropped a real grenade on live TV [image above]? Oops.
Here's our favorite robot videos from February. We're actually going in order, so please feel free to let us know why we're dead wrong about what we liked best in the comments.
10. Assembling and disassembling little robots is a chore, unless the robots can do it all by themselves. Eventually, you'll just be able to swallow all the right pieces and have robots built themselves in your tummy.
7. Dropping and then running over a grenade is usually not a great idea, even for a robot. Two things are worth mentioning here: one, it's probably human error, and two, this is exactly why they're using a robot. (Grenade drop happens around 2:50 in the video.)
6. CrabFu, master of awesomely bizarre DIY robots, turned a hamster named Princess into a walking cyborg machine.
5.IBM's Watson may be really, really smart, but it's not infallible, as it shows in this clip from its Jeopardy competition. For the record, it may have been thinking of Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, named after the Canadian WWI (?) fighter ace.
4. Northrop Grumman's X-47B robotic fighter jet took to the air for the first time, and it'll start landing on aircraft carriers in a year or two.
3. An Anybots QB rolled into a Mountain View coffee shop and ordered a scone, but the cool part is that it was more or less just business as usual for both parties involved. Maybe people are starting to get used to this whole living with robots thing.
2. Not news: the CIA had a fully operational life-size robot dragonfly. News: in 1970.
The pharmacy at UCSF Medical Center hands out something like 10,000 doses of medication per day. That's a lot of pills, and generally, it's the job of pharmacy workers to take care of all of the sorting and checking and bottling and double-checking. It's not just labor-intensive, it requires skill, and if you mess something up, you run the risk of killing someone.
With all this in mind, UCSF has invested in a team of robotic pharmacy workers which can handle prescriptions all the way from electronic orders from doctors and nurses to dispensing individual pills, arranged on a handy plastic ring in order of when they should be taken. Here's the whole system in action:
While the robotic system is obviously very efficient, efficiency is only a part of the benefit. It's easier to keep records. There's very little risk of contamination. Staff can now spend more time with patients. And mistakes with medication are few and far between. Or actually, that's an understatement, since the robots have a record of 350,000 successful medication preparations with zero screw-ups. Not bad!
The next step is to integrate the pharmacy robot with robots that can diagnose what's wrong with you and then administer medication, paving the way for robotic hospitals without a human staff. That may not be a good thing, but my guess is that it's probably an inevitability in either case.
Details are still scarce, but I've gotten word that at least two teams plan to use their search and rescue robots, one team in Tokyo and another in or around Sendai, the city that suffered the most damage in the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami. I'm waiting confirmation about a third team, also in Tokyo. (There is no information about the presence of robots at Japan's troubled Fukushimanuclear power plants, though that would be an ideal application for teleoperated repair and inspection robots.)
She reports that Dr. Tadokoro is "en route" to Sendai, where he lives, with the Active Scope Camera, a remote operated 8-meter-long snake-like robot that carries a scope camera and can slither through small spaces. According to Dr. Murphy, it's "possibly the most capable robot for tight spaces." At the same time, Dr. Koyanagi will use an agile robot called Quince, which has tank-like tracks and is capable of driving over rubble and climbing stairs, around his home area in Tokyo.
Here's a video of the Active Scope Camera:
Here's a video of Quince:
Dr. Murphy, an IEEE Fellow whose team has taken robots to disaster sites like the World Trade Center after the September 11, 2001 attacks and New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, tells me that robots have been used in at least one previous earthquake, the 2010 Haiti disaster. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, she says, used a SeaBotix underwater remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, to investigate bridge and seawall damage as part of the U.S. assistance to the Haitian government.
For a disaster like the Japan quake, she says several types of robots could prove useful, including:
• small unmanned aerial vehicles like robotic helicopters and quadrotors for inspection of upper levels of buildings and lower altitude checks
• snake robots capable of entering collapsed buildings and slithering through rubble
• small underwater ROVs for bridge inspection and underwater recovery
• tether-based unmanned ground vehicles like sensor-packed wheeled robots that operators can drive remotely to search for survivors
As it happened, Japan's leading rescue robotics experts, a cadre led by Dr. Tadokoro, who heads the International Rescue Systems Institute, were actually in the United States when the earthquake hit! The 21 faculty and students and their rescue robots were in Texas participating in an exercise and workshop that CRASAR organized. The group headed back to Japan on Friday as soon as they heard the news.
Dr. Murphy, who leads the volunteer search-and-rescue robotics group Roboticists Without Borders, part of CRASAR, says the Japanese welcomed her group's assistance; she's now on standby awaiting a formal request. CRASAR's robotic arsenal includes the AirRobot and iSensys helicopters, a VideoRay ROV for underwater inspection, a AEOS water vehicle with a sonar suited for bridge inspection, and several ground robots like the Inuktun VGTV, a tracked vehicle that can change its shape.
