AI News, Robotics Trends for 2012

Robotics Trends for 2012

Nearly a quarter of the year is already behind us, but we thought we'd spend some time looking at the months ahead and make some predictions about what’s going to be big in robotics.

Lacking divine powers (or a time machine) to peek into the future, we relied on our experience as longtime observers of the robotics landscape, covering the field here on Automaton and on Hizook, another leading robotics blog.

Somewhere in the middle lies a compelling trade-off, where humans and co-robots collaborate to perform practical tasks, such as delivering medication to a person (pictured below).

Co-robots are at the heart of the $70 million National Robotics Initiative (NRI) and they represent a definitive step toward robots migrating out of factories and academic labs and into our everyday lives.

According to the NRI, co-robots must be safe, relatively cheap, easy to use, available everywhere, and interact with humans to “leverage their relative strengths in the planning and performance of a task.” “A lot of us are turning our attention in that direction,” said a researcher from our panel of experts.

(No wonder so many U.S. roboticists spent the latter portion of 2011 drafting proposals!) The program’s scope is broad, but the key aspect of co-robots is clear: Co-robots must interact with humans.

Indeed, the Kinect 2, which may appear sometime this year, will feature higher resolution and frame rate, allowing the device, if you believe the rumors, to read lips.

This new wave of 3D sensors may not only give robots better “eyes,” but they could also provide an effective way of “3D scanning” everyday objects, generating libraries that robots would access to finally understand this thing we call “the real world.” “3D sensing is already hot,” one of the panelists commented, “but with the Kinect and the next generation of similar cheap sensors, the sky is the limit.”

This approach, which some are calling “cloud robotics,” would allow robots to offload compute-intensive tasks like image processing and voice recognition and even download new skills instantly.

Or as one researcher put it to us, “the cloud will explode.” In particular, Google has a small team creating robot-friendly cloud services that, if they become popular among roboticists, could be a tectonic shift in the field (imagine every robot using a “Google Maps for Robots” for navigation).

In Europe, a major project is RoboEarth, whose goal is to develop a “World Wide Web for robots,” a giant cloud-enabled database where robots can share information about objects, environments, and tasks (see photo of a test of the system, below).

In addition, we expect researchers to think “outside the box”—developing new, clever types of compliant systems far removed from electromechanical motors.

At the other end of the spectrum, two Seattle engineers quickly raised over US $100,000 on fundraising website Kickstarter with the promise of developing a cute little smartphone-powered robot called Romo (pictured below).

Okay, you probably won’t see autonomous vehicles driving near you anytime soon, unless you live in Silicon Valley, where Google has been extensively testing its famous self-driving Toyota Prius (shown below during at demo at TED) and now also a fleet of autonomous golf carts.

Last year, Nevada became the first U.S. state to permit autonomous cars to be legally be driven on public roads (though some speculate that Europe might prove more friendly to this type of vehicle than the United States.) Either way, autonomous driving features are already showing up on regular mass-produced cars.

Furthermore, it’s likely that autonomous vehicles will drive another trend as well: As one panelist explains, we should start to “map, and perhaps even instrument, our environment” to help autonomous cars and robots navigate.

What’s clear, though, is that there’s a huge need for flexible, capable, safe manufacturing robots—a new generation of industrial machines very different from the big, expensive manipulators in existence.

being able to quickly fabricate a part can save thousands of dollars, eliminate days of waiting, and allow you to figure out whether your neat design is indeed brilliant—or a flop.

MakerBot forecasted 10,000 units would be sold in 2011, but we’re guessing they shattered their estimates: They were already ahead of schedule in March of 2011, and raised $10 million in venture capital to expand their efforts.

At the forefront of the DIY “maker movement,” 3D printers like the MakerBot are fulfilling the “personal fabricator” scifi visions set forth in Neal Stephenson’s “Diamond Age,” allowing people to mockup, share, and refine digital products—using websites like Shapeways and Thingiverse—for home fabrication.

In 2012, we expect to see additional UAV up-take by both professional and “citizen” researchers looking for inexpensive robot platforms (pictured in the photo below is a system used by ETH Zurich researchers).

Walking through the mall during the holiday season, we saw literally a dozen stores selling UAVs, from Air Swimmers RC blimps (under $40) to small smartphone-controlled helicopters (about $100) to Parrot’s AR.Drone quadrotor ($300).

Brisk holiday sales created thousands of new UAV enthusiasts who, bolstered by ever-expanding open software and hardware resources, will work hand-in-hand with professional researchers to unveil some amazing flying machines in 2012.

Telepresence robots—mobile machines that act as your stand-in at a remote location—first became prominent in 2010, when Silicon Valley start-up Anybots introduced one of the first commercial offerings, an alien-looking robot called QB.

Indeed, we think that 2012 will be a milestone for telepresence robots, and robotics in general: By the end of the year, hundreds of QBs, Vgos, Jazzes, and others will be roaming around offices—a place where robots were nonexistent—all over the world.

