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KURMET Bipedal Robot Can Hop Over Obstacles

KURMET biped robot

Bipedal robots, whether they're human-sized or not, are generally heavy and unstable and (with few exceptions) don't lend themselves to dynamic motions like running and jumping. Researchers from Ohio State University and the University of Notre Dame have developed an experimental biped called KURMET that's specifically designed for controllable, repetitive jumping*:

That big arm thing isn't being used to aid in the jumping at all, it's just there to simplify the system a little bit. Theoretically, it would be possible to do all of this research on an untethered fully three-dimensional robot, but for the purposes of figuring out how to make a robot hop in a stable manner, you only really need to focus on whether it's tipping forward or backward as it jumps. The “fuzzy” term that you see in the video is referring to how KURMET is controlled: The robot learns how to jump through a training process, not by remembering rules, so there isn't always a precisely pre-defined action that it's required to take based on given inputs, which is why it's called a fuzzy control system.

In the future, the researchers hope to apply evolutionary learning strategies to push KURMET's performance boundaries, which may or may not include doing flips and playing hopscotch.

The researchers -- Yiping Liu, Patrick Wensing, David Orin, and James Schmiedeler -- describe their work in a paper, "Fuzzy Controlled Hopping in a Biped Robot," presented yesterday at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), in Shanghai.

* Among the most incredible hopping machines ever created are the robots built by Marc Raibert and his team back when he was an MIT professor and directed the MIT Leg Lab. Raibert went on to co-found Boston Dynamics. Some of his robots are now on display at the MIT Museum.

PR2 Robot Can Scan And Bag Your Groceries

pr2 grocery checkout robot

Normally, when a robot wants to pick something up that it's never seen before, it either has to download a 3D model of the object, make its own 3D model and analyze it, or be trained by a human on the right way to grip. Unfortunately, none of these things are really practical to do in the fast paced world of grocery checkout lines.

Researchers at Stanford University have figured out that in order to pick something up, all you really need to know is whether a piece of it has the same basic shape as the shape of your gripper. If it does, then you can mostly likely grip it tolerably well, and experimentally the success rate is better than 90 percent. Best of all, you can extract this shape information from one simple (and quick) 3D scan, even if you've got a big cluttered pile of stuff. Once the robot has picked up an object, it holds it up to its cameras to scan for the barcode, adds it to your tab, and bags it for you. Watch a demo of their method implemented on a PR2:

Don't let the fact that this video is sped up by anywhere from 5x – 25x worry you; this is just research code. There's a lot of optimizing that could be done that could increase the speed by “several orders of magnitude,” according to the researchers. And while you probably aren't going to see PR2s down at your local Trader Joe's, the code that's being developed here could conceivably find its way into some kind of grocery robot in the future, or even into a robot that picks up and puts away stuff in your house.

The Stanford team -- Ellen Klingbeil, Deepak Rao, Blake Carpenter, Varun Ganapathi, Andrew Y. Ng, Oussama Khatib -- describe the research in a paper, "Grasping with Application to an Autonomous Checkout Robot," presented today at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), in Shanghai.

Mystery Robot Revealed: RoboDynamics Luna Is Fully Programmable Adult-Size Personal Robot

robodynamics luna personal robot

That mystery robot that we've been teased about for months now, originally rumored to be something developed by either Apple or Google, is in fact a project by a company called RoboDynamics. It's called Luna, it's a personal robot designed for people to use at home, it's fully programmable, and will start shipping later this year.

As of right now, the embargo has been lifted and we're allowed to tell you more about Luna and how RoboDynamics, in Santa Monica, Calif., hopes that it'll revolutionize robotics in the same way that the PC revolutionized computing and the iPhone and Android are revolutionizing mobile electronics.

Before we get to the overall concept, here's a rundown of Luna's hardware and software specs, which RoboDynamics says is subject to change:

Computer
Processor: Dual Core Atom 2 GHz
Graphics: nVidia 94000M
Storage capacity: 8 GB Flash, expandable to 32 GB
Wireless: Wi-Fi (802.11g), optional Bluetooth via Luna Expansion Port (LXP)
Cellular comm.: Optional 3G or 4G via Luna Expansion Port (LXP)
Operating system: LunaOS (includes Poky Linux, ROS, and other packages)
I/O
Display: 8" touchscreen capacitive LCD
Camera: 8-megapixel primary camera with digital zoom
Microphone: 3 microphone array with DSP front-end with sound localization
Speakers: Yes (no specs available yet)
Sensors: 10-bit wheel encoders, PrimeSense 3D Sensor
Expansion ports: Luna Expansion Ports (LXP) x 7 [Each LXP comprises standard USB Female Type A and 12 volt and 5 volt regulated power with mounting holes]
Power
Battery: 12 volt, 26 amp-hour - SLA
Battery life: Between 4-8 hours
Charge time: 4-8 hours for full charge
Dimensions
Size: Height: 5'2" (157 cm) - Base: 22" (56 cm)
Weight: 65 lbs (30 Kg)

robodynamics luna personal robot

Clearly, this is not some kind of fancy, futuristic new platform. It's got a pretty good computer in it, with a pretty good graphics card. It's got some pretty good sensors, pretty good mobility, and pretty good design. All very pretty good. So why get excited?

Because, at least in principle, Luna could do something that no other robot has been able to accomplish: bring a programmable, general-purpose robot to a vast number of home users and establish an ecosystem for developers to create and sell software that gives the robot more capabilities.

Let's use the computer as an analogy. Starting with the Apple II (or thereabouts, our memory only goes back so far), it was possible to buy a computer system that would come out of the box offering immediate usefulness without requiring specialized technical knowledge. And that's what made everybody want a computer: it would immediately make your life better, and furthermore, the ability to teach it new things makes it increasingly useful.

robodynamics luna personal robot

To take the analogy further, and to get closer to the idea behind Luna, think about the iPhone. You buy it because it makes phone calls and you can get the Internet on it, but that's just the beginning. What makes the iPhone (and Android platforms) stand out from other phones is the fact that you can make it increasingly useful, thanks to the app store. And not just that, but making the iPhone useful by writing apps has become lucrative, which makes the iPhone itself more lucrative, and so on.

RoboDynamics CEO Fred Nikgohar and Luna Personal RobotRoboDynamics CEO Fred Nikgohar [the guy in the suit, right] wants Luna to do for robotics what smartphones did for mobile computing. He argues that the robotics industry has failed to make home robots (beyond toys, kits, and vacuum cleaners) available to consumers, and that even open-source software platforms like Willow Garage's ROS are still too hard for people without a PhD in robotics. He hopes that "a well-designed, open, and affordable personal robot will kickstart a rush of innovation."

We applaud the idea, but we see some hurdles along the way. RoboDynamics had mentioned previously a price tag of around US $1,000, which would make Luna a very competitive offering. To put that in perspective, remember that a TurtleBot or a Bilibot will set you back $1,200. And they're not five feet tall with touchscreens. But now RoboDynamics is saying that the $1,000 is a target price and that the initial model, to ship later this year, will sell for $3,000.

It's still reasonable for the hardware you're getting, but way above the psychologically appealing price point of $1,000, which would certainly entice a lot of people. So whether RoboDynamics will be able to bring the cost down is still uncertain.

Another issue is software. We haven't had a chance to check out the robot's Linux-based operating system, called LunaOS, and we haven't seen Luna's interface system, the SDK, and the Luna App Store that RoboDynamics says will be available. Software, perhaps even more than hardware, will be key to Luna's success. If the robot ships with good apps, and more apps start to show up on the store, Luna's appeal increases dramatically. But so far this is all a big question mark.

In the next few weeks, RoboDynamics plans to release more information about Luna's first edition, as well as future models, prices, and availability (if you're interested, go to their website and fill out the form). We'll report back as soon as we have a chance to meet the robot in person and check out its full capabilities.

More photos:

robodynamics luna personal robot

robodynamics luna personal robot

robodynamics luna personal robot

robodynamics luna personal robot

robodynamics luna personal robot

robodynamics luna personal robot

Images: RoboDynamics

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ParkourBot Can Do Parkour

We've seen all kinds of robots that are able to make their way up walls, but few if any of them have been what you'd call dynamic. That is, those robots clamp themselves to something, move, clamp, and them move again. A dynamic robot is more like a gymnast, relying on motion and inertia to actively propel itself up using walls and other surfaces to its advantage.

ParkourBot, designed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon and Northwestern University, takes all the lessons they've learned from dynamic walking robots and brings it to the vertical dimension. Well, near vertical. At this point, the robot is being tested on an angled air table to simplify the system, and they're also cheating a little bit (their words!) by relying on a gyroscope to keep the robot from spinning around like a pinwheel.