Like most search and rescue robots, the systems the Japanese are deploying are designed to go where humans can't easily reach. According to a 2007 paper, the Active Scope Camera is a snake-type of robot whose body is covered by "cilia," small filaments that vibrate, allowing the robot to crawl at a speed of 4.7 centimeters per second, climb over obstacles, follow walls, and make turns in tight spaces.
Quince is a mobile robot equipped with four sets of tracked wheels, some of which can move up and down to allow the robot to negotiate obstacles. It carries cameras as well as infrared and carbon-dioxide sensors for detecting the presence of survivors trapped under rubble.
Our thoughts go to the Japanese people affected by this tragedy. We hope emergency personnel can locate all survivors as fast as possible -- and if robots can help, great.
Image: Chiba Institute of Technology; videos: DigInfo and Chiba Institute of Technology
We know the Adept Quattro is fast and precise, but that doesn't minimize the craziness of videos like this one:
Yeah, I think we need a whole new category on the app store for games that humans are better at than robots. Like, "guess the emotion" or "reasons not to enslave humanity." Although, for the record, fast humans can finish this game in about 10 seconds, which is more than a little bit impressive on its own.
For more vids of robots going wild with speed and precision, check out this post (and this post)
The 6th annual ACM/IEEE Conference on Human-Robot Interaction just ended in Switzerland this week, and Georgia Tech is excited to share three of their presentations showcasing the latest research in how humans and robots relate to each other. Let's start from the top:
How Can Robots Get Our Attention?
Humans rely on lots of fairly abstract social conventions when we communicate, and most of them are things that we don't even think about, like gaze direction and body orientation. Georgia Tech is using their robot, Simon, to not just try to interact with humans in the same ways that humans interact with each other, but also to figure out how to tell when a human is directing one of these abstract social conventions at the robot.
It's a tough thing, because natural interaction with other humans is deceptively subtle, meaning that Simon needs to be able to pick up on abstract cues in order to minimize that feeling of needing to talk to a robot like it's a robot, i.e. slowly and loudly and obviously. Gesture recognition is only the first part of this, and the researchers are hoping to eventually integrate lots of other perceptual cues and tools into the mix.
How Do People Respond to Being Touched by a Robot?
This expands on previous Georgia Tech research that we've written about; the robot in the vid is Cody, our favorite sponge-bath robot. While personally, I take every opportunity to be touched by robots whenever and wherever they feel like, other people may not necessarily be so receptive. As robots spend more time in close proximity to humans helping out with tasks that involve touch, it's important that we don't start to get creeped out or scared.
Georgia Tech's research reveals that what humans perceive a robot's intent to be is important, which is a little weird considering that intent (or at least, perceived intent) is more of a human thing. Cody doesn't have intent, persay: it's just got a task that it executes, although I suppose you could argue that fundamentally, that constitutes intent. In this case, when people thought that Cody was touching their forearm to clean it, they were more comfortable than when they thought that Cody was touching their forearm (in the exact same way, mind you) just to comfort them. Curiously, people also turn out to be slightly less comfortable when the robot specifically states its intent before performing any actions, which is the opposite of what I would think would be the case. Geez, humans are frustratingly complex.
I definitely appreciate where Georgia Tech is going with this research, and why it's so important. As professor Charlie Kemp puts it:
"Primarily people have been focused on how can we make the robot safe, how can we make it do its task effectively. But that’s not going to be enough if we actually want these robots out there helping people in the real world."
This is all about making robots seem more natural and approachable, which is one of those things that might seem a little less important that it is, since by virtue of reading Automaton, you might be a lot more familiar (and comfortable) with robots than most people are. The angle Georgia Tech is taking here is to first try and figure out how to quantify what "human-like" means, in order to better determine what movements are more "human-like" and what movements are less "human-like."
Making more human-like movements is important for a couple reasons. First, it's easier to understand what a robot wants or is doing when it makes movements like a human would. And second, one of the most identifiable things about robots is the fact that they're all robot-y: they tend to make precise and repetitive movements, which might be very efficient, but it's not very human. Humans are a little more random, and giving robots some of that randomness, researchers say, may help people "forget that this is a robot they’re interacting with."
Last year, we had a blast at the first annual National Robotics Week, where we got the world's first look at Stickybot III, got some tasty chocolate from Willow Garage, and tried to best an Adept Quattro at pick and place robot with a Wiimote (we failed).
