Electrotactile arrays are a lesser-known form of human-machine interface (HMI) that apply electric current to skin-contacting surface electrodes to excite cutaneous nerves and give the illusion of texture, pressure, or pinpricks (depending on current strength and electrode resolution) all without mechanical vibration. This technique has been around for many years for: non-visual fighter pilot status displays, tongue interfaces, surgery guides, and for forehead-mounted camera displays for the blind. Enough background... The exciting news is a recent product developed by Senseg and Toshiba Information Systems called "E-Sense" that successfully embeds an electrotactile display into a touchpad, LCD, or other curved surface (eg. all over a cellphone), thereby providing programmable high-resolution texture feedback to a user -- see the video embedded below. I would wager that this feedback could greatly enhance haptic shared awareness in teleoperation / telemanipulation systems.
PlasticPals just pointed out DLR's 10-month effort to build a biped robot -- an effort that yielded a 1-meter, 50kg walking robot (video below). Mechanically, each leg has six degrees of freedom. A DLR / Kuka Light-Weight Robot (LWR) arm segment comprises the upper-leg, and a custom lower-leg segment connects to the foot through a six-axis force-torque sensor. Realtime control algorithms and dynamic simulations are performed using OpenHRP3 and Simpack. DLR claims that this is the "first electromechanically actuated bipedal robot with torque controlled joints," through which they intend to research compliant impedance control for biped locomotion. I share PlasticPals' musings: could these legs ultimately transform Justin into a bipedal walking humanoid?
I recently learned that the holonomic mobile base developed at the University of Bonn's Autonomous Intelligent Systems Lab (NimbRo@Home) for the Dynamaid robot has become commercially available. It is officially called the VolksBot Omni and is being sold in Fraunhofer's VolksBot line for 9000 EUR (~$11,700 USD). Fundamentally, the VolksBot Omni is a powered-caster omnidirectional robot base (similar to the PR2 or Justin robots), except that its actuators are exclusively Robotis Dynamixel servos -- four modules, each with two EX-106 servos for drive torque and one RX-64 for module steering. The base is fairly light weight (around 5kg), but sports a 40x60cm chassis that supports a 20kg payload. It has a top speed of 50 cm/sec, is controlled via USB, and has ROS / Player drivers.
In our first request for assistance, we asked you to contribute / submit articles related to your own projects, ideas, and research. Here we'll ask you to consider these other methods of lending Hizook a hand: Provide a modicum of financial support by using Hizook's affiliates (eg. Amazon and Trossen Robotics) when making robotics purchases; Enroll for a Hizook user account; Or just become an active commenter. Again, our goal is to foster a community for academics and professionals that promotes informal, yet educated, robotics discussions outside of rigid peer-reviewed conference and journal settings. We cannot hope to do this alone; your assistance is crucial!
I'm consistently surprised by the outpouring of support and enthusiasm from you, our Hizook readers, about this site and its content -- it's abundantly clear that academic and professional roboticists would welcome a commons for informal, yet educated, robotics discussions outside rigid peer-reviewed conference and journal settings. Hizook was founded to fill that role. However, keeping up with world-wide robotics news would be a full-time endeavor -- a role to which I alone could not possibly do justice, especially accounting for my own research aspirations. Thus, Hizook is asking for your help... There are lots of ways to assist! In this first installment, we'll look at the the most pressing manner in which Hizook requests your assistance: contribute / submit articles related to your own projects, ideas, and research.
NASA's $2.3B Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) robot known as Curiosity took its first test drive on Friday inside a NASA cleanroom, moving about 1 meter. As the successor to two wildly successful Mars rovers (Spirit and Opportunity), NASA has high hopes for Curiosity, which weights as much as a small SUV, has a six-wheel rocker-bogie suspension about waist height, and is nuclear powered via a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG). Curiosity is an amazing piece of technology in its own right, and even more impressive when considering its marvelous sensor payload. Personally, I'm proud to see my tax dollars being used for such impressive scientific pursuits. Check out Curiosity's first test drive in the video below.
