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  • richardmitnick 5:14 pm on August 25, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Robotics   

    From SPACE.com: “NASA’s Robot Army of ‘Swarmies’ Could Explore Other Planets” 

    space-dot-com logo

    SPACE.com

    August 25, 2014
    Kelly Dickerson

    They may look like remote-controlled toy trucks, but a troop of new NASA robots could one day race across distant planets as a sort of space exploration vanguard.

    swarmies

    The autonomous robots, which engineers have dubbed “swarmies,” are much smaller than other NASA robots like the Mars rover Curiosity. Each comes equipped with a webcam, Wi-Fi antenna, and GPS system for navigation. The self-driving swarmie robots could be used to search alien surfaces one day. Credit: NASA/Dmitri Gerondidakis

    The swarmies function in a way similar to an ant colony. When one ant stumbles across a food source, it sends out a signal to the rest of the colony, and then the ants work together to cart the food back to the nest. Engineers from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida developed software that directs the swarmies to fan out in different directions and search for a specific, predetermined material, like ice-water on Mars. Once one of the rovers finds something interesting, it can use radio communication to call its robotic brethren over to help collect samples.

    “For a while people were interested in putting as much smarts and capability as they could on their one robot,” Kurt Leucht, one of the engineers working on the project, said in a statement. “Now people are realizing you can have much smaller, much simpler robots that can work together and achieve a task. One of them can roll over and die and it’s not the end of the mission because the others can still accomplish the task.”

    Working out a way to send humans on lunar or Martian exploration missions is complicated and expensive and those kinds of missions are likely still a long way off. Sending robots is an easier alternative, and NASA is working on a whole new generation of autonomous robotic explorers. NASA engineers have already dreamed up slithering snake-like robots that could explore Mars and deep-diving robots that could explore the oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa.

    rr
    The RASSOR robot is programmed for digging and mining and will be incorporated into the swarmie test drives. Credit: NASA

    The swarmie tests are still in the preliminary stages, and NASA engineers are only driving the swarmies around the parking lots surrounding Kennedy’s Launch Control Center. Right now the robots are only programmed to hunt for barcoded slips of paper. Over the next few months, swarmie tests will also include RASSOR — a mining robot specially designed to dig into alien surfaces and search for interesting or valuable materials. The test will determine how well the swarming software translates to control other robotic vehicles.

    Swarmies might also find a use on Earth, NASA officials said. The robots could aid in rescue missions following natural disasters or building collapses, crashes and other wreckage sites. The robots would also make perfect pipeline inspectors.

    “This would give you something smaller and cheaper that could always be running up and down the length of the pipeline so you would always know the health of your pipelines,” Cheryle Mako, a NASA engineer who is leading the project, said in a statement. “If we had small swarming robots that had a couple sensors and knew what they were looking for, you could send them out to a leak site and find which area was at greatest risk.”

    See the full article here.

    NASA

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  • richardmitnick 3:08 pm on August 15, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Artificial Intelligence, , Harvard SEAS, Robotics   

    From Harvard: “A self-organizing thousand-robot swarm” 

    Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
    Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

    August 14, 2014
    Caroline Perry

    Following simple programmed rules, autonomous robots arrange themselves into vast, complex shapes

    The first thousand-robot flash mob has assembled at Harvard University.

    “Form a sea star shape,” directs a computer scientist, sending the command to 1,024 little bots simultaneously via an infrared light. The robots begin to blink at one another and then gradually arrange themselves into a five-pointed star. “Now form the letter K.”

    The ‘K’ stands for Kilobots, the name given to these extremely simple robots, each just a few centimeters across, standing on three pin-like legs. Instead of one highly-complex robot, a “kilo” of robots collaborate, providing a simple platform for the enactment of complex behaviors.

    Just as trillions of individual cells can assemble into an intelligent organism, or a thousand starlings can form a great flowing murmuration across the sky, the Kilobots demonstrate how complexity can arise from very simple behaviors performed en masse (see video). To computer scientists, they also represent a significant milestone in the development of collective artificial intelligence (AI).

    Given a two-dimensional image, the Kilobots follow simple rules to form the same shape. Visually, the effect is similar to a flock of birds wheeling across the sky. “At some level you no longer even see the individuals; you just see the collective as an entity to itself,” says Radhika Nagpal.

    bots
    (Image courtesy of Mike Rubenstein and Science/AAAS.)

    This self-organizing swarm was created in the lab of Radhika Nagpal, Fred Kavli Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and a Core Faculty Member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. The advance is described in the August 15 issue of Science.

    “The beauty of biological systems is that they are elegantly simple—and yet, in large numbers, accomplish the seemingly impossible,” says Nagpal. “At some level you no longer even see the individuals; you just see the collective as an entity to itself.”

