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LG's New RoboKing Vacuum Can Now Explain Its Failures

LG's RoboKing series of robot vacuums may or may not be variations on the Roomba theme to the extent that they're not allowed to be sold here in the United States, where Roomba is the undisputed king (queen?) and reigns with a tight fist and lots of patents. But we have to give credit to LG for thinking outside the box disc when it comes to introducing nifty features. For example, unlike the Roomba, Mint, or Neato XV-11, the RoboKing navigates (and maps its environment) using a pair of cameras that scan the ceiling and the floor, which is a pretty neat trick:

The latest version of the RoboKing, announced just yesterday, adds a self-diagnostic mode where the robot actually checks itself out and tells you what's up. Push the diagnostic button, and the robot will give itself a 30 second shakedown cruise and then report back (in a sultry female voice, no less) with the status of 14 different components. No word on just exactly what it'll tell you, but I imagine something like, "that awful noise I'm making is because I just tried to eat one of your socks; please remove it before I explode."

We don't have too much else to go on at this point beyond that for those of you fortunate enough to live somewhere with less stringent patent enforcement, the LG RoboKing VR6172LM will be available soon for the equivalent of about $730.

Via [ Akihabara News ]

Omnidirectional Robot Moves Like a Galloping Snail

A snail might not necessarily be your first choice when it comes to mobile robot design, but our gastropodal friends have a few tricks up their non-sleeves when it comes to moving themselves around. Most snails rely on two techniques to move: undulating, which uses fluidic mucus pressure, and galloping, which is apparently when "like an inchworm, the animal sticks the front of its foot to a surface (thanks to suction and friction from the mucus), and then draws the rest of its body up behind it.”

This galloping technique has been adapted (and expanded) for robots by the Biomechatronics Lab at Chuo University in Japan. Their "Snail-Wave Omnidirectional Mobile Robot," Toro II, may not look a whole lot like a snail (and it's completely mucus free), but check out its moves:

The advantage of this robot with its sexy wave action is stable omnidirectionality: no matter what direction it's moving in (and even if it's not moving and/or completely powered off), the robot boasts a large and grippy area that's always in contact with the ground. You can compare this to other omnidirectional robots, such as the slug bots, squishy creatures that transform from soft to hard, or the Mecanum wheel system, which offers varying resistance depending on what direction it's moving and requires active braking if it needs to stay in one place. The snail robot, by contrast, is much more resilient to things like unintended shoves, and its designers suggest that this inherent stability and freedom of movement might make robots like these ideal for hospitals and factories.

[ Nakamura Lab ]

Next Big Thing in Silicon Valley: Robotics?

Silicon Valley is known for its software, semiconductor, and Internet companies. Can it become a high-tech nexus for robotics too?

"Yes," says Rich Mahoney, director of robotics at SRI International, in Menlo Park, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley. And to make sure that people know it, he and his colleagues at SRI, along with local robotics companies such as Adept Technology and Willow Garage, have formed a group called Silicon Valley Robotics (SVR). The goal of SVR is to "nurture the robotics industry in this area and help create an environment where other companies would want to come here and start up," he says.

rich mahoney sri international silicon valley robotics There are other robotics centers in the United States, most notably the Boston area surrounding the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and also Pittsburgh, where Carnegie Mellon University resides. The greater Silicon Valley area has Stanford University and U.C. Berkeley, and quite a heritage of robotics accomplishments too, but compared to these other regions, the area has been "overlooked in some ways as being a center for robotics," says Mahoney [photo, right]. The reason for it may be that "there was so much other activity going on here and that robotics was lost relative to all the other things."

Mahoney had already been in robotics for over 20 years before he came to work in Silicon Valley in September 2008. Once he arrived, he was surprised to find there was a real cluster of robotics companies and research groups in this area, and yet unlike Boston and Pittsburgh, there was no organization representing that industry. So he started talking about the idea of forming a group where people in the robotics industry can get together to network and discuss important issues. With Philip von Guggenberg and Regis Vincent at SRI, Mahoney started having weekly meetings to talk about ways to make it happen and put together a mailing list. The group grew organically with volunteers organizing meetings, but it was not until this year's National Robotics Week, when Silicon Valley Robotics endorsed and managed the Robot Block Party at Stanford, that they decided to get exposure.

