Researchers at multiple universities are developing and researchering potential uses for robots in industries such as inspection, medical, and automotive.
Several universities are driving robotics research and continue to attract and recruit renowned faculty to their robotics rosters. They have interdisciplinary master’s and doctoral programs in robotics. They’re spawning successful spinoffs and they embrace a comprehensive approach to robotics research and education.
Robotics is a multidisciplinary sport. The traditional areas of study, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science, have broadened into biological systems and cognitive science. Many of the top university robotics programs are attacking robotics challenges from all angles and making fascinating discoveries along the way.
The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is one of the oldest in the country and the first to offer graduate programs in robotics. The institute encompasses the main facility on CMU’s campus in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) in nearby Lawrenceville, and Robot City in Hazelwood.
The Robotics Institute is under the CMU School of Computer Science. Researchers take a comprehensive approach to robotics, studying robot design and control, perception, robot learning, autonomy, and human-robot interaction (HRI).
In fact, according to Martial Hebert, the institute’s director, HRI is a central theme. “Much of the work in robotics has less to do with robots. It has to do with people,” he said. “Understanding people, predicting people, and understanding their intentions. Everything from understanding pedestrians for self-driving cars, to understanding coworkers in collaborative robot manufacturing, any application that involves interaction with people at any level.”
One of the ways CMU is trying to better understand people is by studying humans’ body language. Researchers built a life-sized geodesic dome equipped with VGA cameras, HD cameras, and depth sensors to capture images from tens of thousands of trajectories. The result is dynamic 3-D reconstruction of people, their body poses, and motions.
Humans speak volumes through body movements, posture, and facial expressions without talking. The CMU Panoptic Studio was built to capture these subtle nonverbal cues and create a database of our body language to help robots better relate to humans. The research is ongoing with datasets now available for full-body motions, hand gestures, and 3-D facial expressions.
Machine learning and robot intelligence
Hebert said machine learning is another big area for CMU. The idea is to have a robot learn from its own actions and data, and learn to get better over time. Examples include manipulators that learn how to grasp, or drones that learn how to fly better. CMU’s collaboration with Honeywell Intelligrated to develop advanced supply chain robotics and AI is designed to harness the power of machine learning to control and operate multiple robotic technologies in connected distribution centers.
“It’s a material handling application that includes sorting packages and moving packages around distribution centers at very high rates,” Hebert said. “We’re past the stage where robots only do repetitive operations. They have to be able to make decisions, they have to be able to adapt to the environment. Things are not always in the same place or where they should be. That’s where machine learning and autonomy come into play. All of it comes together in this type of application.”
The project is underway at the university’s NREC facility, where CMU researchers help conceptualize and commercialize robotic technologies for industrial and government clients.
Despite CMU’s world of autonomous vehicles, Hebert said they focus less on the physical aspect of robotics research compared to robot intelligence. This is a recurring theme we hear inside and outside academia, the attention on algorithms, or the software side of robotics.
Kaarta, for example, makes a 3-D mobile scanning and mapping generation system that puts advanced simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) technology in real time. The 3-D digital model is generated right in front of you on a handheld touchscreen interface, without the need for post-processing. At its heart is the patent-pending advanced 3-D mapping and localization algorithms, a product of CMU’s robotics lab.
“Our contribution was to take massive amounts of data from the sensors and optimize it very quickly and efficiently,” Hebert said, who credited advanced mathematics and algorithms for the feat.
The system’s compact size and customizable imaging hardware allow it to be mounted to ground or aerial vehicles, such as drones, for interior and exterior use. Right now, the company’s products are directed toward infrastructure inspectors, surveyors, engineers, architects and facilities planners. But imagine the possibilities for first responders, hazmat teams, law enforcement, and down the road, for self-driving cars.
The Snakebot robot undulates its way into tight spaces and sticky situations, where the environment may be unhospitable and unpredictable for people. Snakebot was on the ground for search and rescue efforts after a disastrous earthquake hit Mexico City.
Howie Choset, a professor of computer science and Director of the CMU Biorobotics Lab where Snakebot was developed, said they are proud of the robot and its accomplishments. Challenges do remain, however.
“The challenges are how to move (locomotion), where to move (navigation), creating a map of the environment, and providing the inspector with good remote situational awareness,” Choset said.
A camera on the front of the robot helps the operator see the immediate area around the robot, but this has limitations in low-light conditions and highly cramped environments. In disaster scenarios, sensors for perceiving sound and smell may be more useful in detecting signs of life.
Choset envisions snake robots destined for manufacturing applications such as inspecting tight spots inside aircraft wings, or installing fasteners inside airplane wings or boats, and painting inside car doors. He also hopes to see these robots at work in the nuclear industry.
Another snake-like robot developed in the Biorobotics Lab has made significant headway in medical robotics. Unlike the snake robots used in search and rescue or industrial applications, the surgical snake is a cable-driven robot.
Choset explained the difference. “Imagine a marionette that has little wires that pull on different parts of the doll. A cable-driven robot is one where internal cables pull on the links to cause the joints to bend. The motors don’t have to be on board, so you can get away with a lighter mechanism, or in my case, use bigger motors.”
This is in contrast to the locomoting robot that crawls through pipes, where all of the motors are on board.
“I think minimally invasive surgery is a great area for robotics,” Choset said. “The challenges are access, how to get to the right spots, and once you’re there, developing tools, end effectors and other mechanisms to deliver therapies and perform diagnostics. Situational awareness, or being able to really understand your surrounding environment, is the next step after that.”
The biorobotics team at CMU envisions minimally invasive no-scar surgery in the snake robot’s future. But in the meantime, the technology has already found success in transoral robotic surgery and has been licensed to Medrobotics Corporation.
Tanya M. Anandan is contributing editor for the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) and Robotics Online. RIA is a not-for-profit trade association dedicated to improving the regional, national, and global competitiveness of the North American manufacturing and service sectors through robotics and related automation. This article originally appeared on the RIA website. The RIA is a part of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Full story can be found here.