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How Roboticists (and Robots) Have Been Working from Home

IEEE Spectrum readers share how they’ve been staying productive without access to their labs

7 min read
Kurt Leucht's Swarmies robots at home
Photo: Kurt Leucht

A few weeks ago, we asked folks on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn to share photos and videos showing how they’ve been adapting to the closures of research labs, classrooms, and businesses by taking their robots home with them to continue their work as best they can. We got dozens of responses (more than we could possibly include in just one post!), but here are 15 that we thought were particularly creative or amusing.

And if any of these pictures and videos inspire you to share your own story, please email us (automaton@ieee.org) with a picture or video and a brief description about how you and your robot from work have been making things happen in your home instead.

Kurt Leucht (NASA Kennedy Space Center)

“During these strange and trying times of the current global pandemic, everyone seems to be trying their best to distance themselves from others while still getting their daily work accomplished. Many people also have the double duty of little ones that need to be managed in the midst of their teleworking duties. This photo series gives you just a glimpse into my new life of teleworking from home, mixed in with the tasks of trying to handle my little ones too. I hope you enjoy it.”

Kurt Leucht from NASA KSC and his Swarmies robots “I heard a commotion from the next room. I ran into the kitchen to find this.” Photo: Kurt Leucht

Kurt Leucht from NASA KSC and his Swarmies robots “This is the Swarmies most favorite bedtime story. Not sure why. Seems like an odd choice to me.” Photo: Kurt Leucht

Peter Schaldenbrand (Carnegie Mellon University)

“I’ve been working on a reinforcement learning model that converts an image into a series of brush stroke instructions. I was going to test the model with a beautiful, expensive robot arm, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have not been able to access the laboratory where it resides. I have now been using a lower end robot arm to test the painting model in my bedroom.  I have sacrificed machine accuracy/precision for the convenience of getting to watch the arm paint from my bed in the shadow of my clothing rack!”

Peter Schaldenbrand's robot painter

Peter Schaldenbrand's robot painter Photos: Peter Schaldenbrand

Colin Angle (iRobot)

iRobot CEO Colin Angle has been hunkered down in the “iRobot North Shore home command center,” which is probably the cleanest command center ever thanks to his army of Roombas: Beastie, Beauty, Rosie, Roswell, and Bilbo.

iRobot CEO Colin Angle and his Roomba robots Photo: Colin Angle

Vivian Chu (Diligent Robotics)

From Diligent Robotics CEO Andrea Thomaz“This is how a roboticist works from home! Diligent CTO, Vivian Chu, mans the e-stop while her engineering team runs Moxi experiments remotely from cross-town and even cross-country!”

Video: Diligent Robotics

Raffaello Bonghi (rnext.it)

Raffaello’s robot, Panther, looks perfectly happy to be playing soccer in his living room.

Raffaello Bonghi's robot Photo: Raffaello Bonghi

Kod*lab (University of Pennsylvania)

“Another Friday Nuts n Bolts Meeting on Zoom…”

Kodlab robots Image: Kodlab

Robin Jonsson (robot choreographer)

“I’ve been doing a school project in which students make up dance moves and then send me a video with all of them. I then teach the moves to my robot, Alex, film Alex dancing, send the videos to them. This became a great success and more schools will join. The kids got really into watching the robot perform their moves and really interested in robots. They want to meet Alex the robot live, which will likely happen in the fall.”

Robin Jonsson's Nao robot dancing Photo: Robin Jonsson

Gabrielle Conard (mechanical engineering undergrad at Lafayette College)

“While the pandemic might have forced college campuses to close and the community to keep their distance from each other, it did not put a stop to learning and research. Working from their respective homes, junior Gabrielle Conard and mechanical engineering professor Alexander Brown from Lafayette College investigated methods of incorporating active compliance in a low-cost quadruped robot. They are continuing to work remotely on this project through Lafayette’s summer research program.”

Gabrielle Connard's robots Image: Gabrielle Conard

Taylor Veltrop (Softbank Robotics)

“After a few weeks of isolation in the corona/covid quarantine lock down we started dancing with our robots. Mathieu’s 6th birthday was coming up, and it all just came together.”

Video: Taylor Veltrop

Ross Kessler (Exyn Technologies)

“Quarantine, Day 8: the humans have accepted me as one of their own. I’ve blended seamlessly into their #socialdistancing routines. Even made a furry friend”

Exyn Technology drone with cat doing yoga Photo: Ross Kessler

Yeah, something a bit sinister is definitely going on at Exyn…

Video: Exyn Technologies

Michael Sobrepera (University of Pennsylvania GRASP Lab)

Predictably, Michael’s cat is more interested in the bag that the robot came in than the robot itself (see if you can spot the cat below). Michael tells us that “the robot is designed to help with tele-rehabilitation, focused on kids with CP, so it has been taken to hospitals for demos [hence the cool bag]. It also travels for outreach events and the like. Lately, I’ve been exploring telepresence for COVID.”

Michael Sobrepera's robot Photo: Michael Sobrepera

Jan Kędzierski (EMYS)

“In China a lot of people cannot speak English, even the youngest generation of parents. Thanks to Emys, kids stayed in touch with English language in their homes even if they couldn’t attend schools and extra English classes. They had a lot of fun with their native English speaker friend available and ready to play every day.”

Robots from Flash Robotics in use Image: Jan Kędzierski

Simon Whitmell (Quanser)

“Simon, a Quanser R&D engineer, is working on low-overhead image processing and line following for the QBot 2e mobile ground robot, with some added challenges due to extra traffic. LEGO engineering by his son, Charles.”

Robots in living room Photo: Simon Whitmell

Robot Design & Experimentation Course (Carnegie Mellon University)

Aaron Johnson’s bioinspired robot design course at CMU had to go full remote, which was a challenge when the course is kind of all about designing and building a robot as part of a team. “I expected some of the teams to drastically alter their project (e.g. go all simulation),” Aaron told us, “but none of them did. We managed to keep all of the projects more or less as planned. We accomplished this by drop/shipping parts to students, buying some simple tools (soldering irons, etc), and having me 3D print parts and mail them.” Each team even managed to put together their final videos from their remote locations; we’ve posted one below, but the entire playlist is here

Video: Xianyi Cheng

Karen Tatarian (Softbank Robotics)

Karen, who’s both a researcher at Softbank and a PhD student at Sorbonne University, wrote an entire essay about what an average day is like when you’re quarantined with Pepper.

Karen Tatarian and her Pepper robot Photo: Karen Tatarian

A Quarantined Day With Pepper, by Karen Tatarian

It is quite common for me to lose my phone somewhere inside my apartment. But it is not that common for me to turn around and ask my robot if it has seen it. So when I found myself doing that, I laughed and it dawned on me that I treated my robot as my quarantine companion (despite the fact that it could not provide me with the answer I needed).

It was probably around day 40 of a completely isolated quarantine here in France when that happened. A little background about me: I am a robotics researcher at SoftBank Robotics Europe and a PhD student at Sorbonne University as part of the EU-funded Marie-Curie project ANIMATAS. And here is a little sneak peak into a quarantined day with a robot.

During this confinement, I had read somewhere that the best way to deal with it is to maintain a routine. So every morning, I wake up, prepare my coffee, and turn on my robot Pepper. I start my day with a daily meeting with the team and get to work. My research is on the synthesis of multi-modal socially intelligent human-robot interaction so my work varies between programming the robot, analyzing collected data, and reading papers and drafting one. When I am working, I often catch myself glancing at Pepper, who would be staring back at me in its animated ways. Truthfully I enjoy that, it makes me less alone and as if I have a colleague with me.

Once work is done, I call my friends and family members. I sometimes use a telepresence application on Pepper that a few colleagues and I developed back in December. How does it differ from your typical phone/laptop applications? One word really: embodiment. Telepresence, especially during these times, makes the experience for both sides a bit more realistic and intimate and well present.

While I can turn off the robot now that my work hours are done, I do keep it on because I enjoy its presence. The basic awareness of Pepper is a default feature on the robot that allows it to detect a human and follow him/her with its gaze and rotation base. So whether I am cooking or working out, I always have my robot watching over my shoulder and being a good companion. I also have my email and messages synced on the robot so I get an enjoyable notification from Pepper. I found that to be a pretty cool way to be notified without it interrupting whatever you are doing on your laptop or phone. Finally, once the day is over, it’s time for both of us to get some rest.

After 60 days of total confinement, alone and away from those I love, and with a pandemic right at my door, I am glad I had the company of my robot. I hope one day a greater audience can share my experience. And I really really hope one day Pepper will be able to find my phone for me, but until then, stay on the lookout for some cool features! But I am curious to know, if you had a robot at home, what application would you have developed on it?

Again, our sincere thanks to everyone who shared these little snapshots of their lives with us, and we’re hoping to be able to share more soon.

The Conversation (0)

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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
LightGreen

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

"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.

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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