The group consists of about 40 organizations and is still in an informal grass roots stage. They get together at members' facilities for networking events. Right now the plan is to form a "leadership council" by the end of this year which will define the structure of the organization so that it can move on to the next stage. SRI, Adept, Willow Garage and German electronics company Robert Bosch, which conducts robotics research at its facility in Palo Alto, are interested in participating in this council, according to Mahoney. Currently there is no membership fee and "any organization in the greater Silicon Valley region interested in the robotics industry can be a part of it," he notes.

silicon valley roboticsPR2 demo during a SVR meeting at Bosch's Palo Alto research center.

As robots jump out of the factory floors into homes and communities, the robotics industry promises to grow dramatically, and Silicon Valley will be competing with other areas for talent and investment. Recently, French robotics company Aldebaran Robotics decided to set up its U.S. operation in Boston. Mahoney says that Aldebaran had been looking at San Francisco as a potential location. "I am absolutely convinced that if there was a Silicon valley Robotics fully organized that I could have referred them to, to promote and attract them, that they would be in San Francisco," Mahoney points out.

On the other hand, there is also the need to cooperate with the other robotics regions to get their message heard in Washington, in regards to regulations, immigration and liability issues, which need to be made clear for the market to grow. And from that standpoint, a group like SVR will play an important role as the region's "single voice" so that it can "cooperate to elevate the resources and attention of the whole country."

SVR is also planning on organizing an "investor forum" to get the local venture capitalists interested in the robotics field. Much of the funding in robotics research in the U.S. has so far been from the military budget and for the robotics industry to bloom there is need for investment from the private sector - just as the Internet started with military funding and then blossomed into an industry. When Mahoney gave a talk on the state of robotics at a local industry event, he got "blank stares." "There's a whole industry here that's starting to emerge and if you are in the investment community, you have to pay attention," he emphasizes.

"As an outsider coming in, I find Silicon Valley a remarkable place with an aura, a concentration of technical know-how combined with an innovative spirit. I have no doubt that once the dots get connected, that things will happen quickly."

This article appeared originally at GetRobo.

Norri Kageki is a journalist who writes about robots. She is originally from Tokyo and currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the publisher of GetRobo and also writes for various publications in the U.S. and Japan.

Controlling a Quadrotor Using Kinect

My colleagues working on the Flying Machine Arena (or FMA) at the ETH Zurich have just posted a video of their latest feat: A natural human-machine interface for controlling their quadrocopters.

The Magic Wand used for controlling quadrocopters at the ETH Zurich's Flying Machine ArenaUntil now, visitors of the FMA could use a magic wand like the one in the right picture to send quadrotors racing through the 10x10x10m space. As shown in the video, the addition of a Kinect now allows a far more natural and intuitive interaction.

What's next? I vote for using the new interface to have Asimo directing the FMA's dancing quadrocopters to the Quadrocopter Opera!

[ ETH - IDSC ]

CMU Develops Autonomous Car Software That's Provably Safe

Autonomous cars behaving themselves during the DARPA Urban Challenge

It's one thing to ramble on (like we do) about how autonomous cars are way safer than human driven cars, but it's another thing to prove it. Like, mathematically. A research group at Carnegie Mellon has created a distributed control system for autonomous highway driving and then verified that it's safe. In other words, the software itself provably cannot cause an accident.

To do this, the CMU group started with a simulation of just two cars (equipped with sensors and short range inter-vehicle communications) in a lane, and then proved that their software kept those cars from having an accident 100 percent of the time. With this as a base, they slowly expanded the simulation, adding more and more layers like multiple cars and lane changes until they had an entire complex autonomous control system, each module of which is definitely safe.

So far, the system is only able to deal with entering, exiting, speed changes, and lane changes on straight line highways, so it's going to be of limited use unless you live in Kansas. It's also dependent on sensor technology that is only just starting to be introduced into vehicles, and I imagine that the "provably" bit starts to break down when dealing with unexpected situations, like a moose jumping off of an overpass onto the hood of your car. But it's a start, and a fundamental technique that can be built upon.

This type of thing also seems like it may have the potential to streamline the introduction of autonomous cars from an insurance and legal standpoint, since it offers some degree of protection for manufacturers: If an accident occurs and the software provably cannot be at fault, that leaves either a sensor hardware failure, or (more likely) a human simply pushed the wrong button.

