Category Archives: Robotics

Mechs are not Just for Science Fiction any More

Mechs (aka “mechanicals” and “mechas”) are piloted robots that are distinguished from other piloted vehicles by their humanoid / biomorphic appearance (i.e., they emulate the general shape of humans or other living organisms). Mechs can give the pilot super-human strength, mobility, and access to an array of tools or weapons while providing protection from hazardous environments and combat conditions. Many science fiction novels and movies have employed mechs in various roles. Now, technology has advanced to the point that the first practical mech is under development and entering the piloted test phase.

Examples of humanoid mechs in science fiction

If you saw the 2009 James Cameron’s movie Avatar, then you have seen the piloted Amplified Mobility Platform (AMP) suit shown below. In the movie, this multi-purpose mech protects the pilot against hazardous environmental conditions while performing a variety of tasks, including heavy lifting and armed combat. The AMP concept, as applied in Avatar, is described in detail at the following link:

http://james-camerons-avatar.wikia.com/wiki/Amplified_Mobility_Platform

 Avatar AMP suitAvatar AMP suit. Source: avatar.wikia.com

 The 2013 Guillermo del Toro’s movie Pacific Rim featured the much larger piloted Jaeger mechs designed to fight Godzilla-size creatures.

 Pacific Rim JaegersJaegers. Source: Warner Bros Pictures

 Actual fighting mechs

One of the first actual mechs was Kuratas; a rideable, user-operated mech developed in Japan in 2012 by Suidobashi Heavy Industry for fighting mech competitions. Kuratas’ humanoid torso is supported by four legs, each riding on a hydraulically driven wheel. This diesel-powered mech is 4.6 meters (15 feet) tall and weighs about five tons.

kuratas Kuratas. Source: howthingsworkdaily.com

Suidobashi Heavy Industry uses its own proprietary operating system, V-Sido OS. The system software integrates routines for balance and movement, with the goal of optimizing stability and preventing the mech from falling over on uneven surfaces or during combat. While Kuratas is designed for operation by a single pilot, it also can be operated remotely by an internet-enabled phone.

suidobashi-heavy-industrys-ceo-kogoro-kurataKuratas cockpit. Source IB Times UK

For more information on Kuratas’ design and operation watch the Suidobashi Heavy Industry video at the following link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29MD29ekoKI

Also visit the Suidobashi Heavy Industry website at the following link:

http://suidobashijuko.jp

It appears that you can buy your own Kuratas on Amazon Japan for  ¥ 120,000,000 (about $1.023 million) plus shipping charges. Here’s the link in case you are interested in buying a Kuratas.

https://www.amazon.co.jp/水道橋重工-SHI-KR-01-クラタス-スターターキット/dp/B00H6V3BWA/ref=sr_1_3/351-2349721-0400049?s=hobby&ie=UTF8&qid=1483572701&sr=1-3

You’ll find a new owner’s orientation video at the following link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iZ0WuNvHr8

A competitor in the fighting mech arena is the 4.6 meter (15 feet) tall, 5.4 ton MegaBot Mark II built by the American company MegaBots, Inc. The Mark II’s torso is supported by an articulated framework driven by two tank treads that provide a stable base and propulsion.

Megabot Mark IIMegaBot Mark II. Source: howthingsworkdaily.com

Mark II’s controls are built on the widely-used Robot OS (ROS) operating system, which is described by the OS developers as:

“….a flexible framework for writing robot software. It is a collection of tools, libraries, and conventions that aim to simplify the task of creating complex and robust robot behavior across a wide variety of robotic platforms.”

For more information, visit the ROS website at the following link:

http://www.ros.org/about-ros/

An actual battle between Kuratas and MegaBot Mark II has been proposed (since 2014), but has been delayed many times. On October 2016, MegaBots, Inc. determined that the Mark II was unsafe for hand-to-hand mech fighting and announced it was abandoning this design. Its replacement will be a larger (10 ton) Mk III with a safer cockpit, more powerful engine, higher speed (10 mph) and faster-acting hydraulic valves. Development and operation of MegaBot Mark III is shown in a series of 2016 videos at the following link:

https://www.megabots.com/episodes

Here’s a look at a MegaBot Mark III torso (attached to a test base instead of the actual base) about to pick up a car during development testing.

Megabot Mark IIIMegaBot Mark III. Source: MegaBot

Worldwide  interest in the Kuratas – MegaBot fighting match has spawned interest in a future mech fighting league.

Actual potentially-useful mechs

South Korean firm Hankook Mirae Technology has developed a four-meter-tall (13-foot), 1.5 ton, bipedal humanoid mech named Method v2 as a test-bed for various technologies that can be applied and scaled for future operational mechs. Method v2 does not have an internal power source, but instead receives electric power via a tether from an external power source.