So okay, it may not exactly be climbing buildings, but that's definitely the goal. The next step is to add variations and gaps in the walls to teach ParkourBot to adapt on the fly, and once it gets that figured out, removing the gyro will open up some exciting possibilities for actual jumping and leaping and climbing. ParkourBot, watch and learn.

The researchers -- Amir Degani, Siyuan Feng, H. Benjamin Brown, Kevin M. Lynch, Howie Choset and Matthew T. Mason -- describe the project in a paper, "The ParkourBot: A Dynamic Bow Leg Climbing Robot," presented today at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), in Shanghai.

Pendulum-Balancing Quadrotor Learns Some New Tricks

pendulum balancing robot eth zurich flying machine arena

Raffaello D'Andrea and his disciples at ETH Zurich love to build beautiful robots -- a robotic cube that balances on one corner, modular flying robots that self-assemble, a pair of quadrotors that can juggle a ball together.

More recently, D'Andrea and Markus Hehn have demonstrated a quadrotor capable of balancing an inverted pendulum in flight. Now this clever little flying machine has gotten even more talented. It's learned how to fly sideways, up and down, and in circles while keeping the pendulum stable. Watch:

The quadrotor is not doing everything by itself. It's getting help from the environment, an enclosed space called the Flying Machine Arena, which is equipped with multiple motion capture cameras. The researchers devised algorithms to transform the vision data from the cameras into control commands for the quadrotor. The machine can hover in place or it can follow pre-programmed trajectories. Manual control is also possible using a "set point tracking" device.

Hehn and D'Andrea, an IEEE Fellow and co-founder of Kiva Systems, which develops warehouse automation robots (disclosure: he's also a member of IEEE Spectrum's editorial advisory board), describe the project in a paper, "A Flying Inverted Pendulum," presented today at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), in Shanghai.

Ground-Effect Robot Could Be Key To Future High-Speed Trains

japanese air cushion high speed trainJapanese prototype of a train that levitates on cushions of air.

High speed trains are huge in Asia, but barring a catastrophe, most of them are designed to stay firmly on the ground, running on rails. There are plenty of good reasons not to run on rails, though, one of which is that you can go much faster without all that friction. This is the idea behind maglev trains, but there's still a lot of wind drag that crops up between the bottom of a maglev train and its track that makes them less efficient (which combined with other problems make maglevs very costly).

japanese air cushion high speed train

A ground-effect vehicle takes advantage of this fast-moving air and uses some stubby little wings to fly just above the ground, like a maglev without the mag. This is a tricky thing to do, since you have to control the vehicle more like an airplane than a train, meaning that you have to deal with pitch, roll, and yaw and not just the throttle. A Japanese research group led by Yusuke Sugahara at Tohoku University has built robotic prototype of a free flying ground-effect vehicle [photo above] that they're using to test an autonomous three axis stabilization system:

The researchers are looking to use this robot to generate a dynamic model of how vehicles like these operate, which they hope to apply to a manned experimental prototype train [first photo at the top] that can travel at 200 kilometers per hour in a U-shaped concrete channel that keeps it from careening out of control.

Later, the plan is that the same technology can scale and power a large commuter rail system called the Aero Train [concept below]. If this is the future of commuting, we'll be literally flying to work some day.

japanese air cushion high speed train

Sugahara and his colleagues describe the project in a paper, "Levitation Control of Experimental Wing-in-Ground Effect Vehicle along Z Axis and about Roll and Pitch Axes," presented today at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), in Shanghai.

Jedi vs. Sith In Robot Lightsaber Duel

yaskawa lightsaber duel icra 2011

In 2009, Yaskawa equipped three of its Motoman industrial robots with lightsabers and made them fight until there's only one bot standing perform a choreographed dance. Now it appears Yaskawa has realized that when you give lightsabers to robots, people expect to see a Jedi battle, not ballet moves. Check out the demo the company put together for this year's IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), in Shanghai.

[ Yaskawa ]

How China Plans To Send Robots To the Moon

china moon rover robotChina is planning to send a robotic exploration rover to the Moon around 2013.

Despite the fact that the moon is so close (cosmically speaking), we haven't really interacted much with the lunar surface since the late '70s. We've taken pictures of it and crashed the occasional spacecraft into it, but in general the moon has been bypassed for sexier planets like Mars.

The opening keynote at this year's IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), in Shanghai, was given by Ziyuan Ouyang, the chief scientist of China's lunar exploration program, which is quite possibly the most active lunar program in the world right now. Ouyang confirmed that, yes, China is planning to send robots to the moon, and he revealed interesting details about the project.

