How to develop smart robots

How to develop smart robots

Welcome to the Robot Remix, where we summarise the week's need-to-know robotics and automation news.

In today's email -

  • Creepy spider robots
  • Hearts for robot softies
  • Self-driving is very expensive
  • Should robots be flexible or specific


Why why why why -  Researchers at Rice University have found a way to use spiders as robot end effectors. In a new approach they term “necrobotics”, hydraulic pressure is used to actuate the legs of a dead spider, allowing the device to pick up objects. Despite claims by the lead academic that “this area of soft robotics is a lot of fun”, our personal opinion is that this is classic “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should”.

Good BEHAVIOR -  A new paper called the “Benchmark for Everyday Household Activities in Virtual, Interactive and ecOlogical enviRonments” (with the questionable acronym ‘BEHAVIOR’) provides a virtual method for training and testing robots on 100 household tasks. It tests the ability of agents to perceive the environment, plan, and execute complex activities that involve multiple objects, and rooms. If it means we get a robot assistant sooner - we're happy. Find the benchmark for free here.

Soft-Hearted Robots - Soft robots use hydraulic pressure to actuate their limbs. However, this requires pumps, which aren’t flexible; this limits how ‘soft’ the whole system can be. Now, work by Cornell and the Army Research Lab has developed a small, in-line pump which acts as a heart for the robots. A magnet inside the soft tubing of the robot is surrounded by a magnetorheological fluid, which stiffens in the magnetic field into a solid plug. External solenoid coils can then be used to move the magnet, creating pressure. This pump performs much better than previous soft-robotics versions.

Red-Lining But Barely Moving - General Motors continues to post huge losses through its autonomous taxi service, Cruise: $5 million per day over the last quarter. Their CEO has a nice spin on it though - "When you’ve got the opportunity to go after a trillion-dollar market, you don’t casually wade into that," and "Aggressively pursuing the market is a competitive advantage.”.

Generally Useless - Robot costs are falling, but adoption is slower than expected — why? This article argues that it is due to robot designers creating general-purpose systems. Instead, we should start with the application (e.g welding or palletising) and build a specific solution to that challenge. Customers want holes, not drill bits. This is an interesting and counterintuitive take but truth is that many “special purpose machines” already exist. They’re generally expensive and tailored to stable high-volume processes. That said the future of robotics is preconfigured systems - whether it's due to flexible design or a special purpose design.

We preferred White Castle anyways - The CEO of Mcdonald's is not keen on kitchen robots - “It’s great for garnering headlines, it’s not practical in the vast majority of restaurants”. They’re much more interested in chatbot drive-throughs and in-app experiences.  On the other hand -White Castle has ordered 100 robot fry chefs.

The Big Idea

Building smart robots

It's no secret that industrial robots can be pretty ‘dumb’. Although flexible by design, when robots are installed in factories, they’re integrated to meet the specific needs of a specific factory. Robots are often hand programmed to follow predetermined trajectories and use a lot of custom tooling and fixtures. As such, the environment must be deterministic and with everything well defined in advance. Change in workpiece or process must be preprogrammed in or the robot will need reprogramming. This isn't ideal for many production centres.

We need smart robots. Robots that can adapt to a dynamic environment, learn tasks by themselves and make intelligent decisions based on a high-level understanding of their goals. Reducing the barrier to entry and simplifying the integration process would unlock automation's potential for lower volume production - whether for SMEs or the ever-hyped mass customisation. Not only that, it will allow robotics to easily adapt to minor design changes without causing major issues (see Tesla’s Snafu).

Luckily, the status quo is shifting. Remix is focused on developing highly flexible systems, and many robotics manufacturers are starting to include cognition as a standard, see Neura, Right Hand Robotics and many more.

But what does it mean to be smart?

A recent paper summarises the different strategies for controlling smart robots, laying out the current state of the art and its limitations.

Smart industrial robots follow the principle of “see-think-act” that was originally utilised in the field of mobile robotics -

  • See - Sense the environment and extract the relevant info
  • Think - Use ‘knowledge’ — high-level instructions and understanding of the context — to plan & adapt based on the environment
  • Act - Convert the plan to a path and execute

The paper focuses primarily on the challenges of picking and placing an object which is still surprisingly difficult. There are three major control strategies -

Jack Pearson