The company chairman Yang Jin-Ho said:

“Our robot is the world’s first manned bipedal robot and is built to work in extreme hazardous areas where humans cannot go (unprotected).”

See details on the Hankook Mirae website at the following link:

http://hankookmirae.tech/main/main.html

As is evident in the photos below, Method v2 has more than a passing resemblance the AMP suit in Avatar.

Method v2Method v2. Source: Hankook Mirae Technology

A pilot sitting inside the robot’s torso makes limb movements that are mimicked by the Method v2 control system.

Method v2 torsoMethod v2 torso mimics pilot’s arm and hand motions. Source: Hankook Mirae Technology

Method v2 cockpitMethod v2 cockpit. Source: Hankook Mirae Technology

The first piloted operation of the Method v2 mech took place on 27 December 2016. Watch a short video of manned testing and an unmanned walking test at the following link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9y34ghJNU0

You can read more about the test at the following link:

http://phys.org/news/2016-12-avatar-style-korean-robot-baby.html

There’s Increased Worldwide Interest in Asteroid and Moon Mining Missions

In my 31 December 2015 post, “Legal Basis Established for U.S. Commercial Space Launch Industry Self-regulation and Commercial Asteroid Mining,” I commented on the likely impact of the “U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act,” (2015 Space Act) which was signed into law on 25 November 2016. A lot has happened since then.

Planetary Resources building technology base for commercial asteroid prospecting

The firm Planetary Resources (Redmond, Washington) has a roadmap for developing a working space-based prospecting system built on the following technologies:

  • Space-based observation systems: miniaturization of hyperspectral sensors and mid-wavelength infrared sensors.
  • Low-cost avionics software: tiered and modular spacecraft avionics with a distributed set of commercially-available, low-level hardened elements each handling local control of a specific spacecraft function.
  • Attitude determination and control systems: distributed system, as above
  • Space communications: laser communications
  • High delta V small satellite propulsion systems: “Oberth maneuver” (powered flyby) provides most efficient use of fuel to escape Earth’s gravity well

Check out their short video, “Why Asteroids Fuel Human Expansion,” at the following link:

http://www.planetaryresources.com/asteroids/#asteroids-intro

 Planetary Resources videoSource: Planetary Resources

For more information, visit the Planetary Resources home page at the following link:

http://www.planetaryresources.com/#home-intro

Luxembourg SpaceResources.lu Initiative and collaboration with Planetary Resources

On 3 November 2016, Planetary Resources announced funding and a target date for their first asteroid mining mission:

“Planetary Resources, Inc. …. announced today that it has finalized a 25 million euro agreement that includes direct capital investment of 12 million euros and grants of 13 million euros from the Government of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the banking institution Société Nationale de Crédit et d’Investissement (SNCI). The funding will accelerate the company’s technical advancements with the aim of launching the first commercial asteroid prospecting mission by 2020. This milestone fulfilled the intent of the Memorandum of Understanding with the Grand Duchy and its SpaceResources.lu initiative that was agreed upon this past June.”

The homepage for Luxembourg’s SpaceResources.lu Initiative is at the following link:

http://www.spaceresources.public.lu/en/index.html

Here the Grand-Duchy announced its intent to position Luxembourg as a European hub in the exploration and use of space resources.

“Luxembourg is the first European country to set out a formal legal framework which ensures that private operators working in space can be confident about their rights to the resources they extract, i.e. valuable resources from asteroids. Such a legal framework will be worked out in full consideration of international law. The Grand-Duchy aims to participate with other nations in all relevant fora in order to agree on a mutually beneficial international framework.”

Remember the book, “The Mouse that Roared?” Well, here’s Luxembourg leading the European Union (EU) into the business of asteroid mining.

European Space Agency (ESA) cancels Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM)

ESA’s Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM) was planning to send a small spacecraft to a pair of co-orbital asteroids, Didymoon and Didymos, in 2022. Among other goals, this ESA mission was intended to observe the NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test when it impacts Didymoon at high speed. ESA mission profile for AIM is described at the following link:

http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Engineering_Technology/Asteroid_Impact_Mission/Mission_profile

On 2 Dec 2016, ESA announced that AIM did not win enough support from member governments and will be cancelled. Perhaps the plans for an earlier commercial asteroid mission marginalized the value of the ESA investment in AIM.

Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announces collaboration for lunar resource prospecting, production and delivery

On 16 December 2016, JAXA announced that it will collaborate with the private lunar exploration firm, ispace, Inc. to prospect for lunar resources and then eventually build production and resource delivery facilities on the Moon.

ispace is a member of Japan’s Team Hakuto, which is competing for the Google Lunar XPrize. Team Hakuto describes their mission as follows:

“In addition to the Grand Prize, Hakuto will be attempting to win the Range Bonus. Furthermore, Hakuto’s ultimate target is to explore holes that are thought to be caves or “skylights” into underlying lava tubes, for the first time in human history.  These lava tubes could prove to be very important scientifically, as they could help explain the moon’s volcanic past. They could also become candidate sites for long-term habitats, able to shield humans from the moon’s hostile environment.”

Hakuto is facing the challenges of the Google Lunar XPRIZE and skylight exploration with its unique ‘Dual Rover’ system, consisting of two-wheeled ‘Tetris’ and four-wheeled ‘Moonraker.’ The two rovers are linked by a tether, so that Tetris can be lowered into a suspected skylight.”

Hakuto rover-with-tail

Team Hakuto dual rover. Source: ispace, Inc.

So far, the team has won one Milestone Prize worth $500,000 and must complete its lunar mission by the end of 2017 in order to be eligible for the final prizes. You can read more about Team Hakuto and their rover on the Google Lunar XPrize website at the following link:

http://lunar.xprize.org/teams/hakuto

Building on this experience, and apparently using the XPrize rover, ispace has proposed the following roadmap to the moon (click on the graphic to enlarge).

ispace lunar roadmapSource: ispace, Inc.

This ambitious roadmap offers an initial lunar resource utilization capability by 2030. Ice will be the primary resource sought on the Moon. Ispace reports:

“According to recent studies, the Moon houses an abundance of precious minerals on its surface, and an estimated 6 billion tons of water ice at its poles. In particular, water can be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen to produce efficient rocket fuel. With a fuel station established in space, the world will witness a revolution in the space transportation system.”

The ispace website is at the following link:

http://ispace-inc.com

 

 

A Walk in the Woods With Boston Dynamics’ Atlas Robot

The DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Finals held in June 2015 demonstrated the rather limited capabilities for state-of-the-art robots, all of which required teleoperators (remote operators) to augment limited autonomous capabilities aboard the robots. One criticism of that competition was that the original rules got watered down because of the limitations of the robot competitors. Performance of the robots could be characterized as slow and deliberate. None of the robotic competitors that fell over could get up and one was decapitated by the fall. Here’s a video compilation of robots falling during the 2015 DARPA finals:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0TaYhjpOfo

Team KAIST won the competition with their Hubo robot, which didn’t fall, but wasn’t designed to recover from a fall. Team IHMS Robotics placed second in the competition with their Running Man robot, which was based on the Boston Dynamics Atlas robot. Several other teams also based their entries on the Atlas robot. See my 2 July 2015 post on the DRC Finals.

In February 2016, Boston Dynamics posted a video of a new version of their Atlas robot, which they describe as follows:

“A new version of Atlas, designed to operate outdoors and inside buildings. It is specialized for mobile manipulation. It is electrically powered and hydraulically actuated. It uses sensors in its body and legs to balance and LIDAR (Light Imaging, Detection And Ranging) and stereo sensors in its head to avoid obstacles, assess the terrain, help with navigation and manipulate objects. This version of Atlas is about 5′ 9″ tall (about a head shorter than the DRC Atlas) and weighs 180 lbs.”

New version of BD AtlasNew version of Atlas. Source: Boston Dynamics

The autonomous balancing capabilities of this new version, especially its ability to recovery from upsets, seem significantly better than anything seen during the DRC. Atlas recovered nicely from the slip in the above photo. You can see the new version of Atlas perform in the Boston Dynamics video at the following link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVlhMGQgDkY

Another interesting new robot from Boston Dynamics is the quadruped SpotMini, which they describe as follows:

“SpotMini is a new smaller version of the Spot robot, weighing 55 lbs. dripping wet (65 lbs. if you include its arm.) SpotMini is all electric (no hydraulics) and runs for about 90 minutes on a charge, depending on what it is doing. SpotMini is one of the quietest robots we have ever built. It has a variety of sensors, including depth cameras, a solid state gyro (IMU, inertial measuring unit) and proprioception sensors in the limbs. These sensors help with navigation and mobile manipulation. SpotMini performs some tasks autonomously, but often uses a human for high-level guidance.”

BD SpotMiniSpotMini. Source: Boston Dynamics

On 23 June 2016, Boston Dynamics posted the following short video of SpotMini in action.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tf7IEVTDjng

Google acquired Boston Dynamics in late 2013. Since then, Google was reorganized, with the “parent firm”, Alphabet, being created in 2015. Shortly thereafter, Google’s research and development group, formerly Google(x), was renamed simply X, or Google X. This group includes a robotics team known as Replicant.