    “Biological collectives involve enormous numbers of cooperating entities—whether you think of cells or insects or animals—that together accomplish a single task that is a magnitude beyond the scale of any individual,” says lead author Michael Rubenstein, a research associate at Harvard SEAS and the Wyss Institute.

    He cites, for example, the behavior of a colony of army ants. By linking together, they can form rafts and bridges to cross difficult terrain. Social amoebas do something similar at a microscopic scale: when food is scarce, they join together to create a fruiting body capable of escaping the local environment. In cuttlefish, color changes at the level of individual cells can help the entire organism blend into its surroundings. (And as Nagpal points out—with a smile—a school of fish in the movie Finding Nemo also collaborate when they form the shape of an arrow to point Nemo toward the jet stream.)

    “We are especially inspired by systems where individuals can self-assemble together to solve problems,” says Nagpal. Her research group made news in February 2014 with a group of termite-inspired robots that can collaboratively perform construction tasks using simple forms of coordination.

    But the algorithm that instructs those TERMES robots has not yet been demonstrated in a very large swarm. In fact, only a few robot swarms to date have exceeded 100 individuals, because of the algorithmic limitations on coordinating such large numbers, and the cost and labor involved in fabricating the physical devices.

    The research team overcame both of these challenges through thoughtful design.

    Most notably, the Kilobots require no micromanagement or intervention once an initial set of instructions has been delivered. Four robots mark the origin of a coordinate system, all the other robots receive a 2D image that they should mimic, and then using very primitive behaviors—following the edge of a group, tracking a distance from the origin, and maintaining a sense of relative location—they take turns moving towards an acceptable position. With coauthor Alejandro Cornejo, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard SEAS and the Wyss Institute, they demonstrated a mathematical proof that the individual behaviors would lead to the right global result.

    The Kilobots also correct their own mistakes. If a traffic jam forms or a robot moves off-course—errors that become much more common in a large group—nearby robots sense the problem and cooperate to fix it.

    swarm
    In a swarm of a thousand simple robots, errors like traffic jams (second from left) and imprecise positioning (far right) are common, so the algorithm incorporates rules that can help correct for these. (Photo courtesy of Mike Rubenstein and Science/AAAS.)

    To keep the cost of the Kilobot down, each robot moves using two vibrating motors that allow it to slide across a surface on its rigid legs. An infrared transmitter and receiver allow it to communicate with a few of its neighbors and measure their proximity—but the robots are myopic and have no access to a bird’s-eye view. These design decisions come with tradeoffs, as Rubenstein explains: “These robots are much simpler than many conventional robots, and as a result, their abilities are more variable and less reliable,” he says. “For example, the Kilobots have trouble moving in a straight line, and the accuracy of distance sensing can vary from robot to robot.”

    Yet, at scale, the smart algorithm overcomes these individual limitations and guarantees—both physically and mathematically—that the robots can complete a human-specified task, in this case assembling into a particular shape. That’s an important demonstration for the future of distributed robotics, says Nagpal.

    “Increasingly, we’re going to see large numbers of robots working together, whether its hundreds of robots cooperating to achieve environmental cleanup or a quick disaster response, or millions of self-driving cars on our highways,” she says. “Understanding how to design ‘good’ systems at that scale will be critical.”

    For now, the Kilobots provide an essential test bed for AI algorithms.

    The thousand-Kilobot swarm provides a valuable platform for testing future collective AI algorithms. (Photo courtesy of Mike Rubenstein and Science/AAAS.)

    “We can simulate the behavior of large swarms of robots, but a simulation can only go so far,” says Nagpal. “The real-world dynamics—the physical interactions and variability—make a difference, and having the Kilobots to test the algorithm on real robots has helped us better understand how to recognize and prevent the failures that occur at these large scales.”

    The Kilobot robot design and software, originally created in Nagpal’s group at Harvard, are available open-source for non-commercial use. The Kilobots have also been licensed by Harvard’s Office of Technology Development to K-Team, a manufacturer of small mobile robots.

    This research was supported in part by the Wyss Institute and by the National Science Foundation (CCF-0926148, CCF-0643898).

    See the full article here.

    Through research and scholarship, the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) will create collaborative bridges across Harvard and educate the next generation of global leaders. By harnessing the power of engineering and applied sciences we will address the greatest challenges facing our society.

    Specifically, that means that SEAS will provide to all Harvard College students an introduction to and familiarity with engineering and technology as this is essential knowledge in the 21st century.

    Moreover, our concentrators will be immersed in the liberal arts environment and be able to understand the societal context for their problem solving, capable of working seamlessly withothers, including those in the arts, the sciences, and the professional schools. They will focus on the fundamental engineering and applied science disciplines for the 21st century; as we will not teach legacy 20th century engineering disciplines.

