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Say Hello to Your New Robotic Wingman

Late last month, Northrop Grumman's ultra-futuristic X-47B unmanned combat air system (UCAS) performed its first test flight in "cruise mode;" that is, with its landing gear up in its typical flight configuration:

While a robot wingman does sound cool, there are probably two things which are incorrect about the term "wingman." One would be the "man" part: there's no flesh, blood, or other specific piece of humanity and/or masculinity inside. The other thing is that the X-37B is nobody's wingbot. It's entirely capable of running missions on its own, either controlled remotely by a human, or completely autonomously.

These missions will eventually include aircraft carrier take-offs and landings, refueling, reconnaissance, and attack missions, which will look uncannily like this:

It's pretty wild how the CG footage looks nearly identical to the real thing: we're totally living in the future right now.

[ Northrop Grumman ]

 

HyQ Quadruped Robot From Italy Can Trot, Kick

HyQ hydraulic quadruped robot Italian Institute of Technology

It's not quite an invasion, but in recent years we've seen a small parade of quadruped robots strutting out of labs around the world. In the United States, Boston Dynamics has introduced its now-famous BigDog and, more recently, a bigger bot named AlphaDog. Early this year, we wrote about FROG, a prototype built in China, and just a few weeks ago we described the SQ1 robot, a South Korean project.

Now it's time to unveil the latest addition to this pack: HyQ is a robot developed at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT), in Genoa. The machine, built by a team led by Professor Darwin Caldwell, is a hydraulic quadruped (hy-q, get it?) designed to perform highly dynamic tasks such as running and jumping.

Legged locomotion remains one of the biggest challenges in robotics, and the Italian team hopes that their robot can become a platform for research and collaboration among different groups -- a kind of open source BigDog.

"BigDog is a black box -- nobody knows exactly what designs, materials, controllers they are using," Claudio Semini, a researcher responsible for HyQ's hardware and a founding member of the project, told me when we met at the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in San Francisco last month. "We want to make our design as open as possible."

One of HyQ's key design features, Semini said, is that its legs are actively compliant, and the robot can change the stiffness of each limb. The robot does that by rapidly adjusting the hydraulic flow on its leg actuators. This capability allows the robot to run and jump, as well as negotiate rough terrain, its actuators absorbing shocks and vibrations without damage to the body.

As you can see in the video below, HyQ, which weighs in at 70 kilograms, can walk and trot at speeds up to 6 kilometers per hour. Starting at 0:53, you can see the robot moving its legs very slowly, almost like a giant crawling insect. The robot can also rear like a horse, and even squat jump, getting all four feet off the ground. At the very end of the clip, you can see another trick: The robot can kick!

To achieve the required high joint speeds and torques, HyQ uses two hydraulic cylinders and one electric motor on each leg, which are built with aerospace-grade aluminum alloy and stainless steel. Hydraulics gives the legs speed and robustness; the dc motor allows the robot to elevate its hip joints 120 degrees. There are position and force sensors on each joint, and an inertial measurement unit on the body.

HyQ uses a torque-control approach to move its legs. Its control system, which has a detailed model of the robot's body, uses inverse dynamics to calculate what torque it needs to apply to each joint.

The computing hardware consists of a standard, compact PC running real-time Linux. The software includes simulation and control code co-developed by Jonas Buchli for the USC Computational Learning and Motor Control Lab's contribution to the DARPA-sponsored LittleDog project. Buchli is now a team leader at IIT.

HyQ hydraulic quadruped robot Italian Institute of Technology

And if you're wondering where the robot's head is, Semini said that's one of the next steps. They plan to build a head equipped with a stereo camera and laser range finder for navigation and mapping. Eventually, they also want to add a manipulator arm to the body, so the robot can grasp objects or push away obstacles.

After that, another big challenge is getting rid of the tether, which will mean designing an on-board hydraulic system to power the actuators. (If you want more technical details, visit the project's page and check out the group's publications.)