In March 2016, Google announced that Boston Dynamics was up for sale. One reason appears to be that the Boston Dynamics robotics work did not fit in the business model planned for Google X, which has a greater focus on relatively near-term return on investment in the form of a marketable products. You can read an interesting article on Boston Dynamics being put sale at the following link to the Bloomberg Technology website:

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-03-17/google-is-said-to-put-boston-dynamics-robotics-unit-up-for-sale

In late May and early June 2016, several sources (Nikkei, Tech Insider, and engadget) reported that Toyota was negotiating with Alphabet for the sale of Boston Dynamics. Also part of this sale may be Google’s Japanese robotics company, Schaft, which won the 2013 DRC Trials with its S-One humanoid robot. Schaft withdrew from the 2015 DRC Finals for the declared reason of wanting to focus on commercial products. See the article on the engadget website at the following link:

https://www.engadget.com/2016/06/01/toyota-alphabet-boston-dynamics/

It will be interesting to see how and when the sales of Boston Dynamics and Schaft are completed. If these firms do wind up being bought by Toyota, then Toyota’s Research Institute should become a very powerful center for robotic development.

 

Lunar Lander XCHALLENGE and Lunar XPrize are Paving the way for Commercial Lunar Missions

Lunar Lander XCHALLENGE and Lunar XPrize are two competitions promoting the development of technologies, vehicles and systems by private firms for landing unmanned vehicles on the Moon and demonstrating functional capabilities that can support future lunar exploration missions. The legal and regulatory framework for U.S. commercial space activities was greatly simplified in November 2015, when the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act was signed into law. See my 31 December 2015 post for details on this Act.

On 3 August 2016, Lunar XPrize competitor Moon Express became the first private enterprise to be licensed by the U.S. Government (the Federal Aviation Administration) to conduct a mission to the lunar surface. Other Lunar XPrize competitors also are seeking similar approvals in preparation for lunar missions before the end of 2017.

Let’s take a look at how the private sector got this far.

Northrop Grumman / NASA Lunar Lander XCHALLENGE

In October 2007, XPrize and Northrop Grumman, in partnership with NASA’s Centennial Challenges program, launched the $2 million Lunar Lander XCHALLENGE, in which competing teams designed small rocket vehicles capable of routine and safe vertical takeoff and landing for lunar exploration and other applications. You’ll find details on the Lunar Lander XChallenge at the following link and an overview in the following text:

http://lunarlander.xprize.org

Lunar Lander XCHALLENGE badge   Source: XPrize

The XCHALLENGE was divided into two levels.

Level 1:

  • Required a rocket to take off from a designated launch area; climb to a low, fixed altitude of about 50 meters (164 feet); and fly for at least 90 seconds while translating horizontally to a precise landing point on a different landing pad 100 meters (328 feet) from the launch point. The flight must be repeated in reverse within a two and a half hour period.
  • Armadillo Aerospace, of Mesquite, TX won the $350K Level 1 first prize in October 2008. Masten Space Systems of Mojave, CA won the $150K Level 1 second place prize on 7 October 2009 when their Xombie rocket completed its flight with an average landing accuracy of 6.3 inches (16 cm).
  • You can watch a short video on the 2008 Level 1 competition and Armadillo Aerospace’s winning Level 1 flight at the following link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IhnY5tT4YeE

Armadillo Level 1 winner Armadillo Aerospace Level 1 winner. Source: NASA

Level 2:

  • Similar to the Level 1 flight profile, but required the rocket to fly for 180 seconds before landing precisely on a simulated lunar surface constructed with craters and boulders 100 meters (328 feet) from the launch point. The minimum flight time was calculated so that the Level 2 mission closely simulated the power needed to perform a real descent from lunar orbit down to the surface of the Moon.

XCHALLENGE lunar landing siteLevel 2 landing site. Source: NASA

  • Masten Space Systems won the $1M Level 2 first prize with the flight of their Xoie rocket on 30 October 2009. Xoie completed its Level 2 flight with an average landing accuracy of about 7.5 inches (19 cm). Armadillo Aerospace took second place and a $500K prize with the 12 September 2009 flight of their Scorpius (Super-mod) rocket, which had an average landing accuracy of about 34 inches (89 cm). These prizes were awarded on 5 November 2009 in Washington D.C.

Xoie winning Level 2 flightMasten Aerospace Xoie: Level 2 winner. Source: NASA.

  • You can watch a short video summary on the XCHALLENGE results, including the winning flight by Xoie at the following link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MAvZxa1VXKI

Armadillo Scorpius Level 2Armadillo Aerospace’s Scorpius: Level 2 second place. Source: NASA

  • You can watch a short video on the Scorpius 2009 flight at the following link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALKvai4p7OE

The other XCHALLENGE competitors, TrueZer0 and Unreasonable Rockets, failed to qualify for Level 1 or 2.