[ CMACS ] via [ CMU ]

Image credit: KWC

Epic Quadrotor Fails Caught on Video

UPenn's GRASP Lab has done some absolutely spectacular things with quadrotors. They've taught them to fly in formation, build structures, and even fling themselves through narrow windows. But as with every learning process, there are going to be some cases where things just don't go quite right, and when you're dealing with fast moving autonomous robots with four spinning rotors apiece, sometimes tests can be, to quote UPenn, "spectacularly unsuccessful":

Spectacular is right. I'm not sure what exactly caused the attempted backstab at 0:20 or the mass suicide at 0:28, but all those violent quadrotor deaths were pretty funny to see. You know, for science.

Oh, and props to the GRASP Lab quadrotor team for sharing their failures along with their successes.

[ UPenn GRASP Lab ]

This Is a Robotic Armpit

Well, this has to be one of the weirdest things I've seen in a while. It's a robotic armpit, created by Kevin Grennan, a London-based designer. As with human armpits, it sweats. The idea is to use odors to improve human-robot interaction.

For example, you'd mount this thing onto a bomb-disposal robot (like a Talon, in the illustration below), and whenever you sent it in to disarm an explosive, the robot would start sweating, filling the air with the same sort of chemicals found in human sweat when we're afraid.

This may not the first robotic device to emulate the human underarm, but it's definitely the most repulsive and freakish looking. Grennan did this on purpose, explaining that he's interested in how "more complex and private parts of the human body would be translated onto [a] robot."

Here's how he describes the project:

Each robot that I have augmented with a 'sweat gland' emits a particular chemical that has a specific effect on humans and the chemical has been chosen to further enable the robot's primary function.

In the case of the bomb disposal robot the 'sweat gland' releases the smell of human fear. It has been proven that humans can identify this specific smell and it tends to enhance cognitive performance. I propose that this robot would enable surrounding humans to work more effectively and to differentiate dangerous situations from false alarms.

Grennan's armpit-enabled bomb-disposal robot concept:

He came up with a couple more sweating robot concepts, too:

The one on the left is a picker robot; the one on the right, a surgical robot. Grennan explains:

In the case of the picker robot. It releases a chemical called androstadienone, which is found in male sweat. This has be shown in research to effect mood in females under certain circumstances. I have speculated that this robot when used on a production line could enhance the performance of female employees in it's vicinity.

The third robot is a surgery robot. It releases a mist of oxytocin, a chemical found in the human brain. This chemical when inhaled nasally has been shown to cause people to become more trusting. I speculated that a patient could meet this robot before surgery and the chemical mist would cause the patient to trust in its abilities to a greater degree.

What's the point of all this? Grennan's goal, I suspect, is not so much to create a functional product as to provoke thought. As he puts it: "I hope that the dark thought of robots taking subconscious control of humans [via their emitted odors] will cause viewers to reflect on how we really want to interact with these machines in the future."

One of the things that I like about robots is that they take some of those features that are intrinsically biological (i.e. fear, and for that matter, stinkyness) and do away with them completely. That said, it's interesting to see the ways that robots are getting to be more like humans just as humans are getting to be more like robots. If you plotted those two trends on a graph along with an axis for time, at some point you'd find an intersection. As to just what exactly that's going to entail, well, your guess is as good as mine.

Images: Kevin Grennan

[ Kevin Grennan ] via [ DVICE ] and [ WMMNA ]

Volkswagen's Temporary Auto Pilot Makes Your Car Almost But Not Quite a Robot

We've been wondering why no car company has ever tied lane-assist (which automatically keeps your car in its lane) to adaptive cruise control (which automatically keeps your car a safe distance from cars ahead) to create a fully autonomous highway cruise mode for cars. We're talking about sensor systems that have existed in midrange to high end cars for quite a while (like, years), suggesting that the hold-up hasn't been so much technological as social and legal.

Finally, Volkswagen (who has been a consistent innovator in the autonomous car field) seems to have decided to do the obvious and let lane-assist and adaptive cruise team up to handle your car on the highway without you needing to do anything at all:

The Temporary Auto Pilot (TAP) bundles semi-automatic functions, i.e. functions monitored by the driver, with other driver assistance systems. It combines such automatic systems as ACC adaptive cruise control, the Lane Assist lane-keeping system and Side Assist lane-changing monitoring into one comprehensive function.