As for applications, unlike BigDog and AlphaDog, the Italian quadruped wasn't designed for carrying heavy payloads. HyQ is a smaller system, which the IIT researchers say could be used for search and rescue missions in dangerous environments. You could send the robot to navigate autonomously looking for victims, for example, or teleoperate it to investigate a disaster-stricken zone.

The researchers are currently testing HyQ on a special treadmill at their lab, making the robot walk, trot, and jump while attached to the hydraulic tether and a safety harness. Soon, however, they want to let their beast run free. "We need a parking lot to walk this dog," Semini says.

Images and video: IIT

Microsoft Demos Eddie Robot With Party Photo App

Microsoft has followed up their recent release of Robotics Developer Studio 4 and the Parallax Eddie platform with this demo showing how Eddie can be programmed to be an autonomous party photographer, aka "Roborazzi." I'd tell you all about it myself, but wouldn't you rather hear it from the dude who actually put the project together? Sure you would!

Not a bad demo, really. It's a nice way to leverage what Kinect is best at (people tracking), and the camera integration makes it handy to have around for all of those wild parties that you've never invited me to. Oh well, I guess now I can at least watch it all on Flickr. :(

Via [ Microsoft Robotics Blog ]

Actroid-F Gets a Boyfriend

Okay, so technically, Actroid-F got a "brother," not a boyfriend. Even more technically, Actroid-F got another Actroid-F in a different wig. Yeah, weird. But I mean, when it comes down to it, what's the difference? She/he/it also got some fancy new eyes with cameras in them:

Now, you and I may think that these robots are borderline uncanny, but when they went on duty in a hospital in Japan, patients actually kinda liked them.

"When we tested the robot in a hospital, we asked 70 subjects if having an android there made them feel uneasy. Only 3 or 4 people said they didn't like having it around, and overall, quite a lot of people said they felt this robot itself had an acceptable presence."

Hmmm. My guess is that if Actroid-F were to find itself in a hospital here in the U.S., the reaction would be substantially different. Robots (especially anthropomorphic humanoids) still have a bit of a hill to climb when it comes to public perception, and from what I understand we don't have as much of a positive history with them as you can find in Japanese culture. The researchers themselves seem to agree:

"When this robot went to a hospital for a month during a trial, we felt lonely, as if someone had moved out. Another factor is the sense of immersion this robot gives. When it imitates your movements, you gradually feel it's become your alter ego. When the robot's being photographed, you feel as if you're being photographed. You don't get that kind of feeling of togetherness with other robots."

Hmmmmmm. Yeah, I think a "feeling of togetherness" with an Actroid would be a stretch, at least for me, but then, I haven't had the pleasure (it's pleasure, right?) of spending a lot of time with one. 

[ AIST ] via [ DigInfo ]

Self-Contained Soft Robot is a Master of Creepy Oozing

We're not entirely sure what happened with DARPA's Chembots program. We certainly didn't end up with one of these (not that we know of, anyway), but some cool stuff did happen along the way, like this and this and this and especially this. At the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems last month, we got a look at another type of soft robot, this one completely self-contained and capable of creepily rolling around on its own:

The robot is powered by a "pneumatic battery," which uses hydrogen peroxide and a catalyst to generate the gas pressure with which the robot sequentially inflates silicone bladders to propel itself. There's a brilliant system inside the battery to self-regulate the reaction so that the robot only ever uses as much of the H2O2 fuel as it needs. To control its motion, the bot relies on a system of electropermanent magnet valves. These valves are just like regular electromagnetic valves -- except they're permanent. You can switch them on and off using a little bit of current, but once the switch is made, they'll stay there without needing any power at all. It's very clever.

This research was sponsored by DARPA under the Chembots program and the Programmable Matter program, with help from Boeing. Combinations like that get me all excited, and although there may not be a future for this squishy little guy specifically, the underlying technology (specifically, those nifty little valves), could start popping up in all sorts of (probably less creepy) places. 

"Soft Robot Actuators using Energy-Efficient Valves Controlled by Electropermanent Magnets," by Andrew D. Marchese, Cagdas D. Onal, and Daniela Rus from MIT, was presented at IROS 2011 in San Francisco last month.

