Simple, Soft Social Robots

With Hugvie and Somnox Sleep Robot, researchers and companies has made it clear that it is possible to build simple, soft social robots that have a certain utility and impact. This raises hopes for social robotics, which is currently showing some progress, but is still developing slowly. Materials such as rubber and plastic can be used to make simple, soft social robots. These materials can be combined with existing devices such as smartphones and tablets on which you run certain applications, or with simple sensors and electronic components. The project or thesis, announced by Oliver Bendel in August 2020 at the School of Business FHNW, will first do research on the basics of simple, soft social robots. The work of Hiroshi Ishiguro and Alexis Block (with Katherine J. Kuchenbecker) will be included. Then, examples of implementation forms are mentioned and sketched. Their purpose and benefits are presented, as well as possible areas of application. One example is to be implemented, whereby speech abilities and sounds can be an option as well as vibration and electrical impulses. The reference to applications in the household, in public space or in the commercial sector should be established. The project will start in February 2021.

Towards Robot Enhancement

Social robots and service robots usually have a defined locomotor system, a defined appearance and defined mimic and gestural abilities. This leads, on the one hand, to a certain familiarization effect. On the other hand, the actions of the robots are thus limited, for example in the household or in a shopping mall. Robot enhancement is used to extend and improve social robots and service robots. It changes their appearance and expands their scope. It is possible to apply attachments to the hardware, extend limbs and exchange components. One can pull skin made of silicone over the face or head, making the robots look humanoid. One can also change the software and connect the robot to AI systems – this is already done many times. The project or thesis, announced by Oliver Bendel in August 2020 at the School of Business FHNW, should first present the principles and functional possibilities of robot enhancement. Second, concrete examples should be given and described. One of these examples, e.g., the skin made of silicone, has to be implemented. Robots like Pepper or Atlas would be completely changed by such a skin. They could look uncanny, but also appealing. The project will start in September 2020.

3D Printing a Robotic Finger

Nao and Pepper have perfectly shaped hands and fingers. But the fingers are now facing serious competition. Scientists at University of California- Santa Cruz and Ritsumeikan University in Japan have designed and produced a robotic finger inspired by the human endoskeletal structure. From the abstract of the paper “3D Printing an Assembled Biomimetic Robotic Finger”: “We present a novel approach for fabricating cable-driven robotic systems. Particularly, we show that a biomimetic finger featuring accurate bone geometry, ligament structures, and viscoelastic tendons can be synthesized as a single part using a mutli-material 3D printer. This fabrication method eliminates the need to engineer an interface between the rigid skeletal structure and elastic tendon system. The artificial muscles required to drive the printed tendons of the finger can also be printed in place.” The biomimetic robotic finger was presented at the 17th International Conference on Ubiquitous Robots (UR). The paper is available here.

Ingenuity on Mars

The Perseverance rover, which is on its way to Mars, is carrying a drone called Ingenuity (photo/concept: NASA). According to NASA, it is a technology demonstration to test powered flight on another world for the first time. “A series of flight tests will be performed over a 30-Martian-day experimental window that will begin sometime in the spring of 2021. For the very first flight, the helicopter will take off a few feet from the ground, hover in the air for about 20 to 30 seconds, and land. That will be a major milestone: the very first powered flight in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars! After that, the team will attempt additional experimental flights of incrementally farther distance and greater altitude.” (Website NASA) After the drone has completed its technology demonstration, the rover will continue its scientific mission. Manned and unmanned flights to Mars will bring us several innovations, including novel chatbots and voicebots.

Robot Performs COVID-19 Tests

The COVID-19 pandemic has given a boost to service robotics. Transport, safety and care robots are in demand, as are cleaning and disinfection robots. Service robots measure the temperature of passengers at airports and railway stations. Now they can also perform COVID-19 tests.  “Robotics researchers from the University of Southern Denmark have developed the world’s first fully automatic robot capable of carrying out throat swabs for Covid-19, so that healthcare professionals are not exposed to the risk of infection. The prototype has successfully performed throat swabs on several people. The scientists behind are cheering: The technology works!” (Website SDU, 27 May 2020) A robot arm as known from the industry was used. The end piece comes from the 3D printer. This is another example from the health sector that shows how industrial robots – such as cobots – can become service robots. More information via www.sdu.dk/en/nyheder/forskningsnyheder/robot-kan-pode-patienter-for-covid-19.

An Insect-size Microrobot

In their paper “Scaling down an insect-size microrobot, HAMR-VI into HAMR-Jr”, Kaushik Jayaram (Harvard Microrobotics Lab) and his co-authors present HAMR-Jr, a 22.5 mm, 320 mg quadrupedal microrobot. “With eight independently actuated degrees of freedom, HAMR-Jr is … the most mechanically dexterous legged robot at its scale and is capable of high-speed locomotion … at a variety of stride frequencies … using multiple gaits.” (Abstract) The scientists achieved this “using a design and fabrication process that is flexible, allowing scaling with minimum changes to our workflow”. They “further characterized HAMR-Jr’s open-loop locomotion and compared it with the larger scale HAMR-VI microrobot to demonstrate the effectiveness of scaling laws in predicting running performance” (Abstract) . The work is partially funded by the DARPA SHort Range Independent Microrobotic Platforms and the Department of Defense (DoD) through the National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship Program. There is no doubt that the military is interested in miniature robots that are as big as cockroaches. They are certainly just as interested in animal cyborgs that use cockroaches as the commercial RoboRoach. At least no animals will be harmed in the scientific project. The paper is available here.

A Robot Dog as Sheepdog

In May 2020 the media was interested in a video by Rocos showing a robot from Boston Dynamics trying to be a shepherd dog. You could see the artificial quadruped running towards a flock of sheep. “Now, it’s clear that the video is mostly a fun teaser rather than a serious claim by Rocos (or Boston Dynamics) that robots will soon be replacing sheepdogs.” (The Verge, 22 May 2020) According to the magazine, it does invite a tantalizing question: if that did happen, “how well would the robots fare” (The Verge, 22 May 2020)? “Terrible”, is the straight answer of sheep farmer and author James Rebanks. “The robot might be an amazing tool for lots of things but it is worthless and unwanted as a sheepdog …” (The Verge, 22 May 2020) However, the profession of shepherd is not everywhere in the world the dream of all boys and girls, and shepherd dogs do not fall from the sky. It is also not clear whether there is a big difference for the sheep and how positively or negatively they react to the machine. It is just as unclear whether lambs that have never met real dogs would be comfortable with it. This would have to be researched in animal psychology and social robotics and in disciplines such as animal-machine interaction, which are still in their infancy. Only then would one know whether the shepherd interviewed by the magazine is right.

A Robot Enforces Social Distancing

According to Gizmodo, a robot from Boston Dynamics has been deployed to a park in Singapore to remind people they should follow social distancing guidelines during the pandemic. Spot is not designed as a security robot, like the K5 or the K3 from Knightscope. But it has other qualities: it can walk on four legs and is very fast. The machine, which was set loose on 8 May 2020 in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, “broadcasts a message reminding visitors they need to stay away from other humans, as covid-19 poses a very serious threat to our health”. It “was made available for purchase by businesses and governments last year and has specially designed cameras to make sure it doesn’t run into things.” (Gizmodo, 8 May 2020) According to a press release from Singapore’s GovTech agency, the cameras will not be able to track or recognize specific individuals, “and no personal data will be collected” (Gizmodo, 8 May 2020). COVID-19 demonstrates that digitization and technologization can be helpful in crises and disasters. Service robots such as security robots, transport robots, care robots and disinfection robots are in increasing demand.

Care Robots in Practice

The paper “Co-Robots as Care Robots” by Oliver Bendel, Alina Gasser and Joel Siebenmann, accepted at the AAAI 2020 Spring Symposium “Applied AI in Healthcare: Safety, Community, and the Environment”, can be accessed via arxiv.org/abs/2004.04374. From the abstract: “Cooperation and collaboration robots, co-robots or cobots for short, are an integral part of factories. For example, they work closely with the fitters in the automotive sector, and everyone does what they do best. However, the novel robots are not only relevant in production and logistics, but also in the service sector, especially where proximity between them and the users is desired or unavoidable. For decades, individual solutions of a very different kind have been developed in care. Now experts are increasingly relying on co-robots and teaching them the special tasks that are involved in care or therapy. This article presents the advantages, but also the disadvantages of co-robots in care and support, and provides information with regard to human-robot interaction and communication. The article is based on a model that has already been tested in various nursing and retirement homes, namely Lio from F&P Robotics, and uses results from accompanying studies. The authors can show that co-robots are ideal for care and support in many ways. Of course, it is also important to consider a few points in order to guarantee functionality and acceptance.” Due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the physical meeting to be held at Stanford University was postponed. It will take place in November 2020 in Washington (AAAI 2020 Fall Symposium Series).

Imitating the Agile Locomotion Skills of Four-legged Animals

Imitating the agile locomotion skills of animals has been a longstanding challenge in robotics. Manually-designed controllers have been able to reproduce many complex behaviors, but building such controllers is time-consuming and difficult. According to Xue Bin Peng (Google Research and University of California, Berkeley) and his co-authors, reinforcement learning provides an interesting alternative for automating the manual effort involved in the development of controllers. In their work, they present “an imitation learning system that enables legged robots to learn agile locomotion skills by imitating real-world animals” (Xue Bin Peng et al. 2020). They show “that by leveraging reference motion data, a single learning-based approach is able to automatically synthesize controllers for a diverse repertoire behaviors for legged robots” (Xue Bin Peng et al. 2020). By incorporating sample efficient domain adaptation techniques into the training process, their system “is able to learn adaptive policies in simulation that can then be quickly adapted for real-world deployment” (Xue Bin Peng et al. 2020). For demonstration purposes, the scientists trained “a quadruped robot to perform a variety of agile behaviors ranging from different locomotion gaits to dynamic hops and turns” (Xue Bin Peng et al. 2020).