In the semi-automatic driving mode – referred to as Pilot Mode, for short – TAP maintains a safe distance to the vehicle ahead, drives at a speed selected by the driver, reduces this speed as necessary before a bend, and maintains the vehicle's central position with respect to lane markers. The system also observes overtaking rules and speed limits. Stop and start driving manoeuvres in traffic jams are also automated. With TAP, it is possible to drive at speeds of up to 130 kilometres per hour on motorways or similar roads. Drivers must still continually focus their attention on the road, so that they can intervene in safety-critical situations at any time.

Sounds awesome, right? It is, except for that (by now obligatory) last sentence that negates one of the primary benefits of an autonomous system: You have to be paying attention to everything you would normally be paying attention to if you were actually driving, meaning that while the car might technically be doing the work for you, the benefit that you gain is severely limited. You can't take a nap, you can't do work, you can't watch a movie. In fact, you can't really relax. And Volkswagen is quite explicit about the situation, as they state in their press release: "the driver always retains driving responsibility and is always in control."

That line was clearly written by a lawyer. In fact, what Volkswagen is doing here is basically just trying to make sure that they're legally covered, and I can't really blame them for it. If they were to say, "hey guess what, your car is driving now, have a beer and go play Angry Birds on your iPad for a while" they'd most likely be sued into oblivion if something went wrong while the car was in control. At the same time, there will come a point at which the benefits of not having that driving responsibility will outweigh the risks, especially as technology gets more reliable (and traffic gets worse).

It's important to note that giving drivers time to space out is definitely the only benefit to an autonomous cruise control system. Volkswagen rightly focuses on the potential for making cars exponentially safer by using all of these fancy sensors in a more active capacity: Even if you're technically in control, your car is still about a thousand times quicker than you when it comes to reaction times, and especially in heavy traffic situations, TAP has the potential to significantly reduce most minor (and likely even major) accidents. You remember Shelley, right? This is what it's all about: Teaching your car to be a better driver than you, and then giving it the chance to keep you out of accidents.

[ Volkswagen ] via [ DVICE ]

How To Give Robot Vacuums a Personality (And Why It Matters)

It's surprisingly easy for humans to endow robots with personalities. We've seen it happen most poignantly with EOD robots, but it's a common occurrence for people with domestic robots as well. However, these robots were never designed to have personalities. They're designed to do a job, and they're designed to be able to interact with people to the extent that it facilitates their ability to do that job, but service robots are really not programmed to be your pet, your best friend, or a member of your family.

Whether it's in their programming or not is, to some extent, beside the point, since it happens anyway. And when it happens, it dramatically changes the way that people interact with what on a primary level is intended to be little more than a tool. Realizing this, a team from Delft University of Technology and Philips Research in the Netherlands decided to take a look at how people actually want their robot vacuums to behave, and what kinds of personalities they'd like them to display.

To do this, the researchers used what's called the Five Factor Model to describe a set of thirty hypothetical personality traits to a group of study participants. The aforementioned Five Factors are broadly described as openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, and each one of these categories can be subdivided into more specific characteristics like "calm," "talkative," "likes routines," "bold," and "systematic." Each participant was asked to rate how important these characteristics were, and the results were incorporated into a sort of hypothetical "desirable" personality for a robot vacuum.

The next step was to take those desirable personality characteristics and turn them into robot behaviors, and this is where it starts to get a little, uh, strange:

"The translation from personality to behavior was inspired by a role play in which a group of actors was asked to act like a robot vacuum cleaner with these desired characteristics. Attributes, such as macaroni, were available to support acting out some of the situations (e.g. ‘cleaning a dirty spot’). An introductory exercise was meant to familiarize the actors with the personality. Then, the actors were asked to act out situations—as if they were the robot vacuum cleaner—making use of motion and sound (expression through light was taken into consideration only after this exercise). In general, the actors either crawled about or walked around at a slow pace to imitate a vacuum cleaner. Often, a typical vacuuming sound was simulated by them."

I'm sure it's impossible to imagine how hilarious that must have been. And I absolutely asked the researchers for the video but they won't give it to me, I imagine because it would ruin the careers of any of those (I would have to assume aspiring) actors. Sad.

Anyway, they took all of those performances and used them to create their own "prototype" video of a hypothetical vacuum cleaner exhibiting some of the personality traits displayed by the actors. The word "prototype" is in quotes because this is just a little remote control vacuumy-looking thing with the sound dubbed in, but watch the video and see what you think about the personality of this little guy:

A panel of fifteen people were asked what they thought about the prototype, and they were able to successfully describe those personality characteristics that were originally instilled into the prototype, suggesting that it's definitely possible to give household robots personalities, even if they don't have any expressive features beyond movement, sound, and a few blinking lights.