Via [ Hizook ]

Robot Dragon to Help Kids With Language Skills

dragon robot

The last few robot dragons that we've been introduced to have done a pretty good job living up to that whole "dragon" mythos, being giant and dangerous and potentially scary. But dragons can also be cute and fuzzy and cuddly, and researchers at Northeastern University, Harvard, and MIT have gotten together and invented a little robot dragon designed to appeal to preschoolers. Fans of celebrity roboticists might recognize MIT's Cynthia Breazeal in the above picture on the far left; also in the pic are David DeSteno from Northeastern (right) and Paul Harris from Harvard (far right).

The robot they're all fawning over is, believe it or not, a descendant of Nexi, MIT Media Lab’s small humanoid. As you can see, it's a robotic dragon, called (as far as I can tell) "dragon robot." The relation to Nexi comes in the form of research by Northeastern's Social Emotions Group, showing that things like eyes and movements have a very significant impact on how people relate to robots, especially when it comes to trust and communication in learning environments. DeSteno, an associate professor of psychology at Northeastern, explains:

“Certain non-verbal cues like mimicking behavior to improve rapport and social bonding, or changes in gaze direction to guide shared attention, are central. When kids learn from human teachers, these cues enhance the learning. We’re designing our new dragon robots to be able to have these capabilities.”

Specifically, the dragon robot is designed to teach preschoolers language skills. It's furry, extremely emotive, and the intention is that kids will be able to develop an emotional connection with it. And when they trust the robot like they would something that's actually alive, it'll be a much more effective teacher.

At this stage, the dragon robots are going to undergo some preliminary testing with preschoolers at MIT. Once the researchers figure out what social cues are the most crucial to developing those emotional bonds, the robots will venture out into the world as distance-learning tools to help kids in rural areas learn their shapes, colors, numbers, and fantasy animals.

[ NEU Social Robotics Lab ] via [ NEU ]

Hobby Robot Rides a Bike the Old-Fashioned Way

The current generation of bicycle-riding robots (I'm talking about those crazy kids from Murata) are extremely complicated, relying on giant gyroscopes and thick wheels to keep themselves upright even while stationary. This is certainly a neat trick, but it's not something that most humans can pull off. It's not a problem that robots are better at something than we are (by now, we're used to it), but there's something to be said for human emulation, too.

It turns out that getting a robot to ride a bicycle doesn't need to involve much more than a hobby level humanoid employing a relatively simple gyroscope that sends steering commands to keep things generally upright. This KHR3HV bipedal robot (which can be yours for about $2200) has a nifty custom bike that it got from I know not where, and can zip around under remote control at up to 10 kph, even making its own starts and stops:

Wheee!

[ AI and Robot ] via [ RoboSavvy ]

Wiggly Robotic Cat Ears: Sure, Why Not

Robots have ears. They're called microphones, and you usually find them just inside some tiny little hole somewhere. But you have to figure that there are good reasons why animals like this exist: big ears can confer an advantage. Namely, big ears allow animals to hear quieter sounds, and localize those sounds more precisely.

This is the idea behind "active soft pinnae," which is fancy roboticist talk for "ears that wiggle." The robotic ear in the picture above is a reasonably faithful reproduction of a kitty ear, including a fake fur covering on the back and the ability to both rotate side to side and deform downwards. There's a microphone buried down inside the ear, of course, but the external structure is the important part.

So what good is it? I mean, you can ask your cat, but testing has shown that it's possible to pinpoint the direction (azimuth and elevation) to a sound with just two wigglable ears instead of needing a complex microphone array. Furthermore, the ears can be used to localize sounds by moving independently of the head or body of a robot, which is a much more efficient approach. And of course, ears like these are awfully cute, and with the addition of some touch sensors, you could give your robot that friendly scritching that it deserves.

"Active soft pinnae for robots," by Makoto Kumon and Yoshitaka Noda from Kumamoto University in Japan, was presented at the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in San Francisco last month.