    Instead, our curriculum will be rigorous but inviting to students, and be infused with active learning, interdisciplinary research, entrepreneurship and engineering design experiences. For our concentrators and graduate students, we will educate “T-shaped” individuals – with depth in one discipline but capable of working seamlessly with others, including arts, humanities, natural science and social science.

    To address current and future societal challenges, knowledge from fundamental science, art, and the humanities must all be linked through the application of engineering principles with the professions of law, medicine, public policy, design and business practice.

    In other words, solving important issues requires a multidisciplinary approach.

    With the combined strengths of SEAS, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the professional schools, Harvard is ideally positioned to both broadly educate the next generation of leaders who understand the complexities of technology and society and to use its intellectual resources and innovative thinking to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

    Ultimately, we will provide to our graduates a rigorous quantitative liberal arts education that is an excellent launching point for any career and profession.

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  • richardmitnick 8:24 am on July 14, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Robotics   

    From M.I.T.: “Squishy robots” 

    M.I.T.

    July 14, 2014
    Helen Knight

    Phase-changing material could allow even low-cost robots to switch between hard and soft states.

    wrench

    In the movie Terminator 2, the shape-shifting T-1000 robot morphs into a liquid state to squeeze through tight spaces or to repair itself when harmed.

    Now a phase-changing material built from wax and foam, and capable of switching between hard and soft states, could allow even low-cost robots to perform the same feat.

    The material — developed by Anette Hosoi, a professor of mechanical engineering and applied mathematics at MIT, and her former graduate student Nadia Cheng, alongside researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization and Stony Brook University — could be used to build deformable surgical robots. The robots could move through the body to reach a particular point without damaging any of the organs or vessels along the way.

    Robots built from the material, which is described in a new paper in the journal Macromolecular Materials and Engineering, could also be used in search-and-rescue operations to squeeze through rubble looking for survivors, Hosoi says.

    Follow that octopus

    Working with robotics company Boston Dynamics, based in Waltham, Mass., the researchers began developing the material as part of the Chemical Robots program of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The agency was interested in “squishy” robots capable of squeezing through tight spaces and then expanding again to move around a given area, Hosoi says — much as octopuses do.

    But if a robot is going to perform meaningful tasks, it needs to be able to exert a reasonable amount of force on its surroundings, she says. “You can’t just create a bowl of Jell-O, because if the Jell-O has to manipulate an object, it would simply deform without applying significant pressure to the thing it was trying to move.”

    What’s more, controlling a very soft structure is extremely difficult: It is much harder to predict how the material will move, and what shapes it will form, than it is with a rigid robot.

    So the researchers decided that the only way to build a deformable robot would be to develop a material that can switch between a soft and hard state, Hosoi says. “If you’re trying to squeeze under a door, for example, you should opt for a soft state, but if you want to pick up a hammer or open a window, you need at least part of the machine to be rigid,” she says.

    Compressible and self-healing

    To build a material capable of shifting between squishy and rigid states, the researchers coated a foam structure in wax. They chose foam because it can be squeezed into a small fraction of its normal size, but once released will bounce back to its original shape.

    The wax coating, meanwhile, can change from a hard outer shell to a soft, pliable surface with moderate heating. This could be done by running a wire along each of the coated foam struts and then applying a current to heat up and melt the surrounding wax. Turning off the current again would allow the material to cool down and return to its rigid state.

    In addition to switching the material to its soft state, heating the wax in this way would also repair any damage sustained, Hosoi says. “This material is self-healing,” she says. “So if you push it too far and fracture the coating, you can heat it and then cool it, and the structure returns to its original configuration.”

    To build the material, the researchers simply placed the polyurethane foam in a bath of melted wax. They then squeezed the foam to encourage it to soak up the wax, Cheng says. “A lot of materials innovation can be very expensive, but in this case you could just buy really low-cost polyurethane foam and some wax from a craft store,” she says.

    In order to study the properties of the material in more detail, they then used a 3-D printer to build a second version of the foam lattice structure, to allow them to carefully control the position of each of the struts and pores.

    When they tested the two materials, they found that the printed lattice was more amenable to analysis than the polyurethane foam, although the latter would still be fine for low-cost applications, Hosoi says.

    The wax coating could also be replaced by a stronger material, such as solder, she adds.

    Hosoi is now investigating the use of other unconventional materials for robotics, such as magnetorheological and electrorheological fluids. These materials consist of a liquid with particles suspended inside, and can be made to switch from a soft to a rigid state with the application of a magnetic or electric field.

    When it comes to artificial muscles for soft and biologically inspired robots, we tend to think of controlling shape through bending or contraction, says Carmel Majidi, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering in the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, who was not involved in the research. “But for a lot of robotics tasks, reversibly tuning the mechanical rigidity of a joint can be just as important,” he says. “This work is a great demonstration of how thermally controlled rigidity-tuning could potentially be used in soft robotics.”

    See the full article, with video, here.


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