Engineers, using artificial intelligence and wearable cameras, now aim to help robotic exoskeletons walk by themselves.
Increasingly, researchers around the world are developing lower-body exoskeletons to help people walk. These are essentially walking robots users can strap to their legs to help them move.
One problem with such exoskeletons: They often depend on manual controls to switch from one mode of locomotion to another, such as from sitting to standing, or standing to walking, or walking on the ground to walking up or down stairs. Relying on joysticks or smartphone apps every time you want to switch the way you want to move can prove awkward and mentally taxing, says Brokoslaw Laschowski, a robotics researcher at the University of Waterloo in Canada.
Scientists are working on automated ways to help exoskeletons recognize when to switch locomotion modes — for instance, using sensors attached to legs that can detect bioelectric signals sent from your brain to your muscles telling them to move. However, this approach comes with a number of challenges, such as how how skin conductivity can change as a person’s skin gets sweatier or dries off.
Now several research groups are experimenting with a new approach: fitting exoskeleton users with wearable cameras to provide the machines with vision data that will let them operate autonomously. Artificial intelligence (AI) software can analyze this data to recognize stairs, doors, and other features of the surrounding environment and calculate how best to respond.
Laschowski leads the ExoNet project, the first open-source database of high-resolution wearable camera images of human locomotion scenarios. It holds more than 5.6 million images of indoor and outdoor real-world walking environments. The team used this data to train deep-learning algorithms; their convolutional neural networks can already automatically recognize different walking environments with 73 percent accuracy "despite the large variance in different surfaces and objects sensed by the wearable camera," Laschowski notes.
According to Laschowski, a potential limitation of their work their reliance on conventional 2-D images, whereas depth cameras could also capture potentially useful distance data. He and his collaborators ultimately chose not to rely on depth cameras for a number of reasons, including the fact that the accuracy of depth measurements typically degrades in outdoor lighting and with increasing distance, he says.
In similar work, researchers in North Carolina had volunteers with cameras either mounted on their eyeglasses or strapped onto their knees walk through a variety of indoor and outdoor settings to capture the kind of image data exoskeletons might use to see the world around them. The aim? "To automate motion," says Edgar Lobaton an electrical engineering researcher at North Carolina State University. He says they are focusing on how AI software might reduce uncertainty due to factors such as motion blur or overexposed images "to ensure safe operation. We want to ensure that we can really rely on the vision and AI portion before integrating it into the hardware."
In the future, Laschowski and his colleagues will focus on improving the accuracy of their environmental analysis software with low computational and memory storage requirements, which are important for onboard, real-time operations on robotic exoskeletons. Lobaton and his team also seek to account for uncertainty introduced into their visual systems by movements .
Ultimately, the ExoNet researchers want to explore how AI software can transmit commands to exoskeletons so they can perform tasks such as climbing stairs or avoiding obstacles based on a system’s analysis of a user's current movements and the upcoming terrain. With autonomous cars as inspiration, they are seeking to develop autonomous exoskeletons that can handle the walking task without human input, Laschowski says.
However, Laschowski adds, “User safety is of the utmost importance, especially considering that we're working with individuals with mobility impairments," resulting perhaps from advanced age or physical disabilities.
“The exoskeleton user will always have the ability to override the system should the classification algorithm or controller make a wrong decision.”
Charles Q. Choi is a science reporter who contributes regularly to IEEE Spectrum. He has written for Scientific American, The New York Times, Wired, and Science, among others.