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Harvard RoboBees Learn to Steer, Mostly

Harvard's robotic bee can now steer itself in mid-air, more or less

2 min read
Harvard RoboBees Learn to Steer, Mostly

Harvard has been working on a robotic bee for five years now. Five years is a long time in the fast-paced world of robotics, but when you're trying to design a controllable flying robot that weighs less than one tenth of one gram from scratch, getting it to work properly is a process that often has to wait for technology to catch up to the concept. 

The RoboBee has been able to take off under its own power for years, but roboticists have only just figured out how to get it to both take off and go where they want it to. Or at least, they're getting very, very close, and the latest testing was presented at one of the opening sessions of IROS this morning.

With the addition two small control actuators underneath the wings, RoboBee has been endowed with the ability to pitch and roll, which is two thirds of what it needs to be able to do to be a fully controllable robotic insect. These maneuvers are currently open-loop, which means that the RoboBee isn't getting any sensor feedback: it's just been instructed to steer itself in one particular way, which it obediently does until it violently crashes into something:

As you can see, these are hardy little robocritters: the prototype RoboBees have gone through dozens of flights, "almost always with crash landings," according to the researchers.

The reason that RoboBee hasn't yet learned to yaw is that all three axes of motion (yaw, pitch, and roll) are coupled together such that it's difficult to get a pure output with a pure input: if you try to get the robot to pitch, it's going to yaw and roll a little bit too, and isolating yaw from pitch and roll proved to be particularly tricky. Ongoing research will develop a feedback controller that can compensate for this, which should (we hope) mean that a RoboBee capable of hovering and fully controllable flight will be buzzing our way sometime soon.

"Open-loop roll, pitch and yaw torques for a robotic bee," by Benjamin M. Finio, and Robert J. Wood from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, was presented today at the 2012 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Vilamoura, Portugal.

[ Harvard RoboBees ]

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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