It's not just that it's possible to do create a robot with a personality, but what's relevant is it actually makes a difference to the end user. This is a more important point than you might think; by way of example, consider the difference between the iRobot Roomba and the Neato XV-11. Which one of these vacuums cleans better is certainly up for debate (and we've debated it), but as we've pointed out in the past, iRobot has a perception problem with their pseudo-random method of cleaning versus the Neato's straight line technique. The XV-11 just seems smarter to people, whether or not it actually does a better job, and that makes a difference when people are deciding what vacuum they want to buy.

There's lots of nifty graphs and charts and stuff in the actual paper, which is entitled "Robot Vacuum Cleaner Personality and Behavior," by Bram Hendriks, Bernt Meerbeek, Stella Boess, Steffen Pauws, and Marieke Sonneveld from Delft University of Technology and Philips Research. You can read it in its entirety at the link below.

[ Robot Vacuum Cleaner Personality and Behavior ] via [ Improbable Research ]

Willow Garage Looks Beyond Research With Plans To Commercialize Robots

Just a year ago robotics research startup Willow Garage sent its first class of 11 PR2 robots into research labs around the world. The company's intent at that time was to jumpstart the personal robotics industry. While it indicated that eventually it might want to participate in that industry and sell robots for profit itself, that time seemed hazy, somewhere in a distant future. In the meantime, the company would continue developing open source software and giving a lot of robots away for free or at cost.

But suddenly, the folks at Willow Garage are talking a lot more like business people instead of research scientists. I wouldn't say they've put aside their research hats entirely, but they're certainly thinking about commercialization a lot more than they were last summer.

"A year ago we weren't sure if we would sell PR2s or not," said CEO Steve Cousins, standing next to a PR2 in the company’s tree-filled courtyard earlier this week [photo, above]. Cousins was hosting a dinner for journalists; the robots, by the way, did not cook, though they are capable of preparing a few dishes, like a sausage breakfast and cookies. The PR2 was the company's first robot, a $400,000 platform for robotics research. Since then, the company sold 25 PR2s; it also introduced a $1300 robot kit, the Turtlebot, that uses an iRobot base and a Kinect 3D sensor [shown below with Brian Gerkey, director of open source development].

And now, says Cousins, Willow Garage is putting some serious thought into figuring out just where the market for personal robots will be in the next few years.

The company doesn't expect to sell PR2s in great quantity; Cousins likened the PR2 to the Alto, developed at Xerox PARC in the 1970s. The Alto never became a commercial product, but seeded what became the personal computer industry. And, after an initial batch of orders is filled, Willow Garage will get out of the Turtlebot manufacturing business, letting other companies offer products that follow Willow Garage's design.

Instead, Willow Garage's first real commercial robots are likely to be descendants of the company's Texai personal presence robot. Texai was not intended to be a commercial robot, but rather was instigated by a telecommuting researcher for his personal use. The company initially considered Texai a distraction from its main goal, which was completing the PR2. "It caused a real tension," Cousins said, "but we didn't kill it, and that turned out to be a good decision."

Just a month or two ago, Willow Garage spun out a company called Suitable Technologies, intended to bring the Texai, or some version of it, to market. Willow Garage founder Scott Hassan is heading up the new company, which is busily hiring engineers, and, according to its website, will have its first products on the market in early 2012. And Suitable may not be the only Willow Garage spinout, Cousins hinted; instead, the company will likely seed other new businesses.

Suitable Technologies is coming a bit late to the telepresence party, but the company thinks Texai's large screen and other features will give it an edge. A number of other companies have started selling personal robots. Anybots, also in Silicon Valley, offers its QB system. Vgo Communications, near Boston, has the Vgo robot. And iRobot has been showing off a prototype called AVA. Willow Garage sees this competition not as worrisome, but rather as a sign that its efforts to accelerate the development of a personal robotics industry are working.

Cousins said that when Willow Garage started four years ago, he predicted that the point at which the growth rate of personal robotics would dramatically swing upwards, becoming exponential instead of incremental, was 10 to 15 years in the future. Now, he says, "we've been at this for four years, and we are now five to six years out. So I think we've made a difference."

Photos: Tekla Perry

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