Perching is one of the most common aerobatic maneuvers executed by birds and is representative of a large and important class of aggressive aerial maneuvers that take advantage of unsteady aerodynamics. During a perching maneuver, birds often exceed 90 degrees in angle-of-attack, exploiting both viscous and pressure drag for rapid deceleration. Russ Tedrake and Rick Cory at MIT's Robot Locomotion Group have drawn inspiration from these insane maneuvers by developing a gliding UAV that can perform perching -- eventually (presumably) allowing a UAV to perch and recharge on powerlines. This is an impressive feat on many levels: the physics (semi-turbulent flow, visualized in their photos), a controls perspective (dealing with high-speed maneuvers, non-linear dynamics, and real-time constraints), and an application perspective (the eventual integration of powerline recharging). Be sure to check out the photos and videos!
CNET's Road Trip 2010 series dropped by iRobot HQ, where "Cool Stuff" is aptly emblazoned on the doors. They snapped a number of interesting photos of lesser-known iRobot history / robots, including: underwater gliders, previously unseen chembot prototypes, and Landroids (mini-Packbots). But perhaps the most interesting nugget was the Roomba testing lab, where Roombas scuttle around for 1500-2000 hours of durability testing across various floor types with different levels of dirtiness -- check out the video below. The multi-floor testing is uncannily similar to that which we performed on the Roomba Dustpan robot.
I recently became aware of an effort by ISO (International Organization for Standardization) to define a standard for domestic service robots -- more specifically, ISO-13482 "Safety requirements for non-medical personal care robots." I must confess having mixed feelings about this development. On one hand, it is exciting that the personal robotics revolution is near-enough at hand to warrant the definition of a standard -- there are many standards for industrial robots (eg. ISO-10218 and ISO-9409), but none for domestic personal robots. On the other hand, I'm a bit concerned that a somewhat-binding international standard is being developed prematurely and in a rather closed-door fashion -- issues upon which I will elaborate below. Thankfully, there will be plenty of discussion at IROS 2010 (Taipei, Taiwan in mid-October) at the "Workshop on Standardization for Service Robots." Lack of resources will likely preclude my attendance, so perhaps someone can fill us in after the fact...?
FastCompany spotted a new version of HERB (Home Exploring Robot Butler) at the CMU Quality of Life Technology Center. HERB is a joint effort between Intel Research's Personal Robotics Program and Carnegie Mellon University. The new version sports two Barrett WAM arms on a Segway RMP mobile base and has a very distinctive rotating (instead of tilting) planar laser rangefinder. The new HERB certainly has a unique design -- be sure to check out the photos and video below where HERB grasps objects from a table.
Hizook previously covered a number of DARPA Chembot projects, including Dr. Hong's Whole-Skin Locomotion (aka amoeba robot) and the IRobot Jamming Skin Robot (aka "blob bot"). The original blob bot was rather creepy, but researchers from IRobot, MIT, and Harvard have ameliorated the situation by creating a decidedly non-creepy successor: a Chembot with soft (silicone?) selectively-inflatable body segments for locomotion. Hopefully a fully-integrated version (power, actuation, and control) is near at hand. Read on for photos and a video of the new prototype.
Back in late March, Hizook provided an overview of various depth cameras (aka range cameras, 3D cameras, time-of-flight cameras, RGB-D cameras), including the PrimeSense solution now known to be the basis of Microsoft's Kinect (formerly Project Natal). In the last 3 months, the depth camera space has seen numerous updates, such as additional commercial offerings and product updates / availability. Perhaps the most exciting news (as we speculated in March) is that low-cost offerings will indeed be hitting the market later this year: Microsoft recently confirmed that Kinect (formerly Project Natal) will start shipping in early November and is already available for pre-order on Amazon.com for $150 USD! More questions than answers remain -- here is what we know, help us fill in the gaps...