This year, Ekso Bionics (formerly Berkeley Bionics) will begin selling its robotic suit first to rehab clinics in the United States and Europe, hoping to have a model ready for at-home physical therapy by the middle of 2012 (see photo of a 'test pilot,' below).

How I Accidentally Kickstarted the Domestic Drone Boom

At last year’s Paris Air Show, some of the hottest aircraft were the autonomous unmanned helicopters—a few of them small enough to carry in one hand—that would allow military buyers to put a camera in the sky anywhere, anytime.

Manufactured by major defense contractors, and ranging in design from a single-bladed camcopter to four-bladed multicopters, these drones were being sold as the future of warfare at prices in the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Although they technically aren’t supposed to be used commercially in the US (they also must stay below 400 feet, within visual line of sight, and away from populated areas and airports), the FAA is planning to officially allow commercial use starting in 2015.

The film industry is already full of remotely piloted copters serving as camera platforms, with a longer reach than booms as well as cheaper and safer operations than manned helicopters.

To give a sense of the scale of the personal drone movement, DIY Drones—an online community that I founded in 2007 (more on that later)—has 26,000 members, who fly drones that they either assemble themselves or buy premade from dozens of companies that serve the amateur market.

In fact, the Moore’s law of drone technology is currently accelerating, thanks to the smartphone industry, which relies on the same components—sensors, optics, batteries, and embedded processors—all of them growing smaller and faster each year.

The definition has changed over the years, but today it refers to aircraft that have the capability of autonomous flight, which means they can follow a mission from point to point (typically guided by GPS, but soon this will also be possible through vision and other sensors).

Usually drones—also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or unmanned aerial systems (UAS), to include the ground-station components—also carry some sort of payload, which at a bare minimum includes cameras or other sensors as well as some method to transmit data wirelessly back to a base.

Both have sophisticated computer autopilots, high-resolution cameras (we’re partial to GoPros), wireless data connections for video and telemetry, ground stations with heads-up displays and real-time video (my kids were disappointed at a recent tour of the Oshkosh air show to see that today’s military drone pilots have worse ground stations than they do), step-by-step mission scripting, and the capability to play back footage of the mission in full.

(What we lack in high-altitude optics we make up in proximity: We can easily read license plates from the air.) The key ingredient in a drone is the autopilot, a technology that first came into use as a flying aid in the 1930s.

A combination of a barometric-pressure meter, a compass, and mechanical gyroscopes (motorized flywheels with analog electrical outputs) allowed a pilot to set a heading and altitude and take a nap, knowing that the aircraft would continue to fly straight ahead until told otherwise.

By the early 1990s, aerospace technology could automate an entire flight, including takeoff and landing (though FAA rules still require that commercial pilots handle takeoffs manually).

Indeed, some of the newest sensors combine three-axis accelerometers, gyros, and magnetometers (nine sensors in all), plus a temperature gauge and a processor, into one little package that costs about $17.

Once Apple’s iPhone showed that fluid and fast visual interfaces on touchscreens were what people wanted, the same insatiable demand for computational power that kicked in with the graphical user interface of desktop computers came to phones.

These days, a standard smartphone has a full suite of sophisticated inertial sensors to detect its position, a feature that’s integrated into everything from games to maps and augmented reality.

The need for smaller, better GPS in phones has brought the same technology to drones, too, such that GPS performance that cost tens of thousands of dollars in the 1990s can be had for as little as $10 in a thumbnail-sized device.

But over time we set up more-organized systems of collaboration, including version control systems and file repositories, wikis, mailing lists, and formal team assignments.

It felt like the future of aviation: Just as the PC emerged from the Homebrew Computer Club hobbyists and eventually overturned mainframe-based corporate computing in the 1980s, I suddenly saw how the same sort of movement would bring robots to the skies.

For me, it’s become not just a hobby but a second career: I cofounded a company, 3D Robotics, to make the open source hardware that the DIY Drones community was designing, and we’ve already shipped more than 10,000 autopilots and countless other drone parts.

Just imagine if you could touch a button on your iPhone or Android phone, and it would summon a quadcopter to position itself above you, keeping its camera on you as you perform your stunts then flying back to shore when its batteries got low.

The gun-carrying quadcopters arrive by the thousands and hurl themselves at windows and walls until they break through, sacrificing themselves in countless numbers so that others of their kind can advance.

Indeed, he was inspired not by military drones but by the Parrot AR.Drone, a quadcopter toy you can buy on Amazon and control with your smartphone, complete with dual cameras transmitting real-time video streams to your screen.

A switch to unmanned operation would transform the entire concept of air cargo: Aircraft would be free of the design constraints—pressurized cabins, tube-shaped bodies—necessary to accommodate humans, and flocks of such drones could fly in a V-formation like birds to employ efficient aerodynamic drafting.

But over time, as regular people found uses for PCs in their own lives, they came up with better answers: word processors, spreadsheets, videogames, email, and, eventually, the web.

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