Google Lunar XPrize

The Google Lunar XPrize was created in 2007, overlapping with the Northrop Grumman / NASA Lunar Lander XCHALLENGE. The Lunar XPrize is intended to actually deliver payloads to the Moon and “incentivize space entrepreneurs to create a new era of affordable access to the Moon and beyond.” The motto for the Google XPrize is: “Back to the Moon for good.”

The basic mission requirements are:

  • Land a privately funded rover on the Moon at a site announced in advance.
  • Travel at least 500 meters along a deliberate path on the lunar surface.
  • Transmit two “Mooncasts” from the surface of the Moon, including specified types of videos and still images.
  • Receive specified data uplinks from Earth and re-transmit the data back to Earth.
  • Deliver a small payload provided by XPrize (not to exceed 500 grams).
  • Private funding for 90% of the total mission cost. No more than 10% government funding, including the value of in-kind support.
  • Launch contract in place by the end of 2016 and mission completion by the end of 2017.

The primary incentives are large financial award to the first and second teams that accomplish all of the mission requirements: $20 million Grand Prize and $5 million for second place. In addition, there are several other financial prizes that add up to total awards of more than $40 million. Of course, the winner will have bragging rights for a long time to come.

  • Milestone prizes: $5.25 million already has been awarded to teams that demonstrated robust hardware in three categories: landing, mobility, and imaging. The following Milestone prize winners have been announced:

Milestone prize winnersSource: XPrize

  • Bonus prizes: Up to $4 million for successfully completing additional scientific and technical tasks not in the mission requirements
  • Apollo Heritage Bonus Prize: $4 million for making an Apollo Heritage Mooncast from the site of an Apollo moon landing.
  • Heritage Bonus Prize: $1 million for making a Mooncast from another site of interest to XPrize.
  • Range Bonus Prize: $2 million for a rover that can traverse five kilometers on the Moon’s surface.
  • Survival Bonus Prize: $2 million for successfully operating on two separate lunar days.
  • Water Detection Bonus Prize: $4 million for producing scientifically conclusive proof of the presence of water on the Moon.

The Google Lunar XPrize home page is at the following link, where you can navigate to many details on this competition and sign up for an XPrize newsletter:

http://lunar.xprize.org

The Google Lunar XPrize began with 29 teams and now 16 remain. As noted above, five teams already have won Milestone prizes.

The three teams that competed in the landing milestone competition are taking different approaches. Astrobotics is using a lunar lander developed by Masten Aerospace. Indus and Moon Express are developing their own lunar landers.

So far, only two teams have launch contracts:

  • On 7 October 2015, the Israeli team SpaceIL became the first Lunar XPrize team to sign a launch contract. They signed a launch services contract with Spaceflight Industries for launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher in the second half of 2017.
  • On 8 December 2017, XPrize verified the Moon Express launch contract with Rocket Lab USA. Moon Express contracted for three launches using an Electron booster, which, as of mid-2016, is still being developed.

By the end of 2016, all competitors that intend to continue into the finals must have a launch contract in place.

So far, only three nations have made a soft landing on the Moon: USA, Russia and China. In 2017, a privately funded team may be added to that list.  That would be a paradigm shift for lunar exploration, opening the door for private teams and commercial firms to have regular, relatively low cost access to the Moon.

Update 23 December 2016: Google Lunar XPrize Status

On 22 December 2016, author Daniel Clery posted an article, “Here’s who could win the $20 million XPrize for roving on the moon—but will any science get done?” The author reports that six teams claim to have booked flights to the moon for their lunar landers / rovers. The following chart provides a summary for five of the competitors. The small (4 kg) rover for the sixth competitor, Japan’s Team Hakuto, will be delivered to the moon on the same lander as India’s Team Indus.

LunarXPrixe competitors Dec 2016

Click on the graphic above to enlarge. Source: G. Grullón/Science

As I noted previously, all competitors that intend to continue into the Lunar XPrize finals must have a launch contract in place by the end of 2016, and the mission to the moon must be completed by the end of 2017.

You can read Daniel Clery’s complete article on the Sciencemag.org website, at the following link:

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/12/heres-who-could-win-20-million-xprize-roving-moon-will-any-science-get-done?utm_campaign=news_daily_2016-12-22&et_rid=215579562&et_cid=1068715

 

 

NASA’s Valkyrie (R5) Humanoid Robot is Being Groomed to Support Future Space Exploration Missions

The design of National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) humanoid robot R5, commonly known as Valkyrie, started in October 2012 and it was unveiled in December 2013.