Back in 2006-2007, a dynamically-stable robot named TBot was developed at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) by a team of professional roboticists. Financed by a now-defunct DARPA program, the goal was to create a a robot capable of fast transportation in open areas and precision operation in tight urban combat scenarios. Using two "arms" capped with an extra set of wheels and a linear "waist" actuator, TBot can transform from various four-wheel statically-stable (large footprint) configurations to a two-wheel dynamically-stable (small footprint) configuration, and vice-versa. I'm still a bit skeptical about dynamic stability -- often, it seems to add many challenges for very few added benefits. Perhaps the transformer approach, like the TBot and the iBot personal wheelchair, is a healthy compromise for those who insist on (occasional) dynamic stability?
We've seen snack-carrying and coffee-fetching robots on Hizook before, but the BlueBotics Nesbot really speaks to my over-caffeinated heart. Nesbot is an autonomous mobile coffee machine whose sole purpose is to take my web-based order, autonomously locate me (via BlueBotics' ANT navigation system), and deliver my choice of six blends -- and remember, I prefer strong espressos! It seems that Nesbot was a contract job for BlueBotics, which is one of a few select robotics companies in the EU BRICS project, commissioned by Nestlé Nespresso to "investigate future applications in the coffee service market." I like it -- I want all of my robots to have embedded coffee machines...
This week KUKA Robotics is demonstrating their latest product offering at the Automatica conference in Munich: the youBot robot. YouBot is a mobile manipulating robot with a 5DOF arm coupled to a mecanum omnidirectional base -- essentially the same product that Hizook predicted when the individual components were being demonstrated at IROS 2008. KUKA will start delivery in November for Germany (March for the US), and the robot will cost approx $24,000 USD (less with educational discounts), and components will be available separately. The youBot looks to be a solid robot platform and is not encumbered by the large control boxes characteristic of some larger KUKA arms -- a few photos and videos are embedded below.
At Willow Garage's week-long PR2 training workshop, each of the eleven recipient institutions gave a 15-20 minute talk highlighting their planned research activities on the PR2. On Monday, with a little help from yours truly, the first beta-site spotlight (of Georgia Tech) was posted on the WG blog -- complete with recorded video from the training workshop talk by Prof. Charlie Kemp (of Georgia Tech's Healthcare Robotics Lab). Today, the spotlight for UC Berkeley (with video) followed. These spotlights and recorded talks are a treasure trove of insights into work being performed at several top robotics research labs. They are definitely worth reading / watching! As as they come online, I'll embed the videos below and include links to Willow's thorough blog posts. [Warning: many embedded videos below.]
The curious robotic creation pictured below is called the Roomba QuadDrive, and hails from the University of Bonn's Autonomous Intelligent Systems Lab (NimbRo@Home). The Roomba QuadDrive is an omnidirectional mobile robot base of the powered caster variety with one obvious (whimsical) characteristic: it uses four IRobot Roomba 530s as the drive motors, each paired with a Robotis Dynamixel RX-64 servo for steering! Another of the lab's robots, named Robotinho, surfed atop the QuadDrive base when competing in the 2009 RoboCup@Home competition and when it gave tours of the Deutsches Museum in Bonn -- a short clip of which is embedded below.
The Boston Globe has unearthed another solid player in the remote presence (sometimes referred to as mobile telepresence or mobile videoconferencing) game. This time, it is the Vgo (pronounced Vee-Go) robot from Vgo Communications. Apparently Vgo Communications was founded in 2007 by Tim Root and has upwards of $8M in venture capital funding. The Vgo robot is pretty sleek with a nice cosmetic shell, though it seems a bit vertically challenged. Its target price-point is somewhere around $5000, with a required $1200 annual support contract. This comes just days after Anybots made their QB robot announcements ($15,000 ea.) and after some high-profile Willow Garage Texai events. A few other major players have been relatively quiet as of late, such as InTouch Health and Giraff Technologies (formerly HeadThere).