Swiss Climbing Robot Hot Glues Itself To Your Walls

Robot use all sorts of clever techniques to climb: we've seen magnets, grippers, gecko feet, electrostatics, and even supersonic jets of air. It's sort of surprising, then, that the idea of using the most stereotypically sticky thing in the universe to climb has been (more or less) ignored until now. Yes, this robot sticks to surfaces with glue.

Technically, what this robot uses is hot-melt adhesive, or HMA. This is the stuff that comes out of hot glue guns, and it goes from a solid to a sticky liquid when it's passed through a heating element. As it cools, it solidifies again. The robot uses this property to temporarily bond its limbs to a vertical surface one by one and hoist itself up, unsticking itself as it goes by re-heating the blobs of glue that it sets down:

By now, you've probably spotted several issues that this robot has to deal with: first, it's very, very slow, since it has to wait for the adhesive to cure every time it takes a step, a 90 second process. And second, totally it leaves a trail of sticky little glue spots along every surface that it climbs, making its usefulness questionable in many (if not most) environments.

So yes, a few things need to be addressed, but this technique has a bunch of upsides, too. The biggest one is that glue, being glue, sticks to just about anything. It doesn't have to be especially rough, especially smooth, or especially magnetic, which makes it more versatile than than the current generation of just about every other robot adhesion system that I can think of off the top of my head.

Also, the hot melt adhesive can support a lot of weight, and it can do it completely passively: you don't need to expend energy once the adhesive sets to keep from falling. The bonding strength of the HMA in its solid state is such that a four square centimeter little patch can hold a staggering 60 kilograms, easily enough to hold this robot plus a fairly gigantic payload, most of which is likely going to have to consist of extra sticks of glue.

"A Climbing Robot Based on Hot Melt Adhesion," by Marc Osswald and Fumiya Iida from the Bio-Inspired Robotics Laboratory at ETH Zurich, was presented at the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in San Francisco last month.

Watch a Robot Build Other Robots out of Spray Foam

Robots are quite good at doing very specific tasks. Arguably, doing very specific tasks are what robots are best at. When you put a robot into an unknown situation, however, odds are you're not going to have a design that's optimized for whatever that situation ends up being. This is where modular robots come in handy, since they can reconfigure themselves on the fly to adapt their hardware to different tasks, and the Modular Robotics Lab at the University of Pennsylvania has come up with a wild new way of dynamically constructing robots based on their CKBot modules: spray foam.

The process starts with a "foam synthesizer cart" that deploys several CKBot clusters, each consisting of a trio of jointed CKBot modules. The CKBot clusters can move around by themselves, sort of, and combined with some helpful nudging from the cart, they can be put into whatever position necessary to form the joints of a robot. The overall structure of the robot is created with insulation foam that the cart sprays to connect the CKBot clusters in such a way as to create a quadruped robot, a snake robot, or whatever else you want. Watch:

Having a robot that shoots foam is good for lots more than building other robots; for example, Modlab has used it to pick up hazardous objects and to quickly deploy permanent doorstops. There's still some work to be done with foam control and autonomy, but Modlab is already thinking ahead. Way ahead:

"By carrying a selection of collapsible molds and a foam generator, a robot could form end e ffectors on a task-by-task basis -- for example, forming wheels for driving on land, impellers and oats for crossing water, and high aspect ratio wings for gliding across ravines. Molds could also be made of disposable material (e.g. paper) that forms part of the final structure. Even less carried overhead is possible by creating ad-hoc molds: making a groove in the ground or placing found objects next to each other."

With this kind of capability, you could (say) send a bunch of modules and foam to Mars, and then create whatever kind of robots you need once you get there. And with foam that dissolves or degrades, you could even recycle your old robots into new robots if the scope of the mission changes. Modular robots were a brilliant idea to begin with, but this foam stuff definitely has the potential to make them even more versatile.

[ UPenn Modlab ]

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Automaton

IEEE Spectrum's award-winning robotics blog, featuring news, articles, and videos on robots, humanoids, automation, artificial intelligence, and more.
Contact us:  e.guizzo@ieee.org

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Erico Guizzo
New York, N.Y.
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Berkeley, Calif.
 
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