Robotic climber: The climbing robot RiSE 3.
Another project that involves robots navigating around busy city streets will be demoed by researchers from Boston University. They have created a miniature city–complete with robotic cars–to test different approaches to control and navigation. The researchers’ Robotic Urban-Like Environment (RULE) system lets the cars understand a simple, high-level command by a human, such as “Take me to the grocery store”; demonstrations show that the robotic cars can not only reach their destination safely, but can also move into the correct lane, stop at red lights, and even park on their own (watch a video). Automated vehicle systems, such as the ones being built in Masdar and Heathrow, currently require some kind of track or magnetic guiding strip for navigation. “We wanted to give the robots the freedom to make choices by themselves as long as they are safe and accomplish whatever the human operator specified as a task,” says Calin Belta, a professor and lead researcher of the work.
Robotic cars will of course need to be able to spot, and respond to, unexpected dangers, and another system that will be presented at ICRA 2009 is designed to do this. It was developed by researchers at ETH Zurich, and others and can quickly identify pedestrians and other obstacles and predict their paths in order to avoid them. When mounted atop a car, the system can rapidly outline pedestrians even in areas full of traffic and clutter (watch a video). “The idea is to equip cars with vision systems that can oversee the traffic situation around the car and that can give an early warning for dangerous situations,” says Luc Van Gool, a professor at the Computer Vision Laboratory at ETH Zurich, who developed the system with his colleague Andreas Ess.
Making robots safer will be important if they are to find use in everyday life. Researcher at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) will describe experiments involving crash-test dummies designed to explore robot-human accidents. The researchers designed a robot that pulls itself back when it starts to detect an impact to the dummy’s chest or head (see a video of robot crash testing). “In order to provide really suitable methodologies for making robots safe, we need to understand what the relevant threats are by physical means,” says Sami Haddadin, a research engineer at DLR. “We aim to establish a testing protocol for robots which qualify them for use in human proximity. This would bring us to a point at which everyday human-robot collaboration becomes reality.”
Of course, no robotics conference would be complete without a few oddball robots and machines, and ICRA is no exception. Take, for example, a robot that mimics how a human spins pizza and another that picks up empty coffee cups from around an office. Researchers at McGill University, in Montreal, Canada, have even made a robot that can create ice sculptures on its own (watch a video). To do this, they modified a device called the Cobra, typically used for repetitive tasks like picking up objects from a conveyer belt, to lay down deposits of ice. The researchers say that this technique could eventually be used for rapid prototyping of other materials as well.