Once again, National Robotics Week is much too badass to be constrained by one single week, which is why it's nine days long, running from the 9th to the 17th of April. Sponsors include heavyweights like iRobot, Adept, National Instruments, and Microsoft. As far as what you personally can get out of it, well, just check on this handy map for special events in your area.
Part of the point of National Robotics Week is to spread the word about how robotics is playing an increasingly important role in our lives, and how that makes robotics education even more important. If you're reading this blog, you're probably more familiar with the epic awesomeness of robots than most people you know, so don't just go to an event: take someone else who isn't familiar with robots along with you, and show them why robotics is the future.
Wheels are great for moving fast and efficiently, but bad for negotiating terrain. Legs are great for negotiating terrain, but not as good for moving fast and efficiently. To create a robot that can move fast when it needs to but can also adapt to get around complex surfaces, a group from National Taiwan University's Bio-Inspired Robotic Laboratory (BioRoLa) created Quattroped, a robot that can turn its wheels into legs:
How awesome is that, right?! It would probably be most accurate to say that the bot's wheels transform into not legs but whegs, several varieties of which we've seen over the last couple years. Whegs function similarly to legs, except that they move in a circle instead of back and forth, making them more effective at clambering over obstacles. And as you can see in the video, the bot can even "walk" by moving alternate pairs of whegs.
Quattroped is equipped with GPS, a vision system, and laser ranger, and the team is actively working to integrate more sensors to improve the perceptual capabilities of the robot. On the software side, it's running National Instruments' LabView, and while a remote PC is involved for control and data logging, most of the processing is done on the robot itself.
This is an amazingly adaptable platform, and besides the additional complexity in the wheel hubs and some minimal compromises on wheel strength, this type of thing seems like an obvious way to give mobile robots significant additional capabilities.
The US Navy is soliciting proposals for program that's intended to develop a swarm of tiny robots that are capable of manufacturing complex objects, potentially including other robots. If you let your imagination go berserk this may sound like a precursor to some sort of unstoppable robot uprising, but that's just fiction. And why would we waste our time talking about fictional robot uprisings or whatever when the real robots themselves are so much more interesting? Here's what the US Navy wants:
Develop a swarm of micro-robotic fabrication machines that will enable the manufacture of new materials and components. A micro-robot swarm should be able to perform material synthesis and component assembly, concurrently. The micro-robots could be designed to perform basic operations such as pick and place, dispense liquids, print inks, remove material, join components, etc. Examples of complex material systems of potential interest include but are not limited to: multi-functional materials, programmable materials, metamorphic materials, extreme materials, heterogeneous materials, synthetic materials, etc.
Basically, it's one of those DARPA-esque "here's some crazy thing we want, now go make it happen" things. And it's actually crazier than it sounds, since "micro" is a bit misleading: what the Navy is really looking for are robots that are capable of manipulating "nano- and micron-scale building blocks." So these robots would be really, really small, and there'd need to be a whole heap of them cooperating and doing different jobs in the right places and in the right order. All right there, on your desk. You'd just dump out a bunch of these itty bitty robots, tell them you need a new cellphone or whatever, and they'd get busy and whip up a new one for you right there while you watch.
Unsurprisingly, we've got a little ways to go before you'll be able to buy your own jar of magic robodust. The Navy solicitation is in three phases, with phase I being a proof of concept, and it's going to take some work to even get that far. But micro, nano, and swarm robots are all a reality already, so now that the government has decided to throw a bunch of money at the problem, it's just going a matter of time before all the little pieces get put together and start working for us.
This is TaxiBot. TaxiBot is big and strong and is capable of hauling the mighty Boeing 747 and the mightier Airbus A380 around airports, almost autonomously:
If you think about it, an airport is more or less the best possible place outside of a laboratory for an autonomous robotic vehicle to operate. It's tightly controlled, without random people wandering around all over the place or suicidal bicyclists. It's entirely flat. There are extremely well-defined areas in which vehicles can operate. Everything runs on a tight schedule (ideally). And as far as hauling airplanes around, there are huge freakin' yellow lines painted on the ground that a robot can follow anywhere it needs to go.
It's a little disappointing, then, that TaxiBot doesn't actually incorporate much in the way of autonomy. It's basically just a big remote control car that pilots can steer directly from the cockpit, and that's driven around by a human when it's not hauling aircraft. The point? The aircraft don't have to use their engines while taxiing, reducing wear and saving fuel. So that's good and all, I just kinda wish TaxiBot was, you know, a little less taxi and more a little bot. It's something they've got in the works, though: the company says that the control architecture of the vehicle is already in place to support autonomous tug operation so that in the near future no tug driver would be needed for taxiing. Sweet, bring it on!