For the past four years, China has been engaged in a three-phase plan that will ultimately culminate in a lunar rover and a lunar sample return mission, scheduled to take place in 2013 and 2017 respectively. The first phase was the Chang'e-1 lunar orbiter, which was launched in 2007 and created multispectral maps of the surface of the moon while also using a laser altimeter to generate a high-resolution 3D map. In 2009, it was one of those aforementioned unlucky spacecraft that was deliberately smashed into the moon in the name of, um, science.

The next step was to send Chang'e-2 (which was originally backup hardware for Chang'e-1) to the moon to test out improved communications systems and pick a nice soft landing spot for a rover. Chang'e-2 launched late last year, and is still sending back data, having not been crashed into the moon (for science!) just yet.

Next will come Chang'e-3, which is scheduled to land in Sinus Iridium sometime “around 2013.” This will be the mission with an unmanned lunar lander and a 120-kilogram autonomous lunar rover, able to choose its own routes, avoid obstacles, and perform science experiments with a suite of sensors, including cameras, x-ray and infrared spectrometers, and a ground-penetrating radar. (See image above; all images are photos of slides presented during the talk.)

china moon rover robot

One of the (many) tricky parts of operating on the moon is designing a rover that can stay alive during the lunar night, which is a half-month long, making solar power an impracticality. To help keep itself alive, the Chinese rover will have a supplementary nuclear battery powered by plutonium 238, which will give the rover a lifespan of 30 years, although its mission life will be only three months. This is the same type of radioisotope thermoelectric generator system (RTG) being used on the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity.

And speaking of Mars rovers, here's what the Chinese rover will look like:

china moon rover robot

Looks familiar, huh?

This rover is only the second stage, though. The third and final stage involves landing on the moon, using either a robot arm or a drill to collect some samples, and then sticking those samples into a little rocket that flies itself back to Earth.

china moon rover robot

Beyond 2017, China hopes to eventually send humans to the moon, and they're also considering building a permanent lunar outpost.

china moon rover robot

Quadrotor Formation Flying Gets Aggressive

grasp lab quadrotor formation

Quadotors are capable enough on their own, but when they team up, they can accomplish significantly more. It's relatively straightforward to control a couple of them at once using a precision motion capture system, but ultimately, it's going to be much more useful to have the quadrotors work with each other directly, without heavy dependence on external sensors and computers.

The University of Pennsylvania's GRASP Lab, famous for those crazy quadrotors that can fly through windows and hula hoops, has been working on getting groups of the robots to fly together in formation. Just like with a formation of fighter jets, there's a leader robot in each squad along with several follower robots. The followers have just two jobs: follow the leader, and preserve the shape of the formation. Watch:

Being able to do this is all about communication, as Professor Nathan Michael discussed today at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Shanghai. As he and fellow researchers Matthew Turpin and Vijay Kumar have discovered, the robots have to not just know exactly where they are, but they also have to broadcast that information to their neighbors to maintain the integrity of the formation. This processing is all done on each individual quadrotor, so there's no all-seeing computer watching everything and telling each robot where to go. The accuracy is impressive: 50 percent of the time the quadrotors are within a mere two centimeters of where they should be.

So what happens when some robots can't talk to each other? If a robot fails for some reason, it's able to bow out from the formation gracefully, and the other robots can move on without it, preserving the shape of the formation. You can see an example of this in the above vid. It's an important capability: part of the advantage of having a group (or a swarm) is that it can be resilient to individual failures, but to harness this resiliency, you need to not have one failure cause a disruption to the rest of the group.

In the future, GRASP is looking at doing some outdoor experiments relying on a 10 to 20-centimeter-accurate on-robot GPS system, which is important because it gets away from reliance on indoor motion capture systems and introduces relevant variables like wind, rampant wireless interference, and violently jealous birds.

[ GRASP Lab ]

Big Robot Arm With Laser Cuts Steel

I don't know if it's the music or what, but watching this 'bot cutting steel sheets like they were butter feels so...mesmerizing. I could watch this the whole day. The robot is an ABB IRB 4400, a 6-axis industrial manipulator designed for high speed cutting and handling applications. It weighs one metric ton and has a payload capacity of 60 kilograms. The video shows the robot laser cutting various shapes and perfectly round holes on high strength steel sheets. ABB claims that this robotic laser system offers "the flexibility of industrial robots with lower capital costs and smaller footprint than traditional laser machining centers." I don't know about that, but I do wish I had a giant robot with a laser in my garage.

[ ABB Robotics ]

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