NASA Valkyrie robot  Source: NASA

Valkyrie was developed by a team from NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, in partnership with the University of Texas and Texas A&M and with funding from the state of Texas to compete in the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency’s (DARPA) Robotics Challenge (DRC).  You’ll find a technical description of Valkyrie on the IEEE Spectrum website at the following link:

http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/military-robots/nasa-jsc-unveils-valkyrie-drc-robot

In the 2013 DRC Trials Valkyrie was a Track A entry, but it failed to score any points, largely due to unforeseen data communications problems.  An assessment of the developmental and operational problems encountered during the 2013 DRC Trials and another assessment of Valkyrie by the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (IHMC) is reported on the IEEE Spectrum website at the following link:

http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/humanoids/update-nasa-valkyrie-robot

Valkyrie did not compete in the 5 – 6 June 2015 DRC Finals. Instead, NASA brought two Valkyrie robots to the DRC Finals for display and demonstration and to help promote NASA’s Space Robotics Challenge (SRC), which was announced in March 2015.

NASA describes the SRC as follows:

“The Space Robotics Challenge is currently contemplated as a dual level, two-track challenge. The Level I challenge would involve a virtual challenge competition in software simulation and the Level II demonstration challenge would involve use of software to control a robot to perform sequences of tasks. Both Levels of the challenge would have a Track A and Track B option. A competitor would pick only one track in which to compete. Track A would utilize the Robonaut 2 platform and focus on simulated in-space tasks such as spacecraft maintenance and operations in transit to Mars, while Track B would utilize the R5 platform robot to perform simulated tasks on planetary surfaces, such as precursor habitat deployment on Mars, or disaster relief in an industrial setting on Earth.”

The highest scoring teams from the Level I (simulation) challenge will be given access to NASA-provided robots to prepare for the Level II (physical) challenge.

You can download a NASA Fact Sheet on SRC at the following link:

https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/fs_space_robotics_150908.pdf

As part of SRC, NASA awarded Valkyrie robots to two university groups that competed in the DRC Finals. The winners announced in November 2015 were:

  • A team at MIT under the leadership of Russ Tedrake. Team MIT placed 6th in the 2015 DRC Finals with an Atlas robot built by Boston Dynamics
  • A team at Northeastern University under the leadership of Taskin Padir, who formerly was Co-PI of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) – Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) team that placed 7th in the DRC Finals with an upgraded Atlas robot known as Warner.

Each team has possession of a Valkyrie robot for two years; receives up to $250,000; and has access to onsite and virtual technical support from NASA. NASA stated that, “The robots will have walking, balancing and manipulating capabilities so that future research may focus on the development of complex behaviors that would advance autonomy for bipedal humanoid robots.” These two teams will not compete in the SRC Level I challenge, but will be eligible to compete in the Level II challenge.

An assessment of Valkyrie’s potential roles in future missions to Mars was published in 23 June 2015 on the IEEE Spectrum website. You can read this article at the following link:

http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/humanoids/nasa-wants-help-training-valkyrie-robot-to-go-to-mars

The types of activities a humanoid robot might perform on a Mars mission are expected to become tasks to be demonstrated by each team choosing Track B in the SRC.

In the time between the DRC Finals and the SRC Level II competitions, I’m sure we’ll see substantial improvements in humanoid robot performance.

2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge Results

Twenty-three teams competed in the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge, which was held June 5-6, 2015, at Fairplex in Pomona, CA.  The winner was Team KAIST from the Republic of Korea, and its robot DRC-Hubo.

drc-hubo-standing-rolling-1433820657680 Source: DARPA

An assessment of how DRC-Hubo won the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge appears on the IEEE Spectrum website, which you can read at the following link:

http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/humanoids/how-kaist-drc-hubo-won-darpa-robotics-challenge

The results of the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge are listed in the following table:

2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge results  Source: DARPA

You can view information on all of these teams and their robots on the DARPA website at the following link:

http://www.theroboticschallenge.org/teams

Congratulations to all teams for their efforts in advancing robotics technology and special congratulations to Team KAIST for winning the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge.

28 July 2016 Update:  What was the outcome of DRC?

I looked for a good explanation of the outcome of the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge and didn’t find much of an answer until I came across the 6 July 2015 article entitled, “The DARPA Robotics Challenge was a Bust,” posted on the Popular Science website at the following link:

http://www.popsci.com/darpa-robotics-challenge-was-bust-why-darpa-needs-try-again

The author, Erik Sofge, noted that, in 2012, DARPA originally proposed the following tasks for the DRC:

  1. Get into a standard human vehicle and drive it to a specified location.
  2. Get out of the vehicle and travel across rubble.
  3. Clear obstacles from a doorway.
  4. Open the door, and enter the building.
  5. Find a leaking pipe and close the associated valve.
  6. Reconnect a hose or cable.
  7. Climb a ladder.
  8. Grab a tool from the site, break through a concrete wall and exit.