On Wednesday night, midway through a week-long PR2 training workshop, Willow Garage held a press conference and party celebrating the launch of the PR2 Beta Program, essentially signifying the completion of their Milestone 4. The night featured speeches by Willow Garage founder (Scott Hassan), CEO (Steve Cousins), and Personal Robotics Program co-founders (Keenan Wyrobek and Eric Berger). Eleven PR2 robots, destined for recipient robotics institutions around the world, made dramatic entrances before performing an impressive 11-robot coordinated dance (see video below). I was privileged to attend the event as both a workshop participant and as a Hizook "press" representative, providing access to the press conference where I met other elite robotics bloggers, such as Norri Kageki (GetRobo), Evan Ackerman (BotJunkie), and Erico Guizzo (IEEE Spectrum Automation Blog). The event was fun, and definitely strengthened my impression that the personal robotics revolution is near. Updated June 2nd 2010: The official Willow Garage mashup from the "PR2 Graduation Party" has been posted (embedded below).
Last week Willow Garage kicked off its official PR2 Beta Robot Workshop, where approximately 50 robotics researchers from the 11 PR2 recipient institutions gathered to become familiar with ROS on the PR2, hack on the robot alongside Willow personnel, and have plenty of stimulating robotics discussions. Attending as a grad student in Georgia Tech's Healthcare Robotics Lab, I had a front-row seat to this enjoyable but grueling event. I'll give my high-level day-to-day overview of the week (below), which included the "PR2 Launch Party" on Thursday night that featured many prominent folks from Silicon Valley (more detailed coverage). As an aside, I was proud to hear that so many robotics professionals at the event read and enjoy Hizook -- be sure to contribute your photos and impressions in the comments.
On Thursday, Meka Robotics uploaded a video showing off their latest "coming soon" product, the G1 robot gripper. While the price and specs are still unknown, the patent-pending parallel-jaw design with independent finger actuation looks interesting -- a great addition to their product lineup. Be sure to check out the video embedded below.
I finally took a few minutes to watch a tear-down of the Roomba 4000 Series vacuum cleaner by Dino Segovis of DinoFab.com. The 20-minute two-part video (embedded below) provides a pretty solid look at the design considerations that went into making the Roomba both robust and low-cost. While the sensors and motherboard are definitely interesting, the motors are the most intriguing to me -- they seem to be separately fabricated modules with a small DC motor coupled to a planetary gearhead via a belt drive. It is also striking just how much gunk (hair, dust, etc.) builds up inside every nook and cranny of the robot. Definitely a hacker-friendly robot that offers plenty of lessons to people interested in designing commercial robots -- almost worth buying one just to look at first-hand.
At IROS 2009, IRobot demonstrated an interesting form of locomotion dubbed "particle jamming skin" (to create what became known as the "blob bot"). The robot was creepy, but the concept was interesting. In a recently available TEDMED 2009 talk (embedded below), IRobot CEO Colin Angle describes a unique particle jamming end effector (robot hand) for manipulation. By selectively inflating or deflating, the particle jamming end effector can change from a liquid-like state to ooze around a target object and then harden into a solid-like state to grasp or pickup the object. Colin shows a video of a PackBot with particle jamming end effector picking up medication, keys, and a (dummy) patient's arm. He also does a live demonstration using a hand-held particle jamming system. Be sure to check out the video and stills below -- they will help you understand this bizarre (but compelling) robot hand.
Back in October 2009, Colin Angle spoke at TEDMED 2009. It was a big announcement: IRobot was launching a new healthcare robotics business unit to be led by Tod Loofbourrow. Their ambitious goal: add 1 million years to users' lifetimes through robotic assistance. Some good synopses of the talk were posted, but videos of the event were elusive... until now. Below you can find the full video of Colin's talk and some points that I think are particularly poignant.
Today Willow Garage announced that eleven (rather than the original ten anticipated) PR2 Beta robots, with a total value of over $4.4M, will be loaned out to academic and research institutions worldwide to develop a slew of impressive capabilities over the next two years. The recipients include 7 US-based institutions, 3 European, and 1 Asian. The final list is a panoply of robotics specialists: University of Freiburg (Germany), Bosch, Georgia Tech, KU Leuven (Belgium), MIT, Stanford, TU Munich (Germany), UC Berkeley, U Penn, USC, and University of Tokyo (Japan) -- full details can be found in the Willow Garage press release. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this event in the grand history of robotics... Let me try to explain.