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Shrewbot Uses Whiskers to Map Its Environment

A robot modeled after a shrew can figure out where it is using just its whiskers

2 min read
Shrewbot Uses Whiskers to Map Its Environment

Robots that make maps tend to be highly reliant on vision of one sort or another, whether it’s a camera image or something off the end of the visible spectrum like a laser scanner. This is understandable: humans are adapted to use vision, so we understand it pretty well, and we can get a lot of useful information out of a visual image. Animals, on the other hand, take advantage of a much broader suite of senses, specialized for their environments. If you only come out at night, or if you live in a hole, vision is perhaps not the best solution for you, and a robot modeled after a shrew can now make maps using just tactile feedback from a prodigious set of artificial whiskers.

We met Shrewbot in January of last year; it’s an adorable robot with artificial whiskers modeled after the Etruscan pygmy shrew. Here’s the video from 2012:

New research presented at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) this week has Shrewbot performing what the researchers are calling tSLAM, which is tactile Simultaneous Localization and Mapping. The robot has an array of 18 individually-actuated whiskers mounted on a 3 degree-of-freedom neck, attached to an omni-drive mobile platform. Using a combination of wheel odometry and detection by whisking (the behavior really is called whisking), Shrewbot is able to gradually make a tactile map of an area by combining hundreds (or thousands) of whisk contacts that it feels when it encounters walls or other obstacles.

This video shows the mapping in action; the blue line shows the actual location of the robot, while the red line shows where the robot thinks it is. Notice how the red line more closely matches the blue line as the robot makes more whisk contacts:

By the end of this process, you can see that Shrewbot has a reasonably good idea of what its environment looks like. And remember, the resulting map (and ability to localize) is achieved purely through touch. Robots like Shrewbot are ideal for exploring and mapping spaces where laser, acoustic, or visual sensors don’t work very well, like dark spaces, spaces filled with dust or smoke, or even in turbid water, and future research will investigate how well this technique works at larger scales, with an eye towards practical deployment, and perhaps even an implementation of texture detection with whiskers as well.

“Simultaneous Localization and Mapping on a Multi-Degree of Freedom Biomimetic Whiskered Robot,” by Martin J. Pearson, Charles Fox, J. Charles Sullivan, Tony J. Prescott, Tony Pipe, and Ben Mitchinson from the Bristol Robotics Laboratory and Sheffield University's Adaptive Behaviour Research Group, was presented this week at ICRA 2013 in Germany.

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How Robots Can Help Us Act and Feel Younger

Toyota’s Gill Pratt on enhancing independence in old age

10 min read
An illustration of a woman making a salad with robotic arms around her holding vegetables and other salad ingredients.
Dan Page

By 2050, the global population aged 65 or more will be nearly double what it is today. The number of people over the age of 80 will triple, approaching half a billion. Supporting an aging population is a worldwide concern, but this demographic shift is especially pronounced in Japan, where more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or older by midcentury.

Toyota Research Institute (TRI), which was established by Toyota Motor Corp. in 2015 to explore autonomous cars, robotics, and “human amplification technologies,” has also been focusing a significant portion of its research on ways to help older people maintain their health, happiness, and independence as long as possible. While an important goal in itself, improving self-sufficiency for the elderly also reduces the amount of support they need from society more broadly. And without technological help, sustaining this population in an effective and dignified manner will grow increasingly difficult—first in Japan, but globally soon after.

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