At the 2013 DRC Trials in Miami, poor robot performance indicated the need to redefine most of these tasks. For the DRC Finals, all but one of the eight tasks had been greatly simplified. In his article, Eric Sofge provides a task-by-task breakdown of the DRC Finals, which I think you will find quite revealing.

Eric Sofge suggests a logical follow-on to DRC, which would be another competition with the following attributes:

  • Robots are required to demonstrate that they can fall, recover on their own, and demonstrate durability.
  • New tasks, including tasks closer in complexity to the originally proposed DRC tasks, should significantly raise the bar for expected robot performance.

It’s interesting to note that the NASA / JPL robot Valkyrie, which earned zero points in the 2013 DRC Trials, did not compete in the 2015 DRC Finals. However, Valkyrie was present at the DRC Finals to promote the new NASA Space Robotics Challenge (SRC). Valkyrie (aka R5) and another NASA robot, Robonaut 2, are being groomed to support space exploration. See my 6 July 2016 post for more information on the NASA SRC.

 

 

DARPA Maximum Mobility & Manipulation (M3) Program is Showing Impressive New Results with the Boston Dynamics / MIT Cheetah

The two primary goals of the M3 program are:

  • Create a significantly improved scientific framework for the rapid design and fabrication of robot systems and greatly enhance robot mobility and manipulation in natural environments.
  • Significantly improve robot capabilities through fundamentally new approaches to the engineering of better design tools and fabrication methods.

More details on the M3 program are presented on the following DARPA website:

http://www.darpa.mil/our_work/dso/programs/maximum_mobility_and_manipulation_(m3).aspx

In September 2012, the DARPA / Boston Dynamics / MIT Cheetah 4-legged robot, being developed under the M3 program, reached a top speed of over 29 mph in a tethered test on a treadmill, exceeding the fastest speed ever run by a human, Usain Bolt, at 27.78 mph in a 20-meter sprint. You can see a video of this tethered test of the Cheetah at the following link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YqpO58x7vuE

In May 2015, the Cheetah demonstrated it’s ability to hurdle obstacles up to 18”tall in both tethered treadmill and untethered indoor track tests while running at an average speed of about 5 mph.

MIT-Jumping-Cheetah-1  Source: MIT

You can read the article and see a video of this test at the following link:

https://newsoffice.mit.edu/2015/cheetah-robot-lands-running-jump-0529

As described in this article:

“To get a running jump, the robot plans out its path, much like a human runner: As it detects an approaching obstacle, it estimates that object’s height and distance. The robot gauges the best position from which to jump, and adjusts its stride to land just short of the obstacle, before exerting enough force to push up and over. Based on the obstacle’s height, the robot then applies a certain amount of force to land safely, before resuming its initial pace.”

 On the treadmill, the Cheetah only had about a meter in which to detect the obstacle and then plan and execute the jump. Nonetheless, the Cheetah cleared the obstacles about 70% of the time. I can only imagine that a human runner on that same treadmill might not have performed much better. In the untethered tests on an indoor track, the Cheetah cleared the obstacles about 90% of the time. Future tests will explore the ability of the Cheetah to clear hurdles on softer terrain.

You can see more high-mobility robots being developed by Boston Dynamics at the following link:

http://www.bostondynamics.com/index.html

These robots include:

  • Atlas: a high mobility, humanoid (bipedal) robot designed to negotiate outdoor, rough terrain. Atlas will be one of the competitors in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Finals that will take place on 5 – 6 June 2015 at Fairplex in Pomona, California. See my 23 March 2015 post for more information on the DRC Finals.
  • LS3: a rough-terrain quadruped robot designed to go anywhere soldiers go on foot, helping carry their load.
  • PETMAN: an anthropomorphic (bipedal) robot designed for testing chemical protection clothing.
  • BigDog: a rough-terrain quadruped robot that walks, runs, climbs and carries heavy loads.
  • Sand Flea: a small robot that drives like an remote-controlled car on flat terrain, but can jump 30 ft. into the air to overcome obstacles
  • RHex: a six-legged, high mobility robot designed to climb in rock fields, mud, sand, vegetation, fallen telephone poles, railroad tracks, and up slopes and stairways.
  • RiSE: a robot that uses micro-claws to climb vertical terrain such as walls, trees and fences.
  • LittleDog: a quadruped robot designed for research on learning locomotion.

 

Alpha the Robot Visited San Diego in 1935

Earlier this year, the San Diego U-T newspaper started a series entitled, Balboa Park – 100 Memories, which, on 22 May 2015, presented an article on Alpha the robot, who visited San Diego in 1935 for exhibition during the 1934 – 35 California Pacific International Exposition. Alpha was the creation of British engineering professor Harry May and was first introduced in the U.K in 1932.

Alpha the Robot 1935 U-T

Image source: San Diego History Center, Electric Ivy

Alpha debuted in the U.S. with an appearance at Macy’s department store in New York City in 1934. The November 5, 1934 issue of Time magazine describes a demonstration of Alpha at Macy’s as follows:

 “Last week Alpha, the robot, made its first public appearance in the U. S. One of the most ingenious automatons ever contrived by man, a grim and gleaming monster 6 ft. 4 in. tall, the robot was brought to Manhattan by its owner-inventor-impresario, Professor Harry May of London, and installed on the fifth floor of R. H. Macy & Co.’s department store. Encased from head to foot in chromium-plated steel armor, Alpha sat on a specially constructed dais with its cumbrous feet securely bolted to the floor, stared impassively over the knot of newshawks and store officials waiting for the first demonstration. The creature had a great sullen slit of a mouth, vast protuberant eyes, shaggy curls of rolled metal. In one mailed fist Alpha clutched a revolver.”

Some details of Alpha’s operation were described in the February, 1934 issue of Practical Mechanics magazine, which you can read at the following link:

http://www.davidbuckley.net/DB/HistoryMakers/Alpha1932_files/PracticalMechanics/PracticalMechanics.htm

Practical Mechanics Feb34 cover

Image source: www/davidbuckley.net, see link above

As discussed in the recent U-T, Balboa Park – 100 Memories article, Alpha the robot was exhibited in the Palace of Science (now the Museum of Man) in Balboa Park. The article goes on to say:

 “The 2,000-pound, 6-foot steel giant stood up, sat down, smoked cigarettes, fired a gun and answered questions. Asked if he loved his wife, according to a Feb. 29, 1936, article in the San Diego Sun, Alpha replied, “I’ve a heart of steel. I don’t love nobody and nobody loves me.”

During the California Pacific International Exposition, a performer in a costume similar to Alpha the robot attempted to kidnap Zorine, Queen of the Nudists, from Zoro Garden, a sunken stone grotto originally designed as a nudist colony attraction for the Exposition, near what is now the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.  Imagine that!

Alpha kidnaps Zorine

You can see a short interview with Alpha the robot at the following link:

http://en.savefrom.net/#url=http://youtube.com/watch?v=a9l9pt_Jzn8&utm_source=youtube.com&utm_medium=short_domains&utm_campaign=www.ssyoutube.com

Alpha the robot must have been very impressive for it’s time. To see what modern robots can do 80 years later, be sure to follow the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Finals to be held 5-6 June, 2015, at Fairplex in Pomona, Calif., outside of Los Angeles. Refer to my 23 March 2015 post for more information of the DRC Finals.

The Power of Cloud Software and Big Data Could Make Robots Smarter and Less Expensive

In a stand-alone robot, the space and power needed for advanced computational resources compete with the space and power needed for everything else that makes up the robotic device. Concepts being developed by the four-year RoboEarth project, a European Community funded program that created an open source platform for cloud robotics, are pointing the way to placing computationally-intensive robotic applications and related “big data” resources in the cloud. With adequate bandwidth for high-speed communication between the cloud and the distributed robotic devices in the field, the robots themselves can be simpler and less expensive, while gaining performance and cognitive advantages from having a significant fraction of their computational requirements off-loaded to the cloud.

A simplified view of the RoboEarth network architecture is shown in the following diagram.

re_architecture

It seems straightforward, but I find it a little disquieting that the Hardware Abstraction Layer at each robot is abbreviated as “HAL.”

You can read more at the following link:

http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2015/03/for-a-brighter-robotics-future-its-time-to-offload-their-brains/?utm_source=howtogeek&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter

25 Teams From Around the World to Compete in DARPA’s 2015 Robotics Challenge Finals

20150222DRCFinalsLogo

The international robotics community has turned out in force for the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Finals, a competition of robots and their human supervisors to be held June 5-6, 2015, at Fairplex in Pomona, Calif., outside of Los Angeles. In the competition, human-robot teams will be tested on capabilities that could enable them to provide assistance in future natural and man-made disasters. Fourteen new teams from Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, the People’s Republic of China, South Korea, and the United States qualified to join 11 previously announced teams. In total, 25 teams will now vie for a chance to win one of three cash prizes totaling $3.5 million at the DRC Finals.

TeamROBOTISRobotSoloTeam ROBOTIS entry from Korea

You can see photos of other competitors and read more about the challenge at the following links:

http://www.darpa.mil/NewsEvents/Releases/2015/03/05.aspx

and

http://www.theroboticschallenge.org